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title. Nosework Workshop

date. 2013

about. Nosework and its benefits

I was invited to attend a K9 Nosework seminar focusing specifically on Shelter Dogs on a weekend in March 2013. The curriculum, taught by Nosework expert Jill Marie O’Brien, was developed in 2006 by detection dog handlers eager to share the fun that their own dogs had simply by using their noses. In addition to the big boost that K9 Nosework provides to shelter enrichment programs across the U.S.(1), the methods presented were low- to no-cost and provided the dogs working at the seminar with motivating challenges.  Nosework is such a fun way to bring out a dog’s “inner Dogginess!” Today, staff and volunteer training in the how-to’s of Nosework provides an excellent addition to many shelter enrichment programs across the country. Here's how we got started.

On the day of our workshop, Ms. O'Brien began by showing the audience video examples of how dogs’ behaviors looked after they had been doing Nosework for a while (in some cases, long enough that the dog had switched over from beginner “Find the Food!” games to advanced “Find the birch-scented Q-tip in a complicated environment!”) In short order, attendees were able to identify how a dog looked while actively searching for odor. Since the focus that day was on how useful Nosework would be to shelter enrichment programs, we were also shown video examples of dramatic changes in behavior, especially with dogs labeled as “Hyper” or “Overly excited”. Blind dogs participated, too – loss of vision didn't impact these dogs at all. It was so encouraging to see the dogs in the videos focus on the task at hand, and even show an improved degree of self-control as they waited for their turn to find a food reward hidden within a group of regular cardboard boxes. In one memorable video example, a wound-up young dog started her first session by zooming, leaping about, leash-biting, and generally being inappropriate with her handler; by her 4th Nosework session, she was in a Sit-Stay (off-leash!) as she waited to be released to find her hidden reward. Clearly, that dog's newly acquired skill of self-control would be a big plus for her future.

For the dogs working in the seminar I attended, the name of the game was simply to encourage innate hunting behaviors and to begin to focus on finding one specific object (cooked chicken pieces) in a changing indoor environment. Here’s what that setup looked like.

Before we went into the training ring with our dogs, the presenter went over the rules of the game. Only one dog was allowed to search in the ring at a time, which minimized distractions, and also meant that any dog-reactive dogs would have as good a time as the rest. I was glad to hear that the presenter actively discouraged the handlers from using cues and from “steering” the dogs in any way (by directing the dog with the leash, or cheerleading - “Find it, find it, find it, findit finditfindit!”). If the dog appeared to get stuck while searching, we were advised to simply turn our feet towards the hide to help the dog we were handling. We didn’t use clickers or verbal markers to let the dog know that they were right, either; maybe a little praise as extra chicken bits were tossed into the box that the dog had found. That box had been helpfully labeled “Food” and was used consistently as the “hide” box for the whole day. Many of the dogs began by working on-leash, but were let off-leash as soon as they showed interest and focus on the search area.

The handler and dog entered the ring after the presenter had loaded the “Food” box with a piece of chicken. Each of the 9 working dogs in the seminar took a slightly different approach as they learned what this new game was all about. Their first run was purposely easy – the presenter would drop the reward into the box at her feet as the dog entered the ring and looked at her. The working dog would leap upon the box to get the reward, and then got more chicken pieces as a result of interacting with that box. Translation : “Boxes are good!” After a few seconds of this, the dog would move on, and the presenter would pick up the box, re-load it, and place it in a new spot. When the dog came back to check in with her, she gave the universal “My hands are empty!” signal to the dog.

"I got nothin'!" Shadow's intro to Nosework at Pets Alive West.

With this signal as a clue, the dogs were given free rein as to their next move. Initially, some of the participating shelter dogs at the Nosework workshop were extremely distracted by the dog in the mirror; some zeroed in on the possibility of more food rewards from the presenter immediately, and some began offering amusing behaviors to her to earn those rewards. As the presenter gamely struggled to not respond to being barked at, play-bowed to, or having her foot stomped upon (2), the dogs trying these strategies would eventually give up. They were then allowed their own time to track down the hide box. The dogs who were busy checking out the parameters of the search area were allowed to do so for a short time, but to get them searching closer to the hide, the presenter would audibly tap a few times on a box. When the dog found the food reward and was busy getting it from the hide box, the presenter demonstrated to the audience how to change the environment to create a new challenge (tossing the “dummy” boxes around to change their configuration; then, picking up a “dummy” box and tossing it to an area that the dog had not searched yet). The presenter only moved the hide box and reloaded it after the dog moved away from it.

During the second run, we the audience noticed that the dogs’ focus on the task at hand had really sharpened – even the shy dogs began to overcome their worries about being in a new environment. The dog in the mirror was less of a concern for the shelter dogs, and we began to see the beginnings of that “active search” body language that indicated the dog was really using his nose. It was very exciting to be in a room full of people who were keenly observing subtle changes in behavior.(3)

Phoebe, former legacy dog at PAW, is always happy to play the “find the treat! game.

By the 3rd run of the day, all of the dogs were really on task! Their enthusiasm and focus on finding the hide box grew, and many of the dogs recognized the presence of the boxes as the cue to begin sniffing and searching. At this point in the afternoon, the cardboard boxes that we had started with were still present – but so were several novel objects (bowls, bins, baskets, long cardboard tubes, etc.) and one additional helper. The chicken treat was placed in a new container, and this became a brand new challenge for the dogs to find. Once the dog was busy recovering his reward, the second helper placed a new piece of chicken in a new, novel container – and the game was on again!

I loved attending this workshop, and I have used the Nosework games I learned there for nearly every shelter dog I've met. It’s been great fun to involve the dog-walking volunteers who love their friends at the shelters as I do, and love to see the dogs find another outlet for their energy and curiosity. 

Here were my big takeaways from the seminar.

 - Any handler of any skill level can play this game with any dog of any age.

 - You can’t beat Nosework for a fun, low- to no-cost way to enrich the life of any dog!

 - This game is all about honing a dog’s natural instincts – you aren’t teaching the dog a thing. The dog learns and improves because the game relies on the hunting instincts that every dog has and is therefore self-rewarding. The benefits of increased focus and self-control can be applied to other areas of training for the dog.

 - Don’t rush. Yes, there are goals in K9 NoseWork that are exciting to teach – moving to advanced environments (4), odor recognition (such as finding the standard test scents of Clove, Birch and Anise) and teaching the dog to lie down when he finds that odor are fun, but are only introduced after the dog has built a strong foundation. Have fun in this creative way with your own dog friends and let them do the work they were born to do!



  2. Stomped upon by a 20-lb dog; no Nosework seminar presenters were harmed during the seminar.

  3. Here’s a great “doubletakes” reel that shows (in slow-motion!) the kinds of changes we humans were learning to observe.

  4. Video from the presenter’s own Nosework Camp showing various stages of Nosework sessions

Misa Martin is a Certified Fear-Free Trainer. Years of attending agility seminars, workshops, seminars and camps with her first dog led to the beginning of her professional dog training career as a PetSmart Trainer in 2008. In addition to teaching at PCOTC's Agility programs, Misa was the staff trainer at the Mount Vernon Humane Society, active with Waggytail Rescue as a consultant for training and behavior issues, and a trainer with the Briarcliff SPCA education program. Misa owns, providing reward­ based training to private clients. 

Misa can be reached at

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