Guide To Canine Nose Work

Have you ever seen your dog pick up a trail when you are out on a walk? They may start sniffing the ground, pull the leash in a direction different from the one you had in mind, stick their faces into the tall grass and almost sit their doggy butts down on the pavement – refusing to go any further until they are done with their sniffing.

This behavior can be a little annoying if you are trying to finish your walk fast, but it is also a natural canine habit you can use to tire your dog out! K9 Nose Work is a new competitive sport where the dog is asked to find a target by following the scent, and if you haven’t heard about it before, now is the time to learn something new!

What is K9 Nose Work?

Dog sniffing the ground

K9 Nose Work is also known by names like Scent Work, K9 Scent Work, Search Work and more, and it is a sport that is only recently starting to make itself known among the general public and us regular dog owners.

Credit for the development of the sport is given to the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW), and to three individuals in particular – Jill Marie O’Brien, Amy Herot and Ron Gaunt. These three came from a background of canine detection work, and their idea was to create a fun and challenging activity for dogs all over the world.

This is a sport that imitates the work of professional detection dogs, like bomb-sniffing dogs, search- and rescue dogs and more, but instead of searching for bombs, drugs or missing people – the dog searches for specific target odors that have been placed within an area.

The most commonly used target odors are clove, anise, and birch, and these can be placed basically anywhere – both indoors and outdoors – which makes K9 Nose Work the kind of activity you can engage in whenever you have a few spare minutes, regardless of where you are.

The dog will start following the target odor until they locate the source, and this can be made more difficult depending on the dog’s skills, the time you have available to execute it and the dog’s experience with nose work. Once they locate the source, they are usually rewarded by the owner with their favorite treats and a toy – whatever your pooch is more likely to consider a reward for good behavior.

Many dog sports are very focused on obedience, but this is instead a sport where the dog’s natural instinct is what it is all about! Dogs have amazing abilities to sniff and to follow scents, and the founders of K9 Nose Work figured it was time to use this skill for something that would be both fun and mentally challenging for the dog!

Benefits of Scent Work

What is so interesting about K9 Nose Work are all the unexpected benefits that may come with engaging your dog in the activity. They get to work on their patience, which can be beneficial also when out in public when traveling with your dog on public transportation and more, and Nose Work has proven to reduce anxiety in some dogs!

This is due to them learning to focus their energy and their potential anxiety on a scent instead of on something they see, and scents start becoming something worth being excited about rather than a source for insecurities.

Reactive dogs may become more tolerant of other dogs and animals, shy dogs show signs of improved confidence and distracted dogs get a chance to learn how to remain focused on the task they have been assigned. It is also a great activity to teach to aging dogs that are suffering from vision- or hearing problems, as it will help to strengthen a sense they can still use – their sense of smell.

Scent work is also a great way to activate a hyperactive dog, a dog that requires plenty of exercise and dogs that have developed destructive behaviors due to boredom, as it forces them to use their brain in a way they might not have had to do before.

It is easy to think that the best way to tire out a dog is by taking them for a run or for a long walk, but the truth is many dogs need a lot more than that. They need mental stimulation, and Nose Work is a great way to provide this.

How to Get Started

The AKC (American Kennel Club) and many other organizations offer beginner’s classes in K9 Nose Work, and this is a great way for newbies to get a proper introduction to the sport. It is easy to start on your own as well, but sometimes it can be good to see it done by a professional, to make sure you get a strong foundation – especially if you are hoping to compete in the future.

Each organization will have its own requirements and rules, but the dog usually needs to be over 6 months of age, have all his- or her shots and be healthy enough to participate. The sport is not too physically demanding, but if your dog is easily stressed or gets very wired up – a quick trip to the vet for a routine check-up is always a good idea before engaging in a new activity.

If you decide to take a K9 Nose Work course, you don’t have to worry about anything, as the instructor will take you through it step by step. Before you sign up, you might want to teach your dog a couple of basic commands, like ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’, as this will make the process easier.

You can also look up videos on YouTube if you want to get a better idea of what the sport is about. Teach your dog the commands, watch videos for inspiration and turn to your local Kennel Club to see if they are offering classes in professionally executed K9 Nose Work.

Can All Dogs Practice Nose Work?

Any dog can do K9 Nose Work; both small and large dogs, and it usually doesn’t matter if they are purebred or adorable mutts. Even the AKC tends to allow mixed breed dogs in their Nose Work trials, so there is nothing stopping you and your dog from getting involved.

Some dogs are bred to have an excellent sense of smell (like Bloodhounds and German Shepherds) – better than other breeds, but this does not mean they are better suited for the activity as it requires more than just a genetic disposition to sniff.

A Yorkshire Terrier could do just as well as a Golden Retriever or a Labrador Retriever, as the most important thing is that your dog enjoys the search and that they have the right personality for it. You might not think your dog could do it, but don’t underestimate your fur friend, and give them the chance to surprise you!

Practicing at Home

While it is probably best to take a Nose Work course first, you can always continue to practice on your own inside your own house, in the backyard or when you are out for a walk! If this is what you hope to do – these are the items you will be needing:

+ Q-tips that are carefully cut in half
+ Tweezers
+ Disposable rubber- or plastic gloves
+ Your dog’s favorite treats
+ A small glass container or jar with a lid
+ A simple “scent vessel” (consider using a small container like a mint tin, wash it carefully and drill holes in the sides)
+ A Tupperware or other plastic container with drilled holes
+ Birch, Clove or Anis oil

It is recommended that you prepare everything far away from your dog in a concealed area; this helps avoid contaminating the scent vessels, and it makes sure your dog does not get confused. Wear the gloves and apply two drops of the oil of your choice onto the Q-tips and add as many Q-tips as you need to the glass jar and close the lid.

Remove your gloves and place them in an airtight bag or wrap them in the newspaper before putting them in a plastic bag – this will contain the odor. The gloves should be removed by turning them inside out, to avoid touching the oil with your hands.

You will then use the tweezers to place one Q-tip in each scent vessel, and the tweezers should be stored in a closed Ziplock bag while not in use. All this could sound a little extreme in the beginning, but the idea is to not confuse the dog by leaving traces of scent anywhere else than inside the scent vessels. A dog’s nose is incredibly sensitive, and even the smallest trace can contaminate, leading your dog to fail in his- or her search for the targets.

These scent vessels will then be placed in different parts of your home, your yard or wherever you see fit, and the dog’s task is to find them! If you have not yet taught your dog to follow the scent, that will have to be your priority. See more below.

Introducing Scent

Now, let’s have a look at how to introduce a scent to a dog, and how to make the dog understand what you want it to search for. This is especially important in the beginning if your dog has never done Nose Work before, as it could take some time for your pup to get the idea.

It is not as easy as to just say ‘go’ and think that the dog will successfully identify the hidden scent vessels – he or she will need an introduction and proper training. Here is an idea for how to help your dog understand what is expected of them:

The first step is to hold a delicious treat in one hand, and the tin can with the Q-tip in the other. Hold your hands close together with your fists closed, and let your dog investigate. He will likely sniff the hand with the treat first, but be patient, and wait until the dog shows interest for the other hand.

If they sniff the hand with the scent vessel – bring the treat over to your other hand and give it to them. This is crucial, and you need to feed the treat when they sniff the vessel, and you will want to feed it in the same place to help the dog associate the vessel with a reward.

Repeat this several times until the dog understands that sniffing the scent vessel will get them the reward and try switching hands to avoid the dog relying on its memory rather than on the scent. Practicing this along with the two commands previously mentioned – Sit and Stay – will give you an advantage when you either join a K9 Nose Work beginner’s course or when practicing at home.

When you think your dog is ready to try finding the scent vessel, place it inside the plastic container with drilled holes (a Tupperware will work perfectly once perforated) and leave it somewhere where your dog can’t see what you are doing.

Nose Work Toys & Games

If you want to start out small, you can buy some of the activation toys and games that are sold for the purpose of teaching a dog to rely on scent. These will usually be food puzzles with different slots and openings, where it is the dog’s task to figure out where to get the treats from and how to get them out.

This is not the same as K9 Nose Work, but it helps them practice using their nose for solving often complex tasks, which will be useful when initiating Scent Work training.

K9 Nose Work Trials

When dogs compete in K9 Nose Work, there are four different elements where the dog is asked to search and follow a scent. These are interior, exterior, vehicles, and containers, and the trials are carried out in locations that neither the dog nor the handler is familiar with.

Not every dog is suited to compete, as it can sometimes be very stressful – with narrow passages and unknown terrain – but this will be up to you to decide with your dog’s best in mind. Trials are timed, and the idea is to find the scent vessels as fast as possible. Your local kennel club or the internet can help you find out how to sign up for competitions and where these are held.

Final Words

K9 Nose Work is a great challenge for all dogs – regardless of breed and size, and it is something that can help with behavioral problems, excess energy and much more.

It is a chance to explore one of the canine’s strongest senses – scent – and for you and your pup to form a stronger bond. Working together creates trust, which will benefit you in all aspects of your life together with your furry friend, and it is an excellent complement to a physically active lifestyle.

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