I live with a dog that is “reactive” on leash with other dogs. Shermie is great with people and fine with dogs off leash, as long as they’re appropriate and know how to read “dog.” In general, though, he prefers a “bubble” around him and space from other dogs.
As I searched for trainers that specialized in reactivity, I stumbled upon nosework. It’s been an amazing tool for working with Shermie. We’ve been involved in nosework on and off for about five years now. I compete with Walter, our younger standard dachshund, in addition to Shermie, our beagle/basset mix.
Nosework gives smart, high-energy dogs a sense of purpose, and it’s wonderful for wearing them out.
What Is K9 Nosework?
Nosework is an activity that allows your dog to use their natural desire to hunt. It harnesses a dog’s unique ability to detect scent and determine the source.
In training, dogs learn to find one of three scents just about anywhere you can hide it. Competitions include searches in four elements: interior, exterior, containers, and vehicles.
What it’s not: nosework is not obedience work or professional scent detection work.
The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) founded this wonderful sport. Their mission is “to make the activity and sport of K9 Nose Work safe, fun and fair for virtually every dog and dog lover.” They sanction activities, train certified instructors, and officiate Odor Recognition Tests and K9 Nosework Trials.
If you visit their site, you’ll learn all about founders Ron Gaunt, Amy Herot, and Jill-Marie O’Brien and their mission to cultivate a community of enthusiastic dog lovers and dog sport competitors.
I attended a workshop in Lacey, WA this summer with founder Amy Herot. This video shows a snapshot of an intermediate nosework class:
Nosework classes (and trials) are set up so reactive dogs can still play! That’s fantastic for my older dog.
Dogs remain in their vehicles until it’s their turn to hunt for odor. This is when Shermie is happiest and “under threshold.” It’s most important that he’s not at all stressed, and knows he’s going to play his favorite hunting game.
Finding an Instructor
Finding an instructor is much easier now than it was a few years ago.
I firmly believe you need to find a certified Nose Work instructor (CNWI). There are many nuances to the sport, and you want an instructor who participates in trials and understands the details. There are also many online classes. I’ve audited a trial course led by a wonderful instructor with The Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.
- Look for a teacher that actively hosts or participates in Nosework events and trials
- Interview a few instructors and ask them about their teaching and training style
- Look for a teacher who doesn’t stick to just one location. It’s important to visit indoor environments, outdoor areas and even places like Home Depot.
The below is an example of an exterior search with Walter from a recent trial.
The first 4-5 weeks (pending the teacher) will consist of food in boxes that are about the shape of a shoebox. Your dog will hunt for something delicious. It’s a fun game and your dog typically hunts about 3-4 times over the course of one hour, taking turns with other dogs in the class.
- Discuss with your instructor the tools you’ll need as this may vary. My dogs wear harnesses, which they know means they’re going to work.
- I also bring something that is a treat they only get at nosework. It’s something REALLY delicious like hot dogs or meatballs. You can also boil chicken breasts if your dog has a sensitive stomach. You want the treat to really pay off.
- There are three odors dogs are trained on: Birch, Anise and Clove. Typically you start with birch, as this is the odor you start competing with at the entry level or NW1 level.
The dogs begin to associate that odor pays. Practice makes perfect. After many rounds of this very fun game, you’ll ultimately move past boxes or containers.
Before you do, however, keep in mind that containers are the foundation for all nosework. Tests determine whether your dog can find the odor in one of about 20 containers during a drill referred to as the Odor Recognition Test, or ORT.
Successful passage of an ORT requires a dog to identify the location of the target odor. The handler must also correctly call an ‘alert’ within a three-minute time period.
This isn’t easy, and takes a lot of practice. Your nosework trainer will let you know when you’re ready for the ORT. Good luck, and have fun!
If you live with a high-energy dog, there are a lot of dog sports to consider. Nosework is an excellent option, because it provides mental stimulation as well as enrichment. Read more here about the long list of activities pet owners should explore.