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Scent Work

German Shepherd Dog Merlin and I started training in scent work just a few years after the founding of the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) in 2009. We had trained and competed in American Kennel Club (AKC) rally obedience, but I came to realize that neither of us had the temperament for anything that regimented. In scent work, sometimes called nose work, the dog is the team leader. Merlin liked it that way.


The sport takes advantage of the dog’s astonishing smelling abilities, its curiosity, desire to hunt, and love of food to locate hidden sources of scent and alert its handler. Training and competing give dogs and handlers of all ages a stimulating and fun way to bond, build confidence, and burn mental and physical energy. While training approaches vary, they all condition the dog to associate particular odors – birch, anise, and clove, and in AKC scent work, cypress – with high-value rewards. For many of us, that means hot dogs. Early training emphasizes having the dog wanting to search out food, then odors, by itself and develop a signal to the handler that the dog found it. Frequently, the dog gives its “alert,” as it is called, by a pronounced head turn to the handler.


In NACSW trials, the dog/handler team competes to find all of the hidden odor sources in four areas: interiors (a classroom), exteriors (a patio), containers (boxes) and on vehicles. When AKC adopted the sport in 2011, it eliminated the vehicle but added hides “buried” in sand or water, and added handler discrimination in which the dog must find an article bearing the handler’s scent. In both competitions, as is the case with so many other dog sports, the team progresses through increasingly difficult levels. Generally, the number of “hides,” the hidden odor sources, go from one in a small area to three (or more) in larger areas and in more challenging locations.


While there are ribbons for the fastest teams in each search, I was always happy when Merlin found all the odors and then qualified to move on to the next more complicated level. The more I learned to read what he was doing, chasing odor in the wind or collecting at walls then giving him a clear path to the hide, the more I appreciated his innate talent and drive. The added bonus, with my high-octane German-bred working dog, was that it was so mentally challenging that long, restful naps followed training and trial days alike.


Carol Northrup has been a member of the DVGSDC for many years and has owned GSDs for several decades. Merlin, aka Yatta vom Nadelhaus, SW-A, NW2, SDS-E, TC, was her scent work partner until his death from cancer in 2021. She’s now raising a show puppy, Bellagio’s Gambler, who will compete in scent work once his conformation career is over.

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