Blog Blip: How Valuable is Odor to Your Dog?

April 9, 2020

I’ll be doing a series of short blogs – a blip in your day when the extra time we thought we all had is now full with ALL THE THINGS being offered and shared online due to COVID-19. Hope you have a minute in your day for a glimpse into my training thoughts!

Odor = Reinforcement

Similar to other behaviors we train, our dogs will seek out behaviors that have a history of reinforcement. While some behaviors come more naturally to dogs, target odors for scent detection is not one of them.

We have to condition our dogs to have value for certain behaviors. I build value for heeling by rewarding my dog in heel position – it takes time to develop that behavior and needs to hold up in many situations (distractions, pace changes, etc). I treat odor the same way. When starting a new dog I spend a few weeks simply conditioning my dog to odor and then I maintain it over their career. Good news is that it’s not that hard!

We have to build the association that Odor = Reinforcement. Just like a clicker/marker tells the dog that reinforcement is coming, odor can do the same thing! Your dog will learn to love odor when they value what they get in return! Therefore it’s imperative that you use the highest value food reward when your dog is at odor. Toys can be used as well, but for conditioning, food is going to be the easiest way to build value at a higher rate.

Conditioning Odor

To condition your dog to odor you simply deliver food when their nose is at the source of odor. You can accomplish this in a few ways.

  • A week before I start a new dog on odor I’ll pair their meal times with odor. I put an odor tin (birch qtips) in their food bowl so as they eat they are smelling birch, building that association that good things come when smelling birch (or your choice of target odor). If you feed raw/messy food, you can place your tin on a magnetic surface right above your dog’s food dish.


  • Rewarding at odor continuously in a bowl, colander, plate or pie tin. Reinforcement should be delivered in a way that the dog’s nose stays at source. Here is a short video of using a plate and a see through bowl. End each repetition by picking up the odor and/or using a release cue.
  • Pairing odor with food where the food is already at source when the dog gets to it. This is a very popular method and builds value for odor the same way. You can do this stand alone or in a search.

By building value for odor your dog will be motivated to hunt for and stay at source.

If your dog leaves odor, has subtle indications, misses straight forward hides, distracted more than focused on finding odor, then I would suggest returning back to your foundation work to build more value for odor.

If you missed my first Blog Blip on End of Search Routine, check it out! The next Blip will be on maintaining value at source!


  1. Susan Bates

    Very creative way to get the dog to learn the value of an odor.

  2. Anita Clark

    Thank you so much for your guided training am new to the sport and its really helping me and my dogs

    • Leslie Morris

      I LOVE these ideas! Thank you

  3. Laurie Glencross

    Thanks, Julie. Nice simple idea. Will try it.

  4. Sharon

    I like putting the tin in the dog’s food. I’m going to try that with one of my dogs who doesn’t seem to quite “get it” yet.

  5. Michelle Varcoe

    I like it, nice simple idea and creative too