My first dog sport, tips for participating in Nose Work trials

First let me preface this blog post in saying that you never, never, ever have to compete in a nose work trial in order to have sniffing fun with your dog.  The benefits for you and your dog from the training process of scent detection can never be replaced with ribbons and records.  But this is the very first dog sp0rt I’ve ever participated in so I thought maybe my trialing experience can help other dog sports newbies.

NACSW Overview

NACSW (National Association of Canine Scent Work) sport of Nose Work is such an amazing activity for all ages, sizes, and breeds of dogs.  For those of you who may not know anything about the Nose Work sport,  generally speaking,  it is a sport where dogs are trained to harness their powerful scent-detecting noses and search specifically for up to three different essential oil odors.

The essential oils used in the NACSW sport are:

  • birch
  • clove
  • anise

There are also four different search elements or environments for the NACSW sport of nose work :

  • exterior
  • interior
  • vehicles (exterior only)
  • containers

If you decide to take your nose work training to the next level and trial, as a team progresses through the different levels (NW1, NW2 and so on), the total number of hides in each search area can increase.  In addition, the amount of information that the handler is given prior to the search decreases while the total number of search areas increases.

If you and your dog can find every hide, in every search element, in the specified time limit,  without any false alerts, then you’ve earned your title for the day.  Additionally, there are some extra accolades for the teams that have the overall best times and the best times for each of the elements.  Remember though your dog won’t care about these ribbons, they just want to spend time with you and earn your praise and affection.

For more information regarding the sport or to find a trainer in your area,  Click Here to check out the official website

What to expect on trial day

So you’ve decided to enter into a trial.  There are a limited amount of participants allowed so when you enter into a trial you are actually putting your name into a lottery.  I’ll just warn you, trial days are long.   So take that in consideration when you first start thinking about “throwing your hat into the ring”.

Let’s assume you got that magical email telling you that you were given a spot in your first trial.  You’ll be given the address to the location of the trial and also the time the parking lot will open to the participants.  You’ll want to arrive early to set up your car “camp”, get registered, and wait for the participants briefing and walkthrough.

Being prepared

Dogs are required to be crated either in the car or outside of the car at all times.  The only time they are allowed outside of their crates is to potty or when your team is being called to enter into the search elements.  A comfortable crate and pad are important because there often is significant crating downtime.

For your car “camp” you want to be protected from all weather conditions.  Trials occur rain or shine as long as there are no thunderstorms.  The portable canopies sold at big retail and sporting goods stores work great for added protection from sun, rain, snow and light wind.    I have an SUV so I’m able to have my tailgate open and the canopy placed over the tailgate door.  This helps secure the canopy in place.

There are also some sun shield “blankets” that can be used to cover your car or canopy.  These reflect the sun and help reduce the temperature increase.  Twofold they also block the view so you can create a quiet, low distraction environment at your car.

Now that you and your dog will be comfortable, you’ll also want to make sure you have adequate food and water for both you and your dog.  That might seem obvious but if you are nervous about trialing it is possible you could forget the easy stuff.


Our road to NW1 success

Our First NW1 Trial

June 2015, when Chase was a little over a year old,  we attempted our first NW1 trial.  We only missed one search element that day by timing out.  The great news was that Chase did not false alert on anything.  False alerting is a much bigger training problem then learning how to be a more efficient searcher.  So I was happy that we just ran out of time.   On that day I learned that Chase was not confident,  nor comfortable,  around people he didn’t know.  In the search area you will have multiple volunteers, a judge, and potentially a video and/ or photographer which can be challenging for the softer, more environmentally concerned dog.

Specifically, Chase would not return to an area of the search, a brick wall adjacent to the start line.  It turned out a scent cone that Chase needed to lead him back to the strongest source of the odor was channeling along that wall.  Instead, the “wall” of volunteers had created enough “pressure” causing him not to be able to work back to it.    Chase is still not an assertive pushy dog, but we often train in a scenario like this which has helped build his confidence, drive, and value for searching.

Our Second NW1 Trial

In May 2016 we entered our second NW1 trial.  It was my fault solely for not qualifying for the title.  Even though the trial location was only a 2-hour drive from my home, I decided to drive up the night before and stay overnight in a hotel.  This was Chase’s first time staying in a hotel and he was definitely over faced.  He slept on the bed with me, facing the door, and was in guard mode the entire night.  Every sound caused him to react.  Sometimes a growl,  but more often,  fully standing and barking loudly.

The next day we were both exhausted.   We showed up to the trial anyway.  Checked in.  I completed the walkthrough and waited for our turn. The first search was containers.  I refer to them as “the dreaded containers”.   Chase came into the search area as normal, made eye contact and checked in with me a few times, noticed the people in the room, and then “I” false alerted.  Even though at that point we could not earn our title for the day I decided to continue.

Our second search element was vehicles.  There were 3 vehicles in the search area, which was pretty standard.  At that point in the day, Chase was just a shell of himself, no desire to search.  I kept asking him to get engaged in the search and he eventually just got stuck in one spot sniffing some bird poop on the asphalt.  At that point, I knew it was not in our best interest to continue so I withdrew right then and there from the trial.  It isn’t a fun choice but the best choice to be your dog’s advocate and remove them from a stressful situation.  I packed the car up and we headed home for some much-needed sleep.  Lesson learned!

Third Trial’s a Charm!

It was a very rainy, cool, October day in 2016 where Chase and I finally shared our most joyful day in McHenry, IL.  The same town that 2 years earlier we adopted Chase at an event held by a local rescue…..coincidence?    Ok, back on topic!   You see, that day in October was the day that we successfully earned our NACSW NW1 title.  Not only did we complete the title requirements,  but we placed 9th out of 45 teams and had a total time for all four searches of 1:32.29.  I was gushing with pride and joy because we worked seamlessly as a team that day.  I cannot thank enough the Nose Work training team of Loving Paws LLC:  Laura Yurchak owner, Stephanie Challand, and Joanne Foster.   And all the great training advice and friendship from Barb Barker …she is a gem.

Where do we go from here?

I can not stress enough that entering into trials isn’t even necessary to have the most fun at nose work.  To be honest, our NW2 trialing plans are up in the air.   We are just now getting back into formal nose work classes after a bit of a break.   I’m very excited about Chase and I attending a 5 day Nose Work camp in Wisconsin that includes trainers and NACSW Certifying Officials from all over the country.  Just a whole lot of learning and sniffing fun.

Go ahead and find a local trainer in your area teaching classes.  It is so much fun, you won’t regret it.  If you don’t find a trainer nearby there are a lot of resources online to help you get started.  Fenzi Dog Sport Academy has a lot of great online class choices.   Please check back often to read more about our sniffing fun.