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Let's Get Sniffy! An Introduction to Nosework

Over the past two months, you’ve likely spent more time at home with your dog than ever before. I’m sure you all enjoy your time with your dog as much as I do, however, it can be challenging to accommodate needs that are difficult to meet right now. Dog parks are closed, daycares are closed, and your favorite walking trail may suddenly be packed. As a result, your dog may be displaying a variety of unpleasant behaviors that make it even more difficult to stay home with them. 

If you’re nodding your head at this, thinking yes, this is you and your dog, I’m here to tell you about one of the easiest ways to engage your cooped up companion from the comfort of your home: canine nosework. You may be wondering, what is nosework? The sport of nosework was developed to recreate the skills of professional scent detection in a fun and low stress environment. Dogs learn to detect and discriminate between odors, as well as search for them and find the source. The challenge starts relatively small, first detecting odor in a container, and gradually builds as the team develops their skills - higher levels of nosework have dogs detect odor hidden outside a vehicle.

Training nosework begins fairly simply: dogs play a game of searching for their favorite food or toy. Once they find their treat or toy, they are allowed to eat/play, which highly reinforces the search behavior. It is imperative that dogs be allowed to search without interruption from their human. In this sport, the dogs are the experts, and it is our job to trust their nose and learn to read their bodies (think of the hot and cold game we played as children; we can learn to tell if our dogs are cold or hot on the trail of an odor). This stage of training lasts for quite awhile, in a variety of environments, as handlers want to assure their dogs are set up for success.

What’s fantastic about nosework is that any dog can participate: there are no age limits and it is not physically demanding. The benefits are the same whether you choose to attend classes, compete, or simply want to train for fun at home. 

So, what are the benefits? 

  • Mental stimulation 

  • Increased confidence 

  • Increased focus 

  • Relaxation

Mental exercise is often just as exhausting as physical exercise and allows our dogs to engage parts of their brain that are not activated during games like fetch. Nosework uses a great deal of brain power, as it incorporates olfactory enrichment and problem solving. Lucky for us, processing scent is the most tiring form of mental stimulation! It’s truly a win-win! Our dogs receive much more through using their nose with minimal guidance than they would with a game of fetch or walk through the neighborhood. This is fantastic for dogs who struggle with hyperactivity or maintaining optimal arousal, as nosework is considered a low arousal activity, and will calm them down rather than amp them up. After 20-30 minutes of dedicated nosework, even the most off-the-wall dogs will have used their brain in a meaningful way, which will result in a calmer mental state for everyone involved. 

Another wonderful benefit of nosework is confidence building. The use of positive reinforcement training paired with a dog’s natural ability to search for food allows dogs to participate in a game where they are always successful! Once they clearly understand their job, they can begin to perform it at varying levels of difficulties while still maintaining success, which increases their ability to problem solve without frustration. Nosework is especially great for dogs who struggle with fear, anxiety, or a general lack of confidence. There is nothing new they must learn, rather, they are utilizing skills they already possess in a low pressure environment. Even extremely fearful dogs quickly learn that the boxes aren’t something to fear, but instead, produce food in a fairly predictable way. Soon they will begin using their nose to move from box to box, demonstrating confidence in their scenting abilities. 

Due to its ability to build confidence, nosework has become a component of some trainers’ behavior modification plans. For dogs who struggle with reactivity, focusing on scent detection can help them learn to be comfortable in the presence of other dogs. It is especially helpful because sniffing increases blood flow to the scent processing parts of dogs’ brains, which promotes the ability to relax, even in the presence of potentially triggering stimuli. Nosework is also helpful for dogs who struggle with focus and engagement. Scent detection encourages distracted dogs to stay on task with high value food rewards on the line, and will gradually increase their ability to focus as they learn to detect scent in more challenging environments. 

So, we now know all about what nosework can do for you dog, but we haven’t discussed how to get started. Well, what’s fantastic is that it’s super easy! All you need are your dog, treats, and cardboard boxes! It’s that simple! There are a myriad of resources on teaching nosework to your dog, as well as fun spinoff games. I’ll be detailing all of the foundation pieces you’ll need to start in my Enrichment and Nosework classes. If you’re struggling to keep your dog busy with limited outdoor activities, I hope you’ll consider exploring the wonderful world of nosework! I promise you won’t regret it!

If you’re looking for more to do with your dog, consider other online group classes we’ll be teaching next term: Trick Dog, Rally, Puppy 101, The Science of Behavioral Issues, and Engagement, Impulse Control, and Reactivity. We hope to see some of you there!

Nisa Semione, Dog Trainer & Behavior Specialist

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