CARY – Inside the Northwest Obedience Club, cones, a table, a plastic shelf, a wheelchair and an egg carton are among the items scattered on the floor.
Hidden around the room are pieces of food, and dogs on leashes are sniffing around in search of the treats. At one point in the beginner class, there was a treat hidden about waist high on a pillar against a wall.
“Let her figure out how to get to it,” instructor Cheryle Homuth said. “This is high, so she has to figure out where the odor is coming from.”
The dogs are learning how to do scent work in the obedience club’s Nose Work program.
Dogs learn how to search boxes, rooms, vehicles and exterior settings, the activity giving dogs an outlet to use their noses in a productive manner, said Jim Doescher, one of the instructors in the program.
“They are looking for a scented item, and [trainers] hide it in various areas,” Doescher said. “It’s a challenge for the dogs.”
Dogs start off with looking for a piece of food or a toy. After eight to 16 weeks, the dogs then slowly shift to looking for a specific odor, such as the scent of birch placed on a cotton swab inside of a small tin container.
As dogs become proficient in finding the scent, they begin to learn there’s a reward, such as being fed or getting a toy. As dogs advance in the training, some will sit when they find the scent, some will paw at the source and some will put their nose right at the scent, Doescher said.
Nose Work had its first official trial in California in 2009 by the National Association of Canine Scent Work. The Northwest Obedience Club started its own program about two years ago.
Any dog can participate, whether they are 5 pounds or 100 pounds, Doescher said.
“Every dog has a natural hunting instinct,” Doescher said.
Homuth, who is an animal behavior consultant, said dogs want to use their nose.
“It’s a wonderful sport,” Homuth said. “Dogs that are shy or fearful, they get so much confidence by using their nose and being successful.”
The activity is great for dogs who have handicaps, such as being blind, who are already using their nose. Once a dog is odor obedient, they don’t use their eyes anymore when searching for an object, Homuth said.
“They rely on their nose to tell them exactly where it is,” Homuth said.
Dogs and owners who stay in the sport long enough eventually can compete. It usually takes a year before a dog is ready for competition, Homuth said.
It can be challenging because the dog and owner have to work together and in competitions where they have three minutes to find the scent, Homuth said.
Air conditioning and winds can fool the dog on where the scent is coming from, as those elements can push the scent in different directions, which dogs have to learn.
Peggy Roesner of Woodstock and her Labrador retriever, Barley Bear, are participants in the Nose Work program.
“I finally found a thing that he really loves,” Roesner said. “You think about what your dogs are bred for. ... He has a good nose. He’s not doing field work, but this is close. This is something he was bred to do. He’s very serious about it. He doesn’t need direction from me at all.”
Roesner said she could see Barley doing the program competitively.
“I’m starting to hide things at home for him because he loves it,” Roesner said. “It keeps him busy. He needs to be busy. He’s a high-energy, exuberant dog.”
Janette Wanner of Barrington Hills has been bringing her 5-year-old Boston terrier, Tailer, since the spring after trying a session in the winter.
“Since she was a stray and an adopted dog, she doesn’t really like other dogs that much,” Wanner said. “I thought it was important to bring her just to socialize her with other dogs and people.”
Wanner said Tailer is learning to check where things can be hidden, whether it be up on a wheelchair, which Tailer and her classmates all missed the first time, or in a corner of a room, so the dogs know to search the perimeter.
“Now it’s teaching them things can be high, or things can be low or under things,” Wanner said. “That’s the challenge ... of teaching them where things can be.”
For information about Nose Work, visit the Northwest Obedience Club website at northwestobedienceclub.org.
The cost for an eight-week course is $60 for club members and $120 for nonmembers.