About three years ago I sat in an uncomfortable plastic lawn chair on a semi-dark outdoor dog training field and watched my very first nose work class. Eight dogs, many of whom had never been given the freedom to do anything without their person’s guidance, were introduced to the notion that finding food in cardboard boxes was a THING they could do. Food! In boxes! On the ground! Who would have thought?
That night I told the instructors, “I have to do this! When can I put Frankie into a class? And how can I teach it!?”
Flash forward to now. I have received my certification as an instructor from the National Association of Canine Scent Work, two of my dogs have earned titles (and the third will kick some major butt when she is old enough), trialed at the highest level with a friend’s dog, watched hundreds of dogs search, taught many sessions of group classes, and currently instruct an average of 20 dog-handler teams per week. To say that I have become addicted to this sport would be a gigantic understatement. Nose work is the most fun I have ever had working with dogs. I think you should try it immediately.
Here are some points for anyone interested in K9 Nose Work®:
See that black object? Owen found that single container (filled with 2 half cotton swabs of odor) in a huge school courtyard. Cool, huh?
- Dog reactive dogs are welcomed. Since each dog works one at a time in both classes and trials, it’s perfectly okay if Fluffy isn’t thrilled with dogs in his face. We use a warning system of either the handler or dog wearing a red bandana to let other handlers know that that dog would like a little extra space.
- Dogs who are deaf, blind, missing a limb, in a wheelchair, old, young, etc. are also welcomed. If your dog can sniff, your dog can do nose work.
- It is a fantastic way to boost confidence in shy and fearful dogs. Giving a fearful dog the choice in how they work without constant human intervention is an incredibly powerful tool. Suddenly the dog understands that they can control their environment to some degree and that there are rules while playing the game. For instance, my human reactive boy Frankie knows that no one will squeal “cute dog!” and try to pet him while he is searching. Having that level of emotional safety is a big deal for him, and he thrives in nose work because of it. Besides Frank, I have seen and heard of amazing progress in all areas of a reactive/fearful dog’s life after doing just a few weeks of classes.
- Nose work is a great mental and physical energy burner. Solving increasingly difficult scent problems can be exhausting even if your dog isn’t running laps in a search area. As someone who lives with three medium to very very high energy dogs… this is one of my favorite bullet points!
- It can be done anywhere. All you need in the later stages is a cheap odor kit, your dog, a long leash, and their rewards. That’s it. No super special equipment to buy, and unlike other sports, you can practice basically anywhere your dog is allowed.
- Sorry, but no, a couple of nose work classes will not get your dog ready to sniff out drugs for your local police department or find missing persons for SAR. While sharing many similarities in training, nose work is purely a sport and activity to have fun with your dog.
- Yes, it is in fact largely based on professional detection work, still… even if your Chihuahua is the world champion nose work dog, no one will hire him as an explosives detection dog. I promise. (You wouldn’t believe how many calls I get a month about this!)
- Dogs start out searching for food or toys in order to give them an immediate incentive to play the game and help to build upon their natural hunt drive. Eventually the dogs will learn to recognize and alert to three different target odors. These include birch, anise, and clove.
Frankie during a vehicle search at a mock trial. Photo by Gadabout Photography.
- There are four elements to a K9 Nose Work® trial: exterior search, interior search, container search, and vehicle search. These four elements vary greatly between the levels: NW1, NW2, and NW3. But don’t worry, dogs only search the outside of the vehicles, they are not allowed to get inside of the car like the pros can!
Want to try the game out for yourself? Okay, let’s go!
Cardboard boxes are the main way we introduce dogs to nose work, since they help to contain the scent of the food and give a context for the game (dog sees a bunch of boxes: “Yay! We are playing that hunting game!”). Make sure your dog can easily access the inside of the box. If you have a teeny tiny dog, use a short box at first. If your dog doesn’t like sticking his head into a box with flaps, use a box without them for now. My garage is full of them, but you really only need 5-10 boxes. Just use the same one each time for the food to start with.
River has no problem with getting into boxes and sticking her head into them. Obviously.
Your dog should search for their absolute highest value food possible. A couple of items I have in my rotation include: cooked liver, steak, chicken, cheese, and hot dogs; feel free to use anything else that is equally awesome. You want your dog to choose searching for food over anything else in the environment, so make it worth their while. I can assure you that while Oscar may like his regular kibble well enough for meals, he will go nuts over chicken and give you much more enthusiasm. The majority of the canine population will choose high value food over toys, but if yours loves his tennis ball above all else, use that!
If you have multiple dogs, put the others away in a separate area while one dog is working. On a side note, this is a great way to work on crate manners with the other dogs while brother or sister is playing. My puppy River will throw herself into any nearby crate after her turn; she knows that’s the only way I will restart a different search!
Start the search indoors when first introducing nose work. Your backyard or the local park may have more space, but it also has way too many distractions for most green dogs. A large area isn’t needed for beginning box searches: I use my living room with the coffee table pushed against a wall all the time!
There aren’t too many rules for nose work, but the number one is ZERO OBEDIENCE. Really. No “leave its,” no “come!”, no “no!”, none of that silly stuff here. The reason for that is because we are building on the dog’s natural responses and instincts. By giving them cues and directions, you are putting the human stuff back into the equation. Have some patience and give your dog the time to show you their world. A big difference with nose work compared to other sports is that you truly are not going to teach your dog anything new; you are the one who needs to learn how scent works and the best way to refine their already incredible skills. So, as the popular saying goes, trust your dog! This is especially important if you would like to compete at some point, when you will have no clue where the odor is placed.
Alright. You have your curious dog, cardboard boxes, and boiled liver ready to go. Put a couple of treats in one of the boxes (henceforth known to you as the stinky food box) and let your dog eat them. Put a few more in and then “hide” the box while your dog is watching but restrained. Release them. When they go to get their food and start to eat, drop a few more pieces into the box one by one – this reinforces the find and allows the dog to stay at the box a little longer. Pick up the now empty and slobbery box, then either have someone hold onto your dog, put them into a crate, or into another room before their second turn. Rearrange the boxes and dispense more food into the stinky food box. Release your dog. Once they find the correct box, hooray! More food! Pick up the box and repeat the process. Working with your dog off leash is optimal; that way they are free to move as quickly as they want and you aren’t getting in the way like a silly human.
River checks out the white box because I touched it with greasy hot dog hands – this is one of the reasons why we use only one stinky food box to start out with. My girl isn’t confused though; she catches the odor in the short box soon after.
Here is another rule: don’t be stingy! Give lots of food rewards each time your dog finds the correct box and throw a party (if they like that sort of thing). When your dog starts to figure out the game and is madly excited to search, begin to make it a little more challenging. Examples of how to do this include: putting an empty box on top of the food box so your dog has to push off the empty box to reward themselves, placing boxes in a big pile with the food box somewhere underneath, stacking the food box on another box so it’s slightly elevated, hiding the food box in a bigger box on it’s side, the possibilities are endless!
Pile O’ Boxes! The odor is place on the side of the dark blue box that Frank is pushing up.
A simple box search by itself is an awesome rainy day activity for any dog and can be played over and over again with just searching for food or toys. However, classes are a ton of fun and the best way to learn how to really get into nose work. You can find a directory of instructors in your area through the association at www.NACSW.net, just click on “certified instructors” towards the top. Workshops are also a fantastic way to get the sport started in areas without CNWIs yet, so watch out for those. This sport is pretty new to the scene, but it’s growing fast!
And just for giggles, here is a glimpse of what a more advanced search looks like:
Have fun and happy sniffing!