Nose Jobs For Dogs?

photo (2)Written by: Marie Collett

While there are many playful things associated with the commercial aspects of the upcoming Easter holiday, one of the most fun is the egg hunt!  So this spring (and all year-round), why not let your dog in on the game?  We’re not talking about an actual egg hunt in this case, but the fast-growing sport called nose work.  Never heard of it?  Let us show you the ropes on getting started with this fun and increasingly popular activity!

Nose work focuses on two of the dog’s superior attributes: their strong noses and their desire to hunt. This sport is like a specialized hide-and-seek geared toward your dog’s special canine abilities.  One of the most intriguing factors about this sport is that you can do it at a competitive level or you can just enjoy it in the comfort of your living room. The best part? Accessibility! Dogs of any age, breed, size, or temperament can enjoy this sport.

You will need a few things to get started, most of which you can find around your home.  First, you’ll want a small bait bag or treat pouch in which to store treats.  You will also want 4 – 6 cardboard boxes (you can add more as you increase the difficulty) and for beginners they can be different sizes, colors, shapes, etc.  You don’t want the boxes to be sealed; they should be ventilated somehow, by either opening flaps or punching holes.  (Don’t feel limited if you don’t happen have several shoe boxes handy.  You can use cereal boxes, flower pots, plastic bowls, Tupperware with holes punched in the lid, anything, as long as it is a container that is ventilated.  Feel free to get creative!)  The game will begin with the boxes completely open and slowly progress to being partially closed or covered as your dog graduates to higher levels of difficulty.

Most professionals suggest having one box as the dedicated reward box and marking it with an X.  This can prevent cross-contamination with scents and gets the handler into the habit early of having one main box dedicated for the source.  The reward can be a smelly treat that is of high value to the dog or his favorite toy.  Even a handful of loose dog food can be used when starting out, but you want to be sure the food is motivating to the dog.  Tip: you can use a small dish or container inside the box to keep it from soaking up any smells or grease.

You can do this activity on your own, but it is easier to have two people.  (Only one dog at a time should be present for each run.)  One person acts as the handler for the dog, keeping him seated or crated nearby, while the other hides the reward as the dog watches.  When hiding the reward, make a big production out of pretending to hide it in different boxes.  The layout of the boxes can be anything you want, but in the beginning keep it fairly simple.  The dog should want to search and be set up to succeed easily while learning the game.  However, don’t leave the reward in the last box you pretend to use and avoid standing right next to the box with the reward in it.  We want the dog to search for it and many dogs will come over to their owners at first or check out the last box you touched.  When you’re in place, signal the handler to let the dog begin.

The handler’s job is to then walk with the dog on a loose leash as he searches, but not to lead, pet, or talk to him.  Also try to avoid staring at or pointing to the reward box, as the dog may be looking to you for hints.  In fact, the less that is done by the humans involved the better.  By having made it obvious that the reward was hidden, the dog will probably start checking out the boxes.  Some dogs may be looking for reassurance that it is indeed ok to explore and may be slower to start.  If the dog seems focused on something else or stuck in one area, you can nonchalantly walk around, looking casually into some of the boxes (avoiding the loaded box) until he starts showing interest in the boxes as well. If he is still moving around and checking things out, let him look.  You don’t want to lead him to the reward because he may start becoming dependent on you for clues in the future.  Simply avoid eye contact with him, walk around slowly, and look over the layout.  Do not offer any commands or request any obedience behaviors during this game.  We want to control the environment during these exercises, not the dog.

photo (3)The reward should be set up in a way that the dog can self-reward at the box when he finds the prize.  As he self-rewards, you as the handler will want to additionally reward him at the box when he figures it out by offering praise and small extra treats or by playing tug with the toy.  It is imperative that the dog not only gets to self-reward at the box, but that you reward the dog at the box as well.  Some of you may be wondering if this would be the right time to use a clicker, but in this sport it is unnecessary.

As your dog gets better at finding the reward, you can start adding levels of difficulty.   Think of it like the shell game, with 3 shells being moved around, only one of which has the ball underneath.  Rearrange the boxes into a circle, or a line, or even a small uneven tower once dog gets really good at finding his reward.  Try putting household objects in the search area, such as chairs, blankets, or laundry baskets.  Cover the box with a paper towel or something else easily movable.  If you’re having trouble getting the dog interested at first or if your dog is naturally very shy, try using multiple reward boxes or leaving the reward outside of but next to the boxes at first.  And if you’re ever in doubt about what to do, just ask yourself, “Would my dog like this?”

For many owners, watching their dog start to understand the game and get excited about it can be a lot of fun and really strengthens their bond.  The dogs that enjoy nose work also reap many benefits, such as confidence and fitness.  For dogs, 15 minutes of mental activity can tire a dog as much as 45 minutes of physical activity, so keep the games short and sweet by staying at around 10 minutes or so.  After the first few sessions especially, many of them need to rest afterward.  For more detailed information on starting nose work, check out this link from Lucky Dog Sports Club for some great tips.

If this becomes something you and your dog really enjoy, there are competitive levels of nose work.  These involve gradually moving up to finding scents like birch, anise, or clove.  Because dogs are kept segregated during this activity, it is also one that even slightly reactive dogs can enjoy, as they will not be faced with the other dogs or large groups of people.  It is tempting to want to start on this level quickly, but it is better for you and your dog to build up to it in stages by doing nose work in several different types of environments first and focusing on strengthening his searching abilities.  If you’d like to give nose work a shot in a group class, you can check out these awesome classes for nose work or barn hunt (another scenting activity for dogs) offered by Kama Brown:

Intro to Nose Work and Advanced Nose Work

To register or for more information, call, email or visit: Phone: 636-675-5262, website:, or email:

*If you decide to give nose work a try at home, we would love for you to send us a few pictures (or video) of your dog’s attempts.  Your pup may be featured in a future newsletter or in an online post!  All submissions may be sent to, using “Nose Work” as the subject.  Please be sure to include your name, e-mail address, and your dog’s name, age and breed.

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