a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Nosework

Sunday, December 02, 2012


SUMMARY: Report from last weekend.
Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Merle Girls and I attended our first-ever nosework training. I'd spent some time reading about it, so I had a vague idea of what's going on. Quite a few people I know are starting to compete in it or even teach it. Sounded like a fun thing to do.

The basic idea is that someone hides a specific scent somewhere in the search area and the dog finds it.

Rather than using scents like drugs or explosives (as a police or army dog would be trained for), the nosework competitions use specific scents that are not too likely to be encountered randomly. Dogs start with birch.

Our instructor was Andrew Ramsey. I had met him once before at another dog shindig and a friend waxed raphsodic about his skills at training dogs. He's a nice guy with a very good idea about what he's doing and how we can do it, too. Main thing to know is that he came by dog training primarily through his work with military dogs. As a civilian, he pursued jobs at the military's huge training facility and over the years trained thousands of puppies, dogs, and people in protection and detection work--the detection work being the key thing here. You can read a bit more on his web site.

Andrew gives us background info. We were a deliberately small group so that all 10 dogs could get enough working time.

He happened upon "pet" nosework by chance and fell in love with the idea.

OK, next thing you need to know is that there is, so far, only one official nosework organization, the National Association of Canine Scent Work, and they've trademarked the phrase "K9 Nose Work". It's sort of like the early days of dog agility when there was only the USDAA in the U.S. and they service marked "agility dog".

The NACSW defines the rules under which nosework competitions take place, same way that USDAA, CPE, NADAC, AKC, etc. define their own rules under which agility competition takes place. They also certify nosework trainers, and they seem to be pressing hard to have students sign up only with their certified trainers. This makes sense for them because they charge quite a bit for the certification program.

I don't think there was ever anything like *that* in agility-- "certified agility trainer". (Sometimes I think it might have been a good idea, but at other times I think that not having rigid controls on what and how to teach has enabled the sport to advance more quickly and creatively.)

OK, NEXT thing to know is that Andrew is not certified by them. He said that he considered it until he thought about the fact that he'd be trained by people who had only an iota of the experience that he already had in detection work, and decided to pass.

Meanwhile, the UKC wanted to start its own nosework program and they contacted Andrew--so they're developing their own set of competition rules. And the AKC contacted him as well, although I think that they then went off on their own to come up with their own rules since he had already worked with UKC. So--he's held in pretty high esteem by Those Who Know.

LAST thing to know is that his dogs run into the search area, lope around the perimeter, quickly identify the vicinity of the scent, zero in on it in amazingly short time, and freeze with their nose on the location of the scent (e.g., the lip of a drawer in which it's hidden). This is what we'd like our dogs to do.

Soooo (this was supposed to be a short post), now on to the training.

His method emphasized the dog having a methodical approach to searching for the scent, for example, working clockwise around a room.This is why he starts with a set of drawers as shown in the photo above.

[Disclaimer: I am simplifying all of this quite a bit and leaving out detailed descriptions of exactly how the various steps are done, so I doubt that these notes will give anyone really enough info to do it themselves.] 

The result that you want is demonstrated (by the end of day 2) by classmate Kathleen and Tika's compatriot veteran dog Annie (they're very close in age, started competing about the same time, as Kathleen's previous dog and my Jake were finishing up their careers in Performance):

The dog freezes, nose pressed against the scent location, handler using the leash (during training) to exert just enough pressure to get the dog to stop pushing forward when it's clear that the dog has found it, and after a fraction of a second, the dog's favorite toy is thrown right where their nose is, so the dog associates being in that position at the scent with getting their favorite reward (rather than looking to you for their reward).

Obviously, we have to build up to that. The ideal way is to have two very close to identical toys that the dog loves, if the dog is toy-driven. And, yes indeed, Boost is extremely toy driven. I handed over Boost's two purple riot tugs (you can see one in Andrew's pocket) and Boost was quite happy to play a rousing game of tug with Andrew.

Because Boost is so toy driven and usually food plays second fiddle to toys, that's how I wanted to start her.

OK, for the very first step, andrew gets the dog excited about the toy, handler holds the dog back, andrew drops the toy into the first drawer, and you release the dog, who races forward, plunges her head into the drawer, and pulls out the toy, then you play tug and repeat the whole thing a couple of times.

Then Andrew hides the 2nd toy in the second drawer (bottom drawers are all open at this point), pretends to drop the 1st toy into the first drawer, and when the dog races forward, they're so certain that the toy is there that they keep looking and inevitably get around to noticing it in the second drawer.


Andrew got Boost all excited about the toy, I held her back, he dropped the toy into the first drawer--and she stood there looking at the drawer and then at him. I finally urged her verbally to get it, and she went forward cautiously, reached in gently and lifted the toy out.

We wasted our whole first session trying to get her to understand about getting the toy, but apparently it was the wrong kind of toy (for her) for this--maybe because the riot tugs are usually interactive toys for us, not thrown toys? dunno-- Anyhoo, for her second session, we switched to food and she figured it out VERY quickly and within probably 5 minutes was methodically checking all the bottom drawers left to right to find the hidden item.

Here, Boost is working with food--she has just found it in the third drawer and I'm holding the leash taut for a moment to get her to freeze there, while Andrew prepares food for her next find.

(Photos from this one on down are by Tonya Jensen--I was so busy listening and watching that I forgot to take any more photos!)

After doing the 2nd drawer, then you hide it in the first drawer again, then again pretend to hide it there but put it in the 2nd drawer again, then in the 3rd drawer, then the dog very quickly figures out to keep going forward sniffing for it, and most dogs progressed pretty quickly to moving on around the corner.

The next step is to close the drawers and again hide the toy (or food) but now alongside a little jar with the birch scent in it (a tiny drop of essential oil on a q-tip). So they do 6 or 10 finds like that, which basically gets them associating the birch scent with the thing that they want. Then you repeat with just the scent. This is why having a toy to throw is the best option; if you're working from food, you don't really want to throw the food and contaminate the ground.  A tug-n-treat might work. I forgot to take one the 2nd day. Something to work on.

PRESS that nose against that find!

With Tika, there was never ANY doubt in anyone's mind that she is a food-driven dog.

She figured out very quickly that she needed to keep looking to find her food, but she was too smart-alecky for her own good--realized that the food was appearing farther around hte circle, so started skipping the earlier drawers and had to go back through. That was easily fixed by mixing it up more, sometimes in an earlier drawer, sometimes in a later one, sometimes in the same one twice in a row, etc.

She was harder for me to catch with the tension to freeze her--she wanted to get her paw in there. Here I'm applying the tension, not realizing that she already has a paw on the drawer and I've frozen her like that. Finally got that message and pulled her back away so that she could approach it again and I could stop her in the correct position, with just the nose, not the paw.

Within our group, some dogs were toy-driven enough for the toy to work well, some were food-driven enough for the food to work well, and for one--well, we all encountered our first-ever pine-cone-driven dog.

By the end of the two days, virtually all of the dogs were searching by scent alone, some even onto the 2nd tier of drawers and one dog with even more challenges beyond the drawers. (The drawers are just a good way to get them started because the drawers retain more of the scent, but you want to get away from using them exclusively pretty quickly.) Each dog had 5 sessions of maybe 10-15 minutes each, which was a pretty aggressive schedule, but we all wanted to get as much done as possible in our two full days.

And all of the dogs' successes were achieved with no instruction, assistance, or prompting from any humans except telling them to start looking, putting the tension on the leash after the dog had already found the scent, and then rewarding the dog. It was amazing to watch! 

I think I'd like to do more of this, but I'm sold on Andrew's method of training, and he's out in Sacramento, so not sure how/when I'm going to get more practice.

Meanwhile, I've revised the find-it game that I've played with the dogs for years at home (hide food in another room and then release the dog to go find it). I restarted along the lines of the seminar training, first showing where the food was at the far left side of the room, then gradually moving it further along and then also back again, etc., trying to reinforce the idea of methodically searching starting from one side of the room and going clockwise.

They have always liked this game and still do. [grin]


  1. So cool :)

    I'm fascinated by the different ways different people train the skills

    I'm finding the dogs here all have very different natural indications - i like the notion of the nose press ...hmmm

    1. I like the nose press idea, too. I'd previously seen/read about dogs sitting or lying, for example, but it makes sense to me to have the dog indicate the exact location as clearly as possible.

  2. Doh--too much agility, obviously! Fixed the UKC.

  3. Fun, isn't it?

    There is a DVD that Leerburg put out showing and explaining Andrew's methods and also a DVD available through Dogwise about how a handler trained her dog to NWI level and beyond by herself after a couple of seminars by the NASCW folks.

    I have considered both methods and decided to go with NASCW for several reasons:

    You don't need to have that set up with the drawers, etc, just a few cardboard boxes and cotton swabs.

    There are many more options for training. There are seminars, camps and weekly classes on both sides of the country--lots in CA where the founders of the sport live--offered by people who have to have a lot of hands on training and continuing Ed before they're allowed to use the NACSW name

    I find the NACSW methods more user friendly for the trainer who maybe doesn't have much dog training experience.

    I also like that the founders have tried to make this sport available to dogs who aren't usually able or welcome in regular dog training classes.

    I have wondered how you transition the dogs trained in the way Andrew does to the other elements. And what do people do once Andrew has left and there's no one around to help them train? Are you encouraged to try throwing the food/toy for your own dog or for another person? What options are there if you run into problems or have questions? This is the same problem I had with most seminars--once the presenter has left you're on your own. Which is one reason the NAcSW has tried to make sure that the people out there teaching classes are getting lots of support via continuing education, email groups and special seminars. Oh, and they also require that instructors train and compete to at least a basic level.

    No matter how you do it, one thing I've found is that the dogs love it as long as they're successful!

    1. Yes, the array of drawers is a challenge. The goal of course is to get off them as quickly as possible, but there's that initial set-up. Just need to find someone near by with a bunch of them. :-) And actually he's in the Sacramento area, which is no farther than I go for agility trials, so I could see doing another couple of weekends out thataway if available.

      Yes, we are encouraged to throw the food/toy for our own dogs. He started the weekend with him placing and throwing the toys and also putting the pressure on the leash, but we were all working on doing some of that ourselves (or other people doing it) by the end of the weekend.

  4. Fun to have so many photos to go along with the description!

    Totally agree with Andrea, my fellow Canadian sport detector ;-) -- so interesting to hear about different ways to train the game. I hadn't heard of training the dog to stay sticking their nose to the scent source as a formal indication but can certainly see how that would come in handy. From what I understand the handler can choose whatever the formal indication is for their dog as long as they define it to the judge before their "run" (in the Canadian version anyway – assuming the same for the American ones), so it doesn't need to be the more typical sit or down. Walter's trained to do a sit, then if I need to confirm or pinpoint the location I'll ask him to "show me where", at which cue he can get up from the sit and touch the source with his nose. Having the whole thing built into one behaviour would certainly remove redundancy. That said, one of the instructors I learned sport detection from trained her certified search and rescue / human remains detection dog with a down for indicating remains, so I guess it's one of those things where there really are two (or three or twenty) ways to train a dog to the desired effect.

    As for throwing food at the scent source – one the schools I trained with didn't throw anything at the scent source, but the other has us throw a food-loaded Viewtainer (i.e. food tube) (or a toy if the dog prefers) at the source. The Viewtainer isn't perfect as some crumbs might fall out, but definitely better than throwing pieces of hot dog or whatnot around, and it's a nice compact, firm thing that throws easily and accurately.

    Glad you and the merle girls had fun. I can imagine Tika's delight at being allowed to sniff out food for two whole days!

    1. I like the idea of the reward at the source so that the dog is never distracted from it to look back at you. He has used viewtainers (I think that's what it is, he's holding it in the 5th picture but you can't see it very well). You just have to get the dog used to it being thrown more or less at them.

  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzelCaAkskA&list=FLbiv3H7aQblqmJg30AhBTjw&index=1

    right about in the middle of this Wyn offers an unsoliited indication .... and just so you can see a touch of how it is rolling out up here...

    1. Interesting! I can see a lot of similarities in what we did with Andrew.

  6. Hi! Nice write up and pics! I just wanted to add a couple things for those thinking about doing this. I've trained detection dogs for LE, and found the idea of nosework really exciting till I saw how much money the founders were trying to make out of it and got royally turned off. Around here its $140 for 6 sessions of "let your dog find food in a box" and lets face it boys and girls, detection work is not rocket science! The other thing that REALLY turned me off was all the food throwing and feeding at TRIALS, where after a couple dogs there really wasn't any challenge for subsequent dogs as the "hides" were contaminated by all that food being slobbered and eated right on the spot. I haven't read the UKC rules yet, but I hope they avoided this "dumbing down" aspect. Anyway, I wanted to offer one other way of teaching the indication. Since a smart dog will absolutely figure out the at the reward is coming from you in short order, I don't mind if my dogs look back at me because I teach them a "show me" command, which means "touch" the area with their nose. This helps alot, with dogs that figure out you have the reward, but you want them to show you the indication to be sure. Its simple to do if your dog knows a "touch" command.

    1. Thanks for the information and suggestions. Funny that they'd allow food rewards on the spot in a detection competition; as you say, it doesn't make any sense. Even agility, which doesn't involve scent work, doesn't allow food on course in competitions, for fear of contaminating the course among other things. I obviously have a lot to learn.