Have you ever marvelled at K9 narcotic detection dogs, tireless search and rescue dogs, or heroic military bomb sniffers? Perhaps you’ve thought to yourself “man, it would be pretty cool to have a dog like that…”. Well, it turns out you can with canine nose work!


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What is canine nose work?

Canine nose work is an emerging canine activity aimed at regular pet owners like you and me. Nose work mirrors the training of highly advanced working dogs without you ever needing to send your pet away to a professional trainer. And here’s the kicker… nearly every dog can do it!

Nose work for dogs encourages your best friend to use his keenest sense. It’s hardly surprising anymore to hear that a dog’s sense of smell is 100,000 times more astute than a humans, but in her insightful book, Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz illustrates the point by stating that a dog would be able to detect a teaspoon’s worth of sugar in one million gallons of water – the amount needed to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools! In fact, if you have 5 minutes spare, it’s worth watching her TED video How Do Dog’s See With Their Noses? to really appreciate how remarkable and intricate a dog’s sense of smell truly is.

With this incredible resource at our fingertips, combined with dogs’ insatiable desire to please, law enforcement, military, search and rescue, airport customs and conservation departments have been able to enjoy enormous success where they couldn’t before.


So why is nose work a great thing to teach your pet dog?

Detection isn’t just for working dogs. If you train your dog in nose work, you can set the pace and the standard, working to a schedule that fits your busy life. Why would you want to, though? Well, there are a few reasons:

Canine nose work:

Provides mental stimulation

It’s no secret that some dogs love to use their brain as much as they adore physical exercise. For those of you who struggle to really tire out your four-legged friends, consider working their minds. I speak from experience when I say that a good training session can be just as tiring for your pooch as a hard run. Not as much emphasis is put on mental exercise when people talk about responsible dog ownership, and as a result, it is often overlooked and neglected. Nose work encourages your dog to think carefully and critically about what his next move should be, in order to find his prize.

Is low impact

If you have an older dog or large breed, you may occasionally find yourself worrying the longevity of their joints. Nose work is excellent in these cases because it does not put any undue stress on knees, hips or elbows. Your dog can plod as slowly as he needs to and is never required to jump off high platforms, or over hurdles as seen in popular dog sports like agility. If you’re the one with joint concerns, this applies to handlers too, and if you give your dog a long enough lead, you won’t even need to move particularly quickly to keep up with your pet.

Can suit any age dog or handler

Nose work is an activity that can be enjoyed by all ages, in both species. It’s simple enough that children can pick it up quickly, and has a low intensity that allows older handlers to excel. Lively puppies will love being able to use their nose, and learn new skills, while older dogs can enjoy keeping their minds and bodies moving without time or handler pressures.

Builds your dog’s confidence

One of the greatest things about nose work is the fact that the environment is highly controlled. This means that if you have a dog who is shy, aggressive, reactive or fearful, they still will be able to enjoy all the benefits that nose work offers without needing to encounter their triggers. Even if you join a club, only one dog will be searching at a time while the others are crated or kept in their owners’ cars.

By encouraging your dog to lead the search, you allow him to rely on his own senses and judgement. This is very much in contrast to typical dog sports like obedience and agility where the dog is required to keep his focus on you in order to know what he should do next. Nose work puts dogs completely in the driver seat, and when they start to succeed (which should be happening almost 100% of the time, if you’re doing it right), their confidence soars.

Enhances your relationship and encourages you to learn to how to read your dog

Any activity that encourages teamwork is great for relationships, and nose work is no exception. Getting to know each other’s work styles has a ripple effect on your understanding of each other outside of nose work. Invariably you will find yourself becoming a master at reading your dog, and your dog will learn how to better read you too! As you begin to observe more subtle behaviour changes while your dog searches, you improve your ability to notice the micro-movements and micro-expressions of your pet, and what each one means. Being able to respond appropriately to what your dog is quietly telling you can be monumental in strengthening your bond.

Is great for any activity level

For young spitfires who just want to go-go-go, nose work encourages impulse control and acting with a bit more careful thought. As a result, nose work can be great for owners who want to dial back their dog’s ‘craziness’ by giving them a more controlled way to expend their energy. At the same time, nose work encourages lazy pooches to get up and use both their limbs and their brain. It is therefore also a great option for owners who feel that their dog is too sedentary.

NOSE WORKCan be done anywhere

All your dog needs is his nose, which means you can set up a nose work session virtually anywhere dogs are allowed – along the sidewalk, around a parking lot, parks, trails, a friend’s yard, indoor recreation rooms. The only limit is your imagination.

Gives your dog a job

While the domestic canine may enjoy the good life these days, many breeds are descended from generations upon generations of working stock. Way back when, dogs were specifically chosen and bred for their hunting abilities, drive and work ethic. Remnants of this still lives in many breeds today – Border Collies still feel a strong desire to herd, Labradors still live for retrieving and Dobermans still enjoy protecting their loved ones. Dogs love having a job, and nose work allows every dog to do what all dogs excel at – using their nose.

Could come in handy one day

Once you’ve been working at it long enough, and your dog reliably recognises the names of many distinct odours, who knows what they could help you find! (Car keys anyone?)


Different ways to do nose work

Nose work can be as formal or relaxed as you want it to be. If you’re happy hiding toys and food around the house for your dog to find, that totally counts! In fact, if this is your style, search “scent games” for even more fun ideas. Alternatively, if you love the idea of really testing yourself and your pet, seek out local Nose Work trials. Once you’ve passed your odour recognition test (or ORT), your team becomes eligible to participate in national trials. You can earn yourself titles, which become progressively more challenging to achieve, as you work your way through the levels.


Would you like to try out canine nose work for yourself?

Take a look at How To Get Started In Nose Work Training, and keep an eye out for workshops and training groups in your area. You can absolutely do it on your own, but working with an experienced trainer will help you identify weak spots or oversights in your technique, allowing you to make progress faster and avoid future frustration.


For more great resources, check out the National Association Of Canine Scent Work, and K9 Nose Work. You can find further information on nose work workshops and local nose work training groups.



References and recommended reading

  • Horowitz, A. (2009). Inside of a Dog. New York, NY: Scribner.
  • NACSW. National Association of Canine Nose Work. Retrieved from https://www.nacsw.net/
  • K9NW. K9 Nose Work. Retrieved from http://www.k9nosework.com/

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