Suzanne’s Introduction to K9 Nose Work

Although I’d heard about K9 Nose Work® for the past few years, I had never seen a trial or attended any workshops or training classes.  So I decided to attend Jill Marie O’Brien’s and Amy Herot’s half-day workshop at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Conference in San Diego last October.

Jill and Amy gave a brief introduction to Nose Work and then put five or six dogs from the local animal shelter through three rounds of working with treats stashed in various configurations of cardboard boxes.  It was intriguing to watch.  In their introductory remarks, the two women mentioned that nose work reveals much about a dog’s nature or temperament.  I thought that was an interesting piece of information but was a bit skeptical about just how that would be the case.  I discovered the answer when we watched the dogs.

What sets Nose Work apart from other canine activities is that no training is involved – at least in the beginning.  Instead, it’s creating a setting that allows the dog to make use of his olfactory abilities.  In doing so, the dog reveals how comfortable he is in his immediate surroundings.   And because the dog is free to choose how he approaches the task, rather than specific behaviors being elicited, controlled, or shaped by the handler/trainer, by paying attention to the strategies dogs use, we can gain insights into how they deal or cope with the world.  It’s almost as if we can see how the sum total of their previous life experiences influence how they react to the task before them when they are free to choose what to do.

Several dogs at the workshop were quite confident, and immediately began using their noses to find the food.  Some were quite methodical, sniffing each box in turn.  A few were like a bull in a china closet, knocking boxes all over the place.  One “bully-breed” looking mix decided the better strategy was to jump on the podium and pull down the entire bag of treats rather than wasting time on the few hidden in the boxes!

And one small, Bichon-looking mix was in some ways the most memorable.  He wandered around a few of the boxes and then simply lay down in the middle of the pile and looked up at the person holding the leash.  The clear interpretation was that this dog was accustomed to looking to his owner to take care of things for him.

To me, that indicates this dog had an owner he trusted to “run interference” for him and who would take care of things for him.  Another interpretation was that this dog was indulged or “spoiled”, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

On the spur of the moment a few weeks ago I decided to see what our Irish setter Coral – who is likely one of the most indulged dogs on the planet – would do if I dropped a treat in a box that was lying on the floor.  This was not a planned “nose work” session, just a spontaneous opportunity with a box, some treats, a dog, and a video camera. 

I wasn’t too surprised that Coral was reluctant to put her head into this relatively deep box.  And clearly first displayed her frustration about the treat not being readily available (barking and scratching the floor), and secondly her default strategy which is to rely on me to get her what she wants (pawing at me).  You can see her behavior in the accompanying video clip.

So I think K9 Nose Work® is worth learning more about.  I also like the fact that only one dog works at a time in classes – a great plus for dogs that don’t do well with other dogs and thus many canine sports are trying experiences.   While I’m not a nose work expert, I hope to have the chance to ask a local instructor about the “whys” of a few of the procedures I observed at the workshop.  And I’ve started to collect cardboard boxes of varying sizes so Coral and I can dip our toes (and her nose!)  into this sport in coming months! 



  • Nose work (or play!) is a fun way to work with dogs. I didn’t see the bichon X you refer to in your article and the dog may indeed have been used to looking to their handler for direction, but I’ve seen dogs be similarly unresponsive to the task at hand. Some of the dogs are either not interested, or too stressed to work up the interest. My own dog was not motivated enough to move among boxes (scary novel objects) for food. He was however interested in seeking out his favorite squeaky toy.

  • Loved the video and the write up even more. A very interesting concept that their immediate reaction to something that is a ‘natural’ to them (their smelling ability) can have deeper behavioral/background meanings. Love this newsletter! I’ll post it on facebook Carol Erickson’s Pet Page.

  • Virginia Lesso

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    A quick and perhaps ingenious method of determining a dog’s learning style and approach to problem solving. I hesitate to say I.Q. although I recall my enthusiasm when I first picked up a copy of Stanley Coren’s “The Intelligjence of Dogs.” Do you believe these to be valid tests of a dog’s IQ?

    • Suzanne & Dan

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      Thanks for your comment Virginia. The short answer is “no”, we really don’t believe in IQ tests for dogs. The main reason is that they are arbitrary – who decides what makes a dog intelligent? Their ability to follow directions from their handlers/owners/trainers? The ability to solve problems? What if the problem is a scent discrimination – some breeds will have inherent advantages over others. So, we think we should look at each dog as an individual rather than in comparison to others.

  • Donna Mlinek

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    Hi Suzanne
    Coral is doing something we call “Timmy’s in the well!” – where she perceives a puzzle and looks to her owner to help her solve it.
    I think Nose Work is the best thing to happen to dogs and their owners in a long time. It is wonderfully enriching and stimulating for dogs (who often spend far too many hours alone while we earn the money to pay for their kibble!). The barriers to entry for the activity are low — all you need to start are some boxes; you can do it anywhere (I do it in my yard, my garage, my basement, my living room); any dog can do it we have small dogs, big dogs, blind dogs, old dogs; any person can do it – it doesn’t take a great deal of dog training skill or athleticism on the part of the handler. You can do it in five or ten minutes – before you leave for work, after you get home, or during a commercial break while watching TV. And yes, you’re right – we’re not teaching the dogs anything (unlike obedience or agility) – we are just setting up learning situations for them and watching them learn. I’ve done competitive obedience and agility, and this is so different – and by far the most fun thing I’ve ever done with my dog. It has brought my bond with my dog to a new level as I observe him closely and learn something from him every day and am constantly amazed by what he can do with that nose!
    Donna Mlinek, ANWI

  • Manette Kohler

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    Guess what I’m going to do today? Can’t wait to try this out and see what my boys do!

  • Nancy Bruner

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    If I put a treat in any size box for my four doxies, the boxes wouldn’t last 1 minute! I’ll give it a shot.

  • Thanks for sharing your initial efforts at K9 Nose Work. It is great to see the beginnings as we often see dogs who are “pros” at a particular activity. Although I was unable to attend the workshop at the APDT conference (so much great info, so little time), I think I’ll give it a try with my dogs.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Nosework is the MOST FUN thing I have ever done w/dogs…& I’ve done most all of it in my 84 years!! It’s such a joy to just hang on to my 3 legged beagle x, “do his stuff” & , figure out where the hides are. He & I have loved every minute of it & plan to trial him in the coming year. This is a sport for ANY dog, handicapped, old, young, shy, reactive…whatever…they can ALL do it & needless to say, so can their folks! I’ve had an amazing group & instuctor to work with & we plan to go thw distance together. Give it a try everyone…you won’t be sorry!! Fun! Fun! Fun!..(& you learn a lot too!)

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