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Growing up, I was taught that dogs are supposed to walk on a short leash on your left side. “Walks” were more like marches around the block, and I never found them much fun. My lab didn’t care for these marches either. She wanted to move her body, explore the world, and have fun!
The traditional march (aka dogwalk) is based on an outdated idea that your dog must be under perfect, tight control at all times. This is kind of crazy, right? You dog spent all day inside waiting for a walk, and now you’re expecting them to look straight ahead and not explore during their daily outing? No good!
Imagine that I invited you on a gorgeous walk in an exciting new area, but yanked you past all of the scenic vistas. You wouldn’t enjoy that much, right? Not letting your dog sniff is pretty similar to this scenario!
Enter the “Sniffari.” Rather than stomping around on a too-short leash, you and your dog can enjoy an exploration of the world around you together.
So What is a Sniffari, Anyway?
A Sniffari is a scent-based exploration of the world shared between you and your dog. The word is a combination of “sniff” and “safari” – and you’re meant to embrace that!
Rather than walking in a straight line from point to point, a Sniffari is usually more meandering. You may stop and start quite a bit, but that’s because your dog is filling her imagination with scents of the world.
Generally, a Sniffari will take place in a natural area with your dog on a long leash. Rather than pounding pavement with a six-foot leash, your Sniffari will be a meandering trek through the wilds of your neighborhood gardens, an overgrown soccer field, a local park, or even a logging or frontage road. We’ll talk more about how to find a good Sniffari spot in a moment.
How to Go on a Sniffari
I use a long line or flexi-lead to give my dog more leeway, and then we walk at their pace.
At first, your dog might want to pull straight ahead. That’s a bit frustrating, so I recommend walking in circles or zig-zags when your dog hits the end of the leash. This helps them pay a bit more attention to you and stop pulling straight ahead: if you might change direction at any point, there’s no point in charging ahead.
If that doesn’t work, try simply standing still while your dog has 10+ feet of leash to explore with. You can move forward very slowly but only when the leash is slack.
Use a long leash – like a biothane long line or a flexi lead – to give your dog more freedom to sniff. While you circle and zig-zag around, you can also scatter treats in the long grass to help your dog learn to slow down and sniff.
How to find a Sniffari Spot
Ideally, you’ll explore a natural area with a variety of substrates. Many dogs like both exploring in long grass or bushes and investigating vertical corners, posts, or walls where scent accumulates.
Consider taking your dog on a sniffari at local gems like:
- Open parks
- Woodland trails
- Logging roads
- Access or frontage roads
- Bureau of Land Management land
- State parks
- Forest Service land
- Sniffspot land (safe and private for-rent dog parks, perfect for less-friendly pups)
- Nice neighborhoods with wide boulevards, low traffic, and plenty of plant life
A Sniffari doesn’t have to be a hike! Rather than driving across the state for sweeping vistas or plunging waterfalls, a Sniffari is simply a saunter through some nature with your best friend.
Many of my favorite Sniffaris have been on logging or access roads. These wide, low-traffic roads make it easy to avoid wildlife and other users while still getting your dog lots of exercise.
Benefits of a Sniffari
Your dog “sees” the world through her nose. Her sense of smell is estimated to be 100x better than yours. As she stops to investigate a tuft of grass or snuffle through some detritus, she’s learning so much about the world.
While on your Sniffari, your pooch is learning about what (and who) passed through the area before. She’s catching scents on the wind that tell her what she may encounter in the future (like bunnies or deer). She’s following scent trails where she learns the hormonal status of her neighbors and what they ate and so much more!
You and your dog also get to relax as you explore the world together. Try to put your phone away and really experience the world with your dog rather than just exercising the dog.
Sniffing really engages your dog’s brain, which can help take the edge off their energy levels. Even high-energy dogs get a benefit from these slow and sniffy walks. By showing your dog that you’re willing to stop and smell the flowers, you may also find that your dog is actually more engaged with you than if you were simply stomping around the neighborhood.
While it’s optional, I also enjoy playing training games with my dog during Sniffaris. I reward my dog for jumping onto benches, circling around trees, catching my eye at crosswalks, and giving me high-5s from boulders. All of this engagement is fun, good exercise (and makes for fun photo ops).
Etiquette While on a Sniffari
If you’re planning on having your dog on a long leash or off leash, you’ll want to brush up on your trail etiquette. This is important for your dog’s safety, your enjoyment, and the safety and enjoyment of others on the trail: human, canine, and wildlife.
Check out this 28 minute podcast episode for more information on safety and etiquette on Sniffaris.
Kayla grew up in northern Wisconsin and studied ecology and animal behavior at Colorado College. She founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She’s an avid adventurer and has driven much of the Pan-American Highway with her border collie Barley. She now travels the US in a 2006 Sprinter with her two border collies, Barley and Niffler. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams.