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AKC Scent Work

Fascinating fact:  Dogs have a sense of smell that’s between 10,000 and 100,000 times more acute than ours! The sport of Scent Work celebrates the joy of sniffing, and asks a dog to sniff to their heart’s content; turning your dog’s favorite activity into a rewarding game. It is a terrific sport for all kinds of dogs, and is a wonderful way to build confidence in a shy dog.

In so many dog sports the handler is in control but this isn’t true in Scent Work. Neither the dog nor handler knows where the target odor is hidden. The handler has to rely on the dog, and follow the dog’s nose to success. In Scent Work, it is the canine who is the star of the show.

The sport of Scent Work is based on the work of professional detection dogs (such as drug dogs), employed by humans to detect a wide variety of scents and substances. In AKC Scent Work, dogs search for cotton swabs saturated with the essential oils of Birch, Anise, Clove, and Cypress. The cotton swabs are hidden out of sight in a pre-determined search area, and the dog has to find them. Teamwork is necessary: when the dog finds the scent, he has to communicate the find to the handler, who calls it out to the judge.

All dogs (purebred and mixed breeds) can participate. Your dog must be 6 months of age or older and must have an AKC number via one of the following:

Get Started

First, make sure you understand How a Scent Work trial (“competition”) works.

There are two divisions:

  1. The Odor Search Division where your dog searches for the odor of one or more specific essential oils
  2. The Handler Discrimination Division where your dog searches for the scent of his handler. Each division has four levels of difficulty (Novice, Advanced, Excellent, and Master).

Teams are judged on a qualify/non-qualify basis. Your dog must use his nose to search out the hidden odors, and then alert you when the odors are detected. Dogs may paw, bark, point with their nose or body, sit, lie down, or use any other behavior to communicate the location of the odor.


Nose Work is a sport modelled on the scent detection skills used by police and military detection dogs but without the danger these valuable dogs face in real life. It requires the dog to detect the exact location of the source of a particular known scent in four different scenarios: container, interior rooms, exterior and vehicle. The dog must pass all four scenarios in a day to earn a title which makes it a challenging test requiring consistent excellence. It is really a fun activity that dogs enjoy and which does not require as much physical activity by the handler as tracking.

The tests were created in 2010 and are administered by the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW).

AKC has not recognized NACSW titles although they may do so sometime in the future. But the tests have all the same essential attributes as AKC tests and their titles are worthy of the same respect for the accomplishment they represent.


Tracking is what our dogs often do when they are out for a walk. They detect the scents of various animals and people as they walk, and often they try to follow the ones that interest them. In tracking events, you train your dog to follow a scent you choose for them.

Tracking is definitely a sport at which Aussies can excel, because they were bred to hunt using their noses to help them find their quarry.

The AKC offers titles for the successful completion of tracks of increasing length and difficulty. There are now three titles in AKC tracking: TD (Tracking Dog), TDX (Tracking Dog Excellent), and most recently, VST (Variable Surface Tracking). If a dog gets all three titles, the initials CT (Champion Tracker) may be used before the dog’s name.

A track in an AKC test consists of a path through the outdoors chosen and marked with flags by two judges and a tracklayer the day before the test, then walked the day of the test by the tracklayer. As the tracklayer walks, he/she leaves behind one or more personal articles from the handler (a glove, wallet or other item). The track is then aged a prescribed amount of time, and the dog and handler are brought to the start and must follow the track to the end and find all of the articles left by the tracklayer.

Tracking is one sport where positive reinforcement is not just recommended but required to train the dog. Because a dog’s sense of smell is thousands of times better than ours, we really have no idea how a dog tracks, and if the dog decides not to track, we cannot “show” the dog how. The dogs are the experts, so we can only help them learn to enjoy it, trust them, and follow behind and marvel at their skill. Perhaps because of this, tracking is, for many people, the most engaging and fascinating of all of the dog sports.

Tracking is an excellent sport for people who enjoy the outdoors and who are in reasonably good physical condition. Tracking events are held in all but the most severe weather, so warm and waterproof clothes are a requirement. If you enjoy tracking and want to continue past your TD, however, you will find that advanced tracking work requires both you and your dog to be fit, since you may need to climb fences, ford shallow streams, and move through woods, high grass and dense cover in all types of weather, both in training and in competition.

For more information, visit:

Recommended Articles

    Serpentine Tracks: A New Method of Introducing Dogs to Tracking (pdf) Revised, Copyright 2000 by Allison A. Platt

Four Essential Skills and Common Problems with Beginning Trackers (pdf) Copyright 1999 by Allison A. Platt

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