nosework

Learning Nosework

Late last summer, right as Fuchi turned a year old, we started looking for something new for her to learn. We wanted to help build her into a more confident young lady as well as do something to showcase Hokkaido Ken in our own way, something we could all enjoy. After doing some research into various dog sports we settled on one: nosework.

We picked it for a few reasons, including that it had been mentioned in multiple places as something great for building confidence in dogs and quite often that newfound confidence would filter out into the rest of the dog’s life. It was also something we could learn at home and is mostly an individual sport. Fuchi had always been a little shy and this seemed perfect – plus, Umma could learn, too.

To that end we signed up for an Intro to Nosework class through the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (I’ve probably mentioned them in this space before and will again in the future, but we do love everything they do!). Our class was taught by Stacy Barnett of Scentsabilities Nosework and from the beginning Fuchi bought into the process and learned quickly (I’ll get to Umma a little further down).

Quick sidebar: Dogs very clearly are better with their nose than humans – that’s not up for discussion (and I’ll add some highly recommended reading down at the end of this post). However, nosework is a skill that needs to be developed and it takes some work. Food games that require using their nose builds a valuable skill and is a great thing to do for enrichment, but nosework for competition is a different path (actual competition wasn’t part of our original plan!). There is A LOT to it! The humans have to learn scent theory and how things like humidity, temperature, air flow, pressure, and wind direction affect how scent will dissipate out from the source the dog needs to find. Dogs don’t intuitively know these either, but the exercises and process these classes step the teams through (and yes, it is a team sport – human and dog) help hone their natural talents into something far more. Planning for searches is far more than “I’ll just put this here” because there is a balance between all of the elements above in addition to the dog’s experience level and how well the team works together. Nosework isn’t just about using the nose, but also the brain. It can be mentally exhausting for human and dog!

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Fuchi ready for a search in the front yard on harness and leash.

Back to the process. We started Fuchi on what is called a cocktail – a mixture of the three target odors for training for NACSW nosework competitions – of birch, anise, and clove. After some time on this, moving through steps such as one hide in an open switchbox to choosing from multiple switchboxes to moving to different types of containers to finding hides on objects, we split into searching for the odors individually (as is done in competition). As we moved through classes we broadened her search areas, experimented with elevation high and low, encouraged her to drive to source around and through objects, started on inaccessible hides (such as in a drawer, ones where she can’t put her nose on it), moved outside, worked on harness and leash (as will be needed in most competition), and trained her on working vehicles (nosework titles are in four elements in NACSW – containers, interior, exteriors, and vehicle).

Fuchi met every challenge, surprising and delighting us at every turn with her ability to source her hides. We started to make them more and more difficult and each time we stepped it up, so did she. And we learned a lot! As it turns out the way scent moves within our own home surprised us a lot – we had many times where a hide would be far easier or more difficult than expected, but just by watching Fuchi move through the search area she painted a very clear picture of exactly what the air was doing. It’s fascinating!

All of this brings us to early this year – pre-pandemic times, if anyone can remember what that was like anymore. Fuchi still had things to work on, but we felt like she was ready to take what’s called her Odor Recognition Test (ORT) – a test where she has to identify a box with each of the three scents (three separate searches) to qualify for the first full level of competition. At the time there weren’t many options, especially close by, so we had pretty much decided to wait until spring. After six FDSA classes, three FDSA workshops, a multitude of related webinars and reading, and training with 5-7 searches a day, six days a week, we felt ready.

Then the pandemic came, everything was canceled, and it’s not clear when competitions may happen again.

Right at this time Stacy announced a virtual event for nosework competitors of all levels called the Olympic Scentathlon with fellow trainer Holly Bushard. Seven days of events, each with a different theme, three experience levels – sounded like a nice way to dip our toes into the competitive waters so we signed up with Fuchi. The videos that follow are the ones we submitted for each day. We didn’t win, but we learned a lot through the process (mainly about where our weak points are!) and had a lot of fun. There were something around 600 teams entered, everyone posting a video of a search each day, and while we didn’t have time to watch the more experienced teams during the event itself now that it’s over we plan to go back and see if we can pick up any tips.

Here are Fuchi’s seven videos – all recorded during the Scentathlon timeframe – along with some commentary about each one. (And hey, I figured out how to use YouTube!)

Day 1 theme: Confidence.We chose this one because it shows how confident Fuchi is during a search. She doesn’t hesitate, she keeps moving, and does the work.

Day 2 theme: Independence. This is an example of a search that did not go as expected, but she never once faltered in her determination to solve the puzzle and never asked for help. After it was over we figured out why this was so hard: it was afternoon on a warm day and those windows face west, plus there is a vaulted ceiling over that area so the scent was not only rising but rising further than normal. Oops.

Day 3 theme: Drive to Source. This was Fuchi’s very first hide that was inaccessible due to elevation. Watch her extend at the end!

Day 4 theme: Clearing Space. The goal here was to have the dog move through multiple spaces to find a hide. Check out the brief look-and-dismiss to her left at the beginning – there is a bathroom and door to the garage that way, but she realized very quickly nothing was there. Then she gives the bedroom a once over before moving to the master bath.

Day 5 theme: Cooperation With Handler. While the goal is the dog does the work, it still is a team sport and the human’s responsibility is to support as needed. With this one I allowed Fuchi to stop and figure out where to go next rather than trying to keep her moving. I really do love this video for the way she stops and takes note of the breeze, thinks for a moment, and then goes straight to the hide!

Day 6 theme: Focus. Hot oven, freshly baked bacon on the counter, and Fuchi’s theme song running in the background – none of it distracted her from the search.

Day 7 theme: Love of the Game. Fuchi gets EXCITED to search every day! When we get out her nosework collar she jumps to get it on and when waiting at the start line she’s antsy to go. During a search she’s always smiling and confident, even if it’s hard. She loves it, we love it, and everyone has a blast. Check out how smoothly she did this multiple hide search, something still fairly new to her (and us!).

But what about Umma, you may be asking? Well…her introduction to the sport was a little rocky. We started them together in the same class, but while Fuchi bought in completely and excelled, Umma didn’t quite get the point. We should have expected this because Umma always like to know why we are doing something – her and Fuchi learn very differently even though both are highly intelligent. She ended up opting out and we let her. Even then she stayed engaged with Fuchi’s process, always ready to watch her daughter search and offering up encouragement during searches. (Well, we think it was encouragement – we just know it was very vocal at appropriate times!)

Recently, though, we decided to start over with her at the beginning and to move at a pace better for her. It’s working! We’ve started her just on birch rather than a cocktail and she’s picking up the game quick. We put the nosework collar on her and she is ready.

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There’s an interesting byproduct of teaching nosework to your dog. As they tune their skills, their mind gets opened to all the possibilities. On walks Fuchi started paying more attention to things around her, stopping to sniff more things and spending more time on them. It took us quite a while to piece together what was going on, but it’s as if her mind was blown. “What is all of this?! All these smells are glorious! I’m learning so much!” After a while she adjusted to it being her new normal.

Right now Umma is going through the same thing. She is a very environmentally sensitive dog and already wasn’t thrilled with everyone in the neighborhood being home all day now due to the pandemic – more people, more noise, more everything – but now she’s smelling so many new things it can be a little overwhelming. She’ll adjust in time, as Fuchi did – it’s a process.

Here’s a few videos of Umma doing searches. Keep in mind this after two weeks of training, compared to the eight+ months of training Fuchi has had for hers. Her progress has been fast! Watching her daughter all this time has rubbed off on her, we think.

I like the following video for how Umma gives the bucket (that should have been upside down, my bad) a quick sniff on her way to the switchbox with her source.

And I love how in this one she splits the distraction objects with barely a glance. Good girl!

Here’s a nice closeup of the nosework collar they now share. Isn’t it pretty?!

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Nosework has become a thing we can do as a family and each of us are having a blast. We still have a lot of things to work on with both dogs – and the humans have lots to learn, too – but we’re enjoying every step of this mixture of art and science. Once competitions are cleared to begin again it might be time to sign Fuchi up!

Resources: Each of these has been very helpful us in either learning how to do nosework and to teach our dogs or just to understand dogs in general.

Fenzi Dog Sports Academy – Online classes, workshops, and webinars (and after you sign up for classes you can join the helpful Facebook study groups.)

Scentsabilities Nosework – Classes, webinars, blog, video consults with Stacy Barnett.

NACSW– National Association of Canine Scent Work home for events and resources.

K9 NW Source – This is where we bought all of our scents and containers. (We didn’t buy boxes – we used old sports card boxes and boxes from Umma’s old Barkbox subscription.)

What the Dog Knows, by Cat Warren. Fascinating look at building a cadaver dog and other related jobs

The Genius of Dogs, by Brian Hare. This book made it very clear just how much we don’t know about dogs – a ton!

Scent of the Missing, by Susannah Charleston. Really great look at how to build a tracking dog.

Books by Alexandra Horowitz – All of them are great reading!

Patricia McConnell – All of her books and her blog are excellent.

Suzanne Clothier – Love her approach to training. Building a great relationship with your dog is key to building a great nosework team.

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