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Scent Work - The Nose Knows!

Updated on January 8, 2021
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The Newfoundland Club of America—responsible for the preservation, protection and welfare of the Newfoundland Dog in America since 1930.

Rembrandt using a warm-up box.
Rembrandt using a warm-up box.

AKC Scent Work is a sport that is based on the task of working detection dogs to locate a scent and communicate to the handler that the scent has been found. Detection is done in a variety of environments and often during changing conditions. Scent Work is a positive, challenging activity that allows dogs the opportunity to use their strongest natural sense in a way that is fun, engaging, and that builds and strengthens a foundation of trust between the handler and dog.

— AKC Scent Work Regulations

A Dog's Nose

Dog’s having amazing noses! While humans use their eyesight as their first sense to learn, dog’s use their nose. Dogs average 300 million olfactory receptors to a human’s 6 million. Experts say a dog’s sense of smell is at least 100,000x more acute than a human’s sense of smell. How? Their noses function differently than human noses. While a human nose uses the same airway to breathe, smell, and exhale, a dog has separate airways to breath and smell, and slits in the side of their nose to exhale. This set up allows them to process odor independently, break it down precisely, and not only have the extraordinary ability to locate odor, but to know exactly what the odor is in or next to! For example, when a human walks into a house he smells a cake baking somewhere in the back of the house, but when a dog walks in he can independently smell the egg, flour, oil, sugar, vanilla, etc. and know that it’s baking in a particular spot in the house in a glass plate in a metal box! The trick to Scent Work is teaching the dog which odor is important to the handler and how to let the handler know they found the source of that odor.

Flash, AKC Novice Buried Search
Flash, AKC Novice Buried Search

AKC Scent Work

AKC started their Scent Work program on Oct 1, 2017. Its popularity has grown exponentially ever since. There are many Scent Work/Nosework organizations, and all differ a bit in their elements, rules and regulations, but the basic concept and intent is the same. The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) is the founding organization of the sport and was developed in 2006 by three detection dog handlers who wanted to bring the concept as a sport to dog lovers and their companion dogs. The first NACSW trial was held in 2009 in California. Scent Work is a relatively new sport and has become one of the fastest growing dog sports in the world.

Dogs are trained to recognize specific scents. When the dog finds the scent, they “alert” to let the handler know the odor source (hide) has been found. A typical alert may look like a nose or body freeze at the hide, a paw, a bark, a sit, or a down.

Lizzie, NACSW NW3 Container Search
Lizzie, NACSW NW3 Container Search | Source

In AKC Scent Work, there are two Odor Divisions. Target Odor and Handler Discrimination. In the Target Odor Division, the odor is one of four essential oils: Birch, Anise, Clove, or Cypress. The oil is on a Q-tip head and then placed in a vessel like a straw or micro centrifuge tube. In the Handler Discrimination Division, the odor is the handler’s scent. The scent is on cotton, like a sock or cotton ball.

Dogs compete in a variety of environments known as “elements”. The four basic elements in AKC are Containers, Buried, Interiors, and Exteriors. There are four basic class levels in which teams compete in the variety of elements: Novice, Advanced, Excellent, and Masters. Once any Master title is earned from the Target Odor Division, the team may compete in the highest-level class, Detective.

Dogs who were trained to enjoy nose work were more willing to investigate a stimulus of uncertain meaning. Nose work training encouraged the dogs to work independently, to make choices on their own, and to check out something with autonomy. Perhaps they were also experiencing something akin to optimism. Personally, after watching lots of dogs learn and enjoy nose work games, I would call that emotion joy! (study - Duranton C, Horowitz A. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 2019)

— Linda P. Case

Benefits of Scentwork

There are many benefits to the sport of Scent Work. It is a positive and confidence building sport for the dog, as the dog is being rewarded for using his natural abilities his confidence builds and grows; it is a sport any breed is able to do; it is also a mentally tiring sport, playing scent games for even small amounts of time is equivalent in mental energy to a nice long walk. These reasons are why many shelters use a Scent Work program. Other benefits of Scent Work include it being a low impact sport which allows puppies, geriatric dogs, or dogs with health and mobility issues to participate, and is also true for many owners who may have some of the same issues. Many Newfoundlands start Scent Work as a “retirement” sport. A very popular benefit of the sport is the dog is ALWAYS rewarded when it finds the hide. Scent Work is the only sport in AKC which allows the reward of treats and toys IN a trial! This helps to keep the dogs motivated to search and emphasizes the importance of finding odor source every single time.

Sacha, NACSW Elite 1 Exterior Search
Sacha, NACSW Elite 1 Exterior Search | Source

Training For Scentwork

Scent Work is a sport that benefits from in person training classes but is also a sport an individual can work on at home or through online training. Working directly with an instructor, especially if the handler is new to the sport, helps ensure the dog does not start any early unwanted habits (such as smashing boxes), that the dog is truly odor obedient, and allows the instructor to work with the dog while the handler stands back with the leash and learns to “read” the dog’s body language while it searches. From a human perspective, “reading” your dog is the all-important part of the sport as the handler must be able to read when the dog is in odor, when it is not in odor, when it has found the source of the odor, and be able to accurately call “Alert” when they believe the dog has found the hide.

Lizzie, NACSW NW3 Vehicle Search
Lizzie, NACSW NW3 Vehicle Search | Source

There are many methods used to teach Scent Work, and most lead to a successful Scent Work team. Training usually starts by building the dog’s search drive. Puppies naturally use their nose to explore and learn their world, and naturally search. Older dogs have learned to incorporate their other senses to learn so playing search games helps to motivate the dogs to search using their nose. Dropping treats in a box and letting the dog search through boxes to find it, hiding a treat in an area and on objects all start to build the dogs search drive to play the game. The next step is to start teaching the dog a specific target oil, usually Birch, as most organizations use it as the Novice level odor. Imprinting the odor on a dog can be taught in a variety of ways, using scent bongs, boxes, Tupperware containers, etc. When the dog sniffs the odor vessel, it is “marked” and rewarded, building the dogs obedience to the odor. As the dog learns odor pays, non-odor vessels are incorporated, and the dog plays the “choice” game. Pick the one with odor, get paid. Once the dog knows the odor, it is introduced to searching in a more element type area. Box searches to start containers; chairs, tables, and other objects inside and out for learning odor can be somewhere other than a box; containers with small amounts of sand and water for buried. As the dog builds its odor obedience, more complicated search areas are introduced to help teach the dog to work out varying scent puzzles. Dogs need to learn to differentiate odor source from lingering odor, trapped odor, and converging odor. They need to learn how odor behaves in sun, shade, humidity, wind, cold and in the heat. They need to learn how to find both ground and elevated hides, and they need to learn all this with different amounts of odor on the hide and after the hides have been sitting 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 8 hours, or 24 hours, etc. The smallest variation of any of the above can affect how scent behaves and the way a dog must approach finding the hide.

The nose knows, trust your dog!

Scent Work is a sport in which the dog does not cue off the handler, and as the handler is unable to see or smell the hide, the dog must take the lead and communicate clearly back to the handler when a hide is found. This makes for a fun, challenging, interesting sport that builds a great bond between dog and handler.

© 2021 Newfoundland Club of America

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