If you’ve recently read The Nose Knows, and are curious about how one actually goes about teaching nose work, keep reading! There are multiple methods when it comes to nose work training, and each one has its own advantages and drawbacks. Below we’ll give a basic overview of one of the most reliable nose work training strategies to date, and why it’s worth following.
Table of Contents
Strategy: Backchaining, without the food-odour pairing
Behaviour chains are sequences of behaviours that are linked together to form a greater behaviour. An example would be the behaviour chain of the game of fetch:
As a dog, it involves: watching your owner while he throws the ball>running after it>picking it up>keeping it in your mouth while you run back>dropping it at your owner’s feet so you can do it all over again.
Back chaining is simply teaching the series of behaviours backwards. That is, starting from the last behaviour in the chain and working towards the starting behaviour. In the fetch example, you would start by teaching your dog to drop the ball on cue when she has it in her mouth. Next, you would give your dog the ball, then tell her to drop it at your feet. After this, you would teach her to hold the ball in her mouth, then drop it at your feet. Next, you’d teach her to pick ball up off the ground, hold it, then drop it at your feet. Keep working backwards, until you’re at step one – tossing the ball, so that she chases after it, picks it up and brings it back.
Back-chaining is an incredibly effective way to teach your dog any new behaviour, because each new stage of training reinforces (i.e. strengthens) the behaviour that has just occured. You’re improving your dog’s fluency at each step, because of continuous repetition.
We prefer nose work methods that do not pair food with the target odour. While initially people new to nose work can enjoy watching their dogs search happily for treats, this strategy can become cumbersome later on when you need to start eliminating food from the pairing (after having had your dog solidly search for food for the past 3-6months!). Dogs who are less motivated can begin to lose interest, because they’re no longer discovering treats at the end of their search. Furthermore, food is actually used as a bait or distraction in later stages, which means the dog is expected to ignore it when she spent her first 6 months searching for it!
Now this is not to completely talk down on the food-odour pairing method, we’ve just found that dogs seem to progress faster and with more reliability if they’re taught to find their target odour from the get-go, and have food as their reward instead.
The stages of nose work training
Stage 1: The indication
Understandably, everyone wants to get their dog out and searching as soon as possible. As a result, teaching the indication (the behaviour your dog offers to show you that they’ve found the source odour) is often done last or overlooked altogether. However, the indication is arguably the most essential step to get right. By teaching the indication first, you employ the method of back-chaining.
Teaching the last behaviour in the chain (indicating) first, strengthens the indication behaviour, which means that your dog will be able to indicate faster, more accurately, more reliably, and with less false positives (indicating when the source odour isn’t present).
Stage 2: Distinguishing between different odours
Once you’ve solidified the indication, you can begin to introduce decoys. In this stage, you will present your dog with an object that is visually identical to the one you initially trained on, however this time the target odour will be missing. You will reinforce your dog only for indicating on the correct odour, to ensure she doesn’t just think this game is about finding a box. This is where your dog learns to rely on what her nose is telling her, rather than her eyes.
Stage 3: The search
Stage 3 puts it all together. At this step, you can send your dog on basic searches, and watch the beautiful behaviour chain in action from start to finish. Expand on the basic behaviour by increasing complexity and distractions, so that she can perform solidly regardless of circumstances.
Nose work training
What you need:
- 2x Small metal tins (one will always be used with your chosen scent – aka HOT. One should never be used with your chosen scent and will act as a decoy – aka COLD.)
- Your target odour (you could use a tea bag, or a put a bunch of Q-tips in a jar overnight, with a few drops of essential oil on the lid. Essential oils directly on the q-tip would be too powerful)
- A number of containers with holes, to place your hot tin into at a later stage.
- A clicker, or marker word to let your dog know the exact moment they’ve done something right
A few points before you get started
When picking a target odour, avoid choosing a scent that your dog will be encountering often, like herbs or spices that you regularly use in cooking. This is essential, as you want your dog to associate the odour with precise indicating behaviours, and subsequent reinforcement.
Once you’ve chosen your preferred scent, be sure to avoid contaminating other items around the house with its smell. Use gloves where necessary and ensure the Q-tips never fall on the ground, or touch anything nearby – while you may not smell it, the scent can hang around for months and cause your dog to alert or indicate without reward, which will weaken the behaviour.
Minimise handler input as much as you can, as this is an activity that intentionally allows your dog to sit in the driver’s seat. Initially, she’ll probably look to you often, because she’s so used to doing things with your guidance. If she’s stuck or hovers over the wrong container, just stay quiet. Don’t correct her, or even give any sign that she’s wrong. Mark only when she’s right, and she’ll start to build confidence and rely on her own ability.
While this is a quick and reliable method, the following stages can take place over the course of weeks or months, so try not to expect too much from your dog too soon. Practice in multiple short sessions, rather than few long ones, too keep your dog keen and motivated.
Stage 1: Teaching the indication
- Hold the hot tin (i.e the one with the target odour inside) in one hand, as if you’re presenting it to your pet. Your dog will probably be curious about what this new thing is and try to investigate it.
- Initially you can just click/mark for looking at the tin. Mark each attempt to get closer to the tin, until eventually you’re only clicking when her nose touches the metal box. This is the careful process of shaping.
- Once your dog is confidently touching her nose to the metal box every time you present it, hold treats in your other hand – about 30 inches, or 75cm, away from your box hand.
- Now your dog will become far more interested in your treats hand, however, you will still only mark and reward her for touching the metal box. You’re giving her a choice, in which she will learn that only touching the box pays off.
- When she touches the box, mark, and reward her with the treats in your treat hand at your box hand. In other words, bring your treat hand over to her snout, and reward her while her nose is still at the metal tin. This is known at rewarding on source, and is a crucial behaviour to reinforce, as it teaches your dog to stay at the target odour. Reward her with rapid fire treats – ten or more in quick succession – for doing such a good job.
- Alternate hands, so that she doesn’t think it’s a matter of targeting a particular hand.
- Keep practicing this game, with you holding your treat hand closer and closer in temptation, until your dog perfectly understands that pay-day comes in when she holds her nose to the tin, no matter how close the yummy treats are.
- Start placing the tin on the ground, and continue playing as before. Go without the tempting treat hand initially if your dog seems confused, and just mark for touching the tin as you did in the beginning. Move back to tempting her with treats, and reinforcing her for keeping her snout to the tin.
- Place your hot tin inside a container. This container will go on to become your hot container – it should always be the one your hot tin goes into, to minimise scent contamination.
- Play the same game, this time with your hot tin inside the container. Mark and reward for nose touches to the container (on source), and vary hands and locations to help build a strong indication.
- You want to see swift indicating (within 3 seconds) before you move on to the next step.
Stage 2: Teaching odour discrimination
- Once your dog has a solid indication, bring out your second metal tin – the one without any odour, aka your COLD tin.
- Hold a tin in each hand, and mark+reward on source for any nose touches to the hot tin. Alternate hands, so that she’s not always targeting the same hand for reinforcement. If needed, mark each tin with a symbol so that you know which is which. This is where she learns to seek with her nose, rather than her eyes.
- Once your dog has the hang of this new game, place the tins on the ground and mark+reward (on source) each time she selects the right box.
- When you’re confident that your dog is eagerly selecting, and indicating on the right tin, place each tin in their respective hot and cold containers.
- As in stage one, you’ll play the container game exactly the same as the tin game. Mark and reward (on source) for nose touches to the correct container, alternating hands often.
- When your dog seems confident, start placing the containers in different spots on the ground and switching them around after each successful indication. Keep marking+rewarding for the correct indication.
- Once she is successfully and accurately indicating after many repetitions, move on the stage 3.
Stage 3: Teaching the search
You may have noticed that what your dog’s been doing up to this point looks suspiciously like nose work! Well, that’s the beauty of back chaining – she learnt to identify and indicate your target odour in stage one. She’s able to discriminate between hot and cold items, and she’s having a heck of a lot of fun while she’s doing it. Now all you have to do is put it on cue.
Common verbal commands include “search!” or “find it!”, but you can, of course, choose any phrase you like. It’s best to keep it short and sharp, and preferably a word she doesn’t hear too often.
Once you’ve set up your two containers, say your chosen cue just before she heads off to sniff. She’ll make the connection between your verbal command and the activity very quickly, as the behaviour is now strong and clear.
Build up excitement and hunt drive by holding her back before you give your command and let her free.
Start adding variation to the exercise to improve her fluency:
- Gradually increase the number of containers
- Move to different rooms and settings
- Add distractions
- Increase her distance from you
- Increase the length of time she has to maintain an indication before you mark and reward
- Become creative with what you hide your hot tin in – shoes, egg cartons, pizza boxes, suitcases (remember that whichever container you use for your hot tin becomes hot too, so mark them containers for future use to avoid contamination).
- Ask family or friends to hide or jumble your containers for you, so that neither you nor your dog knows where the hot tin is (known as a blind hide). This will really force you to trust your dog’s ability and read her body language for signs that she’s caught the scent.
Consider joining a nose work training group, or setting up your own one with other like-minded dog owners to help each other improve, set up blind hides, and watch different teams in action. If you’d like to learn more, or get competitive, have a look at NACSW for upcoming workshops, trials and trainers. If you’re someone who prefers doing things in the comfort of your own home, check out The Fenzi Dog Sport Academy for online classes conducted by experienced, knowledgeable sport trainers.
We hope you enjoyed this basic overview on nose work training. Any question? Leave a comment below or contact us!
References and recommended reading:
- NACSW. National Association of Canine Nose Work. Retrieved from https://www.nacsw.net/
- Hill, D. Service Dog Training Institue. Retrieved from http://servicedogtraininginstitute.ca/
- FDSA. Fenzi Dog Sport Academy. http://fenzidogsportsacademy.com/