The Dog

K9 Nosework – Detection Work for Pet Dogs

A few months prior to getting involved with the search and rescue dogs, I started looking for resources that would help me understand how detection dogs work. Professional detection dogs are trained to use their noses to sniff out specific odors, most commonly: live people, dead people, drugs, bombs, and fire accelerants. These dogs can also be used to sniff out totally novel smells, like the scent of ivory (to help stop poaching) or the scent of caterpillar poop (to help with conservation!)

When I expressed an interest in SAR, my trainer Carolyn suggested that we check out Nosework. Nosework is mock detection dog competition for pet dogs – instead of sniffing out dangerous substances, they are trained to find the odors of birch, clove, and anise oils. I started taking Hilde to nosework classes because I thought it would be a good way to learn the basic concepts of detection (which it has!) but it ended up being so much fun that we’ve kept with it even as I work on “real” detection training with Rally.

It’s important to note that Hilde is not a good candidate for a search and rescue dog – or any professional detection work, for that matter. Professional dogs need to have a very specific temperament that makes them want to work more than anything: no matter how nasty the weather is, how exciting or overwhelming the environment, or how tired their bodies. Hilde is an awesome dog, but she does not have a working temperament! Fortunately, K9 Nosework is all about having fun and is accessible to all dogs, regardless of drive.

Hilde and I have been honing her nosework skills for the past few months, since early spring. In that time she has learned how to sniff out all three NACSW oils (birch, clove, and anise) and has passed her Odor Recognition Test (ORT.) The ORT consists of two rows of identical white boxes, one of which contains the target odor. We’re talking about a tiny amount of odor here: a q-tip that has been sitting in a jar next to a cotton ball that has  just a few drops of oil on it. In the ORT, the dogs need to identify which box has the odor and communicate that information to their handler, who has to call “Alert!” Dogs have three minutes to locate each odor, but Hilde found all of hers in less than 30 seconds. After passing their ORT, dogs can go on to compete against other dogs at 3 main levels (NW1, NW2, and NW3) and further elite levels.

Over the weekend Hilde and I participated in a “Sniff-O-Ween” K9 Nosework fun match with our local nosework trainer and teams. There were four different search exercises, and the teams competing ranged from just having finished their ORT (where we were) to  preparing for their NW3. Hilde hasn’t gotten a lot of nosework practice (ok, actually none) since Rally joined the family, so I went in with zero expectations and focused only on making sure she had an awesome day.

Exercise 1 was a container search down a long u-shaped hallway. In this search handlers could only move forward, so my usual container strategy of “keep moving, and circle back” for mild interest wouldn’t work. We nailed the first two hides, one of which was a tricky “threshold” hide, or a hide in the very the first box we passed. On the final straightaway, Hilde showed some interest in a box, but not enough for me to call alert right away. I should have kept moving because it was a weak indication, but I was worried about the “no going backwards” rule! As I stopped, she turned to me and started doing behaviors with the box – pawing it, standing on top of it – none of which are things she does when she has actually detected the odor. I should have recognized that she was doing these tricks because I had stopped moving, not because of odor, but I called “Alert!” and got a fault (faulting is when you call alert on the wrong box.) Of course, after we moved on she gave a much stronger indication on a container that was just a few yards down… oops!

A long hallway full of K9 Nosework containers.

This search started at the black rats and went down this hallway with two 90º turns. The very first box you can see was the first hide (out of 3.)

The second morning exercise was an off-leash interior search with 1 hide, where handlers separated from the dogs by a “moat” of bubble wrap. Hilde did great in this exercise until I put my hand in my pocket, when she beelined over to me with a look on her face that said “oh, are we doing tricks now?!” Lightbulb moment – I had put my hand in my pocket in the previous search too, which is probably why she started doing weird tricks on the box instead of continuing to work. Oof. Anyway, I got her back on track, she found the hide, and we didn’t fault. As a bonus, she didn’t mind walking on the bubble wrap or interacting with any of the ~spoOky~ halloween decorations! Hilde has always been a bit of a cautious dog and Nosework has really improved her confidence, especially with weird objects.

Part of a room cordoned off by bubble wrap laid on the floor. Chairs and misc halloween decorations are on one side of the bubble wrap, where the dogs would be searching.

The hide was under the seat of the chair. Being separated from Hilde by this bubble wrap moat was challenging!

The first exercise of the afternoon was a maze. The whole room was in play (meaning, the hide could be anywhere) but the hides both ended up in the main interior section of the maze, which caused a little bit of a converging odor challenge. Knowing that my hands-in-pockets habit had ruined Hilde’s focus in the earlier exercises, I zipped up my pockets ahead of time so I couldn’t throw her off. She totally rocked this search! I think we were the fastest team to find both hides with no faults.

A "Maze" created by chairs and fabric panels for a nosework search.

Watching the dogs work “The Maze” was super fun. They knew the odor was in there, but finding the right path was a bit of a challenge!

The final exercise was an interior search with an unknown number of hides to be found in 3 minutes. I worked Hilde on a long line and she was on her game – the first three searches had warmed her up and she was in the zone!! We found 5 of 6 hides before running out of time, with no faults. I’m pretty confident we would have hit the last one, we just didn’t have time to work that corner of the room.

A room full of nosework hides hidden in decorations, on tables, under chairs, and in the walls!

Hides all over the place!

We ended up taking third place in the morning exercises and first place in the afternoon – not bad for a dog who hasn’t been to a “real” trial yet!

One of the things I love about Nosework is how accessible it is to all sorts of dogs and people. It doesn’t matter if your dog is old and slow, young and hyper, or even reactive – nosework is open to you! I have been amazed by the improvement in Hilde’s confidence and willingness to work. Though she’ll never be a “real” detection dog, she loves to visit the barn for training and sometimes pitches a little bit of a fit when she has to wait her turn!

If you’re interested in doing nosework with your dog, check out the NACSW website to find a trainer in your area. If you’re in Bozeman, get in touch with Carolyn at The Canny Canine to train with us!

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