Nose work training with Flower the rat

Flower the black and white hooded ratAt the very end of 2013, I audited an online nose work class offered through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, which was taught by Margaret Simek. It was a lot of fun and left me even more fascinated with the sport of canine nose work.

I worked through most of the exercises in the course with Amy the rat. We didn’t get too far with our nose work training, however, because Amy started to have some health problems. This spring, foster dog Henry and I also played around just a little bit with the nose work exercises.

I have wanted to do some more nose work training, as I find nose work both challenging and a lot of fun. So, I decided that nose work would be a great project for Flower the rat and me for this fall. Flower knows a few tricks, although I really haven’t done that much training with her.

The video below shows days 7 and 8 of Flower’s training. We have been doing 3-4 short sessions a day, each about one minute long. So, she’s had about half an hour of training time up to this point.

Watch on YouTube: Nose work training with Flower the rat

In the video, you’ll see four small Altoids tins. One contains a Q-tip that has been coated with sweet birch oil (winter green). The other three tins are empty. Flower’s task is to search among the tins, find the correct one and then (importantly) stop searching and remain at the correct tin. She remains there while I feed her several treats. Then, I mix up the tins and she has to search again.

At the beginning, I started by holding one tin and teaching her to keep her nose near it. I wanted her to learn first and foremost that this smell was the best smell in the world and was a great smell to find!

Then, I moved the tin around the training area so that she actually had to go to it and then stay there while I gave her treats. This was the very beginning of teaching her to search for the tin. Gradually, we added a second tin to the mix, then a third and a fourth.

If you watch closely, you can see that her body language changes when she finds the correct tin. This is probably clearest at 1:30 in the video — you’ll see her sniff past two empty tins and then find the correct tin. When she finds the correct tin, she starts sniffing more intensely and her body posture actually changes.

It’s pretty important at the beginning of nose work training to quickly get to the point where the animal is searching between two to three boxes or tins. If a trainer practices with just one box or tin, the animal might learn to find the box based on visual cues, rather than scent cues. If there are two or three identical boxes, the animal cannot rely on any visual cues and must find the correct box based on smell.

As we keep working on this, we’ll add more boxes and add in some distractions. Eventually, we’ll move on to searches where the hidden scent is not in a box and Flower actually has to search a certain area and find the scent. For example, a scent could be hidden between two books on a book shelf.

We’ll keep training and report back later on!

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  • Jenny H

    Lovely 🙂
    it looks like a fun thing for rats to do!

    • Glad you liked it, Jenny!

      Flower is a very “busy” rat, she is easily bored and always looking for something to do. So, I try to come up with plenty of new and interesting things to keep her occupied. She seems to find the nose work quite fun so far.



  • margaret simek

    Just wonderful, Mary! I love Flower’s little pawing at source!

    • I’m so glad you liked it, Margaret!

      I am hoping that we’ll have the time to take the NW240 nosework challenges class with you when it is offered again in February.



  • Gwen Lindsey

    Love this video, Mary, thanks for making it. Flower is so smart. 🙂 I have one question about body language and scent-detection. I remember reading that the Gambian Pouched rats, who are taught land-mine detection (the Hero Rats), are asked to hold their noses in place for 5 seconds as the “this is bad” signal. That’s an extended amount of nose-holding-still time for that species, taught intentionally to distinguish “finding a land mine” from normal inquisitive, exploratory, playful interactions with objects. Would teaching Flower a non-natural behavior of that type (duration of nose-in-place) be important? You really do see her body language so I know you know when she’s nailed the right container. I just found it interesting that a “non-natural” behavior was used for such a purpose.

    • Hi Gwen,

      This is a really awesome question and one that I would like to write more about on my blog later on when I understand more about it.

      There seem to be two main opinions in nose work training (although I’m sure there are other opinions and variations on both of these). Some (most?) people believe that you should teach an specific indicator behavior — such as having the dog lie down, bark, paw, etc. when he finds the hidden scent.
      Others (including the instructors of the courses I have taught) believe you should let the dog (or other animal) develop their own natural indication behavior — which involves staying at the source, plus usually extra behaviors that the dog adds as he goes through training.

      For me, for now, I don’t understand enough about the sport and haven’t gotten far enough along in training to get a sense of whether it really must be one way or the other. I know of people who are competing (and winning!) who do both.

      One problem with teaching a specific indicator behavior that I can imagine is that if you do have some errors or difficulty early on in training, you could get a dog offering the indicator behavior at the wrong times or offering the behavior as a “guess” when he’s not sure which box is actually correct. I would guess that one efficient way to go about nose work training would be to start out with having the dog use a natural indication behavior. Then, later on in training when the dog is getting fairly solid at nose work and really understands the concept of finding the correct scent — that would probably be a good time to teach a specific indicator behavior. Basically telling the dog — when you find the correct scent, in addition, I want you to do X behavior.

      Just some thoughts, not sure if this was where you were going with your question on not, but hopefully you find this interesting.



  • poopsie

    This is truly fascinating. It is awesome when performed by canines but is mind blowing with a rat. I am beyond pleased when my rats do simple tricks and the recall.