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Natural Awakenings San Diego

Making Scents of Nose Work: Practical Fun for Pooches and People

Oct 31, 2012 02:33PM ● By Isabelle Reilly

Who has the remote? Has anyone seen my cell phone? I can’t find the car keys!

If things regularly disappear around the house or even around town, consider asking the family dog for help. All dogs love to sniff. Teaching them to target specific odors among the many scents in the air and on the ground, known as nose work, is not as difficult as it might seem; plus it’s a lot of fun to do.

Nose work, which began as core training for specialized narcotics, bomb, arson and search-and-rescue dogs, is now an everyman’s sport, complete with local and national competitions and recognized levels of accomplishment. Yet people participate simply for the camaraderie; it requires no previous skill on the part of handlers and provides mutual mental and physical exercise, as well ever-fresh ways to enhance the human/canine partnership.

Wendi Faircloth, director of training at Villa La Paws, in Phoenix, Arizona, remarks, “In this game, we don’t teach the dog. We learn from him and trust the dog knows what he’s doing.” This builds an incredible bond between the dog and owner.

Any Dog Can Do It

While bloodhounds and beagles are well-known for their olfactory abilities, any dog can achieve success at any age. Weather isn’t a factor, either. Nose work is particularly good for shy, timid dogs. “It gives the dog something else to think about, instead of obsessing on their fear,” says Faircloth.

“Use the dog’s fun button—a favorite toy or treat—as a reward,” advises Catherine O’Donnell, director of training at The Ranch for Canine Training and Behavior, in Dripping Springs, Texas. “There are fewer distractions from tracking the target scent if you start indoors, and it’s also good exercise for rainy days or when traveling. If daily walks are hard for older dogs, nose work can provide mental stimulation without as much physical exertion.”

Dogs out-sniff humans 45 to one; people have 5 million olfactory cells, while dogs have 225 million.

Initiate a game by placing three paper cups upside down and hiding a treat under one. Change the positions of the cups—then have the dog identify the treat’s final location. Retiree Elizabeth Lundell’s three basenji hunting dogs, at home in Germantown, Maryland, have different agendas: it builds confidence in Joey, a blind elderly dog; his daughter Amelia is in it for the food; while Professor, the juvenile male with a short attention span, simply likes solving puzzles.

Jaime Van Wye, founder and CEO of Zoom Room Dog Agility Training Center and Canine Social Club, headquartered in Los Angeles, advises, “Nose work competitions generally start with a birch scent, but for fun and initial home training, mint is less intense and more familiar.”

Now Up the Ante

First, assemble different-sized empty, open-topped boxes or boxes with lids or flaps. Take one and make a fuss, so the dog is curious. Put a treat inside and ask him to, “Find it!” Reward him with another treat and praise. Repeat a couple of times and add another box with a treat. Then, add boxes, some with treats, some without, so the dog learns to use his nose, rather than his eyes, to find them.

Next, put a lid on the boxes or close a flap. Place one box inside another, and then stack them. As the dog searches, he’ll use his mind as much as his nose. At first, he’ll tire quickly, so work in short bursts. Gradually making the hunt more difficult also makes it more entertaining for the animal.

Once a pet reliably locates hidden treats, add another scent. To introduce it, put a drop of essential oil in a jar and swirl it around. Add cotton swabs and close the jar. They don’t need to touch the oil—the cotton will absorb the odor. A dog can detect scents that humans cannot, so there’s no need to overdo it. Cut the swabs in half and hide them in selected boxes with the treats. As he figures this out, use Dog Mouthfewer treats and give rewards for finding the box with the nonfood scent.

Van Wye suggests, “Once the dog can find the scent, use it on practical things, like the cloth cover used for a cell phone.” Use double-sided tape to attach a heavy piece of scented cloth to the TV remote. Attach a small fabric pocket stuffed with scented cotton to a keychain. Lightly scent a fabric neck cord paired with eyeglasses; pick a calming aromatherapy oil fragrance.

For a favorite pooch and person, nose work is one big game of hide-and-seek and another fun way to play together, with added benefits.

Learn more at Isabelle Reilly is both a freelance writer and pet sitter in St. Louis, MO.

Stay-Fit Reward Strategies
If the dog eats dry food, use a portion or all of his dinner as nose work rewards.

As a special treat, use low-fat hot dogs, like turkey dogs, sliced wafer thin. Place them on several layers of paper towels and microwave in short bursts until the moisture has evaporated. Turn as needed. This leaves a strongly scented disc of hot dog. In a zipstyle storage bag, mix crunchy O-shaped oat cereal and a few of the weenie wafers. Seal the bag so the O’s absorb the hot dog odor and become a higher value reward.