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Teaching Your Dog To Use his Nose

Nosework for dog, commonly referred to as dog scenting games, are common and fun games that dogs adore.

My youngest dog, Bones, who is now a year and a half old, was introduced to K9 Nose Work® at the tender age of four months. The other dogs in the class were much older than he was but that didn’t make any difference at all; he had a great time and was very good at it. We’ve continued having fun with a variety of scenting games as he’s grown up, especially during adolescence, when concentration can be difficult.

What is K9 Nose Work®?

Scenting games are popular; both with dogs who love to play them and with owners who have fun watching and encouraging their dogs. The Flower Pot Game and Muffin Tin Game are easy to set up and play at home. Each game teaches the dog to use his nose and scenting abilities to find the goal – a food treat – and then to continue playing. Plus, because the games are a cooperative effort between dog and owner, they are great for the dog and owner relationship.

K9 Nose Work® was developed by Ron Gaunt, Amy Herot, and Jill Marie O’Brien. With a background in professional canine detection work, they wanted to provide pet dogs and their owners a way to use the dog’s detection skills. Dogs learn to use their scenting abilities to first locate food treats and then specific odors (birch, anise, and clove). The treats or scents would be hidden in boxes, indoor locations, outside, and then on the exterior of a vehicle.

In learning this game and sport, dogs use their drive to hunt for something and, in doing so, also develop concentration. Watching my then four-month-old puppy, who was distracted by everything, focus on finding hidden treats was wonderful. I could see him thinking and problem solving as he worked.

No prior training is needed for this sport. In fact, most dogs already know how to use their scenting abilities. Through practice, however, the dog builds problem-solving skills and increases his concentration and desire to hunt for that hidden treasure.

Dog owners usually have the most to learn as the dog must do this himself. We owners generally want to step in and help our dogs, or tell them what to do, but that isn’t the point of this game. Nose Work is all about giving the dog opportunities to develop his own skills.

Bones Uses His Nose

Although I have played scenting games with my dogs for years, I had not yet been introduced to K9 Nose Work®. So when Bones, at four months of age, and I enrolled in a class taught by instructor Connie Kelly, it was new to both of us.

In the first class, Kelly explained what nose work was, what the dogs might do, and what we were to do; which was basically not much. I was to follow Bones and supply food treats as needed. I was also to watch him and his body language, learning when he was following and recognizing a scent and when he was lost. She warned us that it was hard for owners to let our dogs work it through, but that’s what we were to do.

In the first class, several cardboard boxes were scattered fairly close together, but with a little room between them. Some boxes were upright while others were on their sides or tipped. Kelly asked for some of the treats I brought and put them in three of the boxes.

I brought Bones into the area of the boxes and let him begin sniffing. My job was to follow him and, when he found some treats, to praise him and put a few more treats in that box as additional reinforcement. He quickly found the treats and wasn’t bothered by the boxes at all.

As we attended subsequent classes and practiced at home, Bones became quite proficient at finding his hidden treats. Not only did he search those boxes, but also boxes piled higher than his head, other containers (including a duffle bag), and even the exterior of a vehicle.

Bones and I both had great fun and it was wonderful watching his skills grow. By the time he was a year old, he was learning to recognize birch, one of the K9 Nose Work® odors, and doing well.

Doing K9 Nose Work with Your Dog

There is a great deal of information on the website for the National Association of Canine Scent Work. Workshops and seminars are available in various parts of the country, and there is a listing of qualified instructors. A DVD has been released that will show you how to train your dog at home.

The first step to making the process easier for most dog owners new to the sport is to find a class in your area. A knowledgeable instructor can introduce the sport, show you how to introduce it to your dog, and then coach you through the class.

If you find you and your dog really enjoy the sport, you might want to check out competitions. Titles can be earned at increasing difficulty levels, from easy to very hard searches.

Bones and I won’t be competing – that’s not something I’m interested in – but we will continue to do scenting games to work his nose and brain. And, of course, to have fun, because that’s what it’s all about.

I hope you enjoy doing some K9 Nose work or scenting with your dog.