The In’s and Out’s of Canine Nosework

The In’s and Out’s of Canine Nosework

I live with one reactive dog, Sherman. Sherman is a Basset Hound/Beagle mix and about nine. Sherm has leash reactivity and I’ve spent the last five plus years looking for management tools to lower the stress that comes from reacting to other dogs on leash.

As I searched for trainers that specialized in reactivity, I found Nosework! We’ve been involved in Nosework on and off for about five years and now I compete with Walter, our younger Standard Doxie.

Reactivity: Fear, aggression or frustration responses that are over the level that dog-savvy humans would consider “normal.” – from Grisha Stewart’s, Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0.

From Sherm, I look for replacement behaviors for reactivity – these include looking at me, sitting and sniffing! Since sniffing is so important for Sherm, I knew this dog sport was a great way to help set him up for success. Nosework classes (and trials) are set up so dogs that are reactive to other dogs can still play! Dogs remain in their vehicles until it’s their turn to hunt for odor. This is when Sherm is happiest and “under threshold” or simply relaxed and safe.

I’m breaking up this post into a few sections: how to find an instructor, what a beginning class looks like, the Odor Recognition Trial, and some additional resources for folks interested. Greatest thing about nosework – you don’t need any obedience training!

Finding a Teacher

(These are strictly my opinions.) “The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW™) is dedicated to making high quality instructors available to students of the activity and sport of K9 Nose Work® through its Certified Nose Work Instructor Program.” –this is on their site.

I absolutely believe you need to find a NACSW instructor. There are many nuances to the sport and you want an instructor that participates in trials and knows the in’s and out’s of the sport.

This is what I would look for:

  • A teacher that actively hosts or participates in Nosework events and trials
  • Interview a few instructors before deciding
  • A teacher that doesn’t stick to just one location – it’s important to enrich your dogs by visiting indoor environments, outdoor areas and even places like Home Depot!
  • A teacher that caters to reactive dogs – out instructor ALWAYS makes sure folks know to give Sherm space

Beginning Classes

Classes in the beginning are low tech. The first 4-5 weeks (pending the teacher) will consist of food in boxes that are about the shape of a shoebox. Your dog will hunt for something delicious to orient them that boxes pay “hot dogs”.

You will discuss with your instructor the tools you’ll need. My dogs wear harnesses which they know means they’re going to work! I also bring something that is a treat they only get at nosework. Something REALLY delicious like hot dogs, or meatballs.

There are three odors they’re trained on: Birch, Anise and Clove.

Birch is the “beginners odor” so you start with Birch as the odor that is then added to the shoebox exercise. Then the dogs associate that odor pays! Practice makes perfect. After many rounds of this very fun game that your dog starts to love, you’ll ultimately move past boxes or containers. Containers is the base for all nosework and you are tested on whether your dog can find the odor in one of about 20 containers during a drill referred to as the Odor Recognition Test or ORT.


What is this Odor Recognition test?

According to the NACSW, “Trial entry requires that handler/dog teams must have passed the appropriate Odor Recognition Test (ORT) in advance of the trial. The purpose of the ORT is to verify that the dogs know the target odor (scent) used in competition. Successful passage of an ORT requires a dog to identify the location of the target odor and the handler to correctly call an ‘alert’ (or equivalent) within a three-minute time period.”

This is NOT easy and takes a lot of practice. Your nosework trainer will let you know when you’re ready for the ORT and when your dog is ready to start trialing. Good luck and have fun!

All the rules can be found here:
My nosework trainer has useful resources on her site as well:
My nosework articles/posts:

Christy Caplan

As a Certified Vet Tech, longtime PR veteran and content marketing expert, Christy Caplan brings her unique understanding of social and digital media to connect dog lovers to brands both on and offline. She lives with three hounds – two Doxies and a Beagle/Basset Hound mix, who constantly teach her about life and companionship. Follow Christy at

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