By​ ​Courtney​ ​Emken
co-written​ ​by​ ​​Jen​ ​Larson,​ ​KPA-CTP, and Amanda Ott.

Last summer we talked about Agility training and other fun canine sports. This week we wanted to shed light on a less well known, but equally enjoyable activity: nosework. In this article we’ll cover the basics of training your dog’s nose and show you how to start competing in nosework.

Whether you’re after an intimate bonding experience, a mentally enriching activity, or think you might have a budding search and rescue dog on your hands, nosework has plenty to offer you and more. So let’s dive in!

Why To Get Your Dog Involved In Nosework

Whenever you’re first getting into any canine exercise or activity we highly recommend attending some local trials and competitions. These events are great opportunities to watch how competing dogs interact with their handlers and ask their owners helpful questions like:

  • How they trained for nosework
  • What type of facilities they utilized
  • Whether they worked with a specific trainer

After visiting several nosework events and engaging with the attendees, you’ll get a better feeling for the nature of nosework competition and whether it’s the right exercise for you and your dog.

One of nosework’s best qualities is that it’s entirely positive – there’s no way to aversively train for nosework. If dogs start to have a negative association with a certain smell, then they won’t follow it at all. In fact, they’ll do their best to ignore it!

Another one of nosework’s strong points is that it provides a mentally enriching sport that reactive dogs can actively participate in. Other canine competitions are chock-full of strange dogs, people, and activity that can easily overstimulate a reactive dog. However, at nosework competitions the dog is focused on their environment, not their handler or other dogs.

First Steps: Getting Started With Nosework Training

Nosework, despite the slightly intimidating name, is actually pretty simple. All the trainer does is match a specific smell to a tangible reward for the dog. The rewards can be anything from:


So long as your dog values the reward, you can use it to train for nosework. The harder part is effectively pairing particular smells with the “good” feeling imparted by those rewards.

You’ll know when you’ve accomplished this link by paying attention to your dog’s reactions. Watch them closely as they enter an environment and start to pick up that reinforced smell. You should see noticeable changes in their body language, such as:

If you’ve properly reinforced a certain smell, every time your dog catches a waft of it they’ll act as if they just picked up the scent of a juicy hamburger. Your dog knows that whenever they track down the source of that smell, they’ll get an awesome reward (even if it’s not that burger)

After consistent and repeated reinforcement, your dog will come to automatically expect something good to come from tracking down particular scents. This is the nosework trainer’s goal; to condition smell recognition into a secondary reinforcer, much like a reinforced clicker.

If you’re having trouble getting your dog to track smells, the National Nosework Association recommends that trainers first build their dog’s drive to search and hunt. Without this key drive, it’s difficult to move on to the more advanced stages of pairing rewards to specific odors.

That’s why DogBoy’s nosework classes start with basic box and container exercises to reinforce the searching impulse. We place treats in a box, shuffle it around with several other containers, then let the dog try to track down the treat. Eventually, we transition from treats to a target odor and begin training with more advanced nosework exercises.

If you’re interested in doing nosework training, contact us to sign up for DogBoy’s nosework class! Our expert trainers, (including Amanda Ott, professional K9 search and rescue trainer) will give you all the tools and techniques you need to get started in nosework.

Image Permissions

Bloodhound by patchattack

Dog Nose by montillon.a