The Nose Knows
By Elizabeth Catalano, MA, CPDT-KA, CDBC
Getting into competitive sports like agility or obedience with your dog is a wonderful way to keep them mentally active and to strengthen your bond. however, for the average dog owner, this can seem daunting. It requires time, effort and in the case of agility, stamina! It is also just as much about your skills as your dog’s. Most people are put off at the skill level required to even participate in these sports and, therefore, don’t get involved.
The good news is, there is a wonderful sport that you can participate in that will stimulate your dog, enrich your bond and provide loads of fun for both of you. It doesn’t require fancy or bulky equipment so you can practice anywhere at any time, and it doesn’t require you to be an athlete yourself. This sport, which is becoming the rage, is called K9 Nose Work™. K9 Nose Work™ is a scent game that works with and refines the dog’s innate ability to hunt and seek. The canine nose is comprised of more than 220 million scent receptors. Compare that to the 5 million that humans possess. This difference is why dogs can take complex scents and make sense of them! Dogs ‘see’ the world through their noses. Have you ever seen the shimmers of heat rising off of the hot pavement in the summer? Imagine that instead of visual waves, those shimmers are a combination of odors rising up from the ground, or wafting in from the side, or drifting down from the sky. Imagine too that you don’t really see them, you smell them. That may be the best way to describe how dogs perceive the world around them. Dogs rely on scent for many things, locating food, finding and/or attracting a mate, getting details about other animals in the nearby area, and even detecting danger. There are probably dozens of more utilities for this sense of smell that we haven’t even begun to explore or understand yet. So, your dog was born with a certain set of skills. Being domesticated and living with humans, however, has significantly impacted his need to use them. After all, it doesn’t take much to locate the bowl full of food in the kitchen. K9 Nose Work™ helps your dog to hone and refine his scenting ability to actually find things. Does this really make them tired? You bet! As you can probably imagine, 220 million receptors uses up a lot of brain power. Physical activity will tire your dog, but it comes with a downfall. As your dog gets more fit, his stamina increases, and so does his need for physical release. It can seem like an endless cycle. Mental stimulation doesn’t work the same way, you get better and tasks can become more difficult, but your stamina doesn’t change as dramatically. K9 Nose Work™ starts with the dog looking for food that is somewhat concealed inside one of several boxes. The dog quickly figures out the game, find the food. That is when it gets a bit harder. Gradually, the food is hidden in increasingly difficult places within a defined area. Sometimes the food will be up on top of something and sometimes under. All this helps the dog learn that his job is to search. After a while, the food is paired with a Q-tip that has been dipped in one of three aromatic oils (i.e., birch, anise, and clove). The dog begins following the scent and eventually the food is no longer hidden with the Q-tip. The scent alone is what the dog searches for. Competition in this sport has several levels. From being able to display competence in identifying a scent (odor recognition test) to being able to locate either of the three scents in four distinctly different search areas: containers, exteriors, interiors and vehicles, the accomplishment of which results in titles. Competition is not required, however, and some people prefer just to do it for fun. The sport is perfect for dogs who are shy or insecure. It is an excellent confidence builder. Additionally, dogs that are reactive to other dogs do well in this sport because they don’t have to interact with the other dogs at all. They learn to wait their turn quietly and then go to work without the drama that sometimes can plague a regular pet training class. Many training facilities now offer K9 Nose Work™ classes. Look for trainers that have achieved Certified K9 Nose Work™ Instructor (CNWI) status. So what are you waiting for? Get sniffing!
Elisabeth Catalano, MA, CPDT-kA, CDBC is the Director of Behavior and Training at The Coventry School, Inc for Dogs and Their People. To reach Elisabeth Catalano call 410-381-1800. For more information about K9 nose Works™, check out www.nacsw.net Instructor (CNWI) status.