K9 Nose Work: All About the Fun Scent Work Sport for Dogs

Dog sniffing in the grass for treats like a K9 Nose Work search

Have you heard of K9 Nose Work® and wanted to learn more about it? Wondering what the sport is, how it works, or who the sport is for? Read on to learn about this rapidly growing scent work sport and how you can join the fun.


What is K9 Nose Work?

K9 Nose Work is a scent detection sport for companion dogs, inspired by professional search dog training. Search teams consist of a handler and their dog who work together to find the location of one or more scented items called “hides”. Dogs learn to detect 3 different scents, which are essential oils Birch, Anise, and Clove. Teams typically practice their searching skills through group classes, workshops and seminars, and/or independent practice.
Experienced teams may go on to test their skills in competitions called trials. Searching in K9 Nose Work trials is done “blind”, meaning handlers have no prior knowledge of where the hides are. Therefore, trials are an exciting way for teams to really put their searching skills to the test.

It’s all about teamwork

While performing a search, dog and handler must work together.
The dog’s job is to use his or her nose to locate the hide, and then indicate to the handler when and where they have found it.
The human’s job is to help their dog search the area effectively and to carefully observe their dog’s behavior. In order to “win the game” or have a successful search, the handler must interpret their dog’s behavior correctly and call “Alert” at the moment when their dog has found the hide.

Why participate in K9 Nose Work?

K9 Nose Work provides a multitude of benefits. Here are just a few of the main benefits for dogs:
  • Providing an outlet for your dog’s natural energy and scavenging instincts
  • A happier dog – dogs learn to really love the game and to love searching
  • Confidence-building activity for shy or fearful dogs
And benefits for handlers:
  • Fun way to bond with your dog
  • Understanding the way your dog views the world (through their nose!)
  • Gaining a greater appreciation of your dog’s natural talents for detecting different scents
  • Opportunities to compete, earn ribbons, and earn competitive titles
  • A way to tire out your dog

Who can participate in K9 Nose Work?

Good news – just about any dog can participate in K9 Nose Work! The sport was originally developed by professional detection dog handlers as an opportunity for pet dogs to enjoy the same fulfillment that professional working dogs experience after a search. This means that the sport was designed from the ground up to welcome dogs of all breeds, personalities, and levels of training.
K9 Nose Work is somewhat unique among dog sports because of the fact that any dog can succeed. Other dog sports may have eligibility requirements such as breed, personality traits, or athleticism in order to participate. But all dogs have the ability to search with their noses. Any dog can learn to search for hides, have fun doing it, and reap the many benefits of nose work.
K9 Nose Work is noteworthy for being one of the few sports that accommodates dogs with leash reactivity towards other dogs. Classes are structured so that only one dog may be in the search area at a time. Other dogs are crated separately from the search area or kept in cars when it is not their turn.
Fearful or shy dogs are also welcome in most K9 Nose Work classes. A Certified Nose Work Instructor will help you to gradually build your dog’s confidence so that they can blossom into a confident, successful search dog.

What skills do I need as a handler?

K9 Nose Work classes are also designed to give you, the human, all of the skills you will need to be an effective handler. So whether you are a pro dog trainer, dog sport veteran, or first-time dog owner, you can still have fun searching with your dog. 

A note on dog aggression:

Please note that dogs who are profoundly fearful or aggressive towards people may not suitable for a group class environment. However, they may be able to take part through private instruction. I recommend contacting a nose work instructor and/or a dog behavior consultant near you if you’re interested in training options for your particular dog.

How does K9 Nose Work training work?


Foundation training

Dogs already know how to use their noses (surely you’ve seen your dog sniffing out crumbs in the kitchen before, or dragging you towards a particular scent on a walk). During Nose Work training, we simply encourage the dog to put their nose to work at the right place and the right time.
Early Nose Work training focuses on laying a strong foundation for the dog’s desire to hunt and search for their reward. In the very beginning, the dog is taught to seek out a reward, such as food or a toy. Gradually, the reward is hidden in increasingly challenging places, which encourages the dog to utilize their sense of smell as they search. Later on, once the dog is a confident searcher, dogs are taught to find each particular essential oil or “target odor”. At this stage, the dog must locate the target odor alone in order to receive their reward from the handler.

Advanced training

While foundation training is usually done indoors (where there are few distractions), as teams progress, they will learn to search in increasingly distracting environments and practice at different types of searches. There are a total of four “elements” or types of searches, which include: interiors, exteriors, containers, and vehicles. Each element presents its own challenges for teams to master.
Later-stage training further develops the skills of both the dog and handler. The dog must use their nose to solve tougher search problems in order to locate the source of the odor. And the handler is challenged to become more adept at reading their dog.
At high levels of competition, “distractors” may be placed in the environment, which add in an additional layer of challenge. Distractors are other scents, besides the target odor, that are placed inside of a box or other container that is inaccessible to the dog. They can range from a less interesting toy or type of food (i.e. kibble, bread) to something extremely interesting to the dog like steak. Imagine how hard it would be for a dog to smell a slice of pizza or a steak there in a box right in front of them, choose to ignore it, and continue on with looking for the target odor which has no inherent value to the dog. A dog must be extremely well-trained and focused on their job in order to overlook the more difficult distractors.
One other aspect to advanced K9 Nose Work training is developing a “final response”, or “alert” behavior. This is how your dog indicates when they have found the source. Most dogs will naturally start to offer some behavior or another when they have located the hide, such as freezing, laying down, or looking back at the handler. It is up to the handler to shape the dog’s natural response into a clear alert behavior through continued training.



How do I get started with K9 Nose Work?

If you are new to K9 Nose Work, then I strongly recommend joining a class group with an official K9 Nose Work instructor near you (look for the initials PNWI, ANWI, or CNWI after the instructor’s name). Use the Instructor Search available here.

When can I start competing?

Once you and your dog have a strong foundation for the game, which may take from several months up to over a year, then you can start preparing to compete. Before competing, your dog must at the very least be experienced searching for all 3 target odors and must be confident searching in variety of different locations.
The first step of NASCSW competitions is passing your dog’s Odor Recognition Test, or ORT. The ORT tests your dog’s ability to find each of the required target odors. Once your dog passes their ORT in all 3 odors, you will be eligible to enter your first trial (Nose Work Level 1 or NW1).

Do I have to compete?

No, certainly not. Competing is 100% optional. Trialing is meant to be an opportunity for teams to showcase their teamwork and celebrate progress. Nose Work can still be just as fun and provide all of the same benefits without competing.

Additional Resources:

NACSW is the venue that oversees all K9 Nose Work trials and education. See their website for more information.

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Mara Clare Van Valzah, CTC, ANWI

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