Knowing Your Nosework Dog

Learning your dog can be one of the most challenging aspects of training.  The training part is actually rather easy.  It’s understanding the creature that you are training that can be difficult.  The more complex the soul, the more creative and empathetic the trainer needs to be.  You have to learn what makes your dog tick.  You have to take a leap of faith and ask yourself if you have perhaps falsely labeled your partner in a negative way.  Have you lost your belief in your partner?  Do you attend trials not believing you will title?  Do you expect to fail and tell yourself that you’re only being realistic?

If the answer to any of these questions is Yes then you need to take a good hard look at your four footed friend and try to figure out if there is something that he hasn’t told you yet.  Has he told you what really makes him tick?  Do you know the inner JOY in your dog?  These are the questions we need to ask ourselves.


When I debuted Joey at NW1, I went for JOYFUL searches.  That’s just what he gave me…  When I think of “JOY”, I think of that day.

There’s no recipe to training, at least there’s no successful recipe for every dog.  To train a dog, we need to know where we are starting from, and that can sometimes be the most difficult part of the process.  We have to strip away our preconceptions and take a good hard look at what we have in front of us.  When we do so, sometimes we are pleasantly surprised and sometimes we realize that we have a lot of work ahead of us!  The important thing to realize is that either of those scenarios is OKAY.  Starting at the real beginning is the important part, not the beginning that we either believe we are at or wish we were at.  Reality just IS.  We have to embrace it and love it.  It’s how we effectively respect the dog.  To respect dog is to know the dog.

So the first step in training a Nosework dog is REFLECTION. 


To do this we have to look at our dogs fundamentally.  We have to look at their temperaments, their likes and dislikes, their general constitution.  To do this we have to become Observers.  Our dogs aren’t simply squirrel chasing creatures whose lives are run by the when the kibble hits the bowl.  They are complex souls with no verbal way to communicate their likes and desires to us.  We have to query the dog on his own terms.

So the second step in training a Nosework dog is EMPATHY.


Once we reflect and empathize with our dogs, we start to know them.  We start to really know them and we start to appreciate not only what they can do but what they can teach us.  When we get to this point, we are able to appreciate this sport for it’s spirit.  Nosework touches the dog’s soul because it’s consummate DOG.  A dog’s brain is 1/8th dedicated to olfaction.  Nosework allows the dog to use himself in ways so natural that the consequences of doing the sport within it’s intended spirit results in growth in the dog’s capacity and happiness overall.  Few other sports can make that claim!

The Behavioral Benefits of Nosework

Recently I gave a webinar on this topic and it’s so front of mind that I thought a blog was appropriate!

We all hear that Nosework is good for the reactive dog or the dog needing confidence..  But WHY???

Recently I read an article in Psychology Today called “Smells Ring Bells”…  you should look it up.  It’s utterly fascinating…  Anyway, the part that interested me was how scenting passes through the limbic system and that other senses don’t.  Hearing and Seeing is more “cerebral”.  Scent goes right through our fight or flight processes and our emotional memory.  Have I gotten your attention???

In the canine brain, 1/8th of the brain is dedicated to olfaction.  WOW.  Just WOW.

This is a cross section of a canine skull and brain.  You can actually SEE the olfactory lobe!  And check out the equipment dedicated to olfaction.  Bottom line is that our sweet pets and companions live through their noses and perceive the world in a very different fashion than we do.

So if 1/8th of the canine brain is dedicated to olfaction AND we have the opportunity to develop strong emotional connection to scent related activities because of the routing of olfaction through the limbic system…  what does this mean???  It means that we have a huge opportunity to leverage Nosework in a therapeutic sense.

How?  We work the dog under threshold…  meaning in a calm state… in nosework and then transition the dog, very slowly and very carefully, to an environment that may contain triggers.

I’ve seen this first hand with my Miniature American Shepherd, Why.  Why is a low confidence, reactive dog.  In fact, a year ago he had a visual threshold of about a 100 yards with other dogs.  He was highly reactive.  I couldn’t even interact with him in my front yard.

He would lunge and bark…  true story.

Now, he’s working towards NW2 and can be within 8 feet of another dog without reacting.  He’s confidently searching novel locations.  Working in novel locations at all before Nosework wasn’t even a possibility.

That’s the most amazing part…  he is so much less reactive.

I established a very positive Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to Nosework with him by teaching him Nosework AT HOME where he was comfortable and under threshold.  He patterned success and confidence and developed emotional memory associated with searching.  Only then when he was confident at home, did I take him on the road.  Even then, I started minimally…  he searched three boxes….  in many, many locations before I started setting searches.

Nosework is therapeutic.  That much is definite…  however keep in mind that you need to always train your dog under threshold.  In a lot of cases, dogs can go to an in person class and be just fine…  but there are those that literally can’t cope in that environment. These are the dogs that truly benefit from the sport.  However, they often don’t benefit from in person, stressful classes.  Luckily there are options for training!  The online format is perfect for these dogs.

If you have a reactive or low confidence dog, consider Nosework…  it can literally be life altering for these dogs.

Author’s Note: Online education is available in many places.  Please check out 

© Stacy Barnett 2015