Canine nose work: Train your dog to use his nose

One of my current interests is the sport of canine nose work. I’ve been playing around some with nose work this year with my foster dogs and with the rats. Flower, one of my young rats, has recently started learning nose work and I plan to document our progress on my blog. But first, I wanted to write a short post introducing the sport of nose work, for those of you who might not be familiar with it and how it works.

Photo courtesy of Chris Puls

Photo courtesy of Chris Puls

Nose work is a fast growing dog sport that teaches dogs to use their nose to find hidden scents, much like the work that is done by detection dogs that can sniff out drugs, explosives, or even detect cancer. Dogs have an amazing sense of smell and most already love to sniff and search for things both outside and inside. The sport of nose work harnesses a dog’s natural ability and turns searching for things into a fun game for both the dog and the trainer.

One thing that I find appealing about nose work is that it is all about precise and accurate communication between dog and trainer. Dogs already know how to use their noses to find things and they already know when something smells different from something else. What makes nose work both fun and challenging is that the trainer must teach the dog to communicate when a certain scent has been found.

Can you find it?

Here’s a video of a dog searching a room for a scent during a nose work competition. Somewhere in the room is a small vial with a q-tip that has been coated with the target smell. The dog must search the room until he picks up the scent wafting through the room and then follow the scent back to the source. Once he reaches it, he must indicate to the trainer that he has found the scent. The trainer then calls “Alert!” when she thinks the dog has found the scent. Competitions are timed, so dogs must be completely focused on the task and also be able to quickly, but methodically, search a room.

In formal nose work competitions, dogs perform four different types of search tests:

  • Interior – The hidden scent is located somewhere in an indoor room.
  • Containers – The dog searches among cardboard boxes, one of which contains the hidden scent. At more advanced levels, boxes, containers, or even suitcases might be used.
  • Exterior – The hidden scent is located in an outdoor search area.
  • Vehicle – The dog searches around the outside of a vehicle (or several vehicles). This is typically a car, but could be a semi-truck, horse trailer, or any other kind of vehicle.

In order to earn a title at a particular level, the dog must pass all four of the tests for that level. Because there are four different types of tests, a dog and trainer must prepare for all sorts of situations in order to succeed at a nose work competition. This is one thing that makes the sport of nose work both challenging and extremely interesting!

Here’s a second video, this one of a nose work trial level 2 “Container” search.

Several associations offer nose work trial competitions, including the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW), United Kennel Club (UKC), and Canine Work and Games (C-WAGS). In formal trials, dogs usually hunt for the scents of birch (winter green), anise, and clove. However, dogs can be trained to search for and find just about any scent. If you’re not interested in formal competitions, you could train your dog to hunt for hidden items in your house, such as your lost car keys! There are also a growing number of people who are training dogs to hunt for mushrooms and truffles.

At more advanced levels of competition, more than one scent might be hidden in an area. The dog must find all of the hidden scents within a certain period of time. For the most advanced levels, sometimes nothing is hidden! The dog must search the area and indicate to the trainer that the scent is not present. Other challenges can include the presence of distractors (food, toys, etc.) and scents hidden on surfaces much taller than the dog.

Benefits of canine nose work training

There are lots of benefits of canine nose work training.

  • Fun for both dog and handler
  • Can be done by dogs of any age or breed
  • Builds both communication and partnership between dog and handler
  • Great for older dogs or dogs with physical limitations
  • Provides physical exercise and lots of mental exercises
  • Can be done anywhere
  • Great way to build confidence for shy or fearful dogs

Since nose work capitalizes on a dog’s natural ability, it can be a great confidence builder for timid or shy dogs. The sport can also be a useful way to build focus and attention for dogs that are usually very distracted (or even reactive). There are also a handful of shelters that are using nose work as a way to provide enrichment and fun for the dogs in their care.

Do you do nose work with your dog?

Nose work searches mimic the challenges and difficulties that working detection dogs face every day. Because each search is unique, there are endless variation and possibilities. This makes the sport complex, but also a lot of fun for both dog and trainer!

If you do nose work with your dog (or other animal), I’d love to hear more about your progress and adventures. I am also currently doing some nose work training with one of my younger rats, Flower. Check out this video of Flower doing some nose work!

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