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Nose Work: Where Every Dog Is a Winner (Even the Naughty Ones)

Boogie and I just wrapped up a four week Nose Works class. For those of you that are new to Nose Work, here’s what it is, straight from the founders themselves:

“Inspired by working detection dogs, K9 Nose Work is the fun search and scenting activity for virtually all dogs and people. This easy to learn activity and sport builds confidence and focus in many dogs, and provides a safe way to keep dogs fit and healthy through mental and physical exercise.

K9 Nose Work starts with getting your dog excited about using his nose to seek out a favorite toy or treat reward hidden in one of several boxes, expanding the game to entire rooms, exterior areas, and vehicles. As your dog grows more confident with his nose, target odors are introduced, and competition skills are taught.”

Now you know. You can also check out this Bark video to see dogs in action.

Unlike the Nose Works class I took with Birdie, where there were other dogs present in the room, this session was set up for reactive dogs. Each dog had the room all to themselves while they worked.

My camera’s died mid-class, so I only managed to grab a few not-so-great photos (none of Boogie – wah!)

truffle coached

That’s my gal pal Truffle. Her dad is helping her get to the treats she discovered in this closed box.

Now that I’ve taken two basic level Nose Works classes with two very different dogs (one senior, one reactive) and with two very different groups of dogs, I would like to share the following with all of you:

You should do Nose Work with your dogs.

Here’s why:

1. Just about any dog can do it.

2. Just about any human can do it.

Allow me to expand.

Your dog can do Nose Work, even if they are:

  • Ancient
  • Lacking manners
  • Oblivious to recall
  • Reactive
  • Dog aggressive
  • Scared of people
  • Afraid of novel objects or places
  • Recovering from an injury
  • Not that into food
  • Really into food
  • Terrible on leash
  • Bursting with energy
  • Overweight
  • Blind
  • Deaf
  • Missing a limb
  • Missing an eye
  • Missing teeth
  • Missing their favorite episode of New Girl

You can do Nose Work even if you are:

  • A terrible trainer
  • Out of shape
  • Out of cash
  • Uncoordinated
  • Kind of quiet
  • Working with dogs in a shelter
  • Not that into leaving the house
  • Not sure if you even like doing dog stuff

That’s because Nose Work is all about having fun, no skills necessary. 

birdie cone

Birdie hits the wrong end of the cone. No biggie. She’ll figure out that the food is hidden on the other side.

If you have a dog that you’re not able to do too much with – because of any of the reasons listed above – you can do Nose Work.

If you want to build a better bond with your dog, learn more about observing your dog’s body language, and enjoy watching dogs flex their natural abilities, you should check out Nose Works.

Here’s more about why this is the activity anyone can do:

For Nervous Nellie Dogs: Nose Work in a wonderful confidence builder for dogs that are afraid of novel objects and environments. Each week they’re slowly exposed to new things, can investigate at their own pace, and are rewarded for their bravery. Week one Boogie was afraid to put his head in the boxes. By week four Boogie was putting his head in cones, tunnels, bags, and anything else he could sniff around in. Like one of the normals!

For Reactive Dogs: This is an awesome way to let them cut loose in a safe, controlled environment. Those of us with reactive dogs are intimately familiar with feeling like failures. We show up for a class or a walk or a training session and our dogs lose their marbles and we go home stressed and sad. Not at Nose Works. Your dog will succeed at this. And honestly, I just can’t stress how important it is for reactive dog families to have successful, stress-free fun some times. It will bring some joy back into your relationship with your dog and give you a boost so you can face the tougher stuff together.

For Golden Oldies and Disabled Dogs: Nose Work is a way to try something new with your dogs that is physically low impact. They may be a little slower than the young whippersnappers in class, but it doesn’t matter because there’s no losing here. Birdie said it was almost as much fun as falling asleep in her recliner while listening to This American Life. She loved having a Girl’s Night Out with me and eating a lot of treats. Old and disabled dogs deserve to party too. YOLO, right?

For High Energy Dogs: This a great way to burn off that energy without exhausting yourself! It takes a lot of focus for the dogs to do Nose Work and they are tired at the end of class.  Also good if you have trouble finding safe places to exercise your dogs – try adding Nose Works to your toolbox to help tire your dogs out.

For Shelter Dogs: Because shelter dogs are bored and stressed and need to have mental stimulation in order to stay sane while they wait to be discovered by an adopter. Because even if you have very few resources, you can find a volunteer who will hide treats (in the Shelter Director’s office if need be) and cheer on a homeless dog for a minute. Because you don’t need any skills to help the dogs do this, so just go do it. 

For Broke Folks and Hermits:  Even if cash is tight, you hate leaving the house, and/or there’s no place to take a class in your area, you can still do Nose Work. All you need are treats and boxes. Here are some tips for playing at home and some more help. And here are some other ideas for different scent games. 

For People Who are Allergic to Dog Training: Here’s a little secret (just between you and me): I don’t like dog training. I’ll do it because I have to, but I don’t really enjoy it. I’d rather be at the library reading past issues of the New York Times Magazine. What can I say? I love dogs, I love playing with and walking them, but training makes me want to poke my eyes out. But I like Nose Work. Why? Because it’s an “obedience free zone” and your role, as the human part of the team, is to stand back and enjoy watching your dogs work. If they get stuck, you coach them using a happy voice and body movements. When the dogs discover the hide, you have a party to celebrate.  I like coaching. I like cheering on dogs. I like Nose Works.

I bet most of you will too.

So go on and have a little fun with your dogs now, even if you’re struggling with training or behavior issues. Do something you can’t fail at for once. Everyone gets a gold star in Nose Work!

Will you tell me about your experiences with Nose Work in the comments section? Plus, check out these stinky Nose-Work-worthy Tuna Fudge treats you can make at home.

And check out the professional version of Nose Works…meet the Arson Dogs who use their noses to catch the bad guys!

  1. Sounds like a lot of fun. The best part must be if it’s a treat, you get to eat it.

    May 30, 2013
    • Not only do you get to eat the treats you find, but then you get MORE treats as a reward for finding the treats. WOOT!!

      May 31, 2013
  2. Brittany #

    I’ve thought about doing this with our two dogs and tonight you totally inspired me. I just grabbed a handful of different sized and shaped plastic containers from the tupperware cabinet, stuck a couple treats in one and lined them up in the living room. Our little chihuahua/cattle dog, Luna, mix went bananas with excitement over the new game. So was having so much fun that our pit bull mix, Jack, came to see what was up. Jack is not very food motivated and is fearful but has always been a super smarty at food puzzles, he totally rocked the container search, figuring out how to grab and tilt them to slide the treats out. The dogs were great at taking turns playing the game, the non-participating one worked on their sit/stay on the other side of the room. We even fed Jack dinner by dividing it up into a few of the containers (the last one he picked up and carried outside to eat on the patio). Great idea! Thank you sooo much!!!

    May 31, 2013
    • That’s awesome Brittany! I’m so glad that you guys enjoyed playing at home and that Jack found a new way to have fun and be brave. Way to go buddy!

      May 31, 2013
  3. Sam Tatters #

    I recently ordered a Scentwork manual and starter kit. After reading less than 50 pages I’m already really stoked to start, have helped one of my dogs pick her scent, have ordered some more “smelly mice”, and want to get going – now! Seriously, I even contemplated having today off work so I could start playing

    May 31, 2013
  4. Another fabulous post! I’ve just started nose works with my 4 month old GSD puppy — and we are both addicted to it for all the reasons you state above. Not sure if it will post here but here is a short video of Trinket doing a search:

    May 31, 2013
  5. I’ve always been so interested in nose work classes but never had the chance to take one – there’s not too many places that teach it. Looks like such a great experience for both dogs and people alike.

    Great post. Thanks!

    May 31, 2013
  6. Anne and Blue #

    Don’t have any experience with Noseworks (although it’s something that I’ve REALLY wanted to get involved in, unfortunately it’s taking its sweet time gaining popularity in Canada…) but that Tuna Fudge – I swear by that stuff! It’s been SO useful during counterconditioning and desensitization with my reactive boy, high*stinky*value, portable, cheap – win win win!

    May 31, 2013
  7. barksNpurrs #

    Great reasons to do Nose Work…..& NO reason not to…..just love it & you spell it out perfectly. A win-win activity!! It’s such a simple concept & inexpensive challenge for dogs… works almost anywhere in our homes or at doggie gyms….even in our backyards—there’s more distractions there, so it gives you something else to work on…..this is such a natural behavior for dogs to do…..we humans are the ones learning. It keeps their brains working & that’s a good thing. With all of our reactive dogs, building their confidence at each new step helps them achieve & behave much better. It continually brings their focus onto us, who they now trust, taking them through all these new things plus having fun. You are so right about having fun w/our reactive dogs. Just being able to do fun things, w/our DINOS, is a beautiful gift. Makes it all worthwhile. Love our DINOS!

    May 31, 2013
  8. kimba #

    I’ve thought about doing this with our reactive (though reasonably social) dog, Jim, but two things have kept us from it. 1) He’s never willing to eat a treat in public, nor is he the least bit motivated by food as a training tool, and 2) the local dog trainer who’s running Nose Work classes mentioned that dogs have to be ok with being crated until it’s their turn, and wow, is that not fun or relaxing for our Jim. Is that a normal part of Nose Work classes? Any thoughts on either of these issues? Jim enjoys rally and other group classes, he’s great off leash and he’s got his Border Collie smarts, but crating him for the majority of a class doesn’t seem like any fun for him.

    May 31, 2013
    • Sam Tatters #

      But crating him for the times in class when he’s not working is little different to having him chill out on a mat when he’s not working, or going back to the car when he’s not working, or having to sit on the sidelines when he’s not working. It’s a perfectly sane, sensible thing for classes to expect dogs to be somewhere specific out of the way when they’re not working.

      May 31, 2013
      • I totally disagree. I think crating is really different for some dogs. Lots of dogs who dislike being crated are much more comfy in their cars. The instructor has a right to ask them to do it, but they have a right to decide that particular set up is not the best fit for their individual dog’s needs.

        And like I said in the blog, Nose Works is for every dog – even the ones who hate crates, aren’t trained to relax on a mat, etc. No skills necessary.

        Nose Works should be a fun, positive, judgement-free experience!

        May 31, 2013
      • kimba #

        I agree that it’s a reasonable expectation for many dogs, but Jim spent 18 months in the pound before we adopted him, and was in who knows what conditions in Romania before that. He’s willing to be crated now, because he wants to please, but it’s not fun for him, and is completely different than chilling on a mat or waiting in a car.

        I totally get that the dogs who aren’t working need to be out of the way, but it doesn’t follow that sane and sensible necessarily = fun for our particular dog. And it it’s not fun for him, why bother?

        May 31, 2013
    • Kimba, Dogs are usually in crates or they can hang out in their cars in between runs (so that the dog working has the room all to themselves). If Jim would prefer the car, maybe you can ask the instructor if that would be an ok alternative.

      For dogs that aren’t motivated by food, you can reward Jim with a toy or game of tug (or whatever he enjoys) when he finds the hides.

      The classes start off really, really easy and are geared so that the dogs are always successful. Even the most fearful dogs in my classes, who seemed uninterested at first, eventually started to get really excited about their turn to work.

      And you can always try it at home if your local class isn’t the right fit!

      May 31, 2013
      • kimba #

        I think we’ll give it a try at home 🙂 I bet he’d enjoy it. Thanks for the encouragement, as usual.

        May 31, 2013
        • You got it! Jim sounds like he’s earned some fun. If he loves it and you want to join a class, check out the comment from loubogart who mentioned their dog gets to skip the crate and hang out in another room. If your trainer is flexible and understanding (hallmarks of a good trainer!) she might be open to something different. Either way, enjoy!

          June 2, 2013
  9. karin apfel #

    What a great write-up! I’m just putting together a press release about the sport here in Canada (we callit sport detection here) and I serioseriously want to steal most of this!
    I see so many people and dogs discovering this wonderful sport – there really are very few limits as to who can participate and have fun!
    Karin Apfel
    Sporting Detection Dogs Association

    May 31, 2013
  10. Karin #

    Yeech. Too many typos when sending from a phone while crouched under my desk!

    May 31, 2013
  11. My dogs and I have been learning/doing Nosework weekly at a local training center for more than a year. She’s 11, but still a wild ‘n’ crazy Lab. He’s 9; a big, shy, incredibly soft Bloodhound. She loves agility… the motion and commotion scare him. They both love Nosework. It has taught her patience (every turn is NOT your turn!!), and he has become much more comfortable at the center, even when we’re waiting our turn in noisy, busy parts of the building… or outdoors for vehicle searches. The class often sits around the perimeter of the room where the searches take place. I really like this… I enjoy watching all the dogs work. Every one is unique. We do have reactive dogs in our classes. They’ll wait behind a door or other barricade, but come out to search. Many of these dogs have shown great improvement over time, and Nosework is at least in part responsible. Occasionally, the instructor will ask that we crate the dogs in another room during the class. I cannot do this with my Lab, so we wait our turn in another area of the building. (The instructors know her history, so they “get it.”) The crating is necessary if you want to compete in Nosework. I do not, but many of my classmates do. All the positive things you’ve said about the activity are true… and while I hope to continue participating at the training center, should that become impossible, we will certainly “play the game” at home! I recommend Nosewirk to all my “doggie” friends, no matter their breeds, the dogs’ ages, temperament, whatever. This truly is a great way to “show your dog a good time.”

    June 1, 2013
  12. Sue #

    I’m thinking this would be a fun “class” to set up either by myself or with my mentor trainer from my Animal Behavior College obedience training instructor externship. I’m going to look into this a bit more. Thanks for the post — it inspired me!!

    June 3, 2013
  13. MsMurgle #

    I absolutely adore Noseworks!! And I have tried many types of training and activities, but Nosework is by far the best and definitely has the best, most compassionate and inclusive culture of the dog world.

    I took my shelter rescue who sounds like she shares much of the same traits as Boogie (right down to the ball = safe and keeping her world intentionally small). Nosework boosted her confidence (and mine) hugely. I felt like a normal person with a normal dog. We were both so proud of her bravery and accomplishments and I saw such huge leaps in just 6 weeks. I think everyone should do Nosework with their dogs!

    Thanks for sharing this.

    June 11, 2013
  14. Laura and Amadeus #

    As a Nosework participant, I think you missed a category of dogs that can TOTALLY HANDLE this type of class – stupid/hard to train. My dog loves to work, and once he knows a skill he will do it on request until his feet fall off, but putting together a new skill takes months of concentrated effort (which is why he only knows three tricks).
    We have been doing Nosework for almost a year, and he. is. brilliant! It’s fun to finally find something where he’s SMART – so good that we are ready to switch to odor a full set of classes before we expected. I really enjoy working with my dog, going to class, etc., but it’s sometimes discouraging to watch the other dogs “get it” so much faster. And it takes just as much brain-power for him to find roast beef as it does to figure out what “roll over” means, so after class we have a happy, worn out pup.
    I recommend it whole-heartedly, and love the post!

    June 13, 2013
    • That’s awesome! I promise that from now on I’ll keep the not-so-bright dogs in mind too. To be honest, I think my dog Birdie might fall into this category too! Glad you found something your dog can shine at (eventually).

      June 13, 2013

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