What to expect at a Nosework Trial

The hardest thing about any dog sport is getting started! Once you have found a Nosework class and have practiced your skills you likely have been bitten by the dog sport bug and are ready to enter a trial. What do you do next??!


First and foremost you want to be sure you are ready and prepared for competition. Being prepared will reduce some of the anxiety of competing and it will ensure your dog has a positive emotional response to trialing. Your dog will need to be comfortable in novel locations and be able to work around people and handle some proximity to other dogs. In scent sports, there are never other dogs out during your run.

For this blog I will be focusing on NACSW trials only. With our current state of social distancing, NACSW was already a social distance friendly sport! Dogs are never able to socialize and people gatherings are minimized. With Covid, masks are required anytime you are out of your car and when searching and everyone must maintain a distance of 6 feet. Click here to review their COVID trial guidelines.

As with any sport/organization, make sure to read over the rules. You can also volunteer if there is a trial near you. You are not able to spectate at a NACSW trial so it's difficult to know what to expect before trialing. It's a great experience to volunteer first if you can.


Next you need to find out where the trials are and how to enter! 

NACSW Nosework Trials: Membership Registration 

You and your dog must be registered with NACSW before entering a trial. The process is simple and can all be handled online. Your dog's registration is a one-time lifetime fee. Your membership is annual.


Required Odor Recognition Test (ORT)

In NACSW you must first pass an Odor Recognition Test (ORT) before you can trial. Before April 1, 2021, you just need to pass Birch to enter NW1/L1. After April 1st 2021 you must pass all 3 odors (Birch, Anise, Clove) before you can trial as any odor can be used in any level after April 1st 2021. Teaching a new odor is not hard! Once your dog is proficient on Birch, you will want to teach the next odor Anise the same way you introduced Birch and then the same with Clove.

To find an ORT in your area, go to: https://www.nacsw.net/calendars/ort-calendar

For ORTs, the host will have a mail in form to sign up. ORTs are low key and usually do not last all day, often ending in the early afternoon. Each odor will run one at a time. If you have 2 dogs, check the premium if they allow entering multiple dogs. The 2nd set of dogs will have a new setup immediately following the first run of each odor. An ORT is searching 2 rows of 6 boxes with one hide. Here's an example of an ORT:

How to Enter a NACSW Trial 

NACSW has a very easy system for finding and entering trials. For Trials, all entries are handled online and payment is only made once you have gotten into a trial. Entries are selected by random draw with a 48 hour opening period. Each trial has a link to the host's website where a premium is available with all the trial details. Make sure to check ahead for when they open! Trials fill with wait lists!

To find a NACSW Trial - go to this link: https://www.nacsw.net/calendars/trial-calendar

What to Expect at a NACSW Trial

NACSW prides itself in using new and unique sites to mimic the real world of scent detection. Trials are held at schools, fairgrounds, camp sites, baseball fields and other interesting sites!

When you get into a trial, the host will email you very detailed information a week or two before the event. They will explain when you can arrive, parking instructions and what time the first dog will start. NACSW is now doing virtual walkthroughs for trials where you can see a video of each search area the night before or morning of your trial. They are posted on the following website link: https://walkthrough.nacsw.net/

You can get an idea of what kind of searches they have at the various levels by looking at the many trials across the country at that link. They also "debrief" each search showing where the hides were and what was challenging.

Make sure you have a mobile device that is charged and that you can reach the internet. If you do not have access to a device, let the host know at the trial and they will help find one to use.

The number of teams at a NACSW trial is around 28-38 teams which amount to 110-150 runs a day. Each team runs on average 4 searches. All teams arrive at the same time and 2 searches are running at the same time.

Trials and ORTs will feel intimate and are very well run with experienced officials. The atmosphere is very welcoming and supportive. You will always be able to find someone to help with any concerns or questions. The host will give you general trial day information. The Certifying Official sets all the hides and will go over the details of each search and cover the main rules you need to remember. And then judges who will judge your search and confirm your "Alert" calls with a "yes" or "no".

They will have a briefing at the start of the day and will explain how the day will run and how the flow of the trial will go. You'll get details for each search, option for off leash, and how much time you have to search. There is a run order from 1-X and they have parking lot stewards who will call each dog when ready. It's very efficient and clear when it's your turn. They will tell you at the briefing which dog starts at each search and where to enter and exit. If you have ANY questions this is the time to ask - during the briefing.

In NACSW they are very considerate of the dogs well-being. They make sure that the environment is as stress free as possible. Dogs are required to be crated/stay in your car when not searching or not being walked. They will have a designated parking area for reactive dogs to help with proximity with other dogs. No other dog is ever in view while you are working a search element.

There will be a parking attendant to help direct you where to park and also call out which dog is ready to go on deck. A good rule of thumb is not to get your dog out too early. Usually when they call your name/your number is up, you have time to potty your dog and get to your search area or first staging area. You can potty your dog at any time in the designated potty area. Please don't allow your dog to potty in or between staging areas. Staging areas are used to separate the dogs but also to have a few lined up. This helps the trial to run smoothly and more efficiently.

NW trials can be LONG days. The trial may not end until 5pm or later but some may end much earlier. With the virtual walkthroughs and debriefings, trials are now ending an hour or two earlier! There will be a place to check in when you arrive in the morning - just ask anyone in the parking lot where to go. You don't need to bring anything to check in. After you check in, it would be a good time to get your dog out to potty and acclimate to their new surroundings.

You may spend a lot of the time in your car waiting for your turn. Make sure to bring a book, your laptop/iPad/Phone, and the rule book to help pass the time while waiting. Trust me, it's ALL worth it!

At the end of the trial you can pick up your score sheets and get your results! The results are also quickly updated and posted online: https://www.nacsw.net/trial-results. Debriefings of each search are currently being posted on Virtual Walkthrough Page.

​Nosework Trial Frequently Asked Questions (NACSW)

  • Hides will NOT be visible. You will not see where a hide is.
  • Do not look for a hide. Your job is to read your dog when they are at the hide.
  • You must call "Alert" when you determine your dog has found the hide. "Alert" will stop the clock in Novice. Where "Finish" stops the clock after Novice.
  • Don't worry if your dog retrieves the hide - that is very rare and worst case you may get a fault for disrupting the search area. You can still pass with a few faults.
  • Search area boundaries are usually marked very clearly. If you aren't sure you can ask before or during the search.
  • The boundary markers denote that the hides are inside that boundary. Hides will NEVER be on boundary marks (for example, under a boundary cone).
  • You and your dog are allowed to go outside of boundary markers.
  • If your dog eliminates during a search, that is an automatic NQ and your search is over.
  • If your dog jumps up on furniture, just ask them to get off. Hides are not usually placed that require dogs to climb.
  • If your dog is getting tangled, it's ok to drop the leash for safety and quickly pick it back up.
  • They will stage dogs a few at a time so be prepared to wait as you make your way to your search. Stewards will help guide you between waiting stations. Have a way to keep your dog relaxed, bring a portable mat or snuffle mat that you can carry on yourself during the search. Often there is a chair you can sit in.
  • Sometimes you may run two searches back to back. Each trial will have their own flow so will be different from trial to trial. Make sure to have enough treats for 2 searches!
  • During your search they will give you a 30 second warning before your time is up. It is not mandatory as the timer is human. But they do their best to let you know.
  • One thing that people often don't know is that in a trial, the "yes zone" may be quite large meaning the judge will accept your "alert" call even if your dog is not right at source. For example, if the hide is on the edge of a chair, anywhere your dog alerts on the chair would be yes.
  • In novice levels, if you get a false alert or miss a hide, the judge will often tell you where the hide is. It's up to you if you want to bring your dog over to the hide to reward them.. I generally do not want to show my dog where the hide is unless I made a handling error.

They will also have warmup/recovery boxes - see this blog for more information on warmup boxes. https://scentsabilitiesnw.com/blog/what-about-those-warm-up-boxes

Nosework Trial DOs and DON'Ts:


  • Check in when you arrive. Usually it's where most people are coming in and out of!
  • Bring sun shades, fan and ice/water for hot days to keep your dog cool in the car.
  • Dress for the weather - rain, cold, etc
  • Have a vest or treat pouch with easily accessible treats.
  • Let your dog rest between searches.
  • Keep your dog at a distance from all dogs - some dogs may be reactive.
  • If you want people to know your dog needs space, put a red bandana on your dog.
  • Bring your dogs regular/high value NON-crumbly treats to reward at source. For trials use a larger piece and feed only one or two treats from your hand. On containers, make sure to feed next to the container not over.
  • YES, you can bring your reinforcement into the trial searches! You can use a toy, but most use food.
  • Be respectful of "line of sight" areas. Sometimes you may be able to see a search in progress if you walk into an area that is off limits. Cones/barriers will be placed and communicated ahead of time.
  • Stay connected with your dog and celebrate as you leave your search - no matter how you did!
  • Be an advocate for your dog! Remind people to give you space from dogs and/or people. If your dog is getting too hot in the sun while waiting your turn, find shade if you can and let a volunteer know.


  • Do not bring odor to the trial!
  • Do not touch the warmup boxes or anything in a search area.
  • Do not let your dog get close to other dogs or stare at a dog - some dogs may be reactive.
  • Do not drop treats in the search area.
  • Do not drop or let your leash drag in the search area. A minor infraction will be ok. Especially if it's a safety issue to get untangled.
  • Do not post your results on social media during the trial!
  • Do not talk about your search after you run. Searches are meant to be blind for each team so there is an honor system that we don't tell others where we found hides.
  • Do not contact the show site facility. Most sites are rented and the stie personnel do not know about trial details. ONLY contact the trial host.

Now go and have fun being your dog's most wonderful partner!

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