Nosework… The Miracle Pill

At some point, one of our partners will likely get injured or have a medical issue that keeps him/her out of competition, kind of like my Miniature American Shepherd, “Why”…  who I got as an agility prospect.  Well about a thousand dollars later and more tears that I care to admit, the Iliopsoas issue now seems to be resolved, however his idiopathic epilepsy will keep him from agility for good.  Why isn’t alone.  Dog sports and even just play, brings with it dangers of injury.  So what do you do with a dog who is used to being active but is now required to rest?  Their need for an outlet doesn’t go away and for many of these dogs, being active is a way of life.  There is a Miracle Pill…  and it’s called Nosework.


Some people suggest puzzle toys for our laid up friends.  That’s a great idea for a very short amount of time.  It’s stimulating but does it truly satisfy the need to work an active brain?  Olfaction on the other hand tires a dog out.  1/8th of the canine brain is dedicated to olfaction.  Sniffing will mentally wear out a dog, whether healthy or infirm.  Sniffing can be done while on crate rest.

The other beautiful thing about scent work is that it’s highly stimulating for a dog.  We live through our eyes and ears.  When we have the occasional sick day we may stay in bed and read a book or watch TV.  Dogs are highly intelligent creatures and still need mental stimulation when they are laid up.  Dogs smell with comparable detail to how we see.  Their olfaction is complicated and smells give the dogs a story.  Scenting to a dog is like reading a book for us.

Nosework, especially the introductory levels, is not aerobic.  At most it requires a little walking on leash.  Most injured dogs are relegated to leash walks anyway!  With the mental stimulation satisfied, the need for physical stimulation lessens to a degree.  Mental stimulation can help to quiet the minds of our injured friends and makes crate rest or other restricted activity much more bearable.


Many dog owners are turning to Nosework as a solution:

Winston had TPLO surgery for cruciate repair. The standard crate rest for post-op recovery for this procedure is 4 weeks. Prior to surgery Winston was involved in agility, barn hunt, obedience, Earthdog, nose work and tracking so Winston was used to a pretty active lifestyle. One of the exercises we used to help stimulate Winston’s mind and keep him busy was nose work. Nose work can be a low intensity activity that is perfect for dogs needing restricted activity. Nose work does not require much movement from the dog, the supplies are not too expensive and dogs love it. Nose work was a huge part of Winston’s ability to handle the downtime required for his recovery since it provided him an outlet for mental stimulation. Since using his nose is innate, Winston really loves nose work and finds the search very rewarding so using nose work in his recovery helped provide quality of life as well.

As soon as we got clearance to do more than just a potty break, I would put a hide at the end of our walk (and in the beginning it was only 20 ft or so), then mix it up a little with thresholds and multiples. We'd also do just a few containers while she was laying down so she didn't have to move far. 3 weeks after the first surgery she did birch ORT,  and they couldn't believe how well she did considering her status. 3 months after the second surgery she trialed in NW1 for the first time. No title but she was pronounced in 2 elements. Having to really think and plan hide placements for her limited mobility helped us be pretty creative too.

Figgy had six weeks of crate rest after herniating a disc in his neck. Nosework was the only extra activity that he could safely do after that. My trainer kept the hides low for him for quite a few weeks and if Figgy wanted to jump on and off low walls or ledges to follow the scent at a trial I asked the CO in the walk-through if it would be okay if I lifted him up and down and she asked the judge and he said that was okay

Oliver, my Glen of Imaal Terrier, will be 16 years old in 3 months.  He was diagnosed with complete Atrioventricular block last year and had a pacemaker implanted. The veterinary cardiologists did not want him to jump anymore so my Senior Barn Hunter had to retire. We were both depressed until I realized we could go back to the low impact sport of Nose Work. He had earned a NW1 title a few years ago but we moved on to other dog activities. It has been an amazing year and he has earned multiple NACSW titles (NW2, L1I, and L1V) in addition to a some class titles from the new Performance Scent Dogs organization. His energy level is high, life is fun again, and he looks forward to our trips in the car since we usually go to Nose Work trials, offsite scent classes, or any place mom can hide some tins so he can play

The stories are endless!  What’s great is that most owners get hooked on the sport and soon as they realize how much their dog loves scenting.  Nosework is a fun activity sweeping the world.   All over, dogs are learning how to search out target odors.  It’s easy and doesn’t require a lot of space or money to get involved.  

When a dog starts to learn Nosework, he learns to search for a specific target essential oil (in the U.S. this is generally Birch) that is hidden amongst boxes.  One box will contain scented Qtips while the other boxes are free of odor.  Then progressively the dog learns to search indoors, outdoors, around vehicles, luggage and anything you can possibly imagine.  It not only satisfies the canine mind, it’s a competitive sport.  All over the world, people are starting to compete in timed events where their dogs hunt for odor in challenging new areas.  Dogs, who may have learned the sport while injured, are racking up prestigious titles and enjoying every minute of it.

Here’s Why, all healed, finding a tin with scented Qtips:

Version 2

Scenting exercises the mind and is the perfect addition to most rehabilitation cases.  Make sure you your veterinarian or rehabilitation therapist if your dog is cleared for Nosework before you start training.

There are lots of ways to get involved but my favorite is by taking an online class with Fenzi Dog Sports Academy:  The first lessons are available for viewing online.

Setting the Right Trial Goals

What does Nosework competition mean to you?

This is a hugely personal question and one where the answer is different for everyone.  It’s also a question with no right answer.  You see, we all have a different history with our dogs, and as such we have different goals.  If we are working more than one dog, our goals will be different still.

Because this is a “Competition”, if you want to win, time matters.  In fact, fractions of a second matter.  For some of us, shaving seconds is a goal.  

However, this sport isn’t just about the fast, driven dogs.  One of the things I truly love about this sport is how wonderful it is for EVERY dog.  Your dog doesn’t have to be fast, young or driven for that matter to really shine.  For some of us, just being able to be out there doing this with our dog is the biggest achievement possible.

Guess what?  None of us are wrong.

What is wrong is placing the wrong goals on your dog.  Think of a goal like a pair of pants.  


Perhaps those pants are too loose...  they don’t feel right and they shift around and fall off.  Setting goals that are too low for your team isn’t the right fit.  This is why I don’t tell people with driven dogs to slow down.  The general rule of one level a year is very general…. VERY general.  If your dog has the desire and mental fortitude, keep working and aim high.  Boredom will kill drive just as fast as pushing too hard.

Now if those pants are too tight, we have a different problem.  Have you set your goals too lofty?  Is your dog struggling?

So how do we decide what the RIGHT goals are for your team?  

I like to think about Nosework Trial Goals as a pyramid.  Where do you see your team?  What do you define as success?

Like Egyptian Pyramids, our competition dogs are built from the ground up.  A good handler will recognize where their dog is and set goals appropriate for that dog.  And do you know what?  Accomplishments at every level are equally challenging and important!  Sometimes building the pyramid is a matter of time.  Sometimes it’s not.  There are some dogs who will never have Speed…  but a goal of high Efficiency will win just as often.  Perhaps you have a fearful dog… perhaps slick floors are scary, or overhangs cause your dog to have a meltdown.  If so, speed shouldn’t even be on the radar.  Does your title mean anything less than the HIT dog?  Absolutely not, and if anything, your dog deserves an ice cream cone from the drive through, Large please!  Do you have a confident dog who can handle distractions?  If yes, then by all means go for speed and go for the win.

Each dog has his own personal pyramid.  Some dogs will fly through the levels and Boom, Boom, Boom, title quickly.  Other dogs will take more time.  The important thing is to remember that you are on your own journey with your dog and it is neither less nor more important than someone else’s journey.  And…  your journey is no reflection on you as a handler!  A handler with a fast dog is no better than a handler with a timid dog, and vice versa.  Humans are a strange lot.  Because we are human we like to judge.  We like to be the Pharaoh of the Pyramid and sit in judgement of other handlers and sometimes even of our own dogs.  When we find ourselves doing this, we need to take a step back and realize that we are all climbing a mountain of our own.


And in the end, a happy dog is a triumphant dog and triumphs are personal.  Love your dog for who he is and set your competition goals appropriately.  If you find yourself struggling…  go back to the Pyramid and look long and hard at where you should be and be proud of your partner because in the end, a dog will do his best. 


Learning from a “No"

We are heading into Fall trial season…  entry links are about to pop up and the frenzy to enter will begin!  Lots of people will trial…  some people will be elated with a title ribbon and there will be even more people who are disappointed when they hear the dreaded word “No”.  As Nosework competitors, we dread that word.  That word carries a heaviness and despondency that crushes our trial high for the day.  In some cases, we may have driven ten or fifteen hours and then heard that word.  We all hate that little word.  The word “Yes” on the other hand triggers excitement and adrenaline.  The word “Yes” is hope and excitement with a dash of rainbows and unicorns.

I’d like to raise the appreciation of the word “No”.  It’s not that crushing, demonic word that we all think it is.  It shouldn’t be obliterated from the English language.  “No” isn’t evil…  “No” is Tough Love.  “No” is our teacher, not our friend.  “Yes” gives us a cookie and a pat on a head where “No” gives us a clue.  I have a true Love-Hate Relationship with this word.  “No” is a gift….  a quite unwelcome gift.

If you’re new to trialing you may see a strange phenomenon of people leaving a trial site after experiencing this little word.  Or you may see people leave before the Awards Ceremony because they heard a two letter word instead of a three letter word.  Don't Do It!  If “No” had feelings, it would cry.

If you have a particularly strong dog, this word may not even be in your vocabulary!  You’re not as lucky as you think you are.  Being a No-Virgin is stressful and full of pressure but if your Yes-Streak comes to an end, embrace your “No”.  Learn from your “No” and then go get ‘em at the next trial.  As luck would have it, I have one of these dogs.  He is the kind of dog who owns the search area when he goes in and very little will distract him from odor.  If it was not for a couple of very small handling mistakes he would have earned NW1 through NW3 Elite in five straight trials.  Am I disappointed?  Heck no!  Well maybe in the beginning I WAS a little disappointed however, now I am a WAY better handler now than when I started in NW3 with him.  We now earn our share of P’s, placements at every trial and I come out of a search feeling like a team, not the anchor at the end of a talented leash.  I know we will make a very prepared Elite team.  Until we get that final NW3, I will Love-Hate my “No’s”.

You see, our judges and Certifying Officials know what they are doing.  At a trial youll have the opportunity to work through level appropriate scent puzzles in front of some really experienced folks who truly want you to become a better team.

This particular little gem of a No gave me the gift of reminding me of a fundamental handling strategy.  It looks elementary but its not.  You see, this particular No was coupled with an inaccessible hide in close proximity to an accessible hide in a very small search area.  Ah!  Now Ive got your interest?  I drove 13 hours for this little gem of insight.  I found a training hole and a handling hole.

The other benefit of a “No” is that it will STICK WITH YOU!  It is one mistake that you will try VERY hard not to repeat.  Why?  Because a “No” carries a huge opportunity cost.  It’s possible that your “No” will teach you something that your trainer has been repeating over and over to no avail.  Possibly your “No” is new insight.  “No” makes you a better handler and trainer.

Trialing this Fall?  Go for the “Yes” but love your “No” and definitely stay and learn about the hides at the Awards Ceremony.  Your next trial will be that much stronger!  If you get a “No”, embrace it and realize that it means you learned something special and you get to go back out and play with your best friend at the next trial.

Happy Trial Season!

The Importance of Video

This isn’t going to be a surprise to many of you since I teach online…  but I LOVE VIDEOS.  Videos are perhaps one of the greatest, most powerful teaching tools available.  In my classes, there are some working students but the bulk of the students are observers.  You know what?  The education is pretty powerful if the student really works the class.  When we take video of ourselves and our dogs we see errors that we might not catch otherwise.  And from a teaching perspective, I can review the video over and over and pinpoint to the second where a change would be helpful.  When you teach live or take a class live you don’t have that luxury.  As a perpetual student of Nosework, I video nearly all of my training sessions.

Recently I attended a Sniff N Go with Judd (NW3, training towards Elite format) and Why (prepping for NW1).  I brought my Go Pro Hero 3+ along with a chest harness.  Judd and I have been starting to work on Elite Format searches in class but there is still much for us to learn.  He’s a very solid NW3 dog and it’s time to really start pushing the envelope!  Well, one of the searches was a combined element search, 3 Vehicles and a smattering of Containers…  3:00 search time, unknown number of hides, no maximum number of hides.  Judd did great!  The biggest challenge was search strategy.  Our Vehicle approach is usually somewhat Freeform while we are usually very systematic in Containers.  This search required us to go back and forth between different search modes.  Here’s the video:

He did rather well!  The VALUE though is in REVIEWING the video.  Although he’s a handsome fellow, my purpose isn’t necessarily to show what a good looking Labbie I have… 

Judd found 2 out of 3 of the hides.  I was a little surprised when I heard that we missed one because our track record with Vehicles is stellar and it’s a specialty of mine.  I wasn’t so surprised when I reviewed the video.  Take a look at the Blue/White bag at 0:57…  we never checked it.

Learning from Videos:

The benefit of course is actually in WATCHING the video.  In fact lately I’ve become somewhat obsessed with handling.  I sit down with my videos and I WATCH.  Errors such as missing corners and skipping containers really pop out at you!  If you are like me, once you make an error and you’re aware of it, the likelihood of making the same error the next time falls dramatically. 

If you’re lucky enough to be at a trial where there is videography, BUY THE VIDEOS!  Personally I buy photos because I LOVE the artistry and seeing my dog in action.  I buy videos to learn.  Watch your handling!  Watch your search pattern!  What would you do differently?

There’s a real trick in getting the most out of a video review.  Don’t JUST watch the video and assume you have gotten all of the gems.  Follow these steps:

1. Watch the whole thing through once without pausing

2. Watch the video again and then make general notes

3. Now REALLY watch it.  When you see something interesting, pause the video and note the second counter.  Write out (1) What you saw, (2) How you could have improved and (3) What you plan on doing differently

4. Rewatch the video from beginning to end and test your analysis

If you follow these steps, you WILL see a difference in your handling and your overall teamwork.  You can also swap videos with friends and ask what they see in the video.  It can be amazing what some focused video review can teach you!

Taking Videos:

I frequently have people ask me about my video setup.  I have two cameras that I use and I use them for different purposes.

Setup #1: Go Pro Hero 3+ Silver (any Go Pro would do) with a Chest Harness.  I like the Chest Harness better than the head strap because there is likely to be less movement of the camera.  Then I have an adaptor for the SanDisk so that I can easily upload files to my computer to use in iMove and to upload into YouTube.  This setup is GREAT for times when you would be obscured in a standard video setup either because you are working behind large objects such as vehicles or perhaps the search area is just too large.

Setup #2: iPad mounted on a tripod using the Makayama Movie Mount.  The Makayama has a wide angle lens which can be critical when videoing with an iPad.  These types of movie mounts can also be found for your other accessories.  I then edit directly in iMovie and upload via Capture to YouTube, all on my iPad!  The Makayama Movie mount is about $65 and it makes ALL the sense the world.


When people don’t video, it’s usually a combination between the fear of technology and the lack of understanding as to how CRITICAL videoing sessions is.  The technology is actually VERY easy and intuitive.  Over the last several years, ive taken nearly 500 videos of dog sport training.  I learn something new with every video!

Lots of you reading this blog may either be an online Nosework student or you may be contemplating it.  Right now, we are in open enrollment at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  We have a lot of Bronze students (Observers).    Often Bronze students will work the homework but wont video their work.  My advice is to video your work no matter what!  Videoing practice and training sessions improves the effectiveness of training many times over.

Happy Sniffing!

Trial Preparation

Trial Preparation….  something that is often neglected but is critical in getting a dog adequately prepared for the rigors of competition…  Competition is HARD on a dog AND the handler!  Is your dog prepared to step to the line with 10 seconds to acclimate in a new and scary space and work?  Are you ready to read your dog and is your handling to the level that it needs to be at your level of competition?

For most trainers, trial preparation is solely finding a lot of different hides.  Classes are usually held in the same places.  Skills are learned but the dog isn’t actually prepared.  But is your dog truly ready?

Judd is my current, main competition dog.  He’s a Labrador with a true love of scent detection.  I also know he is trial ready.  Judd is actually a very timid dog by nature which surprises most folks who meet him in the Nosework world.  Judd has competed and titled in six sports now, but where he really shines is in Scent Sports.  Through careful generalization and proofing, I take him to the line with complete confidence that he is 100% focused on his job and knowing that the environment isn’t important.  To Judd, only odor matters.  Judd has searched successfully in extremely distracting and scary environments.  In fact, at a recent NW3 trial he WON Exteriors with heavy artillery practice going on nearby.  Yes, he’s a stable dog but he was also prepared!

Trial Preparation involves balancing the dog’s temperament and stress levels, with new challenges.  When I teach Trial Preparation, we analyze a dog’s temperament and stress level, handler skill, dog skills and proofing needs and we put laser focus on where the team needs help in order to succeed.  Trial Preparation should never be haphazard!


Even if you do A LOT of searches in novel environments, that is only a piece of the puzzle.  There is a really big difference between searching in a new place, with a calm handler, under ideal circumstances and trialing.   Consider this…  your dog has to deal with the following at every trial:

  1. A Stressed Out Handler

  2. Back to Back Searches, Long Search Times, Extreme Weather

  3. Occasional Crazy Level of Distractions

  4. Novel Environment with No Chance to Acclimate

  5. Stress of an all day event where they need to stay in the car and be comfortable regardless of the weather

The way you prepare your dog for a trial needs to take these challenges into consideration!

With most other sports, you might trial every weekend.  The time in the ring can be mere seconds to minutes depending on the sport.  In other sports, you can also walk your dog around the grounds and get him used to his environment.  Many people bring non-competing dogs to trials just to get them used to the atmosphere and to work them in a novel location.  Matches are used extensively in trial preparation.  Also, by the time the dog moves up in level, the dog typically has a great amount of ring experience.  Nosework?  Not so much…

Getting into a Nosework trial can sometimes be an accomplishment in and of itself and typically, the times that a dog will actually trial are pretty limited.  Once you title in NW1 or NW2, you are no longer eligible for that level.  If you have a strong dog, it’s quite possible that you will be faced with competing in the rigors of NW3 at your THIRD TRIAL EVER.  Without careful preparation there is little chance to title and be successful in NW3 in under these conditions, and in many ways you’ve actually set your dog up to fail.  All of a sudden the handler is thrown into an intense competition where the number of hides is unknown, and the searches are more plentiful and longer.  Sometimes the handler and the dog will be able to rise above this challenge, but the odds are stacked heavily against the team.

I have a trainer who tells me “Train Hard to Trial Easy”.  I love that tag line and I find myself using it often.  Thank you Lisa!  My interpretation of this statement is to be SMART in your training.  Think about how you prepare with respect to the five stressors above.  Put together a plan and practice smart training.  Think of preparation as a process and check your progress as you go.  Above all else, consider the mental status of your training partner, your dog, as you prepare for your next trial.

Happy Trial Preparation!!

© Stacy Barnett 2015