K9 Nose Work- where your dog gets to engage in his instinctive need to hunt, search, and find things using his nose- is a pretty simple activity. Your dog already knows what to do and how to do it, so all you have to do is provide him with the opportunity. This means that scent games in general can be pretty relaxed, but if you want to play the game the NACSW way (and maybe go to trials some day), here are some suggestions on getting started.
What You Need
The most important thing you will need to play Nose Work- other than your dog!- is something he really likes. Since finding something by smell can be pretty mentally taxing, especially at first, you need to be sure that your dog is motivated by the object he's hunting for. For most dogs, this will be food, and it will be good food. During the seminar, food rewards ranged from cheese, hot dogs, lunch meat, and chunks of chicken to more nontraditional things like fast food hamburgers and potato chips (that was Maisy's). Other dogs worked for toys- tennis balls, tug toys, and even stuffies were just as motivating (and maybe more so) for some of them! Either way is fine, as long as your dog wants what he's searching for.
After the motivator, you will need to make sure you have a safe environment in which to play. This is especially important for special needs dogs who may not deal well with new environments or changes to their environment. But even for dogs who can walk into any new situation with aplomb, it's important to set up things to help the dog be successful. The area should be enclosed, and ideally indoors at first. You will want to minimize distractions (other pets should be safely put away), and if you're outside, grass and dirt can be more challenging in the early stages, so it's best if you can find a concrete surface.
Finally, you will need something in which you hide the dog's reward. Honestly, this could be anything, but most people use cardboard boxes. They are ideal for a number of reasons, and the fact that they're free is probably at the top of the list. They are also easy to find, easy to store, and if one gets broken, lost, or just plain disgusting, it's easy to replace. Boxes are great because they contain the odor, which makes it easier for the beginning dog to find the reward. Scent is not a static thing; it moves. It will drift along air currents. It can spread out through a room. For a dog new to the game, this makes things far more challenging, and you don't want your dog to give up because it's too hard. Finally, boxes serve as a valuable visual cue in the early stages. They tell the dog that the game is on!
You will need 5 or 6 boxes to start with; during the seminar we probably had a dozen out on the floor. The boxes can be set up in any way, really. They can be in a line, a circle, or just scattered around. They can be sitting upright or on their sides. They needn't match. They just shouldn't be so big that your dog is intimidated by them or unable to eat out of. Shoebox lids can be great for smaller dogs, or for very hesitant dogs.
You will want to have one dedicated box for the reward. In the seminar, the reward box had the word “food” on it. At home, I have been using one that's been opened from the bottom so that the writing on the sides is upside down. No matter how you mark it, you should always know which box contains the reward, as that allows you to observe your dog's body language and learn how it changes when he is searching and when he has caught the scent.
During the seminar, we just dropped the food in the box loose. The goal was for the dog to self-reward, although we often came in to deliver additional pieces of food. (The dogs searching for a toy got to grab the toy, and then the handler played with the dog as close to the source as possible.)
The First Time
Now that you have a secure environment, something the dog really wants, and your boxes, it's time to play! The very first time your dog interacts with the boxes, the goal is to teach him one simple concept: if he goes into the box, it will pay off for him.
|Maisy's first search at home.|
In the seminar, Jill and Kimberly did this in four steps. First, they brought the dog into the area and handed the food or toy to him to make sure he was interested in the reward. Then, they put the food in the box and to test whether or not the dog was willing to eat from the box. That might sound silly, but shy dogs are often hesitant to stick their heads inside boxes (I thought Maisy might be one of those dogs, but the power of junk food overcame any uncertainty she might have felt). Next, they had the handler hold the dog on leash, and they would move away from the dog holding the box out in front of them. The goal was for the dog to follow the box. Finally, once the dog had demonstrated interest in the food-laden box, we played a simple shell game.
Using 2 or 3 boxes, Jill or Kimberly would try to get the food in the box without the dog seeing. This might involve waiting until the dog was distracted or looking away, or it might involve picking up a bunch of boxes and setting them down several feet apart in close succession. Sometimes they'd try to fool the dogs by pretending to put food in a decoy box. As the dogs started to figure out the game, it got harder and harder to do this. We quickly learned just how quick you have to be when the dogs catch on!
Your Job and His
The dog's job is to find the food using his sense of smell. Your job is to let him find it. This can be challenging! Dogs who have had a lot of training will often be more dependent on their handler for direction. Likewise, their handlers are used to helping them, and it can be difficult to resist the urge to help. But in K9 Nose Work, the dog must guide the process- they have the better sense of smell, after all! Therefore, your job is to control the environment, not the dog.
As long as your dog is searching, you should do nothing. Don't talk, don't point, don't move, don't help. Just watch. If your dog comes to check in with you, looking for guidance, simply shrug and show him your empty hands. It's amazing how well dogs understand this incredibly human gesture!
That said, you don't want your dog to give up on the game, so there are some ways that you can help without taking over. One of the best ways to do this is by positioning yourself strategically. When a dog started to get lost, Jill and Kimberly would have us handlers move. We didn't necessarily get closer to the box, though. Since most dogs tend to move towards their person, we found that by standing on the opposite side of the search field from the dog we could draw them through the area. In the process, they'd often catch the odor and resume the search. For dogs that were really confused, sometimes we'd tap on the boxes, not to show the dog where the food was, but to simply remind him that he should keep checking them out.
Do you do nose work with your dog? Is this how you started out, or did you do something different? Jill and Kimberly told us that there are many ways to get to the end, and none of them are necessarily correct. Everyone has their own way of approaching the game, so I'd love to hear how others started out!