The Lagotto Romagnolo, as many other breeds, love to use their noses. It’s what dogs do! It’s an instinctive drive, and is commonly selectively bred for among many breeds. Sometimes, to we humans, it can be annoying and can get our pups into trouble! They sniff out food in pockets and destroy jackets or pants to get at those odiferous gems. While on walks our dogs are sniffing at every bush and tree, every pine cone or wrapper, or invisible smell that they come across–or at least they think they should! They can follow their nose off the trail and become separated, and sometimes even lost. Their nose may lead them to some disgusting smelly pile of goo that they then promptly roll on! But their incredible nose can also be trained to work for specific ‘smells’ and that is an activity that both dog and handler can enjoy together!
There are many ways in which our dogs can assist humans using the power of the canine olfactory system. Just a few of these jobs include; Diabetic Alert Dogs, Seizure Alert Dogs, Conservation Dogs, Mold or Water Detection Dogs, Pornography Detection Dogs (yep! They search for zip drives, hard drives, etc), Cancer Detection Dogs, Drug Dogs, Explosives Dogs, Accelerant Dogs and the list goes on! And of course, we cannot leave out what my breed is famous for- a Truffle Detecting Dog!
But, not all of us have dogs that are going to do any of the above, even if they are capable of it. This level of training takes many many hours/days/months/years and continual dedication to achieve a professional level of training. There is however a very popular “new” sport that continues to grow at a very fast rate. Practically anyone can train their dogs for this skill and can enjoy it for personal fun, or have fun competing.
That sport is “Nosework” or “Scentwork”. And the dogs LOVE it! This sport can really be a great confidence booster for your dog and can help you learn to work together as a team. Being a low impact sport, it is great for older dogs as well as for young dogs. I’ve known several dogs competing into their teen years! Using their mind to focus and find the odor source, will help keep your dog’s mind and body healthy.
But what IS nosework? Most people referring to nosework or scentwork, are talking about the competition sport. For those wanting to compete with their dogs they must first be trained to find specific odors (*odors are listed at the end of this article) in an assortment of environments. At a trial, they will compete in a variety of elements and are given a specific time frame in which to find the hidden odor targets.
In this competition, the DOG IS THE LEADER! They have the nose and the brains to sort out the specific odor they are trained for, from the rest of odors in the environment. At the trial, the dog and handler team will search different elements which could include Containers, Interiors, Exteriors and Buried (under AKC rules). For each level; novice, advanced, excellent and master, the searches become more challenging and fun! As the handler, it is your job to pay attention to your dog and catalog what areas have been searched and what hasn’t. It’s the dog’s job to find the odor source. When you have determined that your dog has found, or gotten as close to the odor as possible, you decide when to call “Alert”. The judge will then let you know if you are correct…or mistaken. You are highly encouraged to carry treats with you and to reward your dog for each correct find—something that most other competitions prohibit! The trials themselves are frequently held in locations such as schools or churches so you are searching in real-life like scenarios.
The sport originated in the U.S. by the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NASCW) in 2009 but has really taken off in the last few years. In my area, the pacific northwest, they have a lottery for most trials and you are often on a waitlist of over 100 people! Luckily, there are now many venues in which you can compete and you can look for one that you feel meets your needs the best. The American Kennel Club has added this sport to their list of competitions and beginning October, 2017 clubs will be able to offer AKC Scent Work trials. Other venues include; United Kennel Club, Sniffing Dog Sports, US Canine Scent Sports, and Performance Scent Dogs. These are the organizations that I’m familiar with but there may be more (and I know there are some specific to Canada also).
How do you train for it? As with any sport or behavior there are multiple ways to train for this sport. A quick Google search will help you find a trainer in your area. Try to go and observe a class, or talk directly with the instructor to find out if their training style fits with your training philosophy and/or experience. This is much more important than proximity and a short drive. If you can’t find a class in your area, you can train this at home by taking an online course such as those found at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.
Whether or not you compete, I would encourage to train your dog to use his nose! It is a great sport for wet, rainy or snowy winters when you are confined to indoor work. It helps increase a dogs confidence, and helps increase your relationship and teamwork with your dog. And a bonus is that it is not expensive and once your dog understands the ‘game’ you can train him to find almost anything!
As a Lagotto owner/competitor and a new AKC Scent Work Judge I encourage you to give this sport a try…your dog will love you for the opportunity to SNIFF!
*If you are interested in purchasing the competition odors, they are all essential oils of these types: Betula Lenta (Birch), Pimpinella Anisum (Anise), Syzgium Aromaticum or Eugenia Caryophylatta (Clove Bud), Cupressus sempevirens (Cypress), Vetiver and Myrrh. The first three are NACSW odors, the first four are the AKC odors, and all except Cypress are used in UKC trials.
Jeannine May, KPA-CTP
AKC Scent Work Judge
Owner and partner of LK Isabella Isis, NW I, 2, 3 and Elite, & Professional Truffle Dog