You had me at sniff

Zuni, the Australian Shepherd, has located the scent hide under the tailgate latch. He indicates by standing up and pushing his nose against the source, and then holds his paw to it. The dogs, however, are not allowed to scratch or bite at the hide. (Photo by Wendy Dudley)

Zuni, the Australian Shepherd, has located the scent hide under the tailgate latch. He indicates by standing up and pushing his nose against the source, and then holds his paw to it. The dogs, however, are not allowed to scratch or bite at the hide. (Photo by Wendy Dudley)

By Wendy Dudley

What could be more natural than a dog following its nose? Regardless of size or temperament, every dog can smell. While dogs have been sniffing out stinky smells for centuries, whether it be the neighbour’s garbage, rotting carcasses, or scrumptious soft treats — the popularity of scenting as a sport in Canada is relatively new.

Built on the foundation of professional dog detective work such as finding illegal drugs, nose work is a fun sport that does not discriminate against mixed breeds or reactive dogs. Since canine participants are harnessed, there are no worrisome issues since the dogs are not loose to interact. And it is a dog sport for all ages since the exercise is done at a walk, albeit a fast one if the dog is enthused about tracking the scent.

“Any dog can do it — young, old, reactive or injured. It’s open to purebreds and mixed breeds,” said trainer Kim Boyes, who teaches nose work classes through her HyperHounds training centre in DeWinton, AB. Boyes was the first trainer in Alberta to become actively involved with the Sporting Detection Dog Association (SDDA), formed just over a year ago as a response to the popularity of the sport in the U.S.

“We’ve had blind dogs, three-legged dogs, elderly dogs, shy dogs, and dogs recovering from surgery,” said Karin Apfel, president of the SDDA. “It can positively affect their confidence and calmness. Without getting too deeply into the science, smelling is good for dogs and has a definite impact on their state of mind. I have seen some amazing progress in dogs that have proximity or environmental issues.” And then there’s the “cool” factor, added Apfel. The fact the sport is similar to canine police detection and military work attracts some handlers, she noted.

While some breeds may be more efficient sniffers — a Bloodhound has 300 million scent receptors, compared to 125 million in a Dachshund — all dogs can learn the sport, said trainer Shanna Chynoweth, who offers nose work classes through her Dawg Gone Good training in Calgary.

The sport  also encourages the dog to be independent, Chynoweth added. “It allows dogs to just be dogs and do what they do best. We take in the world with our eyes and dogs take in the world with their noses. We usually don’t let our dog use its nose. We tell it to ‘get out of the garbage, and don’t smell that dog’s behind.’”

Unlike such sports as flyball and agility, nose work requires little formal training. It also does not require correction, as in obedience. Rather, handlers learn how to facilitate the dog’s natural ability to search and hunt down a target odour. There are different training approaches, but the desired end result is the same — the dog sniffs containers or searches an area to find the “hide,” an odour used in training. Once it locates the hide, the dog gives a signal. It may be as subtle as staying focused with its nose close to the odour source, or be a more formal alert such as a sit or down.

With no strict rules for the handler — the dog is in charge — it is a relaxing activity. But at the same time, the dog is working hard. “It requires a lot of focus on the dog’s part, and some dogs get very frustrated if they don’t find the source fast enough,” said Boyes. “Dogs with a heavy obedience background may initially struggle because they are not used to being allowed to sniff and lead the show, but with patience and practice these dogs will do great too.”

With a third of their brain dedicated to smell, dogs find nose work a demanding exercise, said Chynoweth. “It is very mentally stimulating. They are using a lot of brain power which tires them out. A lot of dogs will often go home and sleep after class.”

There are three organizations that offer nose work trials and titles: the newly formed SDDA in Canada and two U.S. organizations: the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) and the United Kennel Club. Each uses three target odours (essential oils) for training. The SDDA uses wintergreen, pine and thyme. If you are not interested in competition, recreational nose game classes are offered at various training centres.

Generally, dogs are taught to find the specific scent by using food as a reward once the odour is detected. Some trainers will initially pair the food with the odour, while others wean the dogs off the food almost from the start, only using food as a reward after the dog has located the scent. Training usually begins with box or container searches held indoors, and then advances to room searches and then outdoor and vehicle searches.

Nose work is the ideal mental exercise for your dog, as it can be done indoors or outdoors, said Boyes. “I love tracking, but it’s far too time consuming,” she said. “With nose work, it’s the same concept but I can do it in my home with only a few minutes of preparation. It’s very user-friendly for us busy dog people. As more people get involved, the trials, workshops and classes will grow in popularity, and it will become more of a mainstream sport.”

SDDA trials are expected to be held across the country in 2014, with a trial scheduled for Alberta this spring. For more information visit