Sample Course Lectures

What is Nosework?

Nosework is a fun and fast growing sport where dogs search for essential oil scent similar to drug or bomb detection dogs. We base many of our training methods from real life detection training. The most amazing thing about this sport is how confident dogs become after learning and doing nosework! I attribute this to their natural ability to smell which is intrinsically motivating. It's a sport for ALL dogs and super ideal for dogs needing more confidence, injured dogs, senior dogs, young dogs with energy that need a job, etc.

There are a few different Nosework organizations and more developing or moving into new areas. This class is based on NACSW but most of the factors are the same/comparable with the other organizations (UKC, SDDA).

Before you can enter a trial, you must attend an ORT (Odor Recognition Test) to certify that your dog can search and indicate the corresponding titling odor.

  • Birch is used for the first level titling class – NW1. You must pass your Birch ORT before trialing.
  • Anise and Birch are used for NW2. You must pass your Anise ORT and have your NW1 title before trialing in NW2.
  • Clove, Anise, and Birch are used for NW3. You must pass your Clove ORT and have your NW2 title before trialing in NW3

We call these scents or odors the “source” that they are learning to search. Each titling class involves 4 elements – containers, interior, exterior and vehicles searches. There are also Element trials where you can title in one element, for example, in Containers.

You should read and familiarize yourself with the rules of your organization.

Method Used

The method we will be using to find odor will be through the use of shaping (Operant Conditioning) and back chaining. The dog “finds” the odor by accident using a game called “It’s your choice”. The dog is rewarded at source and then continues to offer that behavior for reinforcement. We will use back chaining where we start with indicating/staying at source first before we do any searching/hunting for scent.

The traditional method teaches the dog to hunt for food first (for an extended period of time) and then the scent is paired with food, and then the food is removed. The fundamental issue with this method is that eventually food is used as a DISTRACTION and causes unnecessary confusion for the dog later on.

We are not interested in teaching the dog to search for food. We want the dog to understand the value of odor, and to stay at source regardless of distractions (food, etc). The dog learns quickly that reinforcement happens when staying at source, which builds drive to search/hunt for odor!

The one advantage of the traditional “search for food” method is that the handler requires little or no training skill for several months.  Using our method, we will assume a basic level of comfort with shaping a very simple behavior. 

This lecture will cover how to handle, prepare and store odor and will answer some common questions people have. One thing I like about Nosework is that you don't have a lot of equipment (or large equipment!). But you do have to properly handle and store your oils.

We refer to containers/items that have odor in them as "hot" and containers/items that do not (will never) have odor in them as "cold".

The most important aspect is to avoid contamination!! If you get oil on your hands and then touch objects in your environment or search area, the scent can linger for months.  This can cause your dog to alert on odor when not intended or have them around odor when not training. Neither is what we want!

The second most important aspect is to never leave odor out when you are not training your dog. We never want our dog to be around odor when not working since they aren't getting rewarded or will start thinking odor doesn't pay! Store your kits and hot boxes/containers in a room/basement/garage where your dog never goes. You can also put your kit in another container to help contain the odor. I also store my cold containers elsewhere!

You all should have your kits for starting the class. The kit will have a jar of already scented qtips. They should last up to 3 months or so without refreshing. Your kit should also have come with a small tin with holes and tweezers.

If you are making your own kits, I would put 3-4 drops of oil on a cotton ball (preferably a flat one) and place on the bottom of the jar. Place the qtips face down in the jar and then drop 2-3 drops of oil on the inside of the lid. Close and shake. Give it at least 24 hours to sit before using. The smell should not be overpowering, but enough for you to smell when you place the qtips in your qtip container for training.

When training Nosework, the qtips will always be in some type of "container" so that the qtips are not exposed. Also, we don't want the dogs to chew or swallow the scented qtips either! The small tin in your kit is used for this purpose.  I would also recommend having a plastic version of the small "tin" that you put the 3-5 qtips in for training. We will call these "qtip containers". Sometimes a dog can get used to looking for/smelling a tin with odor. Eventually, we will move to other qtip containers like straws or heat shrink tubes. I have found some dogs have difficulty with the transition from the metal tin to other types of qtip containers if they stay on the tin for a long time. Usually, it's a visual thing when they can't "see" the tin, they aren't sure or will alert on something that looks like a tin if they are near source.

When you are preparing your qtip containers to place the qtips in, always work in an area where you can safely take the qtips out of the jar and into the container.

  • Avoid dropping qtips on the floor or work surface.
  • Avoid getting odor on the outside of the tin
  • Avoid getting odor on your hands. You can use disposable gloves or wash your hands immediately after preparing your tins.
  • Use a tablecloth or mat in case you do drop one.

When we start using large containers for searching, we will call these "search containers", you'll put the qtip container (with qtips inside) inside the vented container. Examples of search containers are the ORT boxes, plastic Tupperware containers and eventually luggage, bags, etc that can be used in the container element searches.

One of the other common questions is how often to refresh the jar of qtips and how?? You'll find many different methods discussed on the various forums.

  • I usually refresh about every 3 months or sooner if I think they are weak. I want to be able to smell the odor but not be overwhelmed by it. If you use TOO much and your dog is used to A LOT of odor, your dog may struggle on less odor at tests and trials.
  • I refresh by taking the lid off, dropping 2-3 drops on the inside of the lid, place it back on the jar (quickly) and shake! Voila! - refreshed!
  • I've also read of or received kits where there is a flat cotton ball on the bottom of the jar that is scent with the odor and the qtips face down and rest on the cotton ball.

How many qtips do we use in training? When starting out, you can increase odor by having 4 or 5 qtips in the tin, but as with anything you should vary the number you use as it can vary at a test. For your ORT, the rules explicitly state that 3 qtips are taped inside the box (underneath the top lid). I tend to train with 3 most of the time. But I also go down to 1 for a bit challenging or use more than 3 if my dog is struggling.

Another frequent question is how to take your odor on the road when training. I will prepare my tins/containers before leaving the house so that I'm not messing with the odor/jars away from home. I put qtips in the qtip containers and put the container in a zip lock baggie and off I go!

Over time you will find what methods work for you and it will become easier and easier to manage the kits and odors. It will all make sense once you get started!

This first week we will be introducing your dog to odor right away using a game called "It's your choice". This will teach your dog to choose odor for reinforcement. This is the first step to developing commitment (value) for odor and is a game we use throughout the dog's career.

Time Commitment: Plan for 2-3 times a day for no more than 2 minutes each session.

Supplies Needed:

  • Soft treats
  • Small tin to put scented qtips in
  • Cold tin
  • Plastic container with holes drilled in lid to be used and labeled as a HOT container

Week 1: Intro to Odor

Game 1, Part 1: “It’s your choice” with a tin

1. Prepare your tin with 3-5 qtips inside. Use a  lower number if your dog is sensitive to smells or seeming to not want to go near the odor tin. 

2. Pick a familiar area in your house that will be your primary training area when introducing new exercises.

3. Have treats available on you or in nearby dish.

4. Get your dog.

5. Pick up the tin with one hand, and grab a handful of food in the other.

6. Sit on the floor or in the chair.

7. Place your hands 12-18” apart at dogs nose level. Keep hot tin hand open with palm up and your food hand closed.

- Your dog will likely spend some time trying to get the food out of your food hand. Wait dog out.

- When your dog investigates the other hand with the tin, IMMEDIATELY mark their behavior (“yes”, “click”) and THEN give treat by bringing hand with food to tin and feed at source.

- If dog stays at source/tin, keep feeding at source.

- Make sure to anchor your tin/source hand. Hold that hand still and bring the TREAT hand to source.

8. Switch hands, repeat step 7 for another minute or so.

9. Take a break (don't over do it, should be short session). Repeat later in day.

10. If you have been using 5 qtips, reduce to 2-3 by weeks end. 3 qtips seems to be the average used in most cases.

Here's Lyra demonstrating her first nosework lesson:

Here's Drac at 4 months old on his first 2 days of learning nosework:

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Troubleshooting:

1. If after giving it some time and your dog is too distracted by your food hand, you can just put out the tin hand for a few times with your treat hand at your side or behind your back and mark then feed immediately for checking it out. The objective is to have your dog "find" odor and get reinforced at source. Once you have had some success with this, you can try having your food hand out to give your dog a choice.

2. If your dog gets stuck and doesn’t offer any behavior. You can use your FOOD hand to lure them back in or out of a stuck position. Or shift your position to get them to move. NEVER lure them with the tin.

3. If your dog is a little put off by the odor and won't eat near the tin, go to Game 3 and use a vented plastic container. The container will act as a bigger "target" and you can place your treats right on top of the container. 

4. Engage some play drive by taking off and trying to get away from your dog in a fun game of chase and then hold out your hands with food and hot tin.

Make sure to mark and feed IMMEDIATELY when they check out your hand with odor. They are finding it by accident and will repeat what led to reinforcement.

Game 1, Part 2: “It’s your choice” on the ground

Play the same game as when holding the tin and food, but place the tin on the ground.

1. First just place the tin on the ground and feed when your dog checks it out.

2. Then place your choice of food out by holding treats on the ground about 12-18" inches area from the odor tin.

3. You can also put the treats on the ground but cover them. You can feed from your other hand or from under the cupped hand. This will work some impulse control too!

Game 2: Two Tins!

Now we will test that our dog doesn't think any container (or any tin) pays. We will now put a cold tin (a tin that has NEVER had odor in it or been stored with odor tins) and a hot tin on the ground.  Place the tins 1-2 feet apart and reward for checking out or staying at the hot tin. If you don't have an extra tin, find any small container about the same size as your tin. You can usually find something equivalent at a local craft store - since it will always be a "cold" tin, no need to have vented holes in it.

Here's a video of Drac choosing between 2 tins for the first time.

Game 3: “It’s your choice” with a container

Repeat the same steps above, but put your tin in a small vented Tupperware container. Hold the container in one hand and your treats in the other. This is your first introduction to search containers! 

Here's a video showing this with Raika using a vented plastic container (with odor tin inside). At the end of the video she does place it on the floor for an additional test. (This will lead into next weeks lesson).

Pre-test before you proceed:

Before you proceed to the next lecture, test that your dog goes quickly to source within three seconds, without offering additional behaviors like barking or positions. If you pass, you are ready to proceed to the next lesson.

Here is Drac's pre-test before moving on to the next level. This was his 5th session of nosework!