Introducing dogs and their humans to the fun of K9 Nose Work.
By Heidi Meinzer, JD, CPDT-KSA, CNWI
I first heard of Nose Work when I started volunteering at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria shelter years ago. Busting dogs out of their kennels to hunt for hotdogs ended up being a great form of enrichment for them. But for whatever reason, I hadn’t yet realized that my own dogs could benefit from Nose Work.
Shortly after that, I took a position as a dog trainer with Fur-Get Me Not, an award-winning dog training, pet sitting, dog walking, and boarding facility in the Shirlington neighborhood of Arlington County. Tammy Rosen, the owner of Fur-Get Me Not, and Vivian Leven, the Training Director, heard about a trainer named Jacy Kelley with Canine Copilots, who used to handle military working dogs in the Army and was spreading the word about K9 Nose Work® around the area. Tammy and Vivian thought this sport would be a great addition to Fur-Get Me Not’s training program, which focuses on helping dogs integrate into their families using fun and creative methods with no force or coercion. Fur-Get Me Not followed up with Jacy, a Certified Nose Work Instructor with the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW), to train the trainers, and we brought our dogs along to learn the ropes.
I have two totally different dogs—Sophie, a beautiful but skittish and reactive German Shepherd, and Boomer, a happy-go-lucky Lab. Both of the dogs really enjoyed learning how to hunt and search. At first Sophie was nervous, even though she was used to the training facility and almost everyone except Jacy. Once she got accustomed to searching for food hidden in and around cardboard boxes, she ended up really coming out of her shell.
Boomer was a different story. He loves food and using his nose, and he showed great potential from the very beginning. Unfortunately, he loved something else at least as much searching for food. Just about every time he entered a search area, he would mark all over everything before he got down to the business of food hunting. Fortunately, Jacy knew exactly how to handle this, so she gave Boomer short, quick searches in small areas—and I gave Boomer lots and lots of potty breaks before and during class.
Our dogs started to get the hang of it. One of the training exercises involved finding food underneath a pile of cardboard boxes, and when Sophie entered the facility one day, she pulled the leash right out from my hands and ran to the other end of the room to dive into the boxes. That was the moment I was sold—if an activity like K9 Nose Work® could bring that much of a transformation to Sophie, imagine what it could do for other dogs in Fur-Get Me Not’s classes.
I decided to attend K9 Nose Work® camp in the Poconos Mountains in Pennsylvania to learn more about the sport and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. After that, I committed to becoming a Certified Nose Work Instructor, and Fur-Get Me Not built up its K9 Nose Work® program. Fur-Get Me Not now has four six-week courses, taking dogs from the first stages of learning to hunt for food or toys in cardboard boxes, to searching for birch inside and outside.
Since the beginning of its program in 2012, Fur-Get Me Not has had the pleasure of introducing well over 200 dogs and their humans to the fun of K9 Nose Work®. They’ve also integrated it into some of Fur-Get Me Not’s behavior programs, such as Reactive Dog and Confidence Building. If there’s anything that can help a dog overcome an issue like a lack of confidence or reactivity to other dogs, it is his own nose.
Time and time again, we see dogs who are dog-reactive completely ignore another pup if there is a nearby pile of cardboard boxes and hotdogs. Dogs who lack confidence or impulse control will turn on their noses and suddenly focus on the task of searching. One such dog was Emma, an English setter mix. Her owner, Betsy Davies, adopted her when she was already nine years old. Emma came with significant behavior issues, including resource guarding and a general lack of confidence. Betsy patiently worked with her and took her to training classes, including Fur-Get Me Not’s K9 Nose Work®. As Betsy and Emma’s relationship grew through the class, so did Emma’s trust in Betsy. Ultimately, Emma quit resource guarding, as she learned she did not have to protect her things from her human any more. Working with her nose really allowed Emma to blossom—and likely saved her life.
Dogs who lack confidence or impulse control will turn on their noses and suddenly focus on the task of searching.
Although many people use K9 Nose Work® as a fun activity for their dogs at home, many have been “bitten by the bug” and compete in the sport of K9 Nose Work®. Many dog sports can be quite competitive and stressful, but K9 Nose Work® happens to be an incredibly open sport with a very supportive atmosphere. As a testament to this kindly culture, the National Association of Canine Scent Work has set aside a special award called the Harry Award, which is given to the rescue dog who demonstrates extraordinary ability and spirit at each and every NW1 trial.
I myself caught the “bug” and have traveled as far as Massachusetts and North Carolina to compete with Boomer. The first trial we entered was actually the first K9 Nose Work® trial ever in Virginia, sponsored by Jacy Kelley and Canine Copilots. I remember doing the walkthrough before the trial began and seeing the Exterior search area: a grassy patch near a shed that had served as a potty area for the dogs the day before. My heart sunk, knowing Boomer’s weakness for marking. But training with Jacy had paid off, and Boomer never even thought of marking the place. Instead, he went right to the birch hide and completed his search successfully! My skills (or lack thereof) in the Container search kept us from netting our NW1 title that day. Having never participated in canine sports of any kind, I wasn’t sure if it was proper for me to go to the Awards Ceremony at the end of the day, since we didn’t title. However, I was assured that all were welcome there, and lo and behold, we won second place for the Interior search that day!
Boomer and I succeeded in titling at our next NW1 trial, and continued competing at the NW2 level. At NW2, Container searches become much more challenging because the search area includes actual containers like luggage and backpacks, and can have distractors like food in some of the containers. By that point, I had gotten better at using a long line so that I could work further away from Boomer. During the Container search, I remember just hanging back and watching Boomer work. He got right to business, checking the bags in a disciplined counter-clockwise pattern, and quickly located the bag with the odor. Many dog-and-handler teams didn’t pass that element that day—but Boomer got first place in the search! Watching him work and do what he was made to do was certainly magical. Now we’re competing at the NW3 level and enjoying every minute of it! Being part of the team to support him never ceases to amaze me.
If you haven’t given K9 Nose Work® a try, your dog will thank you if you do! When you’re looking for classes, be sure to pick a place that teaches in a safe environment and allows each dog to work one at a time in the search area. Also, don’t take it too fast. Let the dog learn how to search in a number of areas and situations, including indoors and outdoors, both with containers and vehicles. Adding the odor is the easy part!
In Northern Virginia, there are plenty of places to exercise your dog’s wonderful nose, but only certain places have instructors who are Certified Nose Work Instructors (CNWIs) with the NACSW. Whether you want to compete or not, look for classes instructed by a CNWI. These professionals have successfully completed a rigorous program that includes coursework and lectures, logging over 75 hours of instruction and training. You can find a CNWI near you here by visiting the K9 Nose Work website.
Dogs love to use their noses, so why not give them a chance to practice!
Heidi Meinzer is a lawyer who focuses on small businesses, nonprofits, and animal law. She has two dogs, Sophie and Boomer, and competes in K9 Nose Work® trials. Contact her at http://meinzerlaw.com/.