Sniffy Dog Syndrome

Here’s how to get your dog’s head up

sniffyQ. My Jack Russell cross, Susie, is driving me crazy! We’ve just started to compete and I never know what she will do in the ring. She measures only ten inches, so her nose is very close to the ground, which results in her finding interesting smells. She often ignores me and follows them. All she wants to do is sniff. What can be so interesting on the ground?

A. Sniffing is a big and important part of being a dog. Susie is not being naughty – just doing what comes naturally. She’s not consciously trying to get you mad by tracking a mouse instead of climbing the A-frame. Try to figure out why she is sniffing.

If agility is boring… Susie will find something else that is interesting to do, like sniffing. Too many repetitions and too few rewards can make exercises tedious and dull. Make agility fun. Give Susie a reason to hold her nose in the air and reason to believe that there is nothing else she would rather be doing.

If you are boring…You will lose Susie’s attention and she will start searching the ground for smells. Be an exciting companion and playmate rather than a sterm disciplinarian. If you fall down in the mud and Susie jumps up and down on your tummy, try to see the funny side. Laugh with your dog.

If Susie is stressed… She will try and find some way to relax. Sniffing is a natural and comforting activity, that, like most dogs, she does well. Confronted with an obstacle course at a strange venue with the whole world watching, young Susie may feel out of her depth. She sniffs to stress bust.

If you are stressed… Susie will pick up on your discomfort. She’ll sniff in sympathy. You, like susie, will find agility shows a bit daunting at first. but you will soon get used to it. Relax with your new agility friends. Sometimes talking about pre-competition nerves with someone else in the same boat makes them go away.

Dogs that think with their nose rather than their brain, can be a liability in agility. I’ve no doubt that the more agility you do, the more comfortable you will both feel and the less Susie will sniff. In the meantime,

  • Train at a venue that is relatively smell-free. Do you train after the puppy class (more treats end up on the floor than in their mouths)?
  • Teach Susie a “Watch” command so that she will look up at you and not at the ground.
  • Add the “Leave” command to your tool box. Susie should withdraw her nose from whatever smell she is investigating when she hears it.
  • And keep practicing your recall. When Susie takes off on an olfactory trail, she will return to you before she reaches its end.
  • Be patient. Your dog will soon be demonstrating her true potential in the ring.


From Questions and Answers on Dog Agility Training, by Mary Ann Nester, T.F.H. Publications
Visit Mary Ann at
Used with permission.

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy – “How to encourage more speed and drive in your agility dog”, by Pamela Spock, president, Affordable Agility, Inc.

2 Comments on “Sniffy Dog Syndrome

  1. Hi all,
    I had a great comment sent to me by email, and asked her permission to share it with you.

    From June Goritz, of Rolling Meadows, IL …”Sniffing is also a calming signal. Susie is sniffing also in attempts to calm down her owner. Dogs will use calming signals like turning their backs to their owners, look to the side, dart their eyes left and right when approaching another dog head on and sniff the ground – all in attempts to share a unique language that is all their own, calming signals.

    • More great advice from June “…Susie’s nose knows more than her handler can disguise. Susie can smell pheromones of impatience, fatigue and stress in her handler’s breath. Dog show handlers have found a solution of chewing gum to camouflage their anxiety while preparing and actively showing their dogs in shows. Chewing gum may be the vice to relieve some of Susie’s handler’s edgines and her body movement and eyes may become more relaxed. Every dog has its day – and Susie may just not feel up to agility when the competition event/calendar indicates it. Be sure to take a moment every morning – to conduct a blanch/capillary refill test on Susie’s gums to make sure she is fully hydrated that morning (simply press a finger on the gums of her canine tooth and time the capillary refresh rate. If the refill rate is within one to two seconds, your dog is sufficiently hydrated). Take her out to the park and swell her confidence with positive praise….and Susie and her handler can begin the rewarding journey of learning effective communication skills to each other – on whether competing that day is a mutual plan – for Both of them.”