Stop and Smell the Roses: Aromatherapy as Enrichment for Pets

A funny thing happens when I plant my spring herb garden; my dog, Wellington, springs into action -- sniffing out every stem and smelling each leaf with the kind of zeal he usually reserves exclusively for procuring cookies.

It turns out there is more to it than Wellington just being nosey; research has shown that providing opportunities for scent investigation can provide health and behavior benefits to animals (even zoo animals!). Dog trainers tout the benefits of "nose work" for dogs who need a job to keep them busy, who lack focus, or who are shy or suffer from situational anxiety. And given that scientists estimate the canine sense of smell to be anywhere from 40 to 1,000,000 times stronger than ours, it should come as no surprise that the flora whose fragrance we delight in is also pleasing to our pets.

I recently saw a Facebook post by Oakland-based pit bull rescue and education group Bad Rap that pictured one of their resident dogs happily peeking out from a bed of flowers, with a caption about how Star had benefited from exploring the facility's garden. It turns out that Star had made a habit of lying next to the plants and inhaling the aroma of each one before moving on to the next, and had gone from being a bundle of nerves to a happier, more relaxed dog in the process.

I was curious about how Bad Rap was using planned scents to stimulate their resident dogs, so I reached out to Director Donna Reynolds to learn more about their garden. It turns out they originally planted in the yards for aesthetic purposes, but soon saw the effect the smells were having on their dogs.

"We hoped that the dogs would enjoy the scents, but we really didn't expect them to enjoy them so much," says Reynolds. "It's been fascinating to see our newly-arrived dogs quiet themselves down when they investigate the little bit of nature that we have here; it's as if they're reading a really good book."

In addition to the garden plants, the dogs also gravitate to other smells, including pine cones, scents around their fruit trees (probably left by wild animals that have visited in the night) and the sweet spring grass that lines the facility's fences. Since seeing the difference in the dogs after a little aromatherapy, Bad Rap has incorporated opportunities for scent investigation into the daily operations of shelter life.

"We use lavender-scented cleaning products, air freshener and dryer sheets for bedding, hang eucalyptus wreaths and bring fresh flowers in near the kennels," says Reynolds. "Some of our volunteers compete in canine nose work trials, and they have been kind enough to bring this activity to the shelter dogs. We hide treats in the dogs' bedding as part of a 'find it' game. Of course, the dogs' favorite scent is still the one that comes from the cookie jar!"

This spring, take a cue from Bad Rap's enrichment program and consider adding some scent investigation to perk up your pets and stimulate their brains. Here are some sweet-smelling ideas:

Plant a pet-friendly garden.
Before you break out the garden trowel, you absolutely must make sure that whatever you are planting is safe for pets -- meaning that it is non-toxic if ingested. Bad Rap's garden includes lavender, a few different sages, California lilac, Echinacea and ground covers including lemon thyme, wild ginger and tarragon. Plants to stay away from include lilies, Sago palms, azalea, tulip bulbs and tomato plants, among others. You might want to only give pets access to the borders around the garden, so they can savor different scents without trampling plants.

Play a Hide-and-Treat Game.
Enhance your pet's scent experience by putting your dog in a sit-stay and hiding some small treats around the house. When you're done, release her and encourage her to, "Find it!" She'll have fun hunting for hidden treasure, and will get a full mind-body workout in the process. This is a particularly useful recreation for rainy days when long walks outdoors are off the table!

Let them explore.
During our conversation, Donna Reynolds reminded me that being mindful of our dogs' love of scent investigation can help us better understand their world view -- and that's a great way to deepen our bond with them. I admit I have been guilty many times of rushing my pups along during walks, barely giving them the chance to stop and sniff. Rather than simply going through the motions of walking your dog, take the time to tune in and notice the world around you, and give your dog the opportunity to do the same. The neighborhood is a fascinating place full of fun and interesting smells for your dog, and often unnoticed beauty by you. Slow down and drink it all in.

Work it!
If your dog really seems to enjoy seeking out treats and sniffing new scents, look for a canine nose work class through your local dog training club. It's great exercise for your dog physically, and he gets to use his supernatural sense of smell and natural hunting instinct to earn praise and rewards from you (which always tops his list of favorites!).

Using planned scents to enrich your dog's experience at home could be just the pick-me-up your pup is craving after a long winter hibernating in bed. Experiment with adding a few new scents and some fragrant play to your day and see what happens -- you might just get a happier, more balanced pet!