Nose Work: Wyoming Has New Competition Sport That Puts Your Dog’s Sensitive Sniffer To Work

Canines have long been involved in police detection work with their great noses, which have been used to find everything from drugs and bombs. Now the trick that comes so naturally to dogs is becoming a fast-growing competition sport for regular pet owners and their pooches.

Renée Jean

April 02, 20238 min read

Augie NW1 Trial 032014 Copy
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Canines have long been involved in police detection work with their great noses, which have been used to find everything from drugs and bombs to viruses on potatoes and even the scent of diabetes. 

But now the trick that comes so naturally to dogs is becoming a fast-growing competition sport for regular pet owners and their pooches.

Barb Sahl, an instructor in Cheyenne who teaches owners and their pets the art of canine nose work, said the sport started in California with a trio of experts who were demonstrating how dogs could find things like cellphones and keys. 

The questions kept coming, though, and the interest was building. Before long, they had founded a new organization, the National Association of Canine Scent Work, and established a whole new competition sport for dogs.

Echo sniffs around a car while competing in a canine nose work event. (Photo Courtesy Barb Sahl)

Fido Loves It

Canine nose work is probably the best thing since sliced bread — at least your dog thinks so.

“I mean, what do we usually do with our pet dogs?” Sahl asked. “You wait here, you stay, sit, lie down. Stop that!”

Dogs quickly get used to listening to and deferring to their humans on just about everything. But nose work flips this on its head, and it’s great for the dog’s self-esteem.

“This is an activity where we have no idea,” Sahl said. “If people in a competition want to find where those hides are, we have to defer to them.”

Getting a chance to put their noses to work for their handlers is a great bonding experience for owners and their dogs, Sahl added, and it’s a mentally stimulating, positive experience for them. That can sometimes fix behavior in other areas as well.

First Lesson: Let The Dog Lead

Deferring to the dog is, in fact, the first lesson said Sahl, a certified K9 Nose Work instructor who likes to teach those getting into the competition for the first time.

K9 Nose Work is part of the National Association of Canine Scent Work.

“The very first class is just teaching dogs that they can be dogs during their search,” Sahl said. “They’re going to lead the search, and we’re just going to watch them and learn from them. They’re going to invite us into their world.”

A large part of that first class is just Sahl narrating what the dog is doing, raising the owner’s awareness.

“You see that dog make that sharp turn in the middle of nowhere?” She will say. “He just ran into the edge of an odor cone. And now he knows that source, the hotdog, or whatever it is, is over there.”

The dog will then start working that angle, going left to right and left again, working both sides of the odor cone to zero in on the treat.

“I want them to start being able to see what their dog is telling them,” Sahl said. “At the same time, I’m getting the dogs, who are usually pets, to realize that in this context, you’re the leader here. We’re going to honor what you’re telling us and see how you solve this problem.”

Echo has sniffed out a wall full of ribbons in competitions. (Photo Courtesy Barb Sahl)

More Complicated Puzzles

Gradually, over time, Sahl will introduce more and more complicated puzzles for the dogs and their handlers, challenging them to expand their game. 

“The second six weeks, we go back outside, where we start searching exterior areas in vehicles,” Sahl said. “We’re hoping that the first six weeks gave the dogs enough drive and confidence to be able to work outside with distractions.”

Then, in the third set of classes, the dogs start to find one of the four competition odors, referred to as trained odors. Those odors are birch, clove, anise and cypress, introduced on cotton swabs.

The swabs are placed into puzzle boxes, which by that time the dogs know well, and a little piece of food is placed on top of the box. 

The game here is to get the dogs to realize the odors are important by linking them with food and treats.

Gradually, the food reward on top of the box becomes smaller and smaller. Until one day, there’s no food on top of the box. Instead, the treat is given right after the dog finds the puzzle box with the trained odor.

“You have to maintain the value for the odor,” Sahl said. “It’s a primary reinforcer, something that we don’t have to train the dog to want.”

Accessibility Makes It Hugely Popular

Nose work for canines has become so popular, Sahl believes, because it is something literally any dog and any human can do together.

“For my class, I kind of prefer them to be at least 6 months old,” she said. “But I start my own dogs from the day they come home as puppies, or maybe a week or two later, after they’ve settled in.”

Elderly dogs, though, can do this too. 

“I’ve even heard of dogs that are blind and deaf in classes,” she said. “I knew of a person who ran a blind and deaf cattle dog. She’s retired now, but I’ve seen dogs in wheelchairs, too, so it’s really something any dog can do, as long as they’re not human aggressive.”

Humans meanwhile, can also participate from very young to very old, Sahl said. 

“Any dog, any human can do this as long as they can get around a little bit,” she said. “So, I have seen people actually running their dog in a trial from a walker. The dog is on maybe a Flexi line or just a long line and kind of spins around them looking for the odor. It’s just a very accessible activity.”

Charlie looks to pick up a scent during his first nose work competition in Iowa. (Photo Courtesy Barb Sahl)

Any Dog, Any Human

All breeds of dogs seem to benefit from and do very well with nose work, Sahl said. It doesn’t matter if they’re an Irish wolf hound or a tiny Teddy Roosevelt terrier.

“Their noses all have the same olfactory cells,” she said. “Maybe bloodhounds have more receptors — but they’re also not as as fast. But so they can all do it, and it’s so fascinating to watch them do it.”

The mental stimulation is also immensely satisfying for the dogs, Sahl said, something she saw with her first nose work dog, a Shelty named Augie, who turned out to be too overreactive to train for agility work.

Augie, in fact, is how Sahl got hooked on canine nose work in the first place. He was incapable of maintaining his cool in an agility contest, but nose work was something else again.

“He was so brilliant, so energetic,” Sahl recalled. “He got really good at it. And he still loves the game, though he is retired now. All of the training searches I set for my younger dogs, I run him on them as well, just for fun.”

Fun Spaces Too

While the first competition wasn’t all that long ago, competitions these days are held across the nation in all kinds of interesting places.

Sahl is planning a trip to Illinois for a trial that will be held at a fire truck production facility.

“The trials are always in real-life settings,” Sahl said. “In fact, one of the trials me and my colleagues will be going to is just over the hill in Laramie at the Wyoming Territorial Museum.”

People come from all over the country for the event, Sahl added, because of the unique nature of the venue.

“It’s a super fun venue,” Sahl said, “And it runs for three days.”

Thing To Know

Dogs on average have 100 million olfactory receptors in their noses, while humans have just 6 million. That allows them to smell anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times better than people do. 

If dogs are that good at smelling, though, why do they always want to smell the stinky spots we’d rather they ignored?

The answer is simple. Our sweat glands – specifically, the apocrine glands – release pheromones that dogs can smell to gather information about other mammals. 

This is why dogs seem to be obsessed with each other’s rear ends. Dogs have apocrine glands everywhere, but they have the most such glands near the anus and genitals.

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter