Very soon after bringing a two-month-old Merlin (Yatta vom Nadelhaus – RN, NW2, NW1C, NW1I, SDS-A, TC – breeder Traci Needles of Nadelhaus German Shepherds) home, he got his nickname, “Devil Dog.” I very quickly learned the not-so-subtle differences between American-bred and German-bred German Shepherds, and reached out to anyone and everyone for advice, mentoring, and training.
A distant friend of mine who became a dog trainer long after our Air Force careers had taken us down separate paths urged me to check out the relatively new sport of Canine Nose Work.
Based on police drug and explosives training, the sport attracts all breeds. For months I looked into what it was and how it worked until, finally, I came across training conducted by Scott Warner of Warner K9. Mind you, dogs don’t need training to learn how to sniff. For most, it doesn’t take long at all to come to understand that the smell of a favorite treat in an empty box is what they get rewarded for with more of the treats. Merlin quickly came to love his “Find It Game.” All I had to do was put on his harness and he was raring to go. As the training sessions continued, I came to realize there was an additional benefit – he had to put so much thought into his problem-solving that my high-octane teenager collapsed afterwards and slept for hours.
Our nose work training creates and builds on successes. Making “odor obedience” – the desire of the dog to both find and stay on the odor, whether it is just the favorite treat, a treat paired with one of three odors used by the National Association of Canine Nose Work [birch, anise, clove], or just the odor itself) – the most fun the handler and dog can have is always the order of the day. The handler, though, is the hardest to train. I had to learn to watch for subtle body language cues from Merlin like slowing down to be able to call, “ALERT!,” before he took matters into his own paws and crushed the box containing the odor.
Other organizations than NACSW sponsor competitions and have different training regimens. One of those becoming increasingly popular is Sniffing Dog Sports, Merlin and I began trialing with that fun group and, in September 2016, got our Novice title with a "Triple Q," qualifying in all three elements on the same day. Unlike NASCW, in SDS, you can "bank" the three elements - containers, area and games - from on trial to another to title at the level.
For Merlin and me, the first step, after joining NACSW, was to pass the birch odor recognition test. The first title, Nose Work 1, entailed passing and scoring in four searches: container; exterior area; interior area; and vehicle. Ribbons go to those who pass the test in the least amount of time and you can be "pronounced" for excellent teamwork in any or all of the runs. As the titles go to Nose Work 2 and 3, additional odors come into play along with more complexity such as searching multiple vehicles or calling rooms clear when no target odor is present. Just a few dogs in the country have achieved the final title, NW3 Elite, for which the dog must qualify at three separate NW3 trials. The organization added titles for elements of each level in 2014 - Merlin passed the Nose Work Container trial in Santa Rosa in July 2014.
Carol Northrup is a member of the Diablo Valley German Shepherd Dog Club and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is the club's webmaster. HerMerlin competes in nose work and take long walks at a nearby dog-friendly cemetery. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.