If you are newer to competing in Nosework or Scent Work, you will certainly come across those cardboard boxes set aside for your use prior to your search. Have you ever wondered about whether or not it makes sense to use them or HOW you should (or should not) be using them?

Very often I hear people refer to these boxes as “Practice Boxes”, however they are truly just “Warm-up and Recovery”. Their purpose is simply to help the dog frame the context of what is coming up. Is the dog at a Nosework or Scent Work trial or are at a Rally trial? What is expected of them? The boxes can also be used to gauge the dog’s current engagement level. Is your dog excited to search? Or, if you had a rough search, it can give your dog the opportunity to get rewarded on an easy hide (hence the term “Recovery Box”). They truly are NOT “Practice Boxes” because getting your dog on odor should not be happening at a trial.

These boxes are left out all day and are subject to countless dogs and weather changes. If it’s raining, they can be soggy. More than usually, the hot one (and sometimes the cold ones) are flattened by exuberant dogs. Many of them have been subject to countless food drops. Basically, they are typically highly contaminated, especially over time!

NACSW will typically set out 1 hot box and several cold boxes. AKC uses stronger odor and will set out a box of each odor and (typically) no cold boxes.

Box Etiquette

There are some real Do’s and Don’ts when using Warm-up and Recovery Boxes…


  • Give priority for their use to the dog who is next to search.
  • Feed NEXT to the box NOT over the box.
  • Be brief in your use. Now is not the time to drill your dog on odor!


  • Touch or rearrange the boxes (you will get odor on your hands and will contribute to contamination wherever you go!)
  • Fix smashed boxes… what is smashed is smashed… remember no touching!
  • Use the boxes out of turn… an On Deck team may be waiting off on the side to use them
  • Drop food on or near the box

Do you HAVE to use them?

Absolutely not!

There are many reasons why you might NOT want to use the boxes!

Keep in mind that the boxes over time get highly contaminated. Every time a dog touches a hot box and then touches a cold box, odor is transferred to the cold box. By the end of the trial, very often it’s impossible to visibly tell the difference between hot and cold!

If your dog is nervous, your dog may be distracted or worse, may not take a treat. The problem is this will likely get into your head and worry you about how the dog will perform in the search. How will you feel if your dog false alerts on a cold box (likely due to contamination)? Will you be able to shrug it off and carry on?

How can you best use them?

If you DO decide to use the Warm-up Boxes, they are best used as a part of a routine. My old Summit Level dog, Judd, LOVED the warm-up boxes. Getting his reward at the boxes was a gateway to FUN for him. He took so much joy in galloping up to them. I never NEEDED them. I always did them because he liked it. They were a part of his routine! (Starting this year, only a Recovery Box is available for Elite and Summit Levels in NACSW.)

If you DO use them, DON’T stress if your dog isn’t interested or hits on the wrong box. Remember that they are usually out in the open in plain view of the parking lot and are likely highly contaminated. There really is zero correlation between performance at the boxes and performance in the search! So IF you use them, keep that in mind. It’s up to you if you feel the need to reward at a box that the dog did not find. I don’t think it matters one way or the other.

If you have a rough search, a Recovery Box can be helpful! But even more helpful is being joyful with your dog no matter the outcome of the search. Reward the effort of the search and feed or play on the way back to the car or crate. No one should ever be able to tell if you Q’d or not by your demeanor coming back from a search. THIS is much more impactful to your dog than a Recovery Box.

Better than a Box

Even better than a Warm-up Box is a ROUTINE. Ritualize the day. How you take your dog out of the crate, the timing of the potty break, the “dressing” of the dog, all of this can be routinized. Routine gets your dog into search mode and tells your dog what is coming up. It’s a huge contributor to focus and engagement, and it can help the dog to settle and search immediately off of the start line. Routine also helps to calm nerves, both yours and your dog’s! With a solid routine, you will find that your dog searches more consistently with predictable, positive results.

In the End…

Using the Warm-up Boxes is a personal decision. Their use may make sense for some teams and not for others. What IS important is that you use them (or not!) thoughtfully as a part of how you trial.