I started hearing about K9 Nose Work from dogs around town this summer. They were taking a class and it was “hush-hush” what actually happened in the ring at Thunderpaws. I got so curious that I couldn’t resist sending my human to a seminar with one of the founders of the sport last week. Through participating in Nose Work training, companion dogs learn what detection dogs are doing on the job.
All the dogs at the seminar had been through classes like the one here at Thunderpaws to get the foundation of hunting for scents with their humans. Almost all of the human-dog teams got their foundations studying with Julie Eskoff, the first certified K9 Nose Work instructor in Texas, who hosted Ron Gaunt for this week’s class, “Advanced Working and Thinking,” at Rancho Mondo Northwest Canine Resource Center.
This class was all about teaching the humans how to understand communication from their dogs. “People ask what we are teaching the dog,” Gaunt says. “You can’t teach the dogs!” Dogs don’t need to be taught to hunt because they have an instinct. Humans are the ones who need instruction.
“If you want a dog to work well,” he said, “Let him work off his instincts.” Any dog can hunt for odors, which is the whole point of this new sport. Breeds of all sizes and shapes participated in the seminar, from Henrietta the dachshund to Tootsie, who is an Irish Wolfhound mix. Even a cute, white miniature poodle with bows in her hair was climbing on a front loader and rooting around in the barn to find the odor.
“Dogs have a toolbox of instincts that are just laying there until they need them,” Gaunt said.
He says the object of Nose Work training is to convince the dogs to tell their handlers what they know. Dogs learn through training that their information is important to the humans and the humans will actually listen to what they have to say. Dogs learn this by earning rewards for sharing information about hidden odors with their humans.
Dogs work with a human handler in all the exercises and in competitive trials too. Dogs hunt one by one in K9 Nose Work, so it’s accessible to reactive dogs who aren’t comfortable around other dogs. Humans hide odor canisters on vehicles, in suitcases, houses, barns and other structures, and out in fields or woods. Sometimes dogs can see the odor canisters and sometimes they can’t. The humans’ job is to keep the dog safe and learn what the dogs find out about the location of the odors.
The dogs can tell how many odors are present before they enter the search area. They then read the spread of odors, the odor cone, to trace them back to the source. The source might be on a truck bumper, or a pole in a barn, or inside a book case in an office. Odors move around with the wind.
Gaunt, who started his work with detection dogs as a police officer before he helped found K9 Nose Work, said that dogs will take about 10 seconds to locate the odors. Humans often take considerably longer to understand their dog’s messages about where to find the odors. In fact, competitions give the teams three whole minutes.
Training is all about learning to communicate. “I’m not going to communicate to the dog,” Gaunt said. “I’m going to listen to the dog.”
This is easier said than done for both humans and companion dogs. Throughout the weekend, Gaunt kept reminding the humans to limit their body language and to let the leash stay loose. These are ways humans communicate their wishes to dogs and can interfere with dogs’ self-reliance. Companion dogs, especially dogs who are really skilled in obedience, have to work to turn around the usual arc of communication. Dogs are used to pleasing their humans and to taking care of them. During the search, a companion dog can be distracted by the humans and start taking care of them instead of finding the odor.
When humans don’t take in what the dogs are trying to tell them, dogs try a second time to tell them. Gaunt said they won’t try a third time (and my human confirmed this through observation). Instead, dogs conclude that the humans don’t find their information important, and they go on to play another game.
The dogs and humans at the workshop all seemed really well prepared for searching together. I hope they win when they start to compete. My human learned a lot about how odors spread in the air and on the ground and what it looks like when a dog has caught the edge and found the source. She was really excited about all this and also got excited about learning how to search with us kitties too.