Beat the Winter Blues With Scent Games

Kate Naito
by Kate Naito
Even when it’s too cold to do much outdoors, you can create challenging activities for your dog to do inside your home. Curb your pup’s cabin fever by practicing these engaging scent games.

You can’t go wrong with scent games, as they are naturally fun for any dog and can even carry behavioral benefits. On bad-weather days, scent games are the perfect way to break up the monotony of being cooped up indoors. If you have an elderly or injured dog who spends most of his time inside, scent games provide a mental and physical challenge, but you don’t need to worry about overexertion. These activities can also help active dogs burn energy in a small space without getting overly amped up.

Pick a Hand

This simple game involves holding out both your fists, one which contains a treat. Then you have the dog guess which hand holds the food. Here are the steps for Pick a Hand.

  1. Place one or more small, stinky treats into one fist, loosely closed. Also close your other hand into a fist.
  2. Present both fists to your dog as you say, “Pick a hand.”
  3. Watch your dog’s movements. If he selects the treat-filled fist by sniffing it, pawing it, staring at it, or chomping at it, mark with “good dog!” and let him eat the treat.
  4. If your dog hones in on the wrong hand, say “oops” in a mildly disappointed tone and open your hand, so he can see it is empty. Take your hands away and reset before you let him try again.
  5. With each rep, randomly switch which hand has the treat. Make sure that you wash your hands between reps, so you don’t end up with two stinky hands. (That would be confusing to your dog.)

Find Treats in a Blanket

Find It games can provide several solid minutes of fun for your dog. You can use either treats or his dry food. For this game, you’ll need an old towel, blanket, or sheet to hide the food.

  1. With your dog in a separate area, sprinkle numerous treats or pieces of kibble into blanket, which is lain flat on the floor. Very gently rumple the blanket, so some of the pieces will be hidden in small folds.
  2. Say “find it” and bring your dog over to the blanket. Let him work to get the food himself; resist helping him. (If he is really struggling, bring him out of the room and smooth out the blanket, to make it easier.)
  3. Once he’s found all the treats, say “that’s all.” Pick up the blanket and store it in a safe place.
  4. When your dog is easily doing these searches, you can rumple, twist, and fold the blanket a little more. Continue increasing the difficulty slowly.
  5. Want to make it more challenging? Use a larger blanket or sheet!

Find Treats in a Room

Similar to Find Treat in a Blanket, this game has you sprinkle treats or pieces of dry food in a small room, which your dog then finds. (Think a bathroom-sized room at first.) Remember that the goal is not to trick or frustrate your dog. Keep the food in easily accessible places, and make sure your dog isn’t struggling.

  1. Let your dog smell a treat in your hand. Then say “find it” and gently toss the treat a few feet away.
  2. When your dog chases and eats the treat, celebrate! Repeat several times, so he learns the point is to find a treat in the room.
  3. Put your dog on leash or have him in a Stay. With your dog watching, hide the treat in an easy-to-find place, such as behind a chair leg, and say “find it.” Repeat several times, until he understands the game.
  4. Now, put your dog in another room and either shut the door or ask him to stay. This time he can’t watch you hide the treat. Place the treat in an easy-to-find spot on the floor, not obstructed by anything. Release your dog from the other room by saying “find it,” and let his nose do the work to find the treat.
  5. Finally, follow step 4, but hide the treat behind an object. Make sure to keep the treat at the dog’s eye level or lower, and never place it in a spot that he can’t reach himself. Repeat with the treat hidden in many different accessible places.
  6. Want to make it more challenging? Practice this in different rooms, working your way up to larger rooms.

All you need is a little time, a little creativity, and a lot of tasty treats or food to provide your dog with an awesome indoor hobby. Happy searching!

Kate Naito
Kate Naito

Kate Naito, CPDT-KA, is a dog trainer at Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, NY, and author of the training book, "BKLN Manners." She draws upon her experience as an educator and dog trainer to apply positive training techniques to a challenging urban environment. Kate is a rescue advocate drawn to special-needs dogs and currently has two Chihuahua mixes, Batman and Beans.

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