Category Archives: Canine Nosework

K9 Nose Work

K9 Nose Work is a sport that was designed by Amy Herot, Ron Gaunt, and Jill Marie O’Brien. With over 50 years of detection work between the three, their focus was on designing a fun, inclusive activity that allowed a wide variety of dogs to use their instinctive abilities. This sport borrows from the activities of explosive, drug, or cadaver detection, allowing the dogs to experience the enjoyable sniffing part of these activities without the liability or risk of real detection or SAR (search and rescue) work.

Photo by bermudi on flickr

A wide variety of dogs attended our Introduction to K9 Nose Work seminar, and watching the different dogs work was the highlight of my weekend. K9 Nose Work is open to all dogs: shy dogs, old dogs, three-legged dogs, reactive dogs, high-drive dogs, deaf or blind dogs, hyper dogs, distractible dogs, anxious dogs, and regular everyday dogs. Any dog who is crate trained can participate, and every dog who participated in our workshop loved it! Timid dogs gained confidence throughout the day, and distractible dogs became more focused as they learned the game.

It was amazing to see how tired and happy the dogs were at the end of the day. Even though the dogs didn’t work for very long at once, they were exhausted! The combination of physical and mental exercise contributed to satisfy the dogs’ exercise needs, but I think that this alone doesn’t explain how very tired many of the dogs were. Rather, fulfilling their instinctive need to use their noses scratched a much deeper itch and wore them out in the same way that a long day of working tricky behavior consults wears me out. The dogs weren’t merely tired: they were fulfilled. They had successfully done something they enjoyed, and this promoted satisfaction at a deeper level than a mere game of fetch or walk around the block.

K9 Nose Work introduces dogs to the search game by having them search for a favorite toy or treat. This reward is hidden in a box in the search area, and the dog must find the target box among a variety of other boxes or items to get their reward. As the dogs gain proficiency at searching, more challenging puzzles are presented to them. The owner takes a very passive role at this time, allowing the dog to use their natural problem-solving abilities and gain in confidence and independence.

That’s not to say that the handler is unimportant, though. Rather, the dog learns to work as a team with his handler. Once he finds his target object, he communicates to the handler where it is in order to receive his reward. Handlers also learn to work as a team with their dog. Each dog has a distinct search behavior, and learning to read your individual dog’s changes in breathing, tail set, speed, or ear orientation is incredibly important if you are to be a good team mate to your dog.

Dogs eventually learn to search for their target scent in a variety of contexts. Competition involve four separate search elements, with a different target odor (100% essential oil placed on half a cotton swab) introduced at each level. The container search requires the dog to find the target odor in one of twenty identical containers (cardboard boxes, clean/empty paint cans, suitcases, etc). The interior building search requires the dog to work in an indoor area (such as a science classroom or office building), and the exterior search presents the target odor somewhere in an outdoor location. Finally, the car search requires the dog to find the target odor somewhere on the exterior of a vehicle (multiple vehicles are included, and only one has the target odor). Dogs solve complex problems, such as scents placed underneath or on top of objects or hidden inside novel containers.

Want to learn more about K9 Nose Work? Check out the NACSW website! We are also looking forward to holding nose game classes in the Rochester, MN area based on the information we learned this weekend. The dogs approve!

I smell what you mean.

Humans are visual animals. We rely on our eyes to gather information about the world around us. Our language of understanding relates to our vision (“I see what you mean.” “Look here, my point is that…” “I have a slightly different view of the matter.”). Large areas of our brain are devoted to processing visual information, and appearances effect everything from our personal relationships to the way we do business.

As important as vision is to us, so too is scent the primary focus for our dogs. Dogs have 220 million + scent receptors, compared to our measly 5 million. Large areas of your dog’s brain are devoted to olfaction, just as ours are devoted to vision. Our dogs have a very different way of relating to their world, one which we can only guess at. If they were to talk to us, they would likely replace our visual references with olfactory ones (“I smell what you mean.” “Sniff here, my point is that…” “I have a slightly different scent of the matter.”).

Simon ‘Kelp’ Keeping

This past weekend, Paws Abilities Dog Training hosted Jill Marie O’Brien and Kimberly Buchanan for an Introduction to K9 Nose Work seminar. Watching the dogs learn about this fun and fascinating sport was a real treat. Dogs love using their noses, and they’re extraordinarily good at doing so. Whether they were searching for a toy or treat, the dogs all exhibited incredible talent and problem solving abilities.

Dogs can sniff out drugs, explosives, and cadavers. They can alert their people to the presence of bedbugs, wood rot, or cancer. They can predict the onset of a seizure. They can find the one stick you touched amongst a giant pile of sticks or the pheasant you shot from across a field. They can track criminals, lost children, or foxes.

Using their noses is as fulfilling and enjoyable to dogs as using our eyes is to us. The joy you experience from looking at a meadow full of wildflowers or a gorgeous sunset over the lake is likewise experienced by your dog when he comes across a pile of raccoon scat or a squirrel carcass. One has only to watch the blissful expression on a dog’s face as he closes his eyes and lifts his head to sniff the wind to know how very important the sense of smell is to him.

Scent travels much like fog or mist. It falls from the source, rolling along the ground and dissipating the further away it goes. It is affected by temperature, air currents, and other objects. It bounces off surfaces and pools in low-lying areas. It may be vacuumed up along a wall or be pushed about by the wagging of a tail or the scuffing of your feet on the grass. Our dogs allow us to access the otherwise unreachable world of scent. Watching a dog work a scent back to the source tells us how the scent molecules are moving and gives us a peek into this incredible, alien world of olfaction.

There are many different scenting options available to dogs and their owners. From letting your dog explore new smells on a walk in a quiet field to teaching him to find your car keys to competing in tracking or K9 Nose Work or even training scent articles in competition obedience, we can offer our dogs many chances to use their natural abilities. Scent work can calm and focus hyper dogs or increase a timid dog’s confidence. It can give older or handicapped dogs a fulfilling job to do and reactive or aggressive dogs a safe chance to play.

Later this week we’ll explore the sport K9 Nose Work in more depth. In the meantime, what nose games do you play with your dog?

Playing With Your Dog: An Illustrated Guide

Thanks to the supremely talented Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings for suggesting this project. I had a blast collaborating with her! (Click on the image below to enlarge…)

Mental Exercise

As we mentioned before, mental exercise is every bit as important for dogs as physical exercise. Sadly, this basic need is oftentimes overlooked by well-intentioned pet owners. Relying solely on physical exercise is not enough. Many well-cared-for dogs nonetheless lead impoverished lives because their cognitive needs are ignored. We would never dream of starving a dog by withholding food, but by not giving our dogs the chance to use their brains, we are also withholding a vital ingredient to happiness. Research into canine cognition has shown time and time again the remarkable capacity that dogs have for problem solving, and by providing opportunities for our dogs to think and puzzle things out we enrich their lives and make them so much happier.

So, what are the best ways to provide mental exercise for your dog? Every dog is different, and it’s important to play to your dog’s strengths. This is such a complex topic that an entire book is in the works, but here’s a brief overview of some great ways to engage your dog’s brain.

It’s All About the Food: One of the easiest ways to fulfill your dog’s need for daily mental exercise is to simply throw out his food bowl. Whether you use his dog food as training rewards, feed him from a puzzle toy such as a Kong or Tug-a-Jug, feed him by hand, or scatter his kibble on the floor or in the backyard for a scavenger hunt, mixing up mealtimes will add an element of fun to his day.

The Nose Knows: Dogs have an incredibly keen sense of smell, which we largely ignore. Engage your dog’s olfactory abilities by having him follow treat trails, playing hide ‘n seek with yourself or a favorite toy, introducing novel scents into his environment (ask a farm friend for some used straw to put in your back yard, let a pal’s pet hamster crawl all over one of your dog’s toys, or dab a drop of essential oil on a tree or rock), or learning the fun sport of K9 Nose Work.

A Classy Dog: Training class is a great source of mental exercise! In addition to the weekly stimulation of class itself, enrolling in a class gives you motivation to work with your dog on new skills regularly. Whether you’re trying rally obedience, canine freestyle, agility, or fun tricks, think of class as date night with your dog. Can’t make it to a class? Try teaching new tricks or even helpful service dog tasks at home.

Change it Up: Dogs enjoy routine, and it’s important to stick to one. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enrich your dog’s life by making little changes. Try a different walking route with new sights and smells, introduce your dog to new people or animals, play different instrumental music during the day (Mexican guitar? Celtic harp? Classical piano?), create an obstacle course in your backyard, or try a new dog treat recipe that you bake yourself (and don’t forget to let your dog lick out the mixing bowl). Think of new sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures you can introduce into your dog’s environment to engage his curiousity.

In future posts we’ll talk about some of the potential problems with exercise, as well as some of our favorite puzzle toys. In the meantime, please share your comments with us below! Do you provide regular mental enrichment for your dog? What are your pup’s favorite activities?