If there is one thing any dog loves to do, it's use its nose.
Now, there is an official sport for dog owners and man's best friend alike called K-9 Nose Work, which is like hide-and-seek for dogs. According to certified professional dog trainer and K-9 Nose Work instructor Silke Wittig, the sport is overseen by the National Association of Canine Scent Works (NACSW), which organizes competitions to test a dog's skill at sniffing out a well-hidden treat or scented tin known as a "hide."
On a recent Tuesday evening, Wittig was working with a half-dozen owners and their dogs at the South Williamsport Church of Christ. It might seem like an unlikely place for dog training, but to Wittig, the building is ideal in that it offers plenty of unique opportunities to test the dog's sniffing skills. The evening's session began in a medium-sized classroom where the hide was placed in corners of the room, on and underneath chairs, and behind obstacles. The session then moved to the hallway, where the hide was placed in a potted plant or between the water fountain and the wall to see if the dog was willing to brave a tight space for the treat.
Bode, a 5-year-old golden retriever owned by Shirley Purkiss, of Williamsport, does not hesitate in sticking his head between a water fountain and the wall to get to his hide, something he was afraid to do before the class.
For outside training, the hide was placed on the bumper of a car or inside one of many empty boxes. According to Witting, "outside offers so many more distractions." Distractions that evening included a neighbor walking his dog down the street and even the dog's own reflection in a mirrored motorcycle helmet behind the hide.
The training begins with the dog sniffing out its favorite treat, whether it is a commercial brand of doggie treats or cubes of hot dog or cheese. Eventually the treat is combined with a scented hide, which combines the treat with a tin containing one of three scents - birch oil, anise or clove. They are scents not commonly found around the house, Wittig explained, so they are not associated with anything else. Eventually, only the scented find is used. For the test, the hide is hidden while the dog is out of the room, then brought in the find it.
K-9 Nose Work turns sniffing into a game, Wittig said. It uses training similar to that taught to search and rescue dogs, except any dog can do this - any age, breed or physical ability. That was clear by the variety of dogs on hand that evening, including a sheltie, an energetic 1-year-old English golden retriever, a Brittany, and of course, two German shepherds.
K-9 Nose Work, however, is more than just a game. For many dogs it is a confidence builder. According to Shirley Purkiss, of Williamsport, her 5-year-old golden retriever, Bodie, "was so shy, that he wouldn't even come out of the carrier that he was shipped in from California ... Even though I have a 4-acre yard, he would never leave the house. He really had some issues."
Her friend Donna
Casselberry, of Williamsport, who takes her 3-year-old Brittany, Chica, to Nose Work, recommended it for Bodie. "At first he wouldn't even eat the treat when he found it. Now, Bodie is much more social. During class, he'll eat the treats and interact with the people in the class. He will even leave the house now and roam their large lot. He really loves it," Casselberry said.
Williamsport resident Deb Steward's story of her 4-year-old German shepherd, Theo, is similar.
"Theo has always been shy and skittish, especially around men or strangers," Steward said. "He wouldn't enter a room by himself, I had to take him in."
On this night, however, he was a changed dog and charged right in and was focused on the task of finding his treat, paying no attention to a strange man in the room with the camera.
For Michelle Frey, of Williamsport, her 3-year-old old German shepherd, Gordon, had an animal aggression issue making it impossible to take other more common group canine classes. For her the class has given her the opportunity to build a stronger bond with Gordon and communicate better.
Besides the confidence aspect of the class, it is just another fun game that can be played with a dog inside or outdoors.
According to Frey, "finding the treat is like solving a puzzle. The best aspect of it, however, it's something both the dogs and their owners enjoy together."