If you’ve ever watched a video of a search and rescue dog on a hunt, you’ve probably noticed something interesting — dogs LOVE to hunt by scent. Their olfactory systems are highly developed and able to detect miniscule amounts of odor. That’s why they are so well-suited to search and rescue.
Some years ago, three people in Southern California, all involved in canine detection activities in various capacities, decided to find a way to make this activity available to dogs and people in the US (and beyond), and the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) was born. The founders — Ron Gaunt, Amy Herot, and Jill Marie O’Brien — understood that taking the instinct to hunt present in all dogs and channeling it into a fun and rewarding activity would bring mental and physical stimulation — not to mention a lot of fun! — for dogs of all ages, sizes, and temperaments, and for their people as well.
Dogs participating in K9 Nose Work are trained to find three specific scents. At the beginning, the dog needs to be clued in to the “game.” Several open cardboard boxes of varying sizes, but geared to the size of the dog, are placed on the floor of the search area. One of the boxes has treats in it. The dog gets to run around and sniff the boxes until s/he finds the treats, and hey! Instant reward.
The next step is to add the first target odor, which in this particular activity is Birch. The boxes are set out as before, but this time in the box with the treats is a little aerated tin or other container holding cotton swabs with the target odor on them. Gradually, the treats in the box are diminished until only the target odor remains. The dog’s handler then has the job of rewarding the dog when s/he finds the odor.
The second level of target odor is Anise, and the third and highest level is Clove. At each level, the dog must pass an Odor Recognition Test (ORT) for each odor before being able to participate in a trial. In the ORT, twelve identical boxes are set out in two rows of six. The dog must locate the one box with the odor in it, and the handler must say, “Alert.” If the team has done its work properly, the judge says, “Yes!” and the dog get his/her yummy reward.
Nose Work trials are a full day event, and test the dogs’ ability to find the scent in various situations. The four elements of a Nose Work trial are Interiors (inside a building), Exteriors (outdoors), Containers (boxes and other kinds of receptacles that can hold the appropriate scent), and Vehicles (cars and other kinds of vehicles such as tractors, utility trailers, etc.).
My two dogs, Emma and Luna, have both achieved their Nose Work I titles after successfully locating the target odor in all four elements at a NWI trial. Emma is 13-1/2 years old but prances like a puppy when she goes to her Nose Work training. Luna is only five years old, but her youthful exuberance is a joy to watch. She’s so proud of herself when she finds a tricky “hide”!
If this activity sounds like something you and your dog would enjoy, go to https://www.k9nosework.com or https://nacsw.net for information about instructors and classes near you, as well as more details on ORTs and trials. Happy sniffing!