Can a dog be trained to smell?


Well-known member
Dec 12, 2020
Just out of curiosity, can you train a dog to follow a scent if they seem to have zero natural ability?
We have a family dog who is two years old and is a shelter mutt (the story is that a border collie came in starving with a litter of mix'n'match puppies, and he was the runt of the puppies. He could have some greyhound, or some lab, or someone suggested a boxer, but it's something larger than a border collie.) He is not the brightest bulb in the box and his primary responsibility is to be protective of the children and teach them the responsibility of having a pet, which he excels at. Our five year old can walk him around the neighborhood on the leash, and he knows useful tricks like 'wipe your feet on the towel when you come in the door'. He loves to go on hikes, so just for grins and giggles I thought it would be fun to teach him something useful for hunting. He has fantastic drive to retrieve, and will continue to chase and bring back anything thrown for him until he literally drops from exhaustion. Bones, toys, sticks, snowballs, he doesn't care, he just loves to fetch. It's fun to watch him catch and retrieve snowballs until they melt. He's also working on the 'bring it' command, so that he carries his own toys to and from the park down the street and doesn't let them go until cued.
But if he doesn't see the object thrown and see it land, he's a total ditz and can't find it. He'll chase a rabbit or a squirrel if he sees it run by (he's super obedient about being called off the chase too, which is a point in his favor), but his nose can almost touch a toy or a treat and he has to see it to find it. He has a neon orange bone shaped toy that he loves, but he can't find it on a concrete driveway if he doesn't see you throw it and watch where it lands. He'll make an honest effort to run out and look for it, but he'll only find it if he trips over it. I can drop a piece of raw meat on the kitchen floor and then call him into the room and he won't find it unless I actively show it to him.
So I'm just wondering, how would you go about training a dog to follow a scent?
Also, he's practice for if I ever get a hunting dog with actual instinct to do hunting things, it will in theory be easier to train if I've practiced already :)
I taught my dog the word and action to smell. Just held food to my nose and sniffed. Then said the word and held it to his nose. At first they try to eat it, then quickly learn to just smell first. This dog had a great natural nose and tracking ability.

Take that then apply it to a scent on the ground. Drag scent lines longer and longer. Not sure if that will work with a dog that does not have a good natural nose.
Use the toy the dog loves the most as the reward for accomplishing the task.

Start by making the task so easy you kind of feel dumb doing it. Show the dog what the goal is and guide it to success, then give it the reward toy for a short play session. Increase the difficulty of the task very incrementally. When there's a failure to complete the task, no reward however do not end on a failure in training, simply make the task easier so the dog ends tge session on a positive.

The only limits are your imagination, how to communicate to the dog what you want and your patience.

Good luck and have fun while training!
My wife’s dog has learned to use her nose. I started with go find where we hide the treat and she has to sniff it out. I have also had her on blood trails.
She is not in the gifted and talented class but with focus and training I could get her to find Timmy in the well.
With a puppy you can always try to wrap a rag with the scent of choice around his food bowl so every time he gets fed he correlates the two together or place it under the food bowl as well. Then start small drags as mentioned above and add length as he starts progressing with the same scent. Might be worth a shot with a little older dog like yours. Training sessions don’t need to be long at all to start out with.
Dogs have better noses than humans so they have the ability to use them for almost any scent. Training is best just after weening and Dad was known for his excellent tracking Beagles. Older dogs may take a little more time.

Border Collies are known for their brains and are very quick learners. Dad also raised and trained Border sheep dogs as we ran around three thousand head a year.

With a little time your dog should do the trick for you. Borders can be timid, have their feelings hurt easy, so don't push the training and always give a reward when they do good. A dogs wish is to please you so show it affection afterwards.
I'm quite interested in doing this too. I've seen it on Dog Borstal where they were hiding a toy or treats under cones then letting the dog find it.
That's an odd combination of playing with fire and wasting your time. You can annoy the snot out of a smart dog until it does what you want somewhat but it'll never be as good nor as consistent as a purpose bred canine. You can annoy a stupid dog until it just learns to avoid you.

Don't waste time on a cull. Get a dog bred to do what you want from a cross proven to produce what you want.
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