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Nose Work Is Not Just For Bloodhounds And German Shepherds

A Dog’s Gift is his Nose

Let me set the stage.  Junior and Sulley, both English Mastiffs, were playing one night with a tennis ball.  Junior was having a blast catching, retrieving, and stealing it from Sulley.  I decided the game was over.  While Junior was outside going potty, I put the ball at the bottom of a huge basket filled with other dog toys in a completely different room.

That little puppy ran inside, sniffed around in the room we were playing in, and followed the scent into the room with the basket.

He proceeded to submerge his head all the way to the bottom and fish that slimy tennis ball out.  He pranced back to me so proud of his find and dropped it at my feet.

I had been thinking about getting him involved in nose work before this, but watching him follow that scent with his giant black nose solidified that decision for me.

I am truly blessed to have a good mastiff friend who is very involved in nose work.  She has acted as a mentor for me as I start on this journey with Junior.

Big Dog Nose Work

Using what I have learned from her and advice from others, Junior and I just completed our four-week Introduction To Nose Work class.  I found a trainer through the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW™) which is the official sanctioning and organizing body for the sport of K9 Nose Work®.

“The NACSW envisions a world where every dog and dog lover find joy and a deeper bond through the activity or sport of K9 Nose Work.”


This post contains affiliate links from which I may receive a small compensation.  There is NO ADDED COST to you should you use these links. 


First Nose Work Class

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I saw that the other dog in our training class was a two-year-old Belgian Malinois.

Known for their courage, intensity, and intelligence, this Mal lived up to that reputation and then some.  It was only her second class when Junior and I started.

You would have thought she was an official detective dog simply practicing for the fun of it.

I have learned that there are several different methods trainers use to begin scent training.  My trainer began using treats as the “odor.” Other trainers jump right into introducing actual “odors” in the first class.

I am too new to the sport to comment on whether one is better than another.  I can say that I have watched Junior go from clearly using his eyes and ears to relying on his nose to find the “scent.”

That, in my opinion, proves he is catching on to the game of nose work and will do just fine when we introduce “real odors.”

The main objective in the first class was to pair treats to a “source.”  The “source” was a white PVC tube filled with a few of our treats.

The dogs were rewarded for “finding” the “source” of the scent.  At first, we put the source in boxes but eventually moved the source out of the boxes by the second and third class.

Scenting Skills Enhanced

After we paired the “rewards” (treats) to “finding” the “source,” we then worked on rewarding him for “sticking” to the “source.”

What this means is that we only reward the dog (using a series of treats given one at a time over several minutes) when they are AT “source.”  We also started to watch for the dog’s specific “cue” or signal that they found the scent and are at the “source.”

Junior and I are still working on this.

His cues have ranged from just dive-bombing his head into the box for treats, to sitting at “source,” to laying down, to pawing the “source.”

I have not figured out whether those are his actual cues, or if he’s just being silly or lazy.  We need many more repetitions in order to fine-tune and shape his cue so I know what to look for.

One of the realizations I have had in the last 4 weeks of nose work training, is that I am being trained as much, if not more than Junior is.

You can see in the videos how many times I am reminded when and where to reward Junior.

Timing and placement of the reward are critical for Junior to be able to make the connection.  Eventually, we want him to understand what he is supposed to “do” when I say “search.” That is “find” the “source” and “stick” to it.

Timing and placement of the reward in nose work are critical for the dog to make the connection. Click to Tweet

Next Step In Nose Work: Introduction To Odor

Odors will be introduced in the Introduction To Odor class which we will be taking later this summer.  Most dogs learning the activity of K9 Nose Work® will transition from searching for food or toys to searching for a “target odor”.

K9 Nose Work® target odors are made using 100% cotton swabs, cut in half and scented with one of the three essential oils: Birch, Anise, and Clove.

Target odors are introduced in training in the following order:

  1. Birch (“Sweet Birch” aka Betula Lenta)
  2. Anise (“Aniseed” aka Pimpinella Anisum variety – NOT Star Anise, Illicium Verum)
  3. Clove (“Clove Bud” aka Eugenia Caryophylatta or Syzgium Aromaticum)

Practice kits can be ordered through Amazon here

Benefits Of Nose Work

I am not sure there are more fun things to watch than a dog doing what he/she was bred to do.  Watching them use the gifts that God has bestowed upon them is such an absolute thrill!

Beyond that, the benefits of participating in nose work with your dog are numerous.

It provides intellectual stimulation like few other dog sports.  It requires the dog to rely entirely on one of his most powerful senses… his nose.  An added bonus is that they are burning lots of physical energy as well which results in a more content pup.

[READ: A Cool Dog Is A Safe Dog: 5 Fun Summer Activities To Beat The Heat]

In addition, nose work is fantastic for reactive dogs and dogs that may struggle with fear.  With patience, nose work can provide a wonderful outlet for these dogs to build their confidence and take their mind off of the things that trigger fear or reactivity.

Stacey Barnett’s podcast has an entire episode (How Nose Work Benefits The Reactive Dog) dedicated to just this topic which I highly recommend you listen to if you have a reactive dog!

Lastly, nose work allows you to create a stronger bond with your dog as you learn to observe, understand, and rely upon him.  What an awesome partnership you will be building with your dog!

Big Dog Mom Tips To Starting Nose Work With Your Big Dog

  1. DO IT!  Find a class on the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW™).
  2. If you live in Phoenix, Arizona, our trainer Kim Baer is fantastic! She is with Now Who’s The Boss, Inc.
  3. If you don’t live in Phoenix and don’t see a trainer on NACSW™ for your local area, consider an online training class. A great one I know of is through Scentsabilities NoseWork and Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA).
  4. Practice at home in between classes. I did find that the more Junior and I practiced in between classes, the better and more fun he had.  At home, I involved my two children in the hiding of our “source” which added to the fun for Junior.  He adores his kids, so anything with them is FUN!  Consider getting yourself a Practice kit once you start on odor.
  5. Consider listening to a podcast on Scent Training. I love Stacy Barnett’s Podcast: Scentsabilities Nosework Podcast which is also on iTunes.  Another great one for general dog sports is the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast.

What Are You Waiting For?

If you are currently involved in nose work with your dog, I would love to see how this compares with your experience.  If you are not currently active in nose work, is it something you have ever considered?   I would love to know what you think about this.

Please drop me a note in the comments below.

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5 Comments

  1. We LOVE Nose Work! My EM is sometimes reactive, yet during class and he’s around strangers, he’s totally focused on the search and being in the moment. The instructor likes the fact that his slobber often distracts some NW seasoned dogs, it’s an extra challenge! His expression when he alerts is priceless. After class he is mentally exhausted and snores much louder and longer than after a long walk or hike. I just wish there were more classes available. NW rocks!

    1. I am so thrilled you love it as much as I do! How long have you been doing NW with your Mastiff? How did you find out about doing it with your somewhat reactive dog? It is one of those sports that is deceptive in how hard dogs have to work. They aren’t generally panting and showing signs of physical exhaustion, but mentally, they are wiped.

  2. I’ve wanted to get my husky, Halo into a nose work class but I’ve been a little intimidated by the idea. Halo is such a social butterfly that often he lacks focus. He’d rather visit everyone in the class then learn anything. It sounds like this might be just the thing to real in a little self control and focus.
    After reading this article, I’m going to look for classes in my area. Thanks

    1. This is fantastic, Janet! I loved nose work when we were doing it. It is both physically and mentally demanding so at the end of each class, Junior was exhausted! Junior struggles with focus sometimes too, so nose work was a perfect activity for him. Good luck!

  3. I have to share this. My son has type 1 diabetes. He fell in love with an English mastiff at a friend’s house. The friend’s mom offered the big girl to us. She said she was moving into a community and could not have a large dog. We
    Reluctantly said yes, having two golden retrievers at home. Ginger, the EM, slept in my son’s room. He was her boy for sure. After a few nights of a woof in the middle of the night, and her refusing to leave his side we realized she was alerting because his blood sugar was low. He would wake, saying he felt awful. He could have had a seizure if he didn’t wake. As he grew into puberty his blood sugar would become very high about 3 or 4 in the morning. This is something that commonly happens during this stage of life. This is not dangerous like the low blood sugars. The boy smelled awful to Ginger. She would ask to leave his room. As a young teen he didn’t like her waking him so he wouldn’t let her sleep with him. She slept outside his door and eventually, with my coaxing moved to her dog bed in my bedroom. She would wake me in the night with her gentle woof, trying to alert that my son’s blood sugar was low. Each time this happened I went to my son’s room. He was already awake treating because she had been headbutting his door. She lived to be 11 and has been my greatest heartache. My son is 21 now. I will always have a mastiff. I love the English but I have Bull mastiffs because they are not quiet as big and are easier for a single woman to handle as they age. I currently have my third mastiff. She is 2, just a puppy. Ginger was like nana to my son and I had a friend that I could depend on with her.
    I went to a meeting with DADs, diabetic alert dogs. They showed how they used nose work to train the Dogs. We had a girl so smart that she performed out of pure love.

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