Nosework (which is the same as “Scent Work”) as a competitive sport is exploding! We are seeing a huge increase in participation all over the world. Different programs are popping up, each with their own “flavor” of this most special sport that originally started over 10 years ago. Each program is slightly different, emphasizing different aspects of competitive detection. Ultimately though, all of the programs are inspired by professional K9 detection. Through training, our dogs learn to find, identify, and communicate the location of a target odor (typically a specific essential oil). The explosion of this sport includes the explosion of training opportunities. Professional handlers are realizing that this is another aspect of detection. Many are now offering instructional services, and in some cases, the professional world is learning from the competitive world!

The amount of information available on the sport of Nosework has snowballed and there is no longer a limited source of perspectives. Although wonderful, this creates a challenge for the newer handler. The handler now has to sort through all of this information in order to find “True North” for their team.

How you make training choices depends on your “True North”, or your own training philosophies and priorities.

What is “True North”?

“True North” is the empirical fundamental flavor of Nosework that you train specific to your dog. It’s your foundations and your selected philosophies. True North is how to keep consistency when you train so that you don’t confuse your dog. The trick is that this can vary depending on the source of your foundations! What do you emphasize? What do you care about most? Training Nosework dogs is like a balance scale… you shift qualities to the left and to the right in order optimize the development of the dog.

The foundations that I teach all center around what I call the Four Cornerstones of Trial Preparation. It’s essentially a Training Pyramid.

The Four Cornerstones of Trial Preparation communicates training priority based on the dog’s emotional state. I base all of my training decisions off of this pyramid.

You can have your own philosophies if you’d like. The point here is to try to ensure that you KNOW what your philosophies are! If you are confident in your training priorities, it becomes easy to say “yes” or “no thank you” to new information. This part is critical when taking a lesson or a seminar with a “Pro”. (We define a “Pro” as a trainer or handler who applies K9 detection in a non-competitive environment).

Why is it important to sift through information?

Here’s the thing… and this might be a little unsettling to folks.

Just because someone has handled a working K9, doesn’t make them an expert in training Nosework or in understanding air flow and odor. You see, there are experts in the detection field and there are those still on their educational journey. It’s the same as in competition. Training one Nosework dog doesn’t make you an expert, does it? Well, the same goes for the “Pro’s”! And… being a “Pro” doesn’t mean that the individual has experience training companion dogs. So basically, take everything with a grain of salt.

But that doesn’t just go for Pro’s! You still need to sift through information from Competitive Trainers as well! The point is that someone’s competency as a trainer is rather complex. Competency develops over time by training many individuals (human and dog) in many situations. It is dependent on part educational background and part experience (professional AND/OR competition). A competent trainer can think on their feet and problem solve. This is due to the many hours of working with many dogs and handlers. You will find that these trainers are able to apply their philosophies in creative ways to any problem or challenge in front of them. The point is, go into seminars and lessons with anyone, eyes wide open!

Isn’t detection just…. detection?

Competitive Nosework and Professional Detection are similar. They both involve the dog seeking out a scent cone, following it back to source and communicating the location to the handler. That part is entirely true! Competition and Professional applications can be VERY different.

Let’s explore…

Scent Cone Size

Back in February, I wrote a blog on Scent Cone size called, “Scent Cone Size Matters” and one back in October called, “What IS a ‘Scent Cone’, really?” These are really good additional background sources of information.

Your size of your Scent Cone will depend on the substance that you are searching for. In the case of Competitive Detection, we are typically looking for Essential Oils. (I say “typically” because some organizations in Europe are using Hydrosols rather than their cousin, the Essential Oil.). Essential Oils are intended to be smelled by the very weak human nose. I have a horrible sense of smell, yet I can still relax and enjoy a good bath full of Essential Oils! The point is, that EO’s produce A LOT of odor.

A dog can enter a search area and know immediately if there is an Essential Oil target odor in the vicinity. The same is not always true for some substances searched for by professional teams. In the case of your typical drug smuggler, that dope is wrapped and sealed as much as possible and placed in a location with the specific intention for it to NOT be discovered. Your typical Nosework judge or certifying official has placed a very smelly hide in a location, aging it so that a usable scent cone develops and then testing to make sure that odor is available PRIOR to you running your dog on the hide. This is one reason why we can clear rooms in short timeframes! The dogs are set up for SUCCESS rather than FAILURE!

This means that you don’t need to overwork an area in order to find target odor! In fact, the scent cone size also means that you can get in and get out quickly!

Timed Component

As competitive handlers, we deal with a Timed Component to our searches. In competition I’ve had to clear up to 2 acres in roughly 7 minutes or less. This means that we have a very strong aspect of Strategy that comes into play when searching.

The slower our dog is naturally, and the higher the level, the more Strategy comes into play.

Strategy requires a Search Plan, not necessarily a Search Pattern. The two are different, yet related.

A Search Plan is your overall strategy for covering an area and adapting to the dog’s communication in order to feel that you have identified all sources of target odor in the least amount of time possible.

A Search Pattern is a route that you take in order to cover the search area thoroughly, based on potential air flow and search area structure in order to clear the area of target odor, regardless of time taken.

You MIGHT utilize a partial pattern as a part of your plan.

Here’s the rub. The Timed Component of detection tends to be very specific to the Competitive side of the house. And… over emphasis of Search Pattern over a flexible Search Plan, can result in not having time to clear an area or may result in losing precious time. The trouble is, that many Professionals haven’t searched under time pressure, so keep in mind, although the advice might be relevant, over emphasis of Search Pattern might not be your best path forward.

Search Pattern is good to understand but may not be universally applicable given the search parameters and time constraints.

As a Competition Handler, be open to learning about Search Patterns, however you might not want to be married to them. It’s a good thing to learn… you just don’t want to make a religion out of them.

Handling Styles

In Nosework, we allow our dogs a lot of independence. In professional handling, the style errs more toward “presentation style”. Why is this?

Here’s the thing! Your competition dog was not likely bred for the purpose of professional detection. This means that even if you have a “high drive” dog, he probably wasn’t cherry picked for his off the charts drive, insanity for the tennis ball (or metal pipe… yes… many professionally selected dogs are CRAZY for a copper pipe!), independence (opposite of biddability) and resilience. And, when our dogs aren’t up to snuff, we don’t “wash them out”. Keep in mind that the pro’s HAVE TO select dogs like that. They purposely choose dogs that would make horrible companion dogs, because that is what works. And… the HAVE TO wash them out, as soon as possible… because doing otherwise can result in a tremendous loss of money and resources.

That is not a dig on your dog! It’s just reality.

I actually have a dog that was bred for detection. She is unlike most “pet dogs” in many ways, but because of the relationship that I built and because my breeder has bred in an “off-switch”, it’s doable. The hardest part of trialing her isn’t the searching. It’s keeping her from losing her mind in the Staging Areas!

With most dogs, we need to build independence. Your normal Pet Dog, even your typical Sport Dog, has biddability bred into them. This means that they will defer to you. Working Dogs also have an instinct of deferral, however it tends to be a little less because drive overrides it. Keep in mind also, that studies have been done that prove that dogs will ignore olfactory cues over social cues. Add a biddable dog into the mix and you have a recipe for a false alert when you start presenting the search area.

Why does presentation work for professionals then?

Well, if they miss a “hide”, people can die and things can blow up. It’s far better to have a False Alert than to miss something. Their scent cones are smaller. Their dogs are higher drive. Presentation works for professionals. However, try doing presentation technique with a soft dog on 10 foot hide with convergence, wind blowing around your large scent cones, while under extreme time pressure. Nope. This is a case of misplaced application and why we handle differently in Nosework.

False Positives Versus False Negatives

A False Positive is a False Alert.

A False Negative is a Missed Hide.

In professional detection:

  • False Positives in professional detection mean that you investigate further. No lives are lost.
  • False Negatives in professional detection mean your dog missed a bomb or drugs and people die.

In competition detection:

  • False Positives in competitive detection means you had a False Alert and you FAIL.
  • False Negatives in competitive detection means that you missed a hide. This is the lesser of two evils in competition. I would MUCH rather miss a hide than have a False Alert!

Handling styles will err on your emphasis of one of these errors or another. In competition detection it is always better to miss a hide than to push our dogs into a False Alert. A missed hide is usually a Search Plan or a Handling Error.

Trained Final Response

Lastly, the final major difference is on the emphasis of a Trained Final Response.

Back in 2016, I wrote a blog on Final Responses and the False Alert. I think it still holds true. In fact, one of the nations TOP professional trainers emailed me privately and complimented me on the article.

Your Trained Final Response (TFR) is REQUIRED by courts in order for a dog’s alert to hold up by law. There was a recent case in British Columbia where a man was acquitted by a court for possessing 27,500+ pills of fentanyl because the dog did’t sit. Yes! You read that correctly! Even though the dog demonstrated a clear change of behavior, he didn’t sit, so the court acquitted the man.

Your competition dog is not searching for drugs on the side of the highway. TFR’s actually increase your chance for a False Alert. But remember! In professional detection, it’s more important to have a clear alert than for the dog to be correct. If that fentanyl-hunting working dog had sat next to the wrong wheel, that bad guy would still be in jail right now!

That said, there is nothing wrong with a final response! I personally prefer an organically developed final response over a trained response. Just keep in mind while you are learning, the pros and cons, and make your own decision.

So now what?

So we have determined that all “detection” isn’t “detection”…. competition detection is different than professional detection. It is. However there is a HUGE amount that can be learned from the “Pro’s”. The key though is applying what makes sense and what is “Not That”. How do we make sense of it all?

Remember “True North”

In order to learn outside of your discipline, you need a philosophical basis to compare what you learn with what you have.

Recently I took a seminar with a well known “professional”. Could he train detection dogs? Yes, I think so. But he didn’t understand Nosework. He didn’t understand how I handle, my organic final response amongst other things. Did I learn? Sure. But I also learned “Not That”. It was a just a case of misapplication to a sport. Does it make him a “bad trainer”? Hell no.

You have to know your dog and your philosophies. If you do, by all means, reach out to as many pro’s as you can. There can be a wealth of knowledge there. And some of them are REALLY GOOD. Just be aware that you need to bring some responsibility for learning to the table.

So how do you get the most out of a lesson with a Pro?

(1) Know your dog’s challenges in advance.

I recently took a lesson with a trainer by the name of Tony Gravely. Since I mention him by name I must have been impressed! I was. I knew Brava had a challenge with speed…. meaning she is so fast that she will blow by odor. Tony helped with set ups that used odor to reduce her speed naturally.

(2) Pick a trainer who understands Nosework.

If you can, find a professional who is an experienced Nosework judge. These folks have a better idea of the challenges that you are training for. Keep in mind that your challenges are different than professional detection! Tony for example, is a NACSW Judge and an AKC “Expert” Judge. Someone like that can relate to you and what you need to train for.

(3) Pick a trainer who has experience training non-working dogs.

Keep in mind that just because your dog is “non-working”, doesn’t make them “less”… just a little “different”. This requires complex problem solving on the part of the trainer and an ability to understand that we don’t “wash out” dogs in Nosework.

(4) Advocate for your dog.

The amount of pressure that a professional might put on their dogs and the amount of pressure that you can put on your dog, may differ. That’s okay. Just keep it in mind and advocate for your dog.

(5) Keep an open mind.

Likely the pro is going to tell you something that might come out of left field. It might even contradict what your trainer tells you. Compare it to your “True North” and really do some soul searching as to whether you can apply it. Even if it sounds like it doesn’t apply, it might! Keep an open mind.

Some reasons why the Pro’s sometimes really “get it”…

Keep in mind that professionals work their dogs A LOT. They aren’t turn and churn to get these dogs out. They have to prepare for some really rigorous certifications. That is very commendable.

This means that they understand a few things that sometimes gets lost in competitive detection:

(1) Reinforcement history is everything.

This means that you need to focus on the foundations. Don’t skip over and get sexy too fast. Getting sexy too quickly is an issue that lots of competition trainers have. That cool hide may not be the best thing for your dogs training! Keep It Simple.

(2) Pro’s know how to spilt behaviors.

We all know that good training usually involves splitting behaviors. This means that you focus on specific aspects at specific times. Pro’s are super at this because they have a heavy emphasis on no False Negatives!

(3) Pro’s tend to be “Clean Trainers”.

This means that they understand how to isolate what they are looking for. They will to a point over-emphasize certain aspects of training because they know what breaks down under pressure. Some of their dogs (and the handlers who handle them) may even have to perform under gun fire! That’s pretty serious stuff!

So in the end…

Whether you are learning from a “Pro” or a “Competition Trainer”, learn to take everything with a grain of salt. Compare everything to your “True North” and realize that only you truly understands your dog. Take responsibility for your learning and apply new concepts thoughtfully. There is a huge amount to learn out there. Thoughtful application is what catapults us into success in this sport.