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Sniff for Calm and So Much More!

Congratulations to Kris Whipple! This post won first prize in the 2022 Canine Scent Writing Competition.

Of all the canine behaviors that I teach, calm is the most valuable. Calm dogs are less likely to bark, jump, mouth, lunge, pull or engage in other challenging behaviors that come with overexcitement. For me and my dog Sprig, an exuberant adolescent Cardigan Welsh corgi who thinks every day (and experience, dogand person) is his best day EVER, sniffing has become a positive and powerful tool I use daily to promote calm behaviors while still retaining his joy.

A game of “sniff mountain” is a fun, calm way to start the day. © Kris Whipple

Sniff Mountain Brings Calm (and Quiet) to Mornings

For us, sniffing starts early each day with a game of “sniff mountain.” This activity was created out of desperation when my husband went back to the office. After 18 months of almost 24/7 togetherness due to COVID and an extended camping trip, our calm mornings turned chaotic as Sprig went “full herder”nipping, grabbing pantlegs and shoelaces, blocking the door and finally barking from the balcony as he desperately tried to prevent my husband’s departure. It was not a great way to start the day, for us or our neighbors! One morning, I sprinkled kibble onto and inside an enormous pile of pillows and blankets, topped the pile with his dog bed, and sniff mountain was born. Now Sprig is too busy sniffing, searching, climbing, digging, diving and moving pillows within this 3D scent trail to even notice my husband prepping and leaving. The mental and physical activity it provides Sprig gives me time to enjoy the morning and even finish my coffee. Sniff mountain has brought peace and quiet back to mornings, which our neighbors appreciate, too!

Sniff Walks Bring Calm (and Insight) to Walks

Sniff walks always include time to sniff the flowers. © Kris Whipple

After a game of sniff mountain, the sniffing continues each day with a long morning sniff walk on a longline. Unlike the hurried walks our neighbors take, dragging their dogs along as they desperately try to sniff, this leisurely “choose your own adventure” allows Sprig to select his path (with a few exceptions) and sniff for as long as he likes. I, too, find calm in these leisurely strolls and love the insight I gain as I silently observe Sprig’s choices and areas of focus. While each walk is different, favorite activities include sniffing out the community dog news, tracking the movements of his best dog-friend Miles and snuffling bunny burrows on the edge of our development. By providing Sprig with important news about the world around him, these walks promote feelings of safety and security that lead to calm behavior. Sniffing also activates Sprig’s seeking system. This is the mechanism that animals and humans use to learn, predict and find the resources they need to survive. The seeking system is why children get excited about hunting Easter eggs and why we love shopping as adults. Seeking produces dopamine, which means it feels good! Perhaps that is why new scientific research by Drs. Charlotte Duranton and Alexandra Horowitz has shown that dogs who participate in nose work have increased optimism when compared with dogs who participate in heelwork (Duranton & Horowitz, 2018). Seeking is an instinct that must be fulfilled. For dogs, activities like sniff walks and sniff mountain encourage seeking, problem-solving, foraging and hunting-related behaviors, fulfilling this instinct in ways that are safe, positive and fun.

Treat Drops Bring Calm (and Self-Control) When Life Gets Too Exciting

Whether your dog is anxious or, like Sprig, thinks “everything is awesome,” life for a dog with big feelings can get exciting really fast. For these situations, treat drops are my go-to! I first learned their value with my former dog Rugby—a wonderful but reactive rescue who thought every dog and human was out to get him. Dropping treats in the grass away from the scary human or canine (after crossing the street, if possible) turned his focus down and away, sent a clear message that we were not interested in engaging, activated his seeking system and promoted positive emotions and associations. By replacing an undesired emotion (fear) and behavior (barking and lunging) with a positive one (sniffing), we made serious progress in this area over his lifetime. While Rugby thought every human and dog was the enemy, Sprig believes they are all his best friends—even when they clearly communicate that they are not! While Sprig’s emotions and subsequent behaviors are different from Rugby’s, the treat drops have continued to inspire calm behavior. In fact, after learning about a study at the Pet Professional Guild’s 2022 Geek Week event that showed a correlation between sniffing and lowered pulse rate during walks (Budzinski & Budzinski, n.d.), I have encouraged Sprig to sniff during and after every exciting event. The result? A calmer dog who can better regulate his emotions when life gets too interesting.

Search-and-Destroy Trails Bring Calm (and Exercise) to Hot Afternoons

Living on the surface of the sun (aka Orlando, Florida, in summer) is tough on dogs. Rain or heat makes outdoor activities almost impossible. For us, these are the perfect days for an indoor search-and-destroy trail. This easy activity activates the seeking system, encourages problem-solving, provides physical activity and (as far as your dog is concerned) allows wanton destruction in a safe, calm (if slightly messy) manner. To prep the trail, place treats or toys in cardboard tubes, boxes, or crumpled up paper bags and hide them around the room. Placing them behind, on top of or under furniture and objects increases the mental and physical challenge. Shredding the packages to reach the treats integrates an additional phase of the seeking/hunting process and is great fun! This is a wonderful opportunity for cardboard packaging, tubes and bags to serve one more purpose before they’re recycled. Treat hides can be made ahead and stored—a fun activity for kids. When I was a zoo education curator, there was nothing visiting students loved more than to create food toys for the animals and then watch them be destroyed!

Scent Kits Bring Calm (and Familiarity and Fun) to Road Trips

Last year, my husband, Sprig and I camped around the United States for 7½ months. Although space was limited in our Prius, I squeezed in a small scent kit. I’m so glad I did! The familiar activity and scent provided a calming transition between a day of hiking and settling in for the evening. Portable and adaptable, it provided added fun at campsites, parks, botanical gardens and even the occasional hotel room. Here Sprig does a campsite search at Chickahominy Riverfront Park near Williamsburg, Virginia (Dharma Dog, 2022). Food, campfire smoke and a college crew team practicing on the river provided extra distractions!

Thanks to the power of the sniff, Sprig is not only a joyful dog, but a calmer one, too. Sniffing encourages focus, problem-solving, self-control and confidence in unfamiliar or challenging environments. It activates the seeking system, burns mental and physical energy, is fun and feels good! Sniffing is portable and available to any dog regardless of age, breed, size or health. Introducing more sniffing into your dog’s daily activities will result in a calmer dog and much, much more!


Budzinski, C., & Budzinski, A. (n.d.). At the heart of the walk. DogFieldStudy.

Dharma Dog. (2022, July 30). Sprigsniffcamping 1 [Video]. YouTube.

Duranton, C., & Horowitz, A. (2018). Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 211, 61-66.

Kris Whipple, KPA-CTP, CTMT, CSMT, SCMT, is the owner of Dharma Dog LLC. She is a certified Fear-Free Trainer, an Elite Fear-Free Certified Professional and a certified canine massage provider. She is also a City and Guilds certified scent handler. She enjoys participating in AKC Trick Dog, AKC FastCAT, dog parkour and scent work with her 2-year-old Cardigan Welsh corgi, Sprig (Cornerstone’s Mischief Managed TKP BCAT).

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