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K9 Nose Work – a Fun New Sport for Fido!

By Julia Williams

First there was surfing. Then there was Musical Canine Freestyle. The latest sport that really makes me wish I had a dog is K9 Nose Work. I love my cats dearly, but as anyone with kitties knows, there are limits to the fun things you can do with them. The only sport I know of for cats is Feline Agility, and my skittish kitties would not do well in that arena. But if you’re a dog owner, you really ought to look into the relatively new sport of K9 Nose Work.

What is K9 Nose Work?

All dogs have an incredible sense of smell, said to be a thousand times more sensitive than a humans. Whereas we have a mere 5 million olfactory receptors, a dog has more than 220 million, which makes them a natural for scent work.

The exciting sport of K9 Nose Work evolved from the important scent work that detection dogs and professional handlers do, e.g., searching for explosives, drugs and cadavers, tracking, and search and rescue operations. Three Southern California dog trainers started K9 Nose Work (also called fun nose work) to give everyday dog owners a chance to let their canine friends put their impressive sniffers to use while having a good time. K9 Nose Work was designed to develop a dog’s natural scenting ability by utilizing their curiosity, desire to hunt and fondness for toys, food and exercise.

K9 Nose Work is a terrific training activity that helps a dog gain confidence and allows them use their mind and muscles in addition to that amazing sense of smell. Unlike some dog sports, there is very little equipment to buy, and it’s portable since your dog’s nose goes everywhere he does!

The beginner level of K9 Nose Work training encourages dogs to find their toy in a box, and they’re rewarded with the toy, lavish praise and dog treats. Once they master this activity, the toy is hidden in a box among other empty boxes. Training then progresses to locating a hidden scent in more and more difficult locations. These Nose Work “target odors” are made by placing a tiny amount of essential oil (birch, anise or clove) on a cotton swab.

Once the dog finds the target odor, he’s supposed to alert his owner/handler, similar to the way professional detection dogs are trained to do. Some dogs bark, others paw at the container and some sit down and stare at their handler to alert. K9 Nose Work could be considered a “team sport,” because it involves closely observing the dog and knowing him well enough to discern when he's actually found the odor as opposed to a false alert.

Who Can Participate in K9 Nose Work?

Perhaps the greatest thing about this new dog sport is that all breeds, sizes and ages can participate. All dogs have a powerful sense of smell, after all, and can be trained to put it to good use. It isn’t just the typical “detection” breeds who excel at K9 Nose work either – “mutts” compete against German Shepherds, Beagles and Bloodhounds, and it’s anyone’s game to win. Success comes more from consistent training and good handler/dog communication than bloodlines. 

K9 Nose Work is ideal for those who prefer a less physically demanding sport that isn’t populated by overly excited dogs and handlers. Since speed or agility isn’t required, it’s a great low impact sport for older dogs too. Although K9 Nose Work training classes are usually done in groups, only one dog is worked at a time. Consequently, it’s suitable for shy or reactive dogs that might not fare well in a sport involving close proximity to lots of other dogs.

How to Find a K9 Nose Work Instructor

The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) is the only official sanctioning and organizing body for the sport of K9 Nose Work. The NACSW established guidelines for instructor certification, to ensure that standards of excellence are met when teaching the sport to handler/dog teams. Certified nose work instructors may use the acronym CNWI after their name to indicate they’ve achieved the requirements. A current listing of certified nose work instructors is available on their website.

Getting Started in K9 Nose Work

Currently, K9 Nose Work classes and NACSW-sanctioned trials are only offered in a handful of states, including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. However, this exciting new dog sport is becoming more popular by the day and additional locations are planned for 2011. You and your dog can also begin to do nose work on your own.

Jill Marie O Brien, one of the founders of K9 Nose Work and a Certified Nose Work instructor, has written several informative articles on the sport, among them, a good guide for beginners with tips on what is needed to get started and the best way to introduce dogs to a more formal nose work routine. I also found another great guide on getting started in K9 Nose Work here.

Doesn’t K9 Nose Work sound like a fun sport? I’m really intrigued by it. All I need now…is a dog!

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