Canine Nose Work: A Sport for Dogs Who Love to Sniff

While dogs practice finding treats, owners learn how air flow, temperature and other factors affect scent; handling skills such as managing the leash when the dog is going under or around furniture; and how to interpret the dog’s body language. It’s the handler’s job to read the dog’s cues and determine correctly when he has made a find.

Later, odor is introduced, paired with treats in a box or other container. Beginners start with birch — think Doublemint gum or wintergreen Life Savers — and progressively add anise (licorice scent) and then clove. To begin competing, teams must pass an odor recognition test, or ORT, showing that the dog is capable of recognizing a particular scent.

Nose work is all about positive reinforcement; the word “no” is a no-no, as are any other corrections or obedience commands. Dogs learn strictly through praise, rewards and having fun.

As a team’s skills improve, searches become more difficult. Scent may be placed in small tins, up high on a windowsill or door frame, underneath furniture, or on vehicles. The dogs may be required to search multiple rooms or find multiple odors in a single room.

The presence of computers, refrigerators or air vents can affect the way the scent disperses. Handlers must understand where the scent might go so they can help the dog search appropriate areas and recognize that he may be alerting on a spot far above his head. They may need to ask if they can move furniture or encourage the dog to search corners. Outdoors, wind, rain, snow and other weather conditions can affect scent flow and add to the challenge.

Dog and handler work as a team, but the dog is always the leader: After all, he’s the one with the powerful nose. Letting the dog work and trusting him when he gives an alert is not always easy, but learning to read a dog’s cues and rewarding him for a successful find brings a real feeling of accomplishment.

For more information about nose work, visit the National Association of Canine Scent Work website.


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