Have you heard the buzz about nose work?  Are you curious about this relatively new dog sport?  Want to know more?  Read on!

In daily life, few companion dogs have opportunities to use their noses for what canine noses were designed to do.  K9 Nose Work® is a sport for dogs and handlers that tests a dog’s ability to use his sense of smell to locate a specific scent or odor in a real world environment.  The opportunity to use their sense of smell is highly reinforcing and satisfying for all dogs.

Tramper scenting car.

When dogs are just beginning nose work, they are encouraged to find food or a favorite toy located in a box among other empty boxes.  Lavish praise and treats or a toy reward the dog for his effort.  Once the dog is hooked on the game, an essential oil—birch at first, then anise, followed by clove—is hidden in a box.  A very small amount of the oil called the odor is placed on cotton swabs and enclosed in a small, perforated receptacle (a tin or tube) contained inside the box.  At first the odor is paired with a food or toy reward to encourage the dog.  The dog is rewarded for locating the box containing the odor.  As the dog gains experience, the odor is used alone and is placed in more and more difficult and challenging locations.

As dogs learn to play the game, handlers learn to understand how their dogs communicate the location of the odor.  This indication behavior is an important part of the training process since a handler will use his/her dog’s particular behavior to reward the dog for indicating they have found the odor.  Handlers master the art of observation and learn to pay very close attention to canine behavior.

K9 Nose Work® was created by three trainers with experience in training detection dogs for both narcotics and explosives work.  Their collective experiences training their own dogs and professional detection dogs, as well, convinced them companion dogs would benefit from the mental and physical stimulation provided by using their sense of smell in a direct way.  The sport was developed using the same training techniques the three founders used to train detection dogs.  The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW), founded and still guided by the three original trainers, sanctions K9 Nose Work® events and certifies nose work instructors.  More information about the sport, events, and trainers is available at www.nacsw.net.

One of the most attractive things about the sport is the broad canine population that can participate. Essentially, if your dog has a nose, he can play this game.  While certified search and rescue and detection dogs have very demanding jobs, K9 Nose Work® does not place the same sort of physical demands on dogs or handlers.  While the sport does borrow from detection skills training, it does not demand the same physical and mental stamina and endurance required of detection dogs for long, difficult searches.  Neither are handlers presented with the same levels of liability and pressure.  Many companion dogs and sport dogs share the same sniffing skills of a detection dog, but are not really suited to that life.  K9 nose work allows the handler to tap into those skills to provide a great outlet for the dog’s natural abilities.

The sport requires a human team member who enjoys the simple pleasures of seeing his/her dog have a good time. The most challenging task for the handler is to learn to give up “control” of the dog and learn to read what the dog is telling the handler with his behavior.

Very minimal equipment and supplies are needed to get started in K9 nose work.  You’ll need rewards—toys or treats—and a number of cardboard boxes to start.

Owners of fearful, shy, and reactive dogs sometimes find nose work classes are a great opportunity to take their dogs to a class.  This is because one dog is worked at a time. This allows the dog to concentrate on the task rather than often overwhelming environmental factors.  Dogs as young as six months are eligible to compete in K9 Nose Work® events.

The following are titling levels as of January 2016:

NW1 – Dogs earn points for four different element searches at one trial site on one day within maximum time limits for the birch odor.

  1. A container search—a number of cardboard boxes—done on leash
  2. An interior search—a room in the interior of a building—done on or off leash.
  3. An exterior search—an outdoor area—done on leash, as a rule.
  4. A vehicle search—the exteriors of up to three parked vehicles—done on leash.

These four searches—containers, interior, exterior, and vehicles—are referred to as elements and are all always included in searches at each of the titling levels.

NW2 – At this level dogs will search for birch and anise ordors.  Distractors such as food and/or toys are added.  Multiple interior searches are included.  While the same four elements as NW1 are included, search areas are more complex, and searches require greater skill from both dog and handler.

NW3 – At this level dogs search for birch, anise, and clove odors.  Multiple distractors may be used.  One of the three rooms searched in a building can be clear of odor (a decoy, so to speak).  The vehicle search includes five vehicles, and the trial locations are even larger and more complex.  When a dog has been successful at NW3 three times, the NW3 Elite title is awarded.

NW3 Elite – When a team had been successful at NW3 three times, the Elite title is awarded.

ELT – Elite Division – More complex searches await competing teams at the Elite level.  Teams are awarded points for their searches and titles earned when the required point levels are reached.

Across the United States to date, 89 Portuguese Water dogs have earned NW1 titles; 45 have earned NW2 titles; 29 have earned NW3 titles; 5 have earned NW3 Elite; 2 have earned the Elite Division1 title; and 1 has earned Elite Division 2 status.