Nosework, also known as Scent Work, is a sport in which a dog fully relies on his own sense of smell, turning a dog’s favorite activity—using his nose—into a fun game.
According to the American Kennel Club’s definition, scent work “…is a sport that mimics the task of working detection dogs to locate a scent (e.g., explosives or narcotics) and communicate to the handler that the scent has been found.”
In training and in competition, dogs hunt in all the venues of professional working dogs: interiors, exteriors, vehicles, containers, water, and buried ‘hides.’
Georgia Edwards, has taught nosework classes for more than a dozen years. She is a Certified Nosework Instructor—CNWI—through the National Association of Canine Scent Work, founded in 2005. She taught popular nose work classes through South Whidbey Parks and Recreation for 13 years, and is now working independently on Sundays in 2024.
“All dogs can hunt, it’s how they see the world,” Edwards said. “They rely 95 percent through their nose rather than their eyes. We’ve had blind dogs who do as well as sighted ones. A lot of them have a Spidey sense. They know when something’s in front of them because they can smell it.”
The AKC notes on its website a “Fascinating fact: Dogs have a sense of smell that’s between 10,000 and 100,000 times more acute than ours! The sport of nosework celebrates the joy of sniffing, and asks a dog to sniff to their heart’s content; turning your dog’s favorite activity into a rewarding game. It is a terrific sport for all kinds of dogs, and is a wonderful way to build confidence in a shy dog.”
It is also the only canine sport that allows reactive dogs to participate, since each dog-handler team works alone.
The hunting game helps tune canine owner/handlers into how their dog perceives their world.
“Once you’re tuned in how they’ve indicated finding things, there is much better communication between owner and dog in all aspects of the dog’s life,” Edwards explained. “When a dog is licking a leaf, the dog is getting scent molecules from another who has urinated or defecated there. What the scent tells the dog, is what kind of animal, how old it is, how breedable, whether it’s something to fear, something to eat, something to mate with.”
Dogs have various ways of showing their owner they have located the scent. Georgia, for the classes she teaches, hides Q-tips scented with non-toxic essential oils—typically anise, birch, clove or cypress. Upon finding the scent, dogs display a distinct and recognizable behavior-–they may turn and look at their handler, sit or down, or even play-bow.
When asked how she came to be interested in nose work, Edwards recalled her days as a physician-medical oncologist working in Southern California, and noticing that her dog Gandolf, a Bouvier des Flandres breed of herding dog, and a trained hospital therapy dog, acted differently around some of her patients.
“Back in 1993 when I was running the Breast Center at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital, one of my Bouviers’ behavior would change,” Edwards explained. “A new patient came in, the dog went out of my office and put his feet on the front desk and looked at her. The staff wondered about his change of behavior. During her exam, the dog scratched on the door, came in and leaned against the patient, something he had never done before. As it turns out, she had locally advanced breast cancer. During her years of treatment, the dog’s behavior would change when she was in remission and when her cancer relapsed. What he was identifying was the smell of tumor cell breakdown products in her exhaled breath.”
Subsequently, Gandolf identified metastatic breast cancer in several other patients. Edwards had other dogs who followed Gandolf who could scent patients with cancer. One of her female Bouviers successfully identified a man with prostate cancer.
“I’ve had patients tell me the dogs would get in their face to smell their breath,” Edwards said.
After retiring from her work and moving to Whidbey Island, Edwards became interested in learning more about “doggy scent perception.” When canine nosework was introduced as a sport in 2005, she became involved with it.
“My own dog Hawkeye was the first Bouvier to have a competitive canine nosework title,” Edwards said. “He was one of the top 20 national working dogs in 2018.”
On a recent overcast Sunday, Edwards taught four 90-minute sessions with six dog-handler teams per class at the Pacific Rim Institute in Coupeville. Some dogs new to the game were given treats when they successfully located a hidden scent when paired with a treat.The more experienced dogs located the scent alone and were then rewarded by their handler with a special treat.
“Humans perceive the world largely with their eyes,” said Dave Thompson, who with his wife Joy enjoy nosework classes with their dogs Thor and Cruz. “Dogs perceive their world with their sense of smell. When we walk our dogs they’re sensing things that are very stimulating, like us reading a great book. Nosework, particularly with Georgia’s class, is a positive experience. It’s a win win for you and your dog.”
“We start out by amplifying the dog’s hunting skills,” Edwards said. “We provide high value treats. Initially, we have them search in boxes for treats alone. The box helps confine the odor and provides a visual target. The dogs are curious, go to investigate the box, and lo and behold, they are rewarded with a piece of hotdog. What more could you want?”
Later on, when the dog learns good things come from the box, it can be placed somewhere else a typically timid dog wouldn’t want to venture near, but does now, because of the trust formed by earning a treat from the box.
“If you have a dog capable of doing something, but they don’t want to, you can bribe them to do it,” Edwards said.“ First we start with boxes and hot dogs. Then target odors and boxes, which pairs the food reward with the odor. Over time we fade out the food rewards. The dogs are looking for the target odor, at that point reward comes from the owner.”
Shari Prior and her seven-year-old Chocolate Lab Chaya—pronounced Kie-ya—have been students of Edwards since Chaya was a year old. Chaya has moved on from expecting treats each time she finds a scent box and gets pleasure from the hunt of scents alone.
Chaya is an exuberant smiling dog with silver fur outlining her mouth. When it was her turn to find the scent boxes, Chaya, thrilled for the chance to play/work, ran around the room and made huffing sounds, wagged her tail, and looked at Prior when she located the scents.
“Once you start doing this, it gives the dogs great pleasure,” Edwards said. “They get excited about doing this sport.”
Prior said she finds the classes as much fun as Chaya does.
“What’s awesome about Georgia, is she’s like a preschool teacher,” Prior said. “She’s very creative when she sets up things up for dogs. It’s fun for dogs and for people. An example, she always does really fun hunts for Halloween and Easter. She literally sets the room up with Easter eggs and chickens hanging from the ceiling.”
Another couple brought their Bernese Mountain Dog-Poodle mix—a Berna-Doodle to the Jan. 21 class.
Michael Johnson, who owns Finn, with his wife Donna, have taken Edwards’ class for nearly a year.
“A lot of this training is for the handlers,” Michael Johnson said. “A dog knows what to do. It’s more about how to get good communication between the handler and their dog. Our dog is exhausted after this. He’ll sleep for a couple of hours. Georgia said it is because he works so hard, it’s like he has a computer in his nose.”
Finn found the scents while on and off-leash. At one point, Donna Johnson said, “Eureka! Finn showed her his way of finding a scent by breathing out, chuff, chuff chuff. Off-leash, Finn was given the command, “Search” to begin his quest. Donna then said, “Find it,” to encourage him to look elsewhere. Georgia suggested one command is best, saying that “multiple words give multiple commands.”
At an earlier class, Deborah Fisher and her dog, Kai, a spirited American Eskimo dog, noted what benefits she and her dog get from nosework.
“Nosework has been the perfect thing to help keep a high-energy American Eskimo dog like Kai busy and engaged,” Fisher said. “I love watching her solve problems and it’s fun and relaxing for both of us. The bond that develops through training also enhances the trust in our day-to-day relationship and I think contributes to Kai being a more well-rounded dog.”
Bucky, a seven-year-old Miniature Dachsund owned by Annie Zeck, sniffed out one of the target scents in a glamping cabin on the property.
“Bucky is at his happiest when he is doing nosework,” Zeck noted. “He literally jumps for joy.”
To learn more about the art of nose work, visit Georgia Edwards’ webpage Whidbey Canine Nosework.