Ahhhh Blank Rooms

I get Soooo many people asking me about how to train Blank Rooms (e.g., search areas without odor).  My answer is…  I don’t.  That’s right.  I don’t train blank rooms.  Why?  Because I feel like blank rooms actually cheat the dog.  I ask my dog to search.  He searches but he’s been set up to fail because there is no odor.  What is the fun in that?  In reality, blank rooms are a real potential in NW3.  Therefore we need to know how to handle them.  The key is knowing when your dog is done searching.


In a Blank room the dog may give you one of several indications….

Your dog may do HEAVY sniffing but never find a scent cone:

Yes that’s right!  Your dog may work REALLY hard and work and work and work but never get in odor.  You may be fooled into thinking that there is odor in the vicinity but your dog may just never be able to source anything!  Sometimes dogs like these will be REALLY noisy sniffers.

Your dog might act like he has no interest in searching:

Your dog is no dummy!  If there’s no odor, why search?  Sometimes these dogs act like they want to leave the search area.  Sometimes they just look like aren’t actively searching.  This can be especially disconcerting if you have a higher drie dog or a dog with excellent odor obedience.

Your dog may stop and look at you:

That’s right!  Your dog might just literally stop and look at you!  It might be a quizzical “what’s next?” look.  If you have a dog that does this when all hides are found, odds are he will do the same when there are no hides in the area.

So how do we “train” for this?  Honestly, I would do this once in a blue moon….  let your dog search an unproductive area and watch him…  I mean REALLY watch him.  What signals is he giving you?  Is he doing any of these three signs?  Then when he doesn’t find odor I would give him a cookie and be done with it.

Whoa!  I said give him a cookie!!!  Yep.  I call these “effort cookies”.  I know there’s no odor.  I set my dog to search in a location where he can’t POSSIBLY find odor.  However, he still worked and still communicated to me that there was no odor.  I think that deserves a cookie.  Granted….  if we ALWAYS ended the search with extra cookies, the astute dog might start to stop the search early…  but in the case of blank rooms, which we don’t want to do very often, giving a cookie is just fair and shouldn’t have any downside repercussions.

Another thing that you might want to REALLY consider is videotaping your dog in a blank room.  What you might not see during the search, you might very well see after a search.  This is pretty easy.  Have a smart phone?  Just point and shoot.  I have an iPhone and use an Apple computer so I just have to Airdrop to the computer and upload to YouTube!  Or…  you can literally publish to YouTube directly from your phone so you can watch it on a larger screen at least several times.  Learn your dog’s tells by video rather than practice!  Why?  Because blank rooms are a total cheat to the dog :)

Here’s a video of my Elite dog doing a Blank Room search.  This is normally a high drive dog with tremendous odor obedience…  here he’s somewhat interested.  He gives an effort but not much.  Then he stops and looks at me.  Bingo!  Blank Room.

So what does YOUR dog look like in a Blank Room?

Happy Sniffing!!!!

The Value of a Student

I write so often on dogs and their scenting capabilities but I don’t often mention the handlers…  the students that make this sport rich and alive.  This blog is about the value of a student.


Every week, students of Nosework bundle their dogs into the car and head to class.  Every week, the instructor has hides set out.  We set these hides to build your skills and you always rise to the challenge.  Sometimes you may struggle with a certain scent puzzle but even then the result is valuable.  You know what?  You aren’t the only one being stretched and schooled…  so are we!  An intrepid student is the source of most of our learning and education.  Seriously!  Watching and learning from you teaches the instructor more about this sport than any clinic or seminar or other instructor for that matter can do.  You are the teachers.   You provide the training and the education.  Education is a circle…  we provide skills and knowlege and so do you. Never underestimate your value.

So since we’ve agreed that you are VALUABLE…  where does this leave us?  With economics and the laws of Supply and Demand!  Yes, you are the demand side.  You rule the equation.  You vote with your feet and your dogs’ noses.  You say “Jump”.  You hold the key.  Seriously, you do.  Yes you not only hold the $$’s but you also hold the experience of working with you and learning from you.  A good instructor recognizes this.

So this begs the question, “what makes a good instructor”?  Clearly capability and understanding of the scent organizations, trialing and scent theory tops the list.  What about flexibility?  A good instructor needs to be able to be flexible and problem solve based on your own dog.  Experience?  Of course!  (I’m not getting into the debate of certified versus non-certified…  that’s a kettle of fish I think needs to be left alone!)  How about compassion and a good sense of humor?  What about just being NICE?  A good instructor needs to be able to see the positives in every team and the potential that every team brings to the table…  if not, how is it possible to build and improve your student?  Does your instructor have PASSION for Nosework?

So you see, your value as a student clearly delineates the job title of instructor.  An instructor is no longer a teacher without having students.  You and your team defines the trainer in very intimate ways.  Our sense of purpose and success in this sport is defined by YOU.

So instructors, if you read this and it makes you uncomfortable, it’s time to do some self reflection.  Ask yourself WHY you teach.  If it’s not something along the lines of wanting to see ALL of your students blossom and grow or at least be something about your students, think long and hard.  This journey is not about our growth, our accolades or our achievements….  it’s about our students’ and of course, their dogs, for which without we would not be in this business.

So students…  know your value.

Happy sniffing!!!

In Praise of Smaller Organizations

So what happens when you have a talented dog with little environmental issues?  Well….  odds are, you might very well find yourself with your dog at his/her third Nosework trial facing NW3 down the barrel.  To say the least, this is scary and the odds of you being successful initially are not that great!  You might actually be a No-Virgin…  something to be proud of yet not really very easy to sustain or even that realistic in NW3.

What happens when you have a dog who is very environmental?  Well…  you hang out A LOT at NW1 and NW2.  Some of these folks lose momentum, hope or even trust in their dogs.  There always seems to be just that one thing….  even a truly great handler can get stuck.

What happens when you have an Elite level dog and all of a sudden the trials have just gotten even fewer and farther between?  B-O-R-E-D-O-M….  Where do you trial?  If you’re lucky you can get into an Elite Division Trial and maybe not have to drive 1,000 miles…  but so far these are few and far between…  Maybe your training slacks off a bit… maybe your emphasis on sports changes.  But what you are left with is a finely tuned partner who probably enjoys trialing Nosework, with little option available to you.

The answer to all of these questions has a common denominator.  The answer may not be available to everyone yet but grass roots are growing!  There are small organizations across the country starting to pop up and fill this special niche.  Trials and titling options are available and usually no crazy lottery is needed (yet anyway) in order to enter.

One such organization called Performance Scent Dogs has originated on the East Coast.  Most of the trials are held in Massachusetts and New Hampshire but I know for a fact that there is momentum to expand into New York and Pennsylvania at the very least.  Other organizations dot the country as all are grass roots efforts and are filling demand for trialing in this sport that is still very much in it’s infancy.

Because I live in NJ, I’m in a decent location to play in PSD.  Out of my dogs, two are environmental and need mileage and one has an Elite title and loves, loves, loves trialing in Nosework.  Although this blog highlights PSD, there are other organizations out there too, including UKC among others that might be more accessible to folks across the country.  So for now, between NACSW trials, I play in PSD (among others such as UKC and I plan to try SDDA in Ontario).

Performance Scent Dogs has three levels: Novice, Advanced and Excellent, which roughly correspond in difficulty to NW1, NW2 and NW3 in search complexity.  IF your dog already has an NW3, you are welcome to jump to Advanced.  There are five classes which in some cases are similar to NACSW and in some cases are very different.  Scoring is based on time however you can receive (or lose points) for handling excellence (or errors).  The classes are: Speed, Distance, Containers, Buildings and Exteriors.  The really cool thing is that you can earn titles in each class with 3 passes, moving up (or not if you chose) as you earn them.  You might or might not be able to enter each of the classes at each trial.  The classes offered are variable!

There is something called a Target Odor Test (TOT) which is akin to an ORT.  And…  if you already have an ORT pass, the TOT is optional.  In the case of a TOT, chairs are used rather than boxes.  The idea is that if your dog is nervous, getting the nose down can be a challenge.  The dogs seem to like this format!

Here’s a video of Anne and Indie doing an Anise TOT.  Indie is VERY environmental and somewhat reactive.  You’ll notice some displacement sniffing but hopefully you also notice the calm demeanor of Anne and the way she stays out of Indie’s proximity and let’s her work.  Anne and Indie are students of mine.  You will also hear talking in the background…  at PSD, you are allowed to watch and observe after your run is complete.  What you hear on the video is simply trial noise.  Indie had a chance to acclimate in the building before her run (giving reactive dogs space is still a priority however ).

Here are a few more videos…

Here’s Why competing in Novice Containers.  Notice the similarity between NACSW and PSD here?  However, in PSD, the Novice Containers are likely closer together, may be elevated or anything else creative (including combining different types of boxes).  Novice Containers is closer to what you might find at a NACSW Level 1 Container Trial.

Advanced Containers gets really tricky!  I have one run on video.  In this run there were many small boxes closely set with several intentional distractions.  Here Judd ignores incense, a banana peel and a muffin wrapper to find two hides.

The other thing you might notice is that this trial is taking place in a training facility!  Yes, ideally you trial in a pristine odor-free environment…  however with PSD, there are few restrictions, and dogs sometimes have to deal with lingering odor.  In fact, you are usually able to enter more than one dog in a class and the hide is moved at the end of the class so that you can run a second dog.  Sure, it’s not ideal….  but it means more dogs can play and dogs who already understand how to work through lingering odor are at an advantage!  This organization is much less about winning and rather about having fun with your Nosework Dog.

There is another really fun class called Speed.  In Novice, there are three sets of three boxes with one hide in each and you have a minute to find all three hides.  In Advanced, one of the sets of three does not contain odor.  This is a FUN class and the dogs seem to really love it.  I have Advanced Speed on video with Judd.  He won this class earning his Advanced Speed title with by less than a second.

Distance is another class that is unique to PSD.  It’s similar to agility gamblers or AKC FAST in terms of there being a Gamble Line.  In this case, the handler stands on one side of the line and the dog searches on the other.  This can be indoors or out and can include Vehicles!  In Novice, the distance is 5 feet.  In Advanced it is 10 feet.  How many of us can successfully work our dogs at a distance of 10 feet on leash?  Here’s a video of Joey earning his Novice Distance title.  Joey is an environmental and highly reactive dog.

Buildings is similar to NACSW Interiors and Exteriors is pretty much the same except that Vehicles can be present!

This weekend when I ran the boys, I was able to compete with all three boys and execute a total of 16 searches.  They came home with a boatload of pretty rosettes and a few titles to boot!  Novice Speed: Why, Novice Distance: Joey and Advanced Speed: Judd.  This was my third PSD trial and I am planning on many more.  In fact, we are planning on bringing PSD to Stroudsburg, PA using the facility Sit Stay N Play (one of the places where I teach) and I wouldn’t be surprised if this starts to spread like wildfire.

For more information about Performance Scent Dogs please visit:

In all…  I find the smaller venues to be fun, laid back and really just a blast.  What more fun can you have than doing Nosework with your dog?  If you have a small organization near you, support them!  You will be happy that you did :)

Happy Sniffing!!

Obsessed with Scent

What draws people to Nosework?

The sport is growing by leaps and bounds…  organizations are forming worldwide and here in the US, more options are becoming available for competitors.

So the question is, why is this sport growing?  Seriously, people become obsessed with this sport, me included.  Out of all of the sports out there (and I’ve tried a ton of them), why do scent sports, Nosework in particular, pull at me so hard?

For each of us, the answer is personal.  Perhaps there are those with a fragile dog who has gained confidence in the sport.  There are also those folks whose first foray into dog sports is Nosework because someone told them that their dog “Needed a Job”.  There are also folks who have reactive dogs and this is one of the few only truly reactive dog friendly sports out there.

For me, I started my love affair with this sport because my dogs enjoy it.  Honestly though, that’s not enough to fuel an obsession…  and for me, and many others, this truly IS an obsession.  So why did I pick this sport when there are now more options than ever to play with my dogs?


Seriously….  It is.  I love watching my dogs do something that is fed by inner drive.  To see them solving puzzles and using capabilities that I can only describe with words like “Theory” because my rudimentary olfactory sense pales in comparison to the powerful and curious sense that my dogs posses.  They are thrilled with the hunt of odor and seeing that joy is truly beautiful to behold.


There are so many things that we do know about when it comes to our Best Friends.  We understand running, jumping, response to commands, basic biomechanics…  But when we try to understand our sport, we use words like “Scent Theory”.  Sure, we know about a dog’s nose…  about turbinates and olfactory receptors.  We also have study in fluid flow dynamics that provides a model of scent…  but do we REALLY understand it?


Yup.  That’s an attractor.  I admit it.  I’m a geek.  I love tossing around terms like Vapor Pressure and Laminar and Turbulent Flow.  I love picturing the search like it’s something from another dimension…  channeling and pooling…  the average human doesn’t get to see the world the way we do!


This is not a sport of haves and have nots.  This is a sport full of supportive, wonderful people who want to see everyone come back from a search with a “Thumbs Up”.  This is a sport where people will actually travel just to volunteer!  Where most everyone sticks around for the Awards Ceremony after a long day even though only a handful of people may have passed with a title.


Because this sport is so mysterious…  and because the human isn’t the star of the show, we are but minor players…  we have to trust our dogs.  Handing over that trust has a really cool side effect in building relationships.  Our dogs aren’t doing what they are being told so much as they are working and problem solving with our support, not our direction.  In this sport we hand over the reins and trust that our dogs’ skills will do what we cannot do on our own.


Those of us who have fragile or reactive dogs have witnessed transformations in our best friends as confidence is gained and focus in new environments is achieved.  These dogs blossom and in turn it makes our hearts swell.


Yup.  That statement says it all.

So am I obsessed?  You betcha.  Me and a whole hoard of other folks, both new and veterans in this sport…. obsessed with one of the fastest growing dog sports out there…  because who doesn’t want their own scent detection dog?

Happy Sniffing!!!


Photo Credits: Lonni Berger, Bad Wolf Photography

© Stacy Barnett 2015