K9 Nose Work® in Shelters
The winter months are cold and damp in Kansas. During this time, a lot of our dogs do not get out for enough exercise. At the Lawrence Humane Society, we do not have indoor space for exercising our dogs. We are situated on 4 acres, and most of our property is divided into six large exercise pens. During the warmer months, many dogs spend large portions of their day outside in playgroups or with volunteers for long periods of time. Once it gets cold, however, we do not have anywhere to take dogs off leash to play inside. At the beginning of this winter, I was challenged to come up with a training program we could hold indoors.
We decided to start doing K9 Nose Work® (hereafter, “nose work”) with the shelter’s dogs after watching a DVD called The Parker Videos: How One Dog Got Started in K9 Nose Work from The National Association of Canine Scent Work. Getting started in nose work did not appear to take up a lot of space, time, or resources. It looked like a challenging game of hide and seek. Since most dogs are food motivated, we found it easy to get started.
The first challenge we experienced was finding a big enough space for the dogs to search. We have a multi-purpose room we use for behavior assessments and food storage, so we had to make sure nose work didn’t interfere with either of those. Each day, we block off one hour of time in the multi-purpose room for nose work. The scheduling allows staff to have access to food as needed, and perform behavior assessments.
Nose work was an inexpensive program for us to start. We collected nine cardboard boxes of varying sizes; keeping our limited storage area in mind, we selected small boxes. One box is designated the treat box and labeled accordingly.
Our dogs are trained with hot dogs and cheese donated by the members of our community. If a dog does not like hot dogs, we will try other donated treats and if the dog is highly toy-motivated, we will use their toy instead. We can use whatever resource the dog is willing to hunt for as reinforcement.
Nose work has been an excellent volunteer program. We have volunteers who specifically assist us in our behavior programs, and each of them is trained to assist with nose work. They enjoy working with the dogs and seeing the progress over time. Some of our dogs that have had more than three sessions will get excited as the volunteer walks them towards the multi-purpose room. One volunteer noted, “It’s like he knows before we get to the door exactly what we are going to do.”
Our volunteers are also trained in box placement. We require that volunteers participate in handling the dogs for at least 15 nose work sessions and watch the Parker Videos DVD before they can start learning to set up a session themselves. Once those requirements are met, they shadow one of the Behavior Team members for five nose work sessions to learn about box placement. From there, they can take the lead on placing boxes for the dogs.
Here, Lily is starting to move on to more complicated box placement. At first, the boxes are placed in a line on the floor, then we move them around the room and into harder-to-find locations, as in this video.
When a dog becomes proficient in searching at ground level, we start to move the boxes onto shelves. This was an easy find!
We vary the box placement to encourage more thorough searching; you can see Lily making sure to check out every corner before she eventually finds the treats.
Why do we do nose work
Nose work has become an important part of our behavior program for a variety of reasons. We know mental and physical stimulation are both important in keeping our dogs healthy and happy—no one wants to be locked in a kennel all day!
Nose work gives us an opportunity to provide enrichment to a variety of dogs in a short amount of time. During a nose work session, the dogs are getting individual attention from us, something we cannot offer dogs during playgroups. Additionally, the program gives the dogs a chance to use the “seeking” part of their brain. The “seeking” system of a dog’s brain is considered the “pleasure center,” according to Temple Grandin in her book Animals Make Us Human. Dr. Grandin explains that the “seeking” system is stimulated by the pleasure of looking for something good. It is not necessarily the pleasure of having something good. During nose work sessions, our dogs are looking for something good; while they are searching, their seeking system is engaged. This allows the shelter dog to have something to look forward to.
Each dog we have trained in nose work has shown improvement in behavior, including improved kennel behavior, improved social behavior, and increased confidence. Volunteers enjoy seeing the progress each session, and with the noticeable improvements in each dog’s behavior, staff and volunteers are eager to continue the training. Additionally, the program allows us to provide needed enrichment to up to 10 dogs in one hour.
This program is run fully with donations from our community; our reinforcers—hot dogs and cheese—are donated by volunteers and the public. We recycle cardboard boxes from deliveries, keeping nine boxes on hand at all times. This amount is easy for me to store and helps keep diversity in each nose work session. As boxes wear down or get soiled we replace them, and if a dog is sick, it is easy to replace all the boxes in a few days to prevent the spread of disease.
Each round of training consists of three sessions. We use a binder full of charts to keep a record of the progress each dog is making in their training. We record whether we let the dog watch or do a blind search. We also record if the treat box is placed on the ground, elevated, or covered, including how we cover the box, how high the elevation is, and where we place the box around the room. Additionally, we note how many boxes are used for each session. At the end of the session we comment how the dog performed and make recommendations for the next session. Any trainer with experience in nose work should be able to pick up where the last trainer stopped.
Selection of dogs
Between 10 and 15 dogs are enrolled in our nose work program at any time. This allows us to work with each participating dog every day. We select and exclude dogs using a list of criteria. We do not enroll any dog with resource guarding issues. We target our longest-term residents, and fearful/timid and high-energy dogs for the program. Additionally, any dogs with reactivity issues with other dogs are high priority for enrollment, as they are not candidates for playgroups. Here is a video of Billy, who just started doing elevated searches:
We selected Billy due to his length of stay, reactivity to other dogs and overall kennel stress behavior. He is an older pit bull mix who has not received as much attention as some of our other dogs on the adoption floor. He responded quickly to nose work. You can see his energy level lowers as he is searching. After a nose work session, he is more relaxed in his kennel.
Through the implementation of the nose work program, I have noticed that fearful dogs, in particular, seem to respond well to nose work. Building confidence through the scent exercises we do helps them to adjust to the shelter environment. Our goal at the Lawrence Humane Society is to provide quality care to the animals that enter our care through no fault of their own, and continuing to develop new and innovative behavior programs like our nose work program helps enrich the lives of our shelter dogs while they’re in our care—and helps them improve behaviors that will assist them in finding loving forever homes.
Amy Ogleby is the behavior manager at Lawrence Humane Society in Kansas. She is a graduate of Pat Miller’s Level 1 Peaceable Paws Academy. She has been working in shelter behavior for the last seven years.