It’s always so wonderful watching dogs doing what they love to do — herding sheep, hunting, retrieving, and especially using their noses.
The dog’s sense of smell is nothing less than amazing, and it serves us humans well. Detection dogs make our lives safer by locating bombs and land mines, and they can even identify people who have been in close proximity to explosives. Other dogs save lives by sniffing out cancer and other serious medical conditions, or by finding lost people.
Years ago, when I worked as the behavior and training advisor for Rocky Mountain Rescue Dogs, I remember a cadaver search for a little boy who had been lost overnight in the mountains. A Dalmatian found the boy 3 days later buried several feet under the snow, and still alive. Finds like this are simply awe-inspiring.
Training a search and rescue (SAR) or detection dog takes a lot of time and dedication but is a lot of fun. For years, SAR and “sniffer-dog” trainers have been way ahead of the training game by using motivational methods to make training a joy for both dog and handler. Recently, detection dog training techniques have been adapted for companion dogs, so now we have a recreation sniffer sport for pet dogs and their owners called K9 Nose Work. It was developed by Southern California trainers Ron Gaunt, Amy Herot, and Jill Marie O’Brien — co-founders of the National Association of Canine Scentwork (NACSW).
I spent nearly ten years of my professional life researching olfactory preferences in dogs, but watching Nose Work training has taught me so much more. It is truly fascinating to see the dogs catch a scent and then move back and forth to sample the scent flow and eventually locate its source. Initially, dogs search an area littered with cardboard boxes, one of which contains the dog’s favorite toy or treat. Then the reward is paired with a target odor, such as birch, aniseed, or clove. The dog searches for the scent hidden in one of the boxes, and once he locates it, the owner produces the dog’s favorite toy or a treat, as if by magic.
Once a dog learns that finding the cardboard box with the odor source is the key to his favorite reward, the scent can be hidden anywhere in the room. This early training is done indoors, where dogs are generally less distracted, but once it is mastered they graduate to outdoor searches, including vehicle searches. This doesn’t mean searching for a lost car, but locating an odor source somewhere on the car’s exterior. Once this skill is learned, a dog is just a step away from being trained to find lost car keys or a TV remote control.
Indeed, a major reason for Nose Work’s increasing popularity is that it doesn’t require much equipment – like competitive obedience, flyball, and agility do – and it doesn’t require a huge amount of space. The sport is ideal for dogs and owners to practice in their living rooms at home or in their yards and neighborhoods.
What I really love about Nose Work is that all dogs can excel and that all dogs search differently. Searches are conducted individually,so the activity is ideal for fearful dogs. In fact, shy and fearful dogs seem to be transformed when doing this work. They appear to forget that they are shy and just get down to enjoying the mission at hand. You can see the owner’s pride as a previously timid dog becomes a confident Nose Worker.
All dogs have their own working styles. Some dogs work for pay (food rewards) and others work for play — dogs just naturally enjoy a game of fetch or tug, for instance. Yet other dogs work for the sheer enjoyment of working at what they were bred for. For them, “just doing it” is more than sufficient reward.
It is obvious from my observations that Nose Work isn’t work at all, but rather a quintessential canine activity that delights most dogs
For a list of Certified Nose Work Instructors (CNWI) and classes in Northern California, visit www.nacsw.net/certifiedinstructors/california.html.
Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian, canine behaviorist, and puppy-training pio-neer. He is the founder of SIRIUS® Puppy Training and Scientific Director for www.dogstardaily.com.