The Nose Knows: An Introduction to Canine Nose Work




The dogs nose knows; it’s an incredible thing to behold.  Our canine friends have the ability to wiggle each nostril independently, breathe in through the holes in the front of their nose and exhale through the side slits, and detect individual odors.  Humans have 5 million cells devoted to smelling but, dogs have up to 220 million cells and four times the brain power devoted to processing scents. We may smell a delightful cake but, a dog smells each individual ingredient.  They detect the flour, sugar, butter, eggs, etc.  Canine nose work is the latest and fastest growing canine sport in North America.  Dogs are encouraged and rewarded for doing what they do best by using their highly sensitive noses to locate an odor.


Canine nose work was originally founded in 2006 by Ron Gaunt, Amy Herot, and Jill Marie O’Brien using the term K9 Nose Work to describe the scent detection activity and develop National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW). They wanted to give pet dogs and their people a fun and easy way to learn and apply scent detection skills.  Since the development of NACSW, other organizations have been founded including United Kennel Club Canine Nosework and C-WAGS Scent Games.  Canine nose work is designed to let dogs engage their natural scenting abilities in a fun and rewarding search activity.  Inspired by working detection dogs, nose work is the fun search and scenting endeavor for virtually all dogs and their people; regardless of age or breed, physical limitations, lack of obedience, and fear or reactivity issues.  This easy to learn activity builds confidence and focus, while providing a safe way to keep dogs healthy through mental and physical stimulation.  If your dog has a nose, you’ve got a Nose Work dog!


Canine nose work is designed to help dogs learn independent problem-solving skills and build a solid foundation in scent detection skills.  This enables them to face new challenges and uses real-world environments to refine your dogs natural talents.  Therefore providing multiple benefits to many dogs lives.  While searching dogs burn both mental and physical energy, searches can be done anywhere that you can take your dog, no prior training or obedience is needed, it improves impulse control, fearful dogs build confidence and overreactive dogs use their energy for searching.  In a class setting dogs work one at time which is especially great for reactive dogs or dogs with behavior issues, and it builds a strong relationship bond between handler and dog learning through observation, understanding, and trust.


Why use cardboard boxes?  Nose work starts with getting your dog excited about using his nose to seek out a treat or toy hidden in one of several boxes in an obedience-free zone without handler interruption or unintended correction.  The first step will be to find out what food treat or toy reward that your dog truly loves.  This will initially be used as your dog’s target odor, by hiding it in containers, in order to build desire and drive.  You will need 10 boxes to start and the number and difficulty grows with time and experience.  We use the boxes to help the dog learn the game and build a cue that the game is about to start.  Additionally, it doesn’t matter if the dog can see the hide because we want to encourage them to go seek the item out.  Although, try avoiding helping them or pointing at each box; your dog should search on their own.  Sometimes if  your dog is reluctant to move away from you, you may casually stroll around as if you were going for a walk or nonchalantly investigate the boxes (avoiding the loaded box).  Finally, as soon as you dog shows any interest in the box with the reward you will immediately reward and show enthusiasm by telling them how awesome they are.  Once they find the hide of their food or toy, its self-rewarding and reinforcing their successful searching behavior.


After boxes the game is expanded from containers to entire rooms, exterior areas, and vehicles.  Dogs usually learn this behavior in the first 3 months to a year, with this time period being used to build desire to hunt, stamina for searching, and skill set without the risk of failure, distractions, or disinterest in the search.  In this time frame, the handler also builds observation and handling skills.  It is important to move the training at a pace that will bring the best performance out of the dog. 


Once your dog grows more confident target odors are introduced and competition skills are taught.  The target odors used in nose work vary depending on your organization but could include; birch, anise, clove, myrrh, vetiver, cypress, and/or lemongrass.  Once target odors are introduced, usually through pairing with food to keep the dog motivated, your dog will search for the odor only finding its source and then get rewarded by his handler with treats or toy reward.  Later stages introduce advanced detection including blind searches (location of hide is unknown to the handler), finding multiple searches in a single search area, and searching for an unknown number of hides in a search area.  Your dogs learns to obey their nose, not the handler.


Canine nose work is a terrific sport for both people and dogs of all types, sizes, and ages.  This is the one sport where the dog knows more than the person at the end of the leash! Throughout a training team’s career, the emphasis will always be on creating learning experiences and supporting problem solving.  Canine nose work is all about the dogs and celebrating their amazing abilities.  The only way to know for sure how much you and your dog will love nose work is to give it a try.  Attend a workshop, join a class, or go watch a trial.  Embrace the training journey and enjoy every moment of learning for you and your dog.


Happy Sniffing!