SHERIDAN — The warehouse of Sheridan Seed Company was the scene for a special game of “hide and seek” among the pallets last week. Except rather than excited children playing the game, there were adults and their canine companions.
The hide and seek game they participated in is actually a national scent training program for dogs called K9 Nose Work. Based on similar training that drug or bomb detection dogs go through, the program takes advantage of the natural scenting ability of dogs and makes it a fun game. It works by teaching dogs to associate the smell of certain essential oil scents with food rewards and then encourages the dog to follow its nose and search for the oils even when they are hidden in challenging locations, with the reward of food when the scent is found.
“The idea is to teach the dog that the scent always pays,” said Jody Fay, a local dog trainer who offers the Nose Work classes in Sheridan.
Fay said training begins by hiding an essential oil such as birch, anise or clove, inside a tin canister within a box with food treats nearby. When the dog investigates the oil smell, they get a food reward immediately, teaching the dog to associate the smell with a tasty treat. The owner also “marks” the dog’s successful find with the use of a small clicker, which gives an audible cue that the dog has correctly found the item.
Additional empty boxes are then added and the dog must search to find the scented canister. The training continues with treats in boxes and then advances to hiding the canisters in new locations and more difficult hiding spots.
Beginner classes are held at Fay’s training facility and as the dogs advance, classes move outside to parks or businesses. Hiding the canisters in areas with more people, more distractions and more competing scents ups the challenge.
“It is so much fun because they enjoy it and it is doing something natural for them,” said Cel Hope, who participates in the classes with her German shepherds. “Using their nose is natural for a dog. We are just focusing them to use their noses to find a certain scent”
“They are working very hard,” she continued. “We have no idea of the number and intensity of scents they are working through. We as humans have no idea all the scents they are picking up and sorting through to find the particular scent we are asking them to find. The scent world is closed to us, but not to them.”
The handler is not simply an observer in the process, but must participate, encouraging the dog to search thoroughly. The handler must also closely watch their dog and be able to read the dog’s body signals to know when it has successfully found the canister and praise and reward the dog immediately.
The program started as a way for dogs who did not do well around other people or dogs, to have an outlet for their energy, since they usually could not attend regular group obedience or agility classes or go to dog parks. The activity is generally solitary, just involving the handler and the dog searching for canisters.
Although it is not physically challenging like dog agility, searching for the scents gives the dogs a mental workout.
“Out of all the things we do with dogs, this is the most exhausting for them,” Fay said.
“They get really tired afterward, more so I think than running,” said Crystal Cook, who takes classes with her three red heelers. “It gives my dogs something to do. They like to be challenged and they like to think.”
The training can continue through the winter months indoors and does not require expensive equipment to get started. Participants can even purchase canisters and oils and practice training at home.
One benefit of the program is its accessibility to dogs of any age, size, breed or temperament. In other words, you don’t have to own a bloodhound to participate.
“Any household dog can learn Nose Work,” Fay said, noting she has had chihuahuas, cocker spaniels and many herding breeds in class. “They come in there and they just do it. I’ve never had a dog that wouldn’t do Nose Work and I’ve been teaching classes for three years.”
Fay said any dog over the age of 5.5 months can participate, including senior dogs and dogs with disabilities.
One special canine student is Jemima, an 11-year-old dachshund/chihuahua mix who has been blind since she was 4 years old. Despite her small size and inability to see, Jemima and her handler search for the canisters. Jemima methodically smells high and low as she goes, tail wagging happily.
“I wanted to start my puppy doing this for cadaver detection work,” owner Karyn Deveraux said. “I was practicing at home with him and Jemima was begging to try it. And she did better than the puppy.”
The puppy, Pan, is now 1.5 years old and is continuing classes along with Jemima. Deveraux said Pan’s reward for finding a canister is getting to play with a favorite toy, while Jemima prefers tasty treats for a successful find.
“They really don’t care about the scent, they just care about what they get when they find it,” Deveraux said. “It is the best thing we have to keep them busy.”
The program is not only open to any type of dog, but almost any type of handler as well. Young children as well as disabled or senior adults can participate with their dog, as long as they can recognize when their dog has successfully found the canister and can reward them quickly.
“About the only requirement would be that they have to be able to focus on their dog and reward them at the right time,” Fay said.
Anyone interested in the classes can contact Fay at email@example.com.