Nosework: Scent based enrichment FOR YOUR CAT!!

You NEED to meet Hanna Fushihara! She is a dog trainer (CPDT-KA – Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers Knowledge Assessed) at Hot Fuzz Dog Training and creator of the first ever in-depth, online course in NOSEWORK FOR CATS!

Sometimes you meet someone and think DANG! We should have met years ago!! It turns out that Hanna and I have many connections both in the animal behavior world, and in the Bay Area 1990s punk scene. We recently connected (virtually), and when I heard about her program in nosework for cats, I knew I had to learn more!!

I always thought nosework sounded pretty neat, but always assumed it was for the dogs! It wasn’t until I could walk through her course and watch the videos of Hanna’s cat at work (and also get such a user friendly step-by-step walkthrough of the whole process) that it all clicked as to how it could really work with cats!! Seeing the work and care she put into this program blew me away and I knew I had to share it with other cat lovers!! Hanna very kindly agreed to answer my questions, so enjoy this interview, and don’t forget to go to to take her course.

For the inexperienced, can you briefly explain what nosework is?

In very simple terms it’s a form of scent detection for fun. The animal’s task is to find the food, the toy, or the “target odor” using their sense of smell.

I’ve heard a lot about nosework for dogs, but not much about using it as enrichment for cats! What inspired you to design this program?

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, there was a big online nosework event called the Olympic Scentathalon that sounded very exciting and one that all my “dog friends” were going to participate in. I had lost my dog Derek in the months before to cancer, who had been my nosework partner, training and traveling all over the northeast competing, and so I just decided that I would participate with my cat Muncho in whatever way was possible even though he had no experience whatsoever. Although I had to adjust the assignments slightly to account for his cat-ness, I found that he seemed to enjoy it and was excelling at it. People who saw what we were doing were intrigued. Although the event was for dogs, lots of participants had both dogs and cats and one of the jokes among us was that our cats always try to get in on the action during dog training. I saw how happy and curious it made other people who were watching our search videos so I started thinking about creating a How To for anyone else that might be interested.

Photo of Hanna by Printz Photography / Lisa Prince Fishler

I did know of a few trainers who were doing some nosework with their cats as well as one or two online classes within other cat training programs, but I wanted to create something that was based off my own knowledge about and experience with scent detection. I’m really geeky about airflow and odor movement, how environmental factors that we humans cannot see can be revealed by observing how animals with a much stronger sense of smell react and move. A canine nosework student of mine had said that doing the activity with their dog was “like having a superhero decoder ring for invisible things. I can’t know what air currents and molecules are doing, but she does. By learning to collaborate on a skill that comes naturally to her, she makes the invisible, visible. It is the most amazing feeling to have access to the way my dog can perceive the world…” and I feel the same way when playing nosework with my cats. I get to see the world through different colored glasses and it’s fascinating. I just want to share that with people who share their lives with cats.

Why should people try nosework with their cats?

  1. Because it’s fun, both for your cat and for you.
  2. It’s simple enough to play, even if you have absolutely no experience training cats or any other animal.
  3. There are endless possibilities because we’re teaching a concept, not a specific behavior.

And on a more personal note, it has enhanced my understanding and love for my main demo cat Muncho. I hate to admit this, but I used to refer to him as the “asshole cat” because as a young cat, he terrorized one of my older cats to the point where I decided to totally keep them separate, he was generally cranky, and was even kind of a jerk to one of the cats he lived with who absolutely worshiped him. But now I call him a genius because I can see how fantastic he is at problem-solving and how tenacious he is at figuring things out. I appreciate his intellect and personality so much more than I ever had. I feel terrible that I had labelled him in such a way previously. I hope that anyone that plays nosework with their cat would also come to get to know their cat deeper and better through the activity.

What do you think about some of the differences in ways that cats and dogs use their sense of smell and how that might impact their behavior during nosework? (e.g., cats don’t typically track their prey with olfaction)

With dogs, you don’t have to convince most to use their nose to find something that is valuable to them. They are doing that all the time naturally, as they go about their day. With cats, although their sense of smell isn’t as strong as a dog’s, it’s still incredibly powerful. It’s just not their first go-to for finding things that have value to them, so we need to convince/show them that when we’re playing this game, using their nose is the whole idea of it. We do that using very small, systematic steps and when the lightbulb goes off, they just get it and are perfectly capable of figuring out scent puzzles.

Did you notice any differences working with cats versus dogs?

For the most part, the act of tracking down the source of a smell looks similar although there are small differences like I have noticed that cats will often stop motion when they are processing information and it sometimes looks like they are just kind of looking off into space but based on what they do next, it’s obvious that they were just thinking through something and when they make a decision, they start to move again. Dogs may stop motion and change direction but the amount of time they appear to actually stop and ponder something is a lot less. But then again, I am talking about an experiment of two right now since I have mainly been working with just my own cats so far so take that with a grain of salt.

The main thing that I have been thinking about as the difference is in how we live with cats and dogs, what we perceive to be appropriate or the expectations or lack of expectations with the different species. Like in nosework cats, if I place an elevated hide that is 4 feet off the ground and my cat decides that he should get to it by jumping on a table to get closer, that is A-OK but even if I had a small dog that did the same thing, most people would think that is intolerable because “dogs aren’t allowed on tabletops”. Or I see lots of canine nosework handlers who get incredibly annoyed or stressed when their dog can’t find a hide and will blame it on the dog rather than blame themselves and perhaps their inability to train or oversight in training. The expectations on a dog are so high! And some constraints feel arbitrary. I do love that for the most part cats can just be themselves because our expectations aren’t so high but at the same time the same thing can get in the way of the possibilities out there for our cats.

Do you think you could use something other than food for nosework? Such as catnip or silvervine?

We could absolutely use something other than food for nosework with cats. I just think that it makes the most sense using food at this time. For example, with catnip and silvervine some cats inherently have value for it and others don’t. The last cat that I had that passed away earlier this year would stand and stare at the others rolling in catnip, rolling on silvervine, baffled as to what was so exciting about it. So if we were to use it with those cats, we’d need to add an additional step where we show the cat that when they find catnip/silvervine/ or any other novel odor for that matter, that they can anticipate super yummy food. It just seems like unnecessary work to put in for the vast majority of cat owners.

The purpose of using a non-food target odor for dogs is practical; for a detection dog searching for bombs you don’t want them alerting to someone’s candy bar left in a desk drawer and even in competition nosework when the handler doesn’t know where the hide placements are, you don’t want your dog to be taken off task by also searching for food in any environment. Our cats are realistically never going to need to be proofed to ignore food during a search so it’s just the easiest thing to use. I also honestly like letting the cats self-reward once they’ve found their hide, meaning that they can grab it and eat it immediately without waiting for the human to come in to reward. Dogs have been bred to work with humans, cats have not, and I think it’s more inherently motivational to them to get an immediate pay out for their efforts.

At some point I might make a mini class on how to add a novel non-food target odor but we’ll see.

Can people do nosework with more than one cat at a time or should they work separately with their cats in a multi-cat household?

It’s all about intention. We should be working one cat at a time if we are using the session to build specific skills. That is what the class focuses on in most of the lessons. If we’re using a session for strictly enrichment purposes, you could absolutely do a “search” by hiding multiple treats in an area and letting more than one cat have access to that, as long as your cats won’t fight each other over the food. That is lightly shown in the Enrichment chapter of class and sometimes makes an appearance on my IG posts. 

When a cat is allowed privacy to solve a problem you’ve laid out, they get to navigate it without having to worry about social issues, and we get to see a purer manifestation of how the cat is processing when they are encountering odor, how they are figuring out how to find where it’s coming from, when/if they are getting frustrated about how difficult the hide placement is, etc. This gives us better understanding of what the cat is currently capable of, how they process information and how they problem solve, and how we can adjust our future hide placements so our cats can have a good learning experience.

When there is more than one cat, they end up also having to socially navigate the situation and so for example, if one cat is bolder than another, the more timid cat might have started to work on finding one particular hide but then stops and defers to the other cat when that cat enters the vicinity. For those of us observing, we won’t get an accurate picture of a particular cat’s skills this way. 

Personally, because I find it more interesting getting to know each cat’s mind more deeply through observing them playing nosework, that is what I tend to do more often. I do occasionally do an enrichment based “search” with Mini and Muncho but I account for the fact that Muncho is more skilled and Mini won’t want Muncho near her food, by using multiple adjoining areas of the house so the cats have more space away from each other to work if they wanted to and I make sure to put out a high number of hides so each cat can be successful at finding enough to find motivational.

In class, I do make a point to specify that you need to have a “designated waiting area” while you are setting up searches so the cat only starts the search after you have fully set it up. For people with multiple cats this also means that when one cat is actively working, the other cat should be in their own “waiting area”. There is a supplemental lecture with demo videos on how to get a cat to willingly enter a crate so that you can use crates when playing nosework (or for any other reason) but you can just use separate rooms and close doors to separate the cat that is working from the cat that is waiting their turn. I think there are a few videos in class where you can hear (and I am noting) the cat that is waiting their turn behind a door that is off camera. If people think that I should show more videos on how to do this than is already described, they can just let me know in the discussion tabs or email me and I can add another lecture.

What were some challenges you faced when going through nosework with your cats? 

I honestly didn’t have that many challenges except when working on searching containers, how to keep the food hidden but make it so the cats could self-reward. I think I came up with a really good solution and that is in class so I hope people will check out how I solved that. I do have searches where once the cat finds the location of the hide, I come in and give them access to it, either opening the lid of a box/container or bringing a bowl down from up high but I didn’t want the reward sequence with a human involved to make up the majority of class.

The only other challenge has been keeping the cat waiting their turn quiet LOL. Even if I give them a snuffle mat to work on, the one waiting tends to bang on the door or meow to let me know they want their turn. I was recently doing some remote nosework cats sessions with the behavior team at Friends for Life Animal Shelter and we were working with two cats who live in a room together and the same thing ended up being a problem, figuring out how to keep one cat waiting while the other cat searched because they both started wanting to go into the gated off search area at the same time. I suppose it’s a good problem to have – that the cats are so eager to play.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just that I’ve made class free of charge for a while so if anyone is interested to just come take a look. I also tried to incorporate humor into the class, and I hope people get that out of it. I want people to not be afraid to try it, just do it, laugh at mistakes, and just try again. Contact me if you have any questions, I’m all ears!

You can check out Hanna’s class Nosework Cats at! This class features over 30 lectures and 60 videos of how-to and cats in action, and it’s well worth signing up for!! Nosework Cats can also be found on Instagram (including some amazing video!).

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