Downeast Dog News


By Marcia Welch | Nov 01, 2017

I have good news for dogs and their people this month! While many people enjoy the sport of tracking or engage in the practice and work of Search & Rescue, which utilizes the dog’s ability to identify and follow a specific track or trail human scent, there is another fun activity to enjoy with your dog which engages the same unique scenting ability and hones your ability to observe and interpret your dog’s body language as well!

Canine “Nosework” or “Scentwork” is an activity in which most dogs can participate regardless of size, temperament, age, and physical abilities. It is an activity in which most humans can also participate! The activity can take place in a relatively small area at home. There is no need to pack up the dog, find a tracking partner to lay track, drive to a large field, and devote large blocks of time to the activity. While admittedly lacking the health benefits of spending an entire day or half-day outdoors in the fresh air, many of us simply do not have so many leisure hours available. It might be exciting to find a new activity that you can easily share with your dog. Nosework can be enjoyed in any weather and in any season. One of the things which might make this activity even more attractive at this time is that you and your dog can almost completely avoid exposure to TICKS (in areas outdoors where ticks breed & thrive) which carry a wide variety of serious illnesses should you or your dog receive a bite from an infected tick.

We humans know little about the mysteries of scent. Our dogs can take us on an amazing journey into their world through the use of a highly developed, sensitive instrument, THE NOSE! A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than a human’s. The activity of Nosework is based on the work of professional detection dogs and can be described as the “sport” form of canine detection work (bomb detection and drug sniffing dogs). It is a way to allow your dog to use his/her strongest natural sense as you and your dog have fun while building and strengthening the relationship which you already enjoy together.

In many of our mutual activities with our dogs, we teach them to do things requiring their attention to be focused on us as we direct/cue them to perform certain tasks for which they have been trained. In Nosework, quite the opposite is true! We want to encourage our dogs to work independently, allowing us to enjoy just watching our dogs do what comes naturally. SNIFF and HUNT!

In the initial stage of training, we encourage the dog’s desire to hunt. We further encourage and reinforce this desire by placing yummy food in simple cardboard boxes for the dogs to locate by sniffing. As they begin to understand “the game”, we increase the challenges and present “puzzles” for the dogs to solve by increasing the number of boxes. Additionally, in terms of location, the target box with the food may be placed in, under, beside, behind, or on top of other objects. This helps the dog to learn to “generalize” and also to learn to stay at the container with the food in it, indicating that it has found the “source” which in turn prompts the human to reinforce with more food for a longer period of time.

The next stage of training includes “pairing” the food with a specific odor (the essential oil of Birch, Anise, Clove, and sometimes, Cypress on a cotton swab which has been impregnated with one of these odors.) Birch is introduced as the first odor. We gradually diminish the quantity of food in the box WITH the odor and begin to move the cotton swab to a small container which can then be moved to various other locations. If the dog has difficulty making the transition from food to odor, we go back a step and continue to “pair” as long as necessary to be sure the dog has a good, strong, foundation - moving forward in training to address the various, increasing levels of difficulty in the “hides”. Once the dog has confidently moved to “odor”, it is CRITICAL for the human member of the team to continue to deliver PLENTY of reinforcement for finding the odor! (My students often hear me say, when their dogs locate a hide “Over the moon with your reinforcement!! Over the moon!!”) Good trainers are generous! A behavior that is reinforced will be repeated. The dogs soon learn to stay at the “source” because it is so rewarding and will develop a “tell” or an “alert” that they have found it, sometimes just standing at the location of the “source”, or touching with their noses, or turning to look at their handlers, or one of MANY more types of alerts. As important as identifying the dog’s behavior when it has located the “source” is, the time prior to that, when the handler must learn to “read” his dog is equally, if not more important - to observe changes in sniffing behavior during a search, indicating they are “in odor” (have picked up the odor and are near it). The dog’s head may raise or lower. The rate of speed at which the dog is moving may change. This is when you truly begin to develop a fun partnership with your dog and sharpen your ability to “listen” to what your dog is telling you! When the dog is confidently searching for odor, the container with the cotton swab can be placed in many different locations: Indoors (Interior Hides), Outdoors (Exterior Hides), in Containers, on Vehicles.

There are many different organizations which offer the opportunity for competition in this sport. The National Association of Canine Scent Work has one program. The American Kennel Club has developed a Scentwork Program. The programs are quite similar with some variations, but what they both have in common is that Nosework is just plain FUN for Everyone! You may want to try it. All you need to get started is a capable instructor, a couple of boxes, a few treats, and a dog with a nose made for sniffing! You can look for classes in your area to help you and your dog learn more about this activity!


Marcia Welch, Owner of Positively Best Friends Dog Training LLC, Canine Activity Center in Edgecomb, Maine, has been helping people develop and nurture their relationships with their canine companions for over 20 years in the Midcoast area. She has been teaching Canine Nosework classes for many years after studying with the Founders of NACSW when they brought the sport from California to the Northeast. FMI or to view other classes available: