Adventures in Scent Work

Friday I went to the local scent work trial as a volunteer for my kennel club. I told them I wasn’t sure how much help I would be, since I had no idea what to do. But they said knowing what to do has never been a requirement of the club! I was the “hot steward” so I was in charge of taking the scented articles from the handlers and placing them in boxes for novice, or hiding cotton balls for more advanced classes. Then in the afternoon I was in charge of placing the birch, clove, and anise scented articles in boxes and again in the simulated environment for the dogs to find.

It was so much fun, and such a great introduction to the sport. I’ve been reading the rule book for Barn Hunt, but I find that it doesn’t give a really good picture of what the sport looks like. Or maybe I’m just visual and I need to see it happen. I didn’t get far enough into our scent work class to really have a good picture of what we were doing and why. In fact, at the trial we started with Handler Discrimination and I was confused about why we had a box with the handlers scent and then the judge put an article with her scent in another box, which we also hid. The remaining 8 boxes were empty. I thought the dogs just had to locate their owner’s box. What I didn’t realize was that not only did they have to find their box, they also had to discriminate between their owner’s scent and the judges scent. In hindsight it seems obvious (handler discrimination) but for someone who has never been involved in dog sports it’s not intuitive.

I think for the people who have been training dogs for decades, it’s sometimes hard to go back and explain it to someone who has zero experience in that world. It’s like when I go into the hardware store and I don’t have the vocabulary to ask them for the thing I want. I can see in my head what I need, but there’s a lot of sign language trying to convey the idea. I think so many people would enjoy activities like this with their dogs if it didn’t seem so mysterious. The dog people worry about their sport dying, but at least part of the problem is that it feels like a closed club. They would do well to work on getting the information out there and being welcoming to newcomers. Of course, on the flip side, everyone has been very kind to me and I’m starting to feel like I belong there. And someone more outgoing than I am may not feel as awkward trying to join the group.

It was just fascinating watching the teamwork between the people and the dogs. Scent Work isn’t really a spectator sport, so volunteering gave me a great opportunity to be in the room and watch. I also had the advantage of knowing where the hide was, so sometimes I could see the dog find the article and alert, and watch the handler miss it. Or watch them handle the dog around the area and they never make sure the dog looks at all of the boxes. There is a lot of nuance there. They really have to be able to read their dogs. I was also surprised at how many dogs alerted at the judge’s scent. I asked her why, and she said because it was a novel scent. So they found something new and different and were excited about it. I know the dogs can smell their handler. It’s about teaching them what you want them to find. When we were using a birch scented article I could smell the birch. I know the dogs could smell it. But you have to teach the dog why finding it is exciting. Birch isn’t exciting by itself, it’s the treats they get when they find it. And when you pair the scent with the reward you teach the dog to play the game.

I know it sounds weird, but it also made me feel all warm and fuzzy to see how many people didn’t qualify. We were just running novice dogs in the afternoon, so they were all new. But people weren’t upset. The dogs still got praised and rewarded and everyone was having fun. It was really nice to see that you don’t have to be perfect to get started. It really is about getting out there and having fun with your dog. I think there are so many people who would enjoy this, and they don’t even know it’s out there. I really want to try out Barn Hunt. As much as they love finding small creatures that I wish they wouldn’t find, I think the girls would love that. I’m really excited to find all of the things that I can do with my dogs.

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  • Thanks for posting this, Stacy. 
    We have a member here, Gina, who teaches Nose work and who has put champion titles on her dogs. If not for seeing her posts in various social network sites, I wouldn;t have heard of this, and I'm betting a lot of people here haven't either.

    One thing worth mentioning is that Nose Work is a great activity for dogs who are not great with other dogs, because they all work alone and there is usually only one dog present in the testing area at a time. 

    • You're correct about one dog in the testing area at a time. The rest of them are in the staging area, and the ones that weren't great with other dogs waited outside. I know, because I had to go find them ;) 

      I saw my first Black Russian Terrier at the trial. It was a really gorgeous dog, but you're right. Too much dog for me. And, at least this one wasn't very friendly with other dogs. 

      Another thing I thought was very funny is that dogs can lie. There were at least a couple that very convincingly alerted at nothing. One of the dogs was one of my favorite combination of dog/handlers from the club. He was very regal and convincing when he put his little foot on the box and looked at his person. And he has all sorts of titles and knows what he's supposed to do. He was just telling stories to get his treat. His owner said he wasn't working that day. It was so funny and so cute. 

      I think a lot of people would enjoy this sport if they knew about it. It doesn't even require any pesky downs!

      • BRTs are guard dogs. "Friendly" is not really in their job description, lol.

        I already knew that dogs can "tell stories". My last Miniature Poodle was really good at it. :D

        • It just seems wrong that a dog who looks like a big fluffy teddy bear doesn't have the personality of one of my doodles.

          • Same thing with Briards. 
            Seems wrong to me too. They are so cute!!!!

            • They really are. It seems like a lot of the breeds that I like the appearance of don't have the personality I'm looking for. I really want my next dog to be a show dog, but I want it to be exactly like my doodles. Purebred doodle.

  • We have gone to several of Gina's nosework events at several venues in southern California.  We are purely spectators but it is fascinating to see the variety of dogs and owners participating and working as a team. 

    • The judge has a training facility in Columbia, MO and so some of her students were there competing. There was a lady with a mixed breed dog who qualified in several events and was so so happy. The judge told me that this was the dog's 4th home and that they had come so far. Those are the best stories, watching a dog finally get the life it deserves.

  • I feel like Luna would have been good at this.  She loved playing "hide and seek" with us in the house and used to air scent to find us.  She was also very treat motivated, unlike Miss Stubborn McIndependent Riley.

    • Riley might surprise you! Especially as she matures a little bit. I know Maggie has blown me away with the change in personality since we started training. I had the nicest compliment from my Rally instructor last night. We were talking about how I want to get better attention and heads up heeling, and then I said how quickly we forget that a year and a half ago I couldn't even get her to stay in the same room with me. And she basically said we are already doing more than most of the dogs who look like her. They really do get better with practice.

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