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Harnessing the Power of Your Dog’s Nose: An Introduction to K9 Nose Work

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Originally published 6-01-2011

The (dog’s) nose knows

A dog’s nose is an amazing thing to behold. Dogs have the ability to: wiggle each nostril independently, breathe in through the holes in the front of the nose and exhale through the side slits, and discern individual odors making up what we could call a “scent.” Humans have about 5 million cells devoted to smelling; dogs have up to 220 million. Not only that, but dogs have four times the brain power devoted to processing scents! We smell “vegetable soup,” but a dog smells each individual ingredient. Dogs’ noses are so powerful they can detect one tablespoon of sugar in the amount of water it would take to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools!

Close up of a dog's nose

Beginning K9 Nose Work

K9 Nose Work harnesses the power of the canine nose and allows dogs to utilize both their powerful nose and their desire to hunt. The sport of Nose Work has now reached dogs of all ages, personalities, and sizes, and has made basic search-dog skills available to companion dogs. A new urban sport for dog enthusiasts has been born!

Very little is needed to get started in K9NW. The dog needs to be outfitted in a flat-buckle collar or body harness (not a no-pull harness), with a minimum of a 6-foot leash (no retractable leashes). The handler needs five or six sturdy cardboard boxes, and the dog’s favorite toy or food in a treat bag.

If the plan is to work with other dog/handler teams, a crate for each dog is needed. It’s important that each dog have some downtime to process what was learned during a search, and a comfortable and familiar crate is a great location to retire to for this respite. It’s also imperative that the dog searching is the only dog in the room. Having just one dog in the search room ensures that there aren’t distractions and eliminates the possibility of resource guarding. An alternative to using the crate to separate dogs during training is to put a resting dog in the handler’s car between runs. Training and using only one search dog at a time is also the primary reason K9NW is the perfect sport for reactive or shy dogs.

To build a solid foundation in K9 Nose Work, spend time increasing the dog’s hunting drive and sharpening the human partner’s handling and observational skills.To build a solid foundation in K9 Nose Work, spend time increasing the dog’s hunting drive and sharpening the human partner’s handling and observational skills. The dog must understand the concept of the search game, too. With a strong foundation, the dog’s desire to play the search game is very strong, and the dog/handler pair becomes a capable team when it’s time to introduce a specific odor in K9 Nose Work training.

Training: the hide

To make it easy for the dog, all hides are done indoors in a quiet room. The hides usually consist of foods with appealing smells. The food (or toy) is placed in one of the sturdy cardboard boxes specified above. Initially, it is important to make a very big deal out of placing the food in the box. Encourage the dog to watch while the hide is placed and the boxes moved. It’s easiest to accomplish this when there are two people involved: one to handle the dog, the other to handle the hides in the boxes.

Usually each dog gets three or four runs each turn, and about four turns per training session. The goal is to make the hide easy, building the dog’s confidence and enjoyment of the hunt. Look at it this way—if I gave you a super-hard crossword or Sudoku puzzle, one you couldn’t solve, would you really look forward to the next puzzle I gave you?

dog sniffing around some boxes

Training: the search

During the search, the handler does very little other than follow the dog and ensure that the leash doesn’t get tight. In fact, the less the handler does for the dog, the better. Since the box handler will have made it very clear that the food (or toy) was placed in one of the boxes, the dog will likely check out the boxes. When the dog finds the hide, he’ll eat the food (or grab the toy). The handler should immediately reward the dog with more food or by playing with the dog’s toy.

Odor obedience

K9NW is all about the search, the hunt, the find. The founders of the sport are very specific in saying that there shouldn’t be any obedience requests made by the handler in K9NW. The dog’s focus should be to obey his nose, not the handler. As the training gets more advanced, the dog will be the only one able to find the scent. The handler will be virtually helpless—unable to offer any help or guidance to the dog because the hides will be blind (meaning that the hide is known only to the person that hid it).

No clicker?

In K9NW, the clicker isn’t needed because the dog is immediately rewarded when the hide is found.K9 Nose Work doesn’t use a clicker to teach the dog to search. Why? Well, what is a “search” behavior? What does “search” look like? Searching is a very general behavior and can take many shapes, while the clicker marks very precise and specific behavior. The dog might stop and lift her head to sniff, or drop her nose to the ground and walk forward, or maybe stick her nose in a box—what behavior do you click? The behaviors are all different forms of searching. If you click one of the behaviors, you’re likely to get more of the same, as that’s the power of the click, but you want ALL of those search behaviors, and not just one. In K9NW, the clicker isn’t needed because the dog is immediately rewarded when the hide is found. The dog knows he’s right because he gets to eat the food or he gets his favorite toy.

A nose for competition

In K9 Nose Work competition, there are three competitive levels, three specific scents to hunt, and four elements to a Nose Work Trial. The three scents that a dog can be asked to search for are birch, anise, and clove. Before competing in a Nose Work Trial, all dogs must pass an Odor Recognition Test (ORT). In an ORT, twelve identical boxes are lined up in two rows of six. One box contains the scent. The dog has three minutes to locate the target box.

The three competitive levels of Nose Work are defined as follows:

  • NW 1—Searching only for Birch; able to reach the source of the odor; not required to formally alert. (Note that level NW1 is the entry level for K9NW, where every dog starts competition.)
  • NW 2—Searching for Birch and Anise; may not be able to reach source of odor
  • NW 3—Searching for Birch, Anise, Clove; may not be able to reach source; must have formal alert

After passing the ORT, a dog is eligible to compete in a Nose Work Trial, beginning at level NW 1. There are four elements involved in any Nose Work Trial—container search, interiors, exteriors, and vehicle search.

dog sniffing near some plants outside
  • Element #1: Container Search

For a container search, an interior room holds a variety of containers on the floor, one of which holds the target odor. The dog must locate the container with the target odor.

  • Element #2: Interiors

The interior search is exactly what it sounds like—the dog searches an interior room for a scent. The dog must locate the target odor.

  • Element#3: Exteriors

The exterior search is conducted outdoors. The target odor can be hidden anywhere within the prescribed search area. The odor can be placed in the crack of a sidewalk, on a light pole, under a table, etc.

  • Element #4: Vehicles

The vehicle search involves up to three vehicles. The target odor is hidden on one vehicle. The odor is never hidden inside the vehicle, but can be placed under the vehicle, in a door seam, or placed on the vehicle in some other way.

All four of these elements are part of every level of K9NW competition. For example, in a NW 1 Trial, the dog searches only for birch odor, but in each of the four elements. In a NW 2 Trial, the dog is expected to locate both birch and anise odors in each element. Finally, in a NW 3 Trial, the dog must recognize and locate birch, anise, and clove in each element.

As the dog advances through the levels, the difficulty of the hides increases accordingly. For example, a NW 2 or 3 trial might include distracter odors, such as food or animal scents. At the advanced levels, there might also be “blank” rooms—rooms with no scent at all. In this situation, the dog should not alert, of course. The handler calls the room “clear” if her dog hasn’t alerted.

This is the one sport where the dog knows more than the person at the end of the leash!

All aboard!

For fun or competition, K9 Nose Work is a terrific sport for both people and dogs. This is the one sport where the dog knows more than the person at the end of the leash! K9NW accommodates almost every type of dog. It’s a terrific way to give an older dog something to do impact-free. It’s also a great way to burn off energy in a younger dog. For shy dogs, the sport builds confidence. And for dog-aggressive or reactive dogs, K9NW is the perfect sport because there are never any other dogs around when one dog is searching.

If you’re interested in learning more about K9 Nose Work, check out this website.

Happy sniffing!

About the author
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Laurie Luck, KPA CTP, and a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, is the founder of Smart Dog University. She has been involved with many pet dog trainer certification initiatives, all based on humane training practices and the latest scientific knowledge. Laurie also participates in service dog training, and she and her Tango are a pet-therapy team. Through her work with dogs and owners, Laurie has developed many happy canine and human friendships.

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