Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being on a walk with your dog when he or she stops to sniff and won’t budge. If you have multiple dogs, suddenly all of them gather around, noses glued to a specific spot, inhaling deeply with great satisfaction. The spot doesn’t look particularly special to you; by the sight of it nothing is there at all, just the ground, a few blades of grass, some pebbles. No matter, the dogs are transfixed. Clearly they know something you don’t.
According to Wikipedia: “The olfactory bulb in dogs is roughly forty times bigger than the olfactory bulb in humans, relative to total brain size, with 125 to 220 million smell-sensitive receptors.”
Dogs appear to use their sense of smell the way we use our eyes, as their primary sense. Ever play fetch with your dog at night? Ever wonder how s/he finds the ball so quickly and effortlessly? Or the opposite happens. Your dog is searching for a ball that is right under her nose, but she can’t find it because it’s windy, Then it becomes clear to you that she’s not looking for it, at least not with her eyes.
Humans exploit the amazing canine sense of smell to detect explosives, plant matter, narcotics, and even certain cancers and other ailments in humans. Working dogs are very lucky because they get lots of rewards for using their talented noses, quenching their sniffing desires on a regular basis. However, most pet dogs aren’t so lucky. Our companion dogs live in the human world and are not often truly allowed to just be dogs. They’re always being dragged away from delectable scents on walks, or told to “leave it” when they try to take an olfactory “glance” at something, like a turkey sandwich or, much to your chagrin, the neighbor’s crotch.
Lumi, Siberian Husky, Container Search, NW1 Trial, May 15, 2010: photo: © 2010 Robert Ochoa
You might go so far as to say that companion dogs have been olfactorily deprived. That is, until now. Now we have K9 Nose Work, also known as Fun Nose Work for Dogs, available to all canines.
K9 Nose Work was developed by three detection dog handlers, Ron Gaunt, Jill-Marie O’Brien, and Amy Herot, who recognized the pleasure their working dogs got out of using their noses. They thought it would be wonderful to let all dogs experience it, so together they created a curriculum to teach basic detection skills to the average dog. The course work focuses on bringing out a dog’s instincts, reawakening her natural desire to hunt using her sense of smell. It’s all done through play or food motivation.
Duke, a Red-Boned Coonhound, searching vehicles during a Nose Work trial. photo: © 2010 Scott Duncan
When I first became certified for teaching nose work in order to lead classes for Sirius Puppy & Dog Training school, I knew it would bring environmental enrichment into the lives of companion dogs. I also thought it would be a fun addition to our commitment to canine continuing education. It has been both of those things… and, oh, so much more!
I could go on and on about the nuts and bolts of training nose work, or how it benefits dogs, but there are plenty of articles out there on the history, hows, and whys of nose work. Instead, I decided to profile a few of my Bay Area nose work students to give you a glimpse of how absolutely wonderful it is and what dogs and their people get out of it.
Meet Red Dog and Cricket: These two girls, a Pit Bull and a Border Collie Spaniel cross, were both caught as strays by the big-hearted Gloria. When they first came to live with Gloria they were quite timid, extremely jumpy, and cautious in new situations. Now, after less than a year of nose work classes, these lovely ladies are able to perform nose work demos in front of crowds in novel environments throughout the bay area.
Then there’s Dash, an extremely reactive Border Collie rescue, who alarm-barked at everything, always had trouble settling down, and even had difficulty bonding with her owner Donna before she started nose work. Now Dash doesn’t launch into a fit of barking every time something new appears on the horizon, because learning to focus has caused her to chill out a bit. Donna also reports that she and Dash have connected over the past year of training, forming a sense of partnership that just wasn’t there before.
Bertrand is an elderly gentleman of a dog who started his nose work career at the advanced age of eleven. His owner Colleen feels the classes have brought out the best in her sweet, sensitive Pit Bull mix. “It’s also nice to see how much it raises his confidence to be doing this work. Bertie was a shelter dog, who was kept outdoors until he was surrendered, and he badly lacked confidence when we got him. Having a challenging task that he can master has made a huge difference to him.”
Zag, a French Bulldog, applies his olfactory skills during a nose work trial. photo: © 2010 Robert Ochoa
Buddy is a three-legged Golden Retriever who simply adores nose work. Because his sense of smell isn’t affected by his missing limb, this is a sport he can excel at, and he does!
High-energy students like Tucker Lovekin, a Shepherd mix, and XDog and Huckleberry of Paco Collar fame like nose work because it’s an excellent energy outlet for city dogs, especially since it doesn’t require a lot of fancy equipment and can be practiced just about anywhere.
Bailey and Chester are two lovely, intelligent Golden Retrievers who don’t have careers as hunting dogs; instead they channel their energy into the “job” of searching for their birch scent to satisfy their natural work ethic.
As these stories demonstrate, there are many benefits to giving your dog’s nose a job. I must say I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the behavioral changes I’ve seen in my students, beyond those of mental stimulation and exercise. It seems that tapping a dog’s natural scenting ability also triggers something much deeper, a sense of fulfillment for the animal that can only come from doing what a dog is born to do, being a dog in all it’s glory, compelled to sniff things out.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is a Certified Nose Work Instructor and a Director and instructor at Sirius Puppy & Dog Training (www.siriuspup.com). Currently she is focusing on bringing enrichment to companion dogs via continuing education classes such as K9 Games® and Fun Nose Work. She is also the co-founder of www.DogStarDaily.com, an online training resource for people and their dogs, and President of Open Paw (www.openpaw.org), a shelter-based educational non-profit that provides people and pets with the tools they need to build a lasting relationship.