Train Your Dog in Nose Work, a New Canine Sport

It originated in the drug-detection field, but it's a great mental activity for the home.


Editor’s note: To celebrate National Train Your Dog Month, we got together with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers to run a series of posts through January. Read others in the series: “Dog Training Is Important,” “5 Time-Saving Tips for Training Your Dog,” and “How to Find the Perfect Dog Trainer.

Ever since learning about nose work, my dog, Sarge, and I have played a game every day. He excitedly trots through the house, smelling every nook and cranny. It’s dinnertime, and as usual, I’ve hidden his feeding toy somewhere in the house. His nose zeroes in on the bookcase, where the feeding toy is hidden on the third shelf up. When he locates his food, he wags enthusiastically and looks at me with anticipation. He knows he gets to eat after he finds his food.

Imagine that you and your dog enter a large warehouse. The security team tells you that they suspect narcotics are somewhere in the building. You cue your dog to “Find It!” and follow as she excitedly starts sniffing. After several minutes of searching, your dog snaps her head back toward one of many file cabinets. She sniffs it closely up and down, targets the third drawer, then sits and looks up at you expectantly. The security team finds five kilograms of heroin hidden in the bottom of the third drawer.

Do you know that your dog already has the ability required to perform such an incredible feat? While you might not be interested in having your dog learn to search for heroin or TNT, you and your dog would enjoy nose work, an urban sport for dogs based on the foundational skills of dogs trained in drug and explosive detection. In fact, the founders of the sport are all certified detection-dog handlers. They developed it because they saw how much their dogs loved searching and detection work, and wanted to open up those experiences to pet dogs and their people.

I attended a daylong K9 Nose Work workshop with my dog, Sarge. It began with an overview of the sport; I learned that nose work is an outlet for a dog’s natural desire to hunt and scent. The benefits include physical and mental exercise, confidence building, and relationship building between dog and handler. But the primary goal of nose work is to have fun!

To build the search drive, we used a cardboard box with treats hidden inside. The reason for using a box initially is to help the dog succeed in finding the food. Scent acts like a liquid; it pools in the box, creating a concentrated area of the scent. For step one, all the dog had to do was eat the treats out of the box.

For step two, we made it more challenging by adding five or six more boxes, hiding the food in only one of the boxes, and shuffling the boxes around. When cued, I let Sarge start checking out the boxes. At first he was confused, because the food was not in the same place as before, but he soon got the idea that maybe he should look in the other boxes, and eventually he found the box with the food and got a big reward.

After several repetitions of shuffling the boxes around and letting the dog find the food, Sarge started to make the connection between searching boxes and finding food.

For step three, we added other obstacles in the room, such as a ladder, a chair, and a blanket. The idea is to change the look of the environment and still have the dog search for the scent.

Finally, we put the food in a small tin with holes in the top, which allowed the smell to waft out. We hid that in places other than the boxes, such as under the chair and on a table. Now Sarge needed to really start searching with his nose, because the boxes were empty.

If we needed to help a dog find the tin, we would put a box near the “hide” and encourage the dog to check out the box. Soon each dog was learning to search the entire room, just as a detection dog would do! During each search, we were instructed not to give our dog any commands or show him where the food was hidden. Finding the food on his own raised Sarge’s confidence and helped him learn quickly to use his nose.

Nose work is fun, but it’s also hard work for the dogs. Sarge slept for several hours after the training workshop! Since the workshop, I’ve continued the box game on my own, adding up to 20 boxes and working in various locations. I allow one dog at a time to search, while the other dog anxiously awaits her turn!

I hope nose work will inspire many more people to explore additional avenues of mental and physical exercise for their dogs.

Ann Allums, CPDT-KSA,works as the special programs coordinator for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Her experience as a certified dog trainer includes working for six years as dog trainer for DogTown at Best Friends Animal Society, where she was also part of the DogTown series on National Geographic.

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