Nose Work classes offer plenty of fun and focus

I get it and it all makes scents!


It’s difficult to imagine how intensely sense of smell dominates a dog’s brain until you’ve seen a bunch of them in action and having fun at a K 9 Nose Work class. You can read all you want about the species’ incredible olfactory skills and observe them in a home setting, but in a spacious instructional environment with different breeds of all shapes, sizes and ages, it’s dog sports’ version of The Great Equalizer.


Boxes, a dozen or more, are scattered about the room at It’s a Dog’s World Training & Agility Center with an animal’s favorite treat placed inside one of them. Enter the owner and dog on lead (in beginner classes) and the search is on.  For some it takes a couple of minutes to find the coveted target, for others, a few seconds.

Check out that devilish look of delight on Maggie's face. The elderly, deaf bearded collie, owned by Robin Hood, of Everett, was "living like a potted plant at home" until she began Nose Work classes.


“It’s a process and a sport that promotes growth and happiness in the animal,” says Miriam Rose, CPDT-KA,CNWI, of Seattle, the first and only National Association of Canine Scent Work certified Nose Work instructor in Washington state, “and an outlet for its needs to smell.” NACSW is the sport’s sanctioning body and has established all standards.

Since 2000, Rose has owned and operated Verity Services, which provides drug- and detection- dog services to schools, businesses and private homes. She and her dog have worked in schools from Maryland to New Mexico, searching for drugs and contraband.


In addition, the past five years she has partnered with various international corporations based in Seattle to work their dogs screening ships for explosives before they depart during the Alaska cruise season.  She and her English Springer Spaniel partners probe as many as 10,000 pallets a season to help assure the safety of crews and passengers.


But Nose Work instruction has been her complementary focus since September 2009; she now teaches 19 classes weekly in Woodinville, Sumner, Seattle, Gig Harbor and Sequim.  The 1½-hour sessions are six weeks in duration. To provide plenty of one-on-one instruction, she limits enrollment to six. Fees range to $160.


While K9 Nose Work has an eventual competition ladder should the owner choose to climb that, one can opt to simply remain involved for fun. “It’s a very stimulating sport,” explains Rose, “because it plays to the keenest of the dog’s senses.”


It was inspired and founded by three individuals in Southern California in 2006, taking the basic methodology of detection and converting it into recreation. But your dog doesn’t have to be a Beagle, Bloodhound, German shepherd or Labrador retriever, which are all known for their detection work.  All dogs embrace it.


The portability of the sport, Rose emphasizes, allows the animal to ease into it. 


The basics for the beginner classes are cardboard boxes and either treats or favorite toy scattered about a large training room. After the target is planted in one of the boxes, the owner and the leashed animal enter the room and begin the search. When the item is found, the dog alerts – this comes in the form of a bark, pawing or staring intently at the handler — and is praised, offered a treat, and the next team repeats the procedure.


While cardboard boxes of assorted sizes are the usual “equipment,” shoe boxes, Tupperware containers, etc., can also be used in the hide-and-seek game.


Making certain your dog finds the hidden item and in the process establishing a desire to hunt and scent independently are key.  “Never push the dog,” Rose emphasizes, “simply encourage it.” While the nose is the dog’s No. 1 sense, not all dogs jump into the sport with the same vigor.


“Some have been socialized more than others,” she adds, “and as a result they are more comfortable in the classroom environment at the outset. While it takes the others a bit longer, their comfort zone blossoms rather quickly.” There are absolutely no age limits here – this is a sport for puppies to senior.


At a recent Intro to Nose Work seminar at A Dog’s World training facility in Sumner, Desiree Snelleman, a Southern California National Association of Canine Scent Work instructor, pointed to one of the sport’s chief intrinsic values, “You may think you know your dog, but after you finish a few classes, you’ll be shocked by how much better you will know him. You’re going to learn canine body language and build a stronger relationship than ever. We are only positioning the building blocks here.


“Your dog knows you better than you know him. So, simply leave the obedience commands at the door and let your dog have fun.”


After a first class, cardboard boxes take on an entirely new meaning for the four-legged participants. Some dogs, Snelleman explains, with an obedience-class background, are initially reluctant to accept the freedom to search but gradually get it.


Some beginners display Velcro tendencies alongside their owners while others will charge full-bore ahead in quest of the bounty.  During the seminar Rose and Snelleman scattered the boxes all about like a shell game, always keeping the loaded box the same. “The key is allowing your dog to search on his own,” Snelleman explains. “This lets him know he is control and that you need him more than he needs you.”

Roxy, a German shepherd owned by Gayle Sackett, of Lake Forest Park, signals a "find" to her owner, a retired agility instructor and judge.


Nose Work, adds Snelleman, offers both a mental and physical outlet for the animal and is a terrific confidence-builder. “I’ve seen both deaf and blind dogs become involved, and quite frankly, it has given them a whole new reason to live, “she says. “All have noses, but how they get there (to the target odor item) may be different. “


Rose deals with a wide mix of owners, some of whom have even dreaded getting involved in Nose Work because of their dogs’ behavioral shortcomings. “By making it fun for the dog, it becomes fun for the owner, too.  It’s all about doing something that is so fundamental to the species and building a better foundation between owner and animal that will last forever.”


Every dog gets it a different pace. It’s a bumpy ride with curves, but the owner must not give up or ever lose patience. The one-on-one instruction allows dogs with behavioral issues to relax focus and have fun.  Once they see the boxes they assume a kind of ‘bring-it-on mentality.”


After the dogs have mastered the box game, search difficulty is ratcheted up a notch. Boxes are closed, targets are elevated and even taken outdoors, where wind and changing temperatures pose new challenges. Here, the dog learns to find a Q-tip scented with birch, one of the three target odors it will learn to read in future classes. As the dog progresses, the owner learns to identify new aspects of its body language during this game of exploration and pursuit, says Rose. 


Once the beginner team has moved through the initial six classes, the next sets of six are Introduction to Odor and Expansion of Odor Obedience. The former advances the dog’s scent discrimination skills, focusing on birch targets, the latter is designed to expand the team’s search environment to outside and vehicles searches.


An option of trialing looms ahead. The lone prerequisite for each of the three level s of trialing is passing an Odor Recognition Test, which is a designated target odor for that category. It’s sweet birch for NW 1; aniseed for NW 2; clove bud for NW 3. No dog is NW 3 titled nationally as yet.  These involve vehicle, exterior and interior searches to different degrees. 


At the first Odor Recognition Test (for birch) offered in Washington state last month, 28 teams passed, 26 of which were Rose’s students. The dogs were required to identify the one box with birch odor in it WITHIN THREE MINUES, set amidst 15 other identical boxes in two parallel rows.


Karla Kimmey, of Sequim, who owns two border collies and a Jack Russell terrier, has found the classes stimulating for her as well as the dogs. “Every one of the three is different. But because the dog is doing all the work, I’ve learned the importance of not imposing myself on the dog and to trust its instincts.” 


Kimmey, who has been involved in agility since 1998, adds, “I am a competitive person, but this sport has given me a new level of respect for the three dogs, after watching how quickly they’ve progressed. They’re doing all the work here.”


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Just how keen is


dogs’ sense of smell?

A dog’s sense of smell, scientists say, is a thousand times more sensitive than that of humans. In fact, a dog has more than 220 million olfactory receptors in its nose, while we have only 5 million. Because of this keen sense, dogs are able to locate everything from forensic cadaver material to disaster survivors, as demonstrated during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on in 2001 and the Haiti earthquake earlier this year.

Today, military, federal, state and local governments employ specially trained dogs in search-and-rescue missions for lost individuals and homicide victims; detection of narcotics, drugs and agriculture products; arson and bomb detection.

Tests have also shown that specially trained dogs are capable of detecting certain kinds of tumors in man. The bulk of that research has been performed in the past decade.