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September 28, 2021

About a year ago, I retired Clover from agility classes for both her physical and emotional health. That decision itself probably deserves a whole post at some point. Suffice it to say that the pandemic (among other things) helped me find clarity about Clover's happiness and my own. Rather than the end of something, it marked a beginning. Clover and I started taking online nosework classes in December 2020. Each class lasted about 6 weeks. We did all our training as homework, just the 2 of us at home. We never took an in-person class. Then, this summer, we took the opportunity to test our progress at 4 events. Things went SO well. Amazing videos ahead, if I do say so myself. 


Quick Canine Nosework Explanation

Basically in nosework, dogs learn to find certain smells (called target odors) in a variety of settings:

  • Among identical containers of various types (starting with cardboard boxes)
  • Inside interior spaces (like churches or classrooms)
  • In an exterior space (like a picnic pavilion or bleachers)
  • On vehicles

Think if it like bomb- or drug-sniffing dogs, except our performance dogs find the smells of certain essential oils. I find it fun, affordable, and accessible to people all along the dog-lover spectrum. 

Our Nosework Classes

Our timing for starting to think about canine nosework felt ideal because we initially took a class where Clover learned to find food first -- puffed cheesy balls, to be exact. This basically taught (and rewarded) her how to hunt for something that smells.

Nosework engages dogs' sense of smell and the seeking parts of the brain, which dogs find VERY satisfying  -- in a way that agility never really was for Clover. Nosework = MUCH less stress for her. She thinks this is VERY fun, and since she always lived her life very much "in her nose," it makes sense to make that into a real thing in her life. 

Then, we introduced her to the first three target odors (birch, anise, and clove). After that, we took several classes where Clover learned to find the various target odors in various set-ups. She learned to find odor at different heights, different types of rooms or outdoor spaces, and such. 

Being a total newb, I won't attempt to explain how all this training works. We followed along with our instructor's methods, and it totally worked for Clover. So far, we completed all our classes through the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy with Stacy Barnett (and a great teaching assistant Ana Cilursu)

Testing Our Skills

MOCK ORT. So, after about 7 months of online classes, we took the opportunity to do a Mock Odor Recognition Test (ORT) in June at a friend's training facility. An ORT essentially tests if Clover can find each of the 3 initial target odors. Three times, you go into a room with a bunch of identical boxes. Your dog then shows you which one has odor inside it.

I do have video of this event, including me walking head-first into a metal pole in the room on her first search because I was so focused on watching for Clover to "alert" on a box. D'oh! On that first search, Clover needed a lot of time to acclimate to the space since it featured a lot of dog smells. When she found the box, therefore, it fell outside the typical ORT time limit, but she did find it. 

And, she went back in for her other 2 searches and found both well within time since she already scoped out the room earlier. 

REAL ORT. That mock event went so well that I signed Clover up for a real ORT event in July -- my first-ever real event in any sport with any dog. Clover nailed it, getting all 3 odors in a single day on her first try. I don't have video of that, but it felt amazing. And, the judge noted how well I WAITED on Clover's first search for her to finish sniffing a floor mat near the exit door and get back to checking the boxes. 

It wasn't easy, but I gave her space, remembered to breath, Then, I used just a bit of body motion to get her moving back toward the boxes once she looked up from the mat. And just like in the Mock ORT once Clover had seen the space, she got right to work on her other 2 searches and did not need to snorkel around. 

Next Level Canine Nosework

Feeling confident in Clover's nosework skills, I signed her up for a NW1 Trial in September only like 20 miles from home -- great because a lot of people travel pretty far to attend nosework trials. Not having to trek far soothed my nerves since I knew the location (a church) from a craft fair many years ago. 

In preparation for that event, I signed us up at the GOLD level for a nosework trial preparation class in Aug/Sept, which is more expensive and takes more time with making, editing, and submitting training videos most days each week. I took the opportunity to do more than just follow along on our own at home as a BRONZE student (who can see all the content and access a teaching assistant on FB, but who does not get 1-on-1 feedback from the instructor). 

We also went to a Mock NW1 event out in Elizabeth, Colorado, (about a 2-hour drive each way) in August. I'm SO glad we took the time to do that because I learned a TON about how these events work. That's a whole other story, but a lot of what happened that day surprised me -- simply because I didn't know. These fun matches are often called a sniff-n-go. It's a great way to practice, especially, if like us, you're not taking in-person nosework classes. 

I don't have video of that event either. However, Clover went 4 for 4 and got all of the NW1 searches ... which SUPER boosted my confidence heading into the real NW1 trial. 

Cue the Fanfare

I purchased professional videos of our NW1 trial, so you can see for yourself how successful Clover was after about 10 months of online classes. The headline: Clover earned her NW1 title on her first try, by getting all 4 searches perfectly on the same day. About 65% of dogs working that day earned their titles. 

Nosework isn't as flashy as agility, where we experienced many ups and downs, with moments of sheer brilliance. However, when you learn more about how odor moves inside spaces or outdoors with the effects of wind and sun/shade.  When you know how to watch a dog work, it's pretty interesting.

You will notice that Clover does NOT offer some type of specific "final response" such as pawing at the source or sitting or lying down or whatever. Some dogs do develop tells like that, but that gets tricky because if you reward that behavior it becomes more about that behavior and not about the true hunting / sourcing of the odor, which is really what we want to reward. My job is to be able to read Clover's movement to know when she finds the edges of odor and is working toward its source. That's things like:

  • Changes in speed
  • Changes in direction
  • Movement of her head -- side to side or tilting
  • Stopping the front of her body, with her back end rotating around

If I miss more subtle movements, Clover also sometimes look at me like, "Hey! It's right there."

NW1 Vehicle Search

What's important to know about this first search of vehicles is that we went FIRST, like honest-to-pete first of the day, even though we fell #23 on the run order. That's because to make things go faster, the trial folks often split the run order, where teams 1-22 did the container search while teams 23 and higher did vehicle searches. 

Thankfully, I knew this was possible because it happened to us at the sniff-n-go event too. It shocked me then, but I felt prepared at the real trial. 

Still, I felt a little nervous, but I really tried to walk to the start line with genuine joy and confidence.

NW1 Container Search

We took some time to rest in my car before doing our container search inside this chapel. This video below gives you 2 views of the same search. On the second view, you can see better how Clover followed the odor reflecting off the organ and back toward the correct box. 

It's hard to tell in the video, but the judge and other event staff in the chairs are quite close to the boxes on that side, which is not easy for Clover. I'm so proud how well she handled having strangers that close to her while she worked. It's amazing to see her so focused on her task.

NW1 Exterior Search

We enjoyed a nice break for lunch, where I took Clover over to a park just a block away for some real downtime. It was a hot day (in the 90s), so we enjoyed the shade and cool grass at the park.

At nosework trials dogs must be crated inside cars -- windows down, sunshades up, fans going, cooling coats on, etc. Clover wasn't as relaxed as I would like to see. But, she only barked a little off/on at things she could see or hear in the parking lot, and she did eventually nap a little between searches. I'm hoping that the more she does these events the more relaxed she'll be in her crate. 

I knew the day was going well, but I also knew that the exterior search was the toughest one we'd see all day because they post walk-thru videos of the spaces (often the night before the event). That let's you see online and see exactly what things look like and know what to expect. 

I was SO glad when my part of the run order got to do the exterior search right after lunch. It helped us to get it out of the way and not have it hanging over us as the last thing. Once Clover got this exterior search, I knew that she would earn her NW1 title because I knew she could get the interior search that you'll see below too. 

The videographer gave me 2 views of this search as well, so you can see it from different angles. Notice that Clover gets a little freaky about the marker dots on the ground that show the search area boundary, but she was able to keep working. 

NW1 Interior Search

We had just one more search to go. I knew Clover could get this one in a small Sunday school room at the church. It was a little tight at the doorway with the judge on one side and the timer on the other. It took Clover a bit to stop staring at the timer, but she got right to work and found the odor. It's funny because I almost called ALERT, but then Clover took a step away from the recycling bin, before circling back. I've seen another dog's video of this same search, and he moved exactly the same, including that circle back at the end, so there was definitely something about how the odor moved under these windows. 

So that's our nosework success story, so far. Our plan going forward is to:

  • Continue taking online classes
  • Keep training at home (and maybe with local pals)
  • Probably volunteer at some NW2 trials here in Colorado so that I can get more experience watching how the harder searches go

So far we've only done fun events and trials through the National Association of Canine Scent Work, but we might look at some AKC and other venue competitions too. I'll have to learn more about how those are different, though. 

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

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