As a zookeeper, one of my favorite types of enrichment is scent enrichment. Animals have incredible senses, and their olfactory organs are often way more developed than humans. We use sensory enrichment for all of our zoo animals, but it is most effective with our carnivores such as big cats, wolves, and foxes. These scent enrichment strategies can easily be translated to your dog at home.
Because your dog’s sense of smell is so much stronger than yours, you need to be careful about how much and how strong of scents you use. A drop or two on a paper towel is all you need, or you may choose to dilute with water. Scents from other animals could elicit fear or aggressive behaviors in your dog, so make sure to monitor them closely for over-stimulation.
One of my “favorite” scents is a bottle of fox urine that we purchased from the local outdoor store. It’s very strong, but our foxes and wolves absolutely love it! We place a drop or two on a paper bag, and they go crazy rubbing and rolling. You may want to give lure enrichment right before bath-time, as your dog is almost guaranteed to roll all over it.
Other animal scents we use include snake sheds, feathers, and hair or wool from other animals. We get these items from around the zoo, but you could procure them from a local farm or pet store. Zoo policy is to freeze all animal artifacts for 30 days for safety reasons, and this is a great practice for your own pet.
Extracts, Oils and Perfumes
You may already have extracts such as peppermint, vanilla, and almond in your spice cupboard, making them cheap and easy enrichment items. Just as with urine, a drop or two is all you need. At the zoo, we generally dilute oils and extracts in water and store them in spray bottles.
We spray them on exhibit furniture, but you might want to stick them to cardboard or paper towels. Perfumes and colognes are also great options. Old Spice is a popular scent with our cats. If you don’t want to go out and buy a bunch of bottles, you can always scour magazines for perfume tester pages.
Herbs and Spices
Dried spices are easy to keep in your cupboard, but fresh ones have more aromatic kick. Herbs and spices can get messy, so make sure to have the broom or vacuum handy. Or, if you don’t want to do much clean-up, put the spices in a plastic soda bottle. You can leave the cap off or poke a few small holes in the sides. A word of caution: some herbs and spices, such as garlic powder, may not be safe for dogs. Ask your vet about any other restrictions.
It is important to observe your pet with any new scent enrichment to prevent over-stimulation or health risks. Once you’ve discovered your pet’s favorite scents, you can make the game a bit more challenging. Train your dog to fetch only vanilla objects, or hide the perfume pages in closets and under beds for a unique game of hide-and-seek. With a little creativity, you can turn your dog’s nose into one of his best toys!