Shelter volunteer Katherine Kekel stood at the end of a long hallway and struggled to keep a grip on Tia, a pit bull-mix, as the dog strained at her harness. Unable to contain the dog any longer, Katherine let go. The well-muscled dog sprinted down the hallway, put on the brakes, and made a sharp right turn into a small room. The hunt was on! Tia was playing K9 Nose Work® at the Cherokee County Animal Shelter (CCAS) in Canton, Georgia. Her prey? A cotton swab scented with birch essential oil.
K9 Nose Work (K9NW™), a fun search and scenting activity that thousands of dogs and their people have discovered over the past few years, has increasingly nosed its way into animal shelters. An enrichment game that allows a dog to use his nose to “hunt,” K9NW has helped transform many shelter dogs who were out-of-control and unsure how to interact appropriately with people, into dogs who learn to work independently and possess much improved people skills.
Permission to sniff
Jill Marie O’Brien, one of the co-founders of the activity and presenter of “K9 Nose Work for Shelter Dogs” workshops, started experimenting with K9NW concepts several years ago when she was Director of Animal Behavior and Training Services at a shelter in southern California. She soon realized that the game was a relatively easy and low-cost way to engage dogs away from their kennels; it requires just food treats and cardboard boxes. At a minimum, she knew the game would give shelter dogs something engaging and enjoyable to do with their time.
“The shelter is such an incredibly stressful and limiting environment for dogs, even in those facilities that offer what we consider high end accommodations,” O’Brien says. “A dog’s sense of smell is his tool for acquiring information and navigating his environment, and the act of sniffing is a focused activity from which dogs, regardless of energy level and temperament, appear to find benefit. K9NW gives dogs permission to engage in an activity that they are typically not permitted to enjoy (i.e., ‘don’t sniff,’ ‘leave it’). The activity can be used with insecure and timid dogs to build confidence, relieve stress, burn mental and physical energy, and focus the mind.”
K9NW requires a dog to use his mind, body, and respiration – all at once. “In the early phases when the game is being built, the dogs get very tired after just a few minutes of playing,” says O’Brien. “As time goes on and the dog gets more experience and builds conditioning, she is able to handle longer and more challenging searches. What we have seen, anecdotally, is that dogs who play K9NW in the shelter continue to be more relaxed and willing to settle after searching and even after returning to their kennels.”
Going on instinct
Ron Gaunt, one of three cofounders of the organized sport of K9NW, explains how the activity taps into a dog’s instinctual behavior. “The activity of hunting is instinctual in all dogs, but on the other side of that instinct is survival. ‘How can I survive another moment?’ . . .The success we see with K9NW in terms of behavioral changes comes from the dog’s instinct to solve a problem that he perceives as a problem, not what we see as a problem. In K9NW, we give the dog a ‘problem’ to solve that lets him obtain a reward in a safe manner. This permits the dog to use his survival instincts to control his environment and food.”
Some dogs are in shelters for a reason – whether because the dog has learned that it’s more rewarding to live on his own (runner/stray) or perhaps due to a behavior issue (withdrawn, aggressive/defensive), says Gaunt. He believes that if the shelter allows the dog to begin to solve “problems” with humans in a game, the odds increase that the dog will begin to enjoy interacting with humans and therefore become a better candidate for adoption.
“The big success stories are dogs with unknown backgrounds,” says Gaunt. “The activity of K9NW allows the dog to build trust and begin to re-establish a bond with humans. . . . Overcoming the history and baggage that comes with shelter dogs is where we can see the effects of K9NW pay off the most.”
Sense of smell
The activity not only taps into a dog’s instinctual behavior, it also gives the dog carte blanche to use his sense of smell, arguably his keenest sense. According to veterinary behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS, about 30 percent of a dog’s brain is comprised of the olfactory lobe – the part of the brain involved in interpreting odors. Compare that to a human, and you’ll find that the percentage of the dog’s brain devoted to analyzing smells is actually 40 times larger than ours. In a NOVA interview, James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, described the incredible abilities of the canine nose by making an analogy to vision: “What you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away.”
The activity of “smelling” is hooked into the most primitive areas of an animal’s brain and involves the cortex, according to Randy Kidd, DVM (see “The Canine Sense of Smell,” in the November 2004 issue of WDJ). The cortex is the part of the brain where the highest level of processing occurs.
Dr. Kidd explains, “Once in the olfactory bulb [in the dog’s brain], scents are transported to the frontal cortex for recognition as well as to other regions of the brain that include the brain’s centers for emotions, memory, and pleasure.”
Suffice it to say, the dog’s sense of smell is likely her most underutilized when she’s living in the human world and playing by our rules. K9NW allows the dog to use her nose to her heart’s content!
In the fall of 2010, I invited Kekel, an aspiring dog trainer, to attend a K9NW workshop I was hosting outside Atlanta. I’d already been involved with the activity for close to a year, and had seen how much dogs enjoyed playing the game and how positively it affected them. Kekel was hooked, and both of us, as volunteers, teamed up to play the game with dogs at CCAS.
The premise behind the game, as Gaunt described, is to allow the dog to tap into his natural desire to hunt. Through the use of boxes to capture and hold scent and high-value food (the “prey”), along with little to no human intervention, we build focus and motivation in the dog to search.
Two concepts are critical to the game:
The dog is allowed to independently search the boxes for treats.
The dog “self-rewards” when he finds them.
Doing so allows the dog to discover, on his own, his inner hunter. This approach is in contrast to teaching the dog a targeting behavior (i.e., a trained alert behavior to a particular odor) first, which creates further reliance on the human. Instead, with time, patience, and little to no obvious direction from us, the dogs learn to focus on the game and become efficient, methodical hunters and along the way, gain confidence, focus, and the ability to interact with human beings in a positive manner. As the dog progresses and becomes more focused and motivated, we can introduce a particular scent or “odor” to the game.
Any dog can participate in K9NW, even those who are mobility impaired, blind, or deaf. When playing, we take into account the dog’s breed, history, and temperament, as these factors will impact how he approaches the game. Across the board, when I talked with individuals who engage shelter dogs in K9NW, dogs selected to play are often withdrawn, shy, anxious, showing signs of stress or deterioration, and/or longer-term residents.
Often, very active dogs who require extra stimulation are good candidates, too. Certified Nose Work Instructor (CNWI) Karen Reilly, CPDT-KSA, concurs. Reilly started a K9NW program at the SPCA of Westchester, Inc. in Briarcliff Manor, New York, in 2010. “The dogs we work are often dogs who did not get out that day or for a few days. We also use dogs who have started to deteriorate in the shelter setting, and those who are timid. Many of them are ‘pitties’.”
Any space can be utilized for nose work training. As is the case in the majority of shelters, space is at a premium at the shelter where I volunteer in Canton, Georgia. We found a home in a small “meet and greet” room, roughly 8 x 12 feet. With the advanced dogs, we work outdoors, inside the senior center next door, and across the street at a picnic pavilion. While it’s best to start the game indoors so that the dogs can work off-leash and in a less-distracting environment, it’s possible to start outside, on-leash, as well; the game might be a little more challenging there, but the dogs adapt.
In Chatsworth, California, Heidi Okuhara started an all-volunteer K9NW program at West Valley Animal Shelter. When the weather is nice, volunteers there work dogs on a covered walkway; when the weather is bad or windy, they’re able to work indoors in a small section of a community room.
The primary consideration for space is that the search area is away from other dogs and kennel runs. Because K9NW taps into a dog’s hunt drive, any other dog in the immediate area can be viewed as competition to the hunter. Such a threat can cause the working dog to lose focus and become anxious; the antithesis to what K9NW is all about. In general, with a dog just starting out, the fewer distractions, the better, particularly for the benefit of dogs who are easily distracted, reactive, or anxious.
As a Certified Nose Work Instructor (CNWI), my preference when teaching classes is to co-teach with another individual, in order to facilitate sharing ideas as well as to have a second set of eyes and hands for assessing dogs and hiding the food treats or odors. In the shelter environment, handlers should always pair up – first and foremost from a safety perspective, but also to be able to help one another work through challenging situations, such as with fearful dogs who are reluctant to get started.
Ideally, your team will include someone who has K9 Nose Work experience – either a CNWI or an Associate Nose Work Instructor (ANWI), or someone who has been to a K9NW workshop or class with a CNWI. For example, Heidi Okuhara, a long-time dog enthusiast and competitor, is not a certified instructor, but has taken classes with K9NW co-founders Jill Marie O’Brien and Amy Herot.
We start the game with a few plain old cardboard boxes, free and readily available from the recycling bin or virtually any store. The second item required is high-value food, cut up into small pieces; though some dogs will work for a toy reward, in the shelter environment, food is often a more efficient choice. I’d usually provide a stinky delicacy such as liverwurst or garlic chicken.
Once in a great while, I encounter a dog to whom human food is so foreign that she spits it out in favor of something really “high value” like “Moist & Meaty Burger” dog food. Chemical-filled dog food may not be high-value to us, but what matters is whether it’s high value for her. Another memorable dog offered an odd reaction to a novel food: The smell of bleu cheese prompted him to roll in it; I suppose it smelled so deliciously foul that he couldn’t resist!
Not required, but very helpful, is a video camera (or cellphone video). I videotape all of the dogs’ runs so that we can track their progress from week to week; this practice also gives us the ability to post short video clips of the dogs working with their bios on the shelter website. It’s an intriguing enough activity that potential adopters might take a second look!
How to start
At CCAS (the shelter where I volunteer), during a dog’s first session we run him on leash. I test the treat to see if the dog is willing to eat it; if he does, I put a treat in a cardboard box – often a low box with the flaps folded down to start – and see if he will eat that. If he is up to that challenge, we load that box (a dedicated food box) with several small bits of food, and place it on the floor along with a few other boxes. Often, at that point, the dog’s interest is sufficiently piqued that he strains at the leash and is ready to move into the search area to independently search the boxes for treats, and reward himself (by eating them) when found.
For beginning dogs, we often don’t “re-start” the dog between runs; we just keep loading a box (or a few boxes in some cases) while the dog searches the floor. Once he seems to really engage with us in the activity, we remove the leash for searches; in between searches, we re-leash the dog and remove him from the search area.
What to do for the dog who isn’t comfortable engaging with humans? In the shelter, this happens frequently. In one case, a dog was so shy and hesitant that she could not bring herself to try the lovely garlic chicken I’d prepared. I baited the floor with food, and my fellow volunteer Kekel and I chatted and ignored her. After close to 10 minutes, she began eating the food and subsequently, searching boxes.
Another dog, a hound-mix, was so high-strung that I’m sure he was seeing double as he entered the room and ricocheted off the sofa and walls. Even with all his frenetic activity, he couldn’t muster the courage to put his head in a box. We made it even easier for him; we put the food treats on a completely flat piece of cardboard, and he finally slowed down long enough to eat the treats and look for more. The change in his behavior from week one to two to three was impressive! We commonly see amazing progress in this high-reward, low-stress activity with just about every dog.
For dogs who remain at the shelter and come back week after week to play, we do several things to make the game more challenging. For example, we put the search boxes on other things in the room (such as a coffee-table or sofa), turn the boxes on their sides, and make “puzzles” with the boxes (by positioning other boxes around the one with the food in it). We also might add a lot more boxes in the room, increasing the size of the search area; introduce other items to the room (such as a broom, bucket, traffic cone, or vacuum), so the dogs have to work around other objects or obstacles in their search; take the game outside; or take it to a new environment. But the beauty of K9NW is that even if all we do is to put out five to seven boxes week after week, the dogs still have a blast.
Do dogs try to solicit treats from us or jump up on us? Yes, but we just ignore those behaviors. Also, the dogs quickly figure out that they are never rewarded directly from the handler (except for the very first time I give them treats, trying to discover one they like enough to search for). They learn quickly that the only time they ever get “payment” (food rewards) is when they self-reward from a cardboard box.
Since they are initially on-leash, the dogs are prevented from leaving the search area. For dogs who temporarily lose interest, some movement from me, or a light toss of a box, is often enough to re-engage them in the search.
Prior to or during searches, the dogs aren’t given any verbal cues, not even “Off” if they jump up (we simply turn away), nor are they expected to “Stay,” “Sit” or “Look” before being released. “Leave it” is not in our vocabulary during a search! I like to explain this by saying that the dog has the keys to the car and he’s driving – a concept that seemingly blows many dogs’ minds.
I’ve noticed that this is when the dog makes huge gains in confidence. He learns that in this game, he is the master; he gets to “hunt” independently and he, alone, finds and captures his “prey.” He also works without verbal direction or interference from humans; we neither tell him what to do nor what not to do. He’s in charge. And as Amy Herot likes to say, it’s as if the dog suddenly realizes, “I’ve got this! I can do it!”
One of the mantras of K9NW is “it depends on the dog.” Particularly when playing the game with shelter dogs in such an unusual environment, we need to be flexible, responsive to the dog, and ready to adapt the game so that she can be successful. This might mean baiting the floor with food, using a flat box, removing flaps from boxes, or other techniques that perhaps we wouldn’t use in a typical K9NW class environment with “pet” dogs.
Ideally, dogs should be crated between nose work sessions (or “runs”) to allow some down time and time for processing. At my shelter, we did not have the ability to do this, so dogs were either taken from the room briefly after a run, or, especially when starting out, simply held in the room from run to run.
Once a dog understands the game well and has learned to search for the food in the face of increasingly distracting environments and situations, we introduce a new “prey.” Dogs are encouraged to search for a new source of “odor” (including birch, anise, and clove essential oils), which is done initially by pairing primary reward with the odor.
After nose work
Frequently, dogs at the shelter who have been there for weeks (if not months) get adopted right after playing K9NW with us for just one or two sessions. Rarely, if ever, does the adoption happen because the adopters specifically want a K9NW dog; I think it happens because playing the game has changed the dog’s behavior; she exhibits a calmer demeanor in the kennel, and has higher confidence with people, helping her “show” better.
Such was the case with Tia, the rocket dog I described at the beginning of this article. She was one of our first dogs to do nose work, and one of our strongest. Tia was a plain brown, unluckily non-descript pit-mix who had been at the shelter for about eight months when we began playing. She caught on quickly and loved the game. My fellow shelter volunteer Katherine Kekel claimed that Tia knew it was K9NW day (always a Tuesday at 11 am) long before I’d even show up.
After close to two months of weekly practice, we introduced Tia to birch odor, a step not too many shelter dogs make because of the time required to get there. Not long after, she was adopted. We’d posted her K9NW videos along with her bio, and although her adopter didn’t continue with the game, her video helped attract him to her!
After the shelter
As K9NW cofounder Ron Gaunt notes, ideally adopters would continue playing the game with their new dogs, or, at the very least, engage in training to continue to cement the bond they have begun to build with humans.
For the dogs and people who get hooked on the game, the sky is the limit. Dogs can be trained to search interior and exterior environments, vehicles and “containers” such as luggage. For the competition-minded, the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW), the organization that sets the standards governing the sport of K9NW, offers trials of varying levels. This year the NACSW will be hosting their first-ever National Invitational in California.
I’d be lying if I said that K9NW saved every dog I worked with at my shelter. The sad reality is that by the time we begin working with some dogs, the shelter environment is taking its toll. If behavioral issues emerge or intensify, I take what little comfort I can in knowing that our sessions give the dog a temporary reprieve from stress, and that she takes pleasure in being allowed to use her nose the way she was born to do.
Lisa Rodier is a freelance writer from Alpharetta, Georgia where she lives with her very patient husband and almost one year old Bouvier, Atle. She is a Certified Nose Work Instructor, teaches K9 Nose Work classes, and is hooked on the sport.
Joyce Biethan, MPT, CPDT-KA, CNWI, recently introduced K9NW to the Oregon Humane Society in Portland, Oregon, recognizing the enrichment value of the activity for dogs living in a shelter environment. One of her K9NW students, Kathy Lillis, was a volunteer at the shelter, and paved the way for Biethan.
Biethan also recommended K9NW classes to the Humane Society of Southwest Washington after the shelter contacted her about teaching Pet Manners classes. Her approach is a win-win; there, she teaches a six-week class that combines dog owners from the community who work their own dogs and pay to attend class, shelter volunteers who work their own dogs and pay a discounted rate, and volunteers who work with shelter dogs for free.
Biethan’s group also targets highly stressed, very active, and long-term shelter residents as candidates to play the game. Although still somewhat new, the shelter K9NW program seems to be helping with adoption rates, with Biethan estimating that about 75 percent of dogs who play the game are adopted within a few weeks of becoming involved. That, for her, is success!
Heidi Okuhara, a volunteer at West Valley Animal Shelter (one of six Los Angeles shelters) knew that K9NW would be a great enrichment activity for the shelter’s dogs, and an opportunity for fearful, shy, reactive, and long-term resident dogs to get some attention. She got the green light from shelter management in late 2010 to start up an all-volunteer-run program.
Okuhara works primarily with small, fearful or shy dogs; dogs who have been at the shelter for a long time; and dogs who otherwise need positive stimulation. “Because we’re working with smaller, fearful dogs, I keep the box tops folded down so the dog doesn’t have to work as hard to get to the food container when we start. Some dogs are too short to put their heads in the boxes, even though the boxes aren’t very tall. Many of the dogs don’t want to put their heads into the box, even if they want the treats. We use different strategies to make it easier for the dog to start off right if it’s having a problem working with the boxes.”
Small dogs at Okuhara’s shelter are usually housed in groups of four to five per kennel. She notes, “The more shy the dog is, the less likely she is to be noticed. K9NW is a great activity because fearful dogs typically become more confident, are more likely to go to the front of the kennel when visitors come by, and are more outgoing and friendly when potential adopters meet with them.
“Dogs who ‘slink around’ stand taller. A dog we’re working with now is a great example. Week one, she slinked and would lie down as we walked her from her kennel to the training area. Week two, she did a lot less slinking and didn’t stop or lie down on the way to the training area,” says Okuhara.
Karen Reilly, CPDT-KSA, CNWI, along with Kathe Baxter, KPA, CPDT-KA, CNWI, and Alison Waszmerm, CTC, introduced K9NW to the SPCA of Westchester in the fall of 2010. Today, Reilly works alongside shelter trainer Dot Baisly, MS, CPDT-KA, and other volunteers. As is typical with shelter K9NW, Reilly reports that it can take some dogs a couple of sessions to relax and play the game, although, “Most of our high drive dogs (‘pitties’) seem to just be naturals at it and come out hunting. We have had a few who were shy or timid and have seen them progress to being less suspicious, willing to reach a box under a chair, or push a box off the top of the hide box to gain access to the reward. Actually, I have a harder time making challenges for those who are really into it!”
Baisly has observed that K9NW dogs, in general, seem more relaxed the day after they work in K9NW. And all of us who play the game with shelter dogs have at least one favorite story, typically involving a reticent or out-of-control dog, who, with time, really shines at the game.
For Reilly, one dog who stands out was a very shy/fearful hound-mix. “When we brought him into the room, he headed straight for the door, not showing interest in the boxes, and doing so on all three passes for the first round. On his second round [dogs typically are taken out of the search room between rounds to ‘meditate’], he first moved quickly toward the door again, but then noticed the boxes and turned to hunt. What a thrill!”
Reilly goes on to say that he came out “ready to hunt” on the last round and – call it K9NW magic – he was adopted before they could even do a second session of K9NW with him. In Baisly’s opinion, the dog’s exposure to nose work helped his kennel presentation.
Reilly also worked with the first two shelter dogs to pass an “Odor Recognition Test” (ORT) under the newly minted Shelter Dog Registration. Belle and Cricket, pit bulls whom Reilly and her team trained in K9NW since 2010, passed their birch ORTs in April 2011 and were subsequently adopted.