nose work

If you haven’t heard of nose work yet, you’re not alone. This new sport that combines training and fun with mental and physical stimulation is gaining in popularity.

Amelia thinks nose work is tailor made for her,” says Elizabeth Lundell of her Basenji companion. “But what’s not to like? When she locates a specific odor, I throw treats to her!”

If you’re wondering what Elizabeth is talking about, it’s a relatively new and versatile sport that provides a positive outlet for a dog’s natural ability to use his nose to find things. The goal of nose work is for the dog to locate a hidden target scent, and alert his handler to its exact location. Boasting 225 million olfactory cells compared to our measly five million, canine noses out-sniff ours by miles, so it’s not surprising dogs love and excel at this sport.

With a little practice, anyone can do nose work. It can be done in any setting and it suits any breed or size of dog. It’s a great way to build your dog’s confidence, provide mental and physical exercise, and strengthen the bond between you. Best of all, nose work requires no previous skill on your part.

How to do it

You’ll need a collection of small cardboard boxes and a handful of healthy treats, such as pieces of whole dried meat or raw carrot.

1. Put a treat in an open box where your dog can get at it. Leave the lid open.

2. When he finds the treat, reward him with a couple more treats.

3. Slowly add more open boxes and more treats.

4. Leave some of the boxes that formerly had treats empty so he knows to find actual treats and not just old smells.

5. Now the fun begins. Put a lid on the boxes, fold the flaps shut, turn a box upside down, put a box inside another box, and/or reduce the number of boxes containing treats. This way, your dog will have to use his nose to find the treats, and not simply rely on sight. This is the basis of nose work.

The next level

If you want to go further with nose work, and perhaps even compete in events, consider enrolling your dog in a National Association of Canine Scent Work class. NACSW sets the standards governing the official sport of K9 Nose Work®, and is the only official sanctioning and organizing body for nose work titles and ORTs (Odor Recognition Tests).

An introductory class will involve the use of scented swabs, like the ones used to clean ears. A few drops of a natural essential oil are put into a jar with some swabs. The jar is sealed so the swabs will absorb the oil and the scent. The swabs are placed in small tins with holes in the lids which are then hidden for the dogs to find. The first scent is birch. As your dog progresses through the levels of training, he’ll also learn to find anise and clove. Dogs learn quickly to recognize these scents. “I was getting our swabs ready, and as I prepared the jar, my dog Gimme came in,” says Carla Baker. “She’d found the scent! There’s no doubt she knows what that smell is about.”

Meet some pros

• “Chance is a nose work nut,” says Nan Sanders. “At home, we do four or five searches a day; when we’re traveling, two or three. To a Belgian sheepdog, completing the job is the reward. Food and praise are just icing on the cake.” Nan adds that nose work is a great way to exercise your dog when you’re on vacation. “When we were in Louisiana, we were playing in a hay field with just a few trees so I had to figure out where to put the scent for Chance to find. I hid the first one on a tree and the second on an ATV. In Texas, meanwhile, the dry ground confused Chance at first but he adapted. I stuck the scent container in a pine cone. That was one of the harder searches; the pine mingled with the scent.”

• Elizabeth’s other Basenji, Professor, also loves nose work. “He was 18 months old and had the attention span of a gnat on espresso,” she laughs. “When he started on nose work, he was in heaven. It’s solving the puzzle that delights him more than the food. Now he can concentrate.”

• Hans, a Swiss shepherd, is another enthusiast. “He searches methodically and follows the scent waves,” says his person Beryl Gersch. “It all depends on air currents. We’ve searched a huge training room with large industrial fans. That room was full of balls, which are Hans’ love, but he ignored them. Any breed or mixed breed may participate. In Hans’ class we have a soft-coated Wheaton terrier, a Shiba Inu, a boxer, a miniature poodle and a Viszla.”

• Carla takes Gimme to her local Home Depot to do searches. She has found that store odors like fresh cut wood or machine oil in the tool rental department add a challenge but that her clever Dalmatian still finds the hidden scents. (Store staff have known and loved Gimme since she was a puppy, which is why she’s allowed in the store.)

Nose work is not just for fun or titles. It also forms the basis for bomb, drug, arson or search and rescue training. Thurber, a bloodhound, used his nose work skills to find lost dogs or cats. “Thurber was considered to be a Missing Animal Response Dog, perhaps the only one in Vermont,” says his person Lisa Robinson. “Even when we couldn’t catch up to a lost animal, people knew where he’d been on the trail. They could post fliers, notify agencies and newspapers in the area. There was a much better chance of finding the dog or cat. Thurber didn’t get any ribbons or have a slew of titles, but he loved what he did. He was a hero to all the people whose animals he searched for, and that was enough for me.”

And it all starts with a treat in a box!