This is an easy nosework game that senior dogs can learn, even those who have mild dementia. Finding food is pretty hard-wired into dogs and most animals.

Dogs with moderate to severe dementia can’t learn much, if anything, but some may still enjoy using their noses in a simpler version. See the last photo of Cricket at the bottom of the post.

Nosework is one of the most enriching activities you can offer your dog, and there are dozens of ways to do it. Dogs love to use their noses! I teach my dogs to search for a little packet of food. I use some kibble folded up in a cardboard paper towel roll. I start off very, very easy, putting the food down in front of them and using the cue “Find it!” You could say anything; they learn the cue as part of the training process.

Cricket was able to learn some nosework games as a senior dog at the age of 13, even though she was beginning to have dementia.

a brown and black dog is staring at a cardboard packet of food used in a nosework game
Summer is ready for nosework!

My dogs graduated from being able to find the kibble in a small room, to a big room, to somewhere in half my house, to my whole house, to my back porch, to my whole yard! We built up the behavior over years. The most important thing is not to rush. Don’t try to “challenge” them or brag about how hard you made them work. Keep it easy for a long time. Add challenges very gradually, and only when you see that the actual search part is bringing them joy, even before they find the food.

The step by step instructions for this enriching game are in the video and also in the transcript below it.

Transcript for “Find It” Video

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER This is how I teach dogs a food-finding nose work game that can be done indoors or out. It can be kept simple or made challenging over time.

For dogs who like their kibble, that’s what I use. You could use higher value treats if your dog is less interested in kibble. I start with 3 or 4 pieces. I place them on the floor with the dog watching, and say “Find it!” and then I let the dog go and eat the kibble.  I do this several times with the dog watching.  I put the pile of kibble just a few feet from the dog.

Then I use an indoor room with a door that I can shut. I go inside the room, keeping the dog locked out. I put the kibble front and center where the dog can see it as soon as I open the door. I open the door, say “Find it!” and let the dog in. We do this several times, with the dog locked out while I place the kibble each time. At this point they are probably just seeing the food rather than sniffing it, but that’s fine. They’ll use their noses soon enough.

After I have done a number of reps like this, over at least two days, I put the kibble slightly out of sight. I don’t mean hide it. I mean that when they come through the door they won’t see it straight ahead. It will be a simple left or right turn. Then I do this many times, over several days. 

Now, this is not the time to give them a challenge. We are building a behavior. We want them to find the food in several seconds and build up many wins. Add to the difficulty very very slowly. There is no hurry!

This is our first big left turn. You can see that the food is not that far off the path.

This time I put the food into a shadow, and Zani can’t see very well. I made it a little too hard for a beginner dog.

After you can put it anywhere in the room and they can find it, then you can branch out and release them into a hallway that accesses several rooms. 

The first time you do this, you know what to do. Put the food just inside one of the doorways. Do this several times before gradually moving the food farther into the room. 

They will be having fun from the very beginning of the game, so you don’t need to rush!

At some point, I switch from a little pile of kibble to putting it in a folded-over paper towel tube. Every dog I’ve played this with seems to love ripping up the cardboard to get to the kibble. Obviously, don’t do this if your dog eats cardboard. My Clara has been known to do that, so I leave her tube open on one end so the food generally spills out. And I confiscate the tube if she gets interested in eating it.

Here’s Zani with an easy hide, and you can see how much she enjoys ripping up the tube. By the way, Zani always tucks her tail when she’s working on a food toy. She’s not upset about anything; she’s just concentrating. Thanks for watching!

End transcript

Tips for Nosework Challenges

a very old, black and white terrier is eating up a trail of treats on the floor as part of a nosework game
It didn’t take much skill for Cricket to “find” these treats, but she still enjoyed it

On the other hand, this is how skilled my dog Summer got at it after a couple years. This was a difficult hide: it was in a hole and under a propped up kiddie swimming pool. She was 11 years old in this clip, confident, and running at full speed (the video is not sped up). Don’t try one this difficult early on!

Again, there are dozens of ways to play nosework with your dogs. I like this method because I didn’t need to teach them an odor. Food odors are intrinsically interesting! Using another odor is a fun training challenge, but if you are just looking for an easy way to have fun with your dogs, food works great! And it is so cute when they tear open the little packet.

Zani, Clara, and Summer and the prize packet of kibble

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

4 Responses

  1. I so wish I’d seen the Nosework for Senior dogs a few years ago as my 17 year old Jack Russell cross had suffered dementia for three years before being put to sleep a year ago. Hopefully I shall be able to advise others concerning Dementia in dogs, which I understand is called Canine Cognitivie Dysfunction. It’s heartbreaking to see a doggie companion so confused and losing control of bodily functions, but, continuing play helps to keep them active. Searching for treats is a brilliant activity to provide them with fun.

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful, Patricia, and I’m sure some dogs will benefit from your interest. I’m sorry you lost your JR. Terriers are the best.

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