Nosework Foundations

All dogs know how to use their nose. They are born knowing this skill- before their eyes and ears have even completely opened and developed, neonatal puppies are using their noses to help them find their dam and siblings, form bonds, and interact with their environment.  

We don’t need to teach dogs how to sniff.
We need to turn sniffing into searching. 

The way we do this is through a framework of foundational behaviors directly linked to the three principles of scent work:

  1. Learning what odor is

  2. Learning how to find it

  3. Learning how to tell us where it is

This foundational framework is the basis of every other step you will take, especially if you have goals of competing. If you find, as you read this, that you have missed one of these foundational steps, it will not hurt your training to go back to basics. If anything, it will only help you achieve your goals.

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Foundations for Principle 1

Odor Conditioning

Remember, we don’t have to teach dogs that they can use their nose, we just have to teach them what they’re looking for. To do this, we start by immediately conditioning the dog to odor.

There is a theory in the sporting world that you must first teach the dog how to search before you condition the dog to odor by putting food out in boxes and having the dog independently work to find the food in the box. We don’t do this for two main reasons:

  1. Dogs already know how to look for things with their nose. We will eventually put this on cue. Teaching them they can use their nose is not the focus of nosework- focusing that behavior and putting it on cue is.

  2. If you plan to trial, food will be used as an intentional distractor in the higher levels. If your dog was first taught to search for food, and then they are told they are NOT looking for food, that creates an unnecessary conflict and a higher likelihood of false indications on food distractors.

By immediately introducing dogs to odor, we start them on the path of anticipating looking for odor in the context of searching. The contextualization of what they’re looking for means they can quickly and easily acquire the search cue without any reconditioning of the target odor. There is no wasted time (or money, in your case).

It is also important during this phase that we do not ask the dog to perform too much searching behavior during the conditioning process. Conditioning a dog to odor and teaching the dog how to search are two different behaviors. Think of nosework like any other training- do you want to lump everything together and hope it comes together cleanly, or do you want to split behaviors apart, piece by piece, to eventually bring them together to form a perfect picture? If you do not first focus on odor conditioning, before focusing on the search, both pictures can can get muddled. We see this a lot with dogs who come to us from other training backgrounds- their searches are unfocused, their conditioning to odor is weak, and they are generally less proficient at both behaviors than they could have been if they had been taught with an appropriate framework.

By keeping the conditioning phase focused on odor acquisition, the dog is more likely to receive a higher rate of reinforcement on odor, the handler can focus on odor proficiency and obedience, the search behavior does not get muddled before it is taught, and the dog develops a much stronger obedience and understanding of odor- a stronger foundation of what it is looking for- than by other means.

As you move forward with your training, your dog will fall back on this strong foundation of odor. You are less likely to see the dog asking for help, you are more likely to see the dog staying on odor, you are more likely to see a dog work a difficult odor picture, and your dog will be overall more reliable and accurate.

How to know if you need to work on
odor foundations:

  1. Your dog repeatedly passes odor in the search

  2. Your dog comes off odor quickly

  3. Your dog goes off-task or displays false indications on intentional distractors

  4. Your dog has difficulty following odor to source once in the cone

  5. Your dog has difficulty indicating between two or more objects in the search area


Foundations for Principle 2

The Search

Regardless of how you will eventually train your dog to search for odor- either a directed or area search- the truth remains that the search is an obedience behavior. The key when teaching the search is that, from the very beginning, we require that the dog remain on task until the behavior is complete.

Looking back on Principle 1, we do not lump the search behavior and odor conditioning together. Before we can put any behavior on verbal cue, the dog must be reliably performing that behavior. It is impossible for the dog to be reliably performing the behavior of searching for odor until odor has been appropriately conditioned.

If you introduce a verbal search cue too quickly, you may actually be cuing the dog to do a number of things unrelated to searching for the target odor, such as running around aimlessly, sniffing, or looking for a place to mark. We must wait until the dog has acquired appropriate odor conditioning before we can begin laying the framework for the obedience of the search.

When we talk about obedience of the search, we mean three things:

  1. When asked to search, the dog is searching, not sniffing aimlessly.

  2. When asked to move on, the dog moves on from all previously found hides.

  3. The dog is relying on itself to identify odor without cues from the handler.

The Search Foundation 1-
Searching, Not Sniffing

We can use the time during our foundational odor conditioning to identify the body language present when our dogs are on task and searching. This body language looks quite different than that of sniffing aimlessly. While not all dogs respond the same way, most dogs close their mouths, quiet their bodies, and display an overall more focused behavior when on task. Dogs that are sniffing the ground, panting wildly, are intent on a specific item that they are not indicating on, or are just generally unfocused are not on task. Because we require the search to be an obedience behavior, it is our job as handlers to refocus the dog on task by getting their attention and redirecting them to search. Sniffing and not searching is one of the pitfalls of lumping odor conditioning and the search behavior together- to the dog, searching has always been about just sniffing around until they find something they recognize; they do not have the foundations to understand the difference between sniffing around and finding odor by happenstance and going into the search task seeking odor from the get-go.

The Search Foundation 2-
Moving On

There is nothing more disheartening than seeing a team unable to complete a multi-hide search because the dog does not understand how to move on from a hide. This is a case of “the dog isn’t wrong, but they also aren’t right”. Once a dog has developed an obedience to odor and the handler has begun to develop an obedience to the search, introducing more than one hide is a critical piece of the search training. This is not because the dog needs to learn how to find more than one hide- the focus here is that the dog learns obedience to the search and to move on when prompted. To do this, the dog must understand the mechanics of moving off of odor in a way that is not demotivating and the dog must already be displaying natural motivations for the search itself. It is important to not attempt moving on with a dog with weak odor conditioning or is unfocused in the search.

The Search Foundation 3-

Unlike other behaviors where the generalization phase of learning happens after general fluency, we want to start introducing the dog to the concept of search generalization relatively early on in their learning of the search. It is important here to remember that when we say generalization, we don’t mean show green dogs very difficult, long problems. What we mean is to consider the different ways the dog will be tasked with finding odor- what are the problems the dog will eventually need to solve as it continues on with its training? We don’t mean find a thousand different types of containers or go to dozens of different places to train. Think of search generalization as running drills. Can your dog search up, down, under things, over things? Do they always skip corners or blow by straight-aways? Can they navigate a cluttered search area, are they bothered by an empty search area? The drills are endless and must be tailored to each individual dog and their needs- but this phase of the generalization process, these drills, must start early in the search behavior acquisition phase. The dog must understand that search means search, no matter what things look like. By running focused drills, the dog learns to never care about what the search area looks like and only care about looking for odor. Beginning problem-solving drills early on in the search training process means the dog learns, immediately, that searching is a problem-solving behavior.

How to know if you need to work on
search foundations:

  1. Your dog runs around the search area relatively aimlessly

  2. Your dog pants excessively during the search

  3. Your dog does not leave a hide when prompted

  4. Your dog looks to you during a difficult problem

  5. Your dog is easily off-task in new search environments


Foundations for Principle 3

The Indication

No matter your approach to the indication, you must consider your criteria for the indication prior to even beginning conditioning your dog to odor.

It is important to remember that classical and operant conditioning do not occur in a vacuum. When you are conditioning a dog to odor, you are also operantly conditioning a response- the behavior that is rewarded when the dog is on odor is the behavior that will be perpetually offered on odor.

Competitive nosework dogs are required to display a passive alert on odor. A passive alert means the dog neither disturbs the hide nor barks on odor. A dog that displays barking, pawing, chewing, or otherwise destructive behavior on odor is not performing appropriate behaviors on odor. These behaviors are not only frustrating for the dog and the owner, they can also get you kicked out of competition, wasting your time and your money.

When you are conditioning your dog to odor, it is imperative that you have a strong foundational basis for passive behavior. Developing a strong drive to odor while maintaining a passive response is the dance that separates good training from great training.

The Indication Foundation 1-
The Indication Is Always Trained

No matter whether your dog sits or lays down when it identifies odor or whether your dog simply stares or wags its tail a little bit slower, every dog’s indication on odor has been trained in some way. The discussion of “natural” or “unnatural” indications is semantics- when you reward a dog for a behavior, you are developing an operantly conditioned response. If you have ever rewarded your dog on odor, you have been training an indication. Your responsibility is to ensure, from the beginning, you are maintaining your indication criteria. The foundations of your indication can have lasting effects on the rest of your training. Be extremely careful that you have your end indication picture in mind when beginning odor conditioning.

The Indication Foundation 2-
No Show, Only Tell

“Show me!” The two most unnecessary and potential hazardous words ever to be spoken in nosework training. Why do we not want to say this, with our voices or with our bodies? “Show me!” is an indication to the dog that they are correct. Just like a “yes” or a *click*, “Show me!” tells the dog that they’re right, even if they may be wrong. In training, you may be able to get away with this because you know where the hide is. But, come trial time, when you’re running blind, you may falsely indicate to your dog that where they are searching is correct by saying “Show me!” Once you have said that, the dog anticipates the odor is near and will almost always falsely indicate during a blind trial. When you are developing your indication, resist the urge to help the dog along. You will find that when you require the dog to actually tell you, on their own, where the odor is, the dog becomes much more driven to source and less likely to falsely indicate based on verbal or non-verbal handler cues.

The Indication Foundation 3-
Focused vs. Unfocused Response

There is discussion amongst the working detection community about the merits of a focused or unfocused response on odor. In many detection scenarios, the difference between a focused or unfocused response is minimal; handlers typically need a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ without the need for precise pinpointing in the field. However, in the sport of nosework, judges are increasingly requiring higher precision from teams. To achieve this precision, it’s been our experience that focused responses yield the most accurate results. When doing foundational work with your indication, be aware that a focused or unfocused response now will be the response your dog will become conditioned to perform as you continue your training.

How to know if you need to work on
indication foundations:

  1. Your dog is destructive at source

  2. Your dog rarely indicates directly at source

  3. You have to guess where source is more often than not

  4. Your dog rarely indicates or typically false indicates during a blind hide

  5. You don’t trust your dog

It never hurts to go back to basics. If you find yourself concerned that your training is not producing the results you want, if you or your dog are frustrated with the work, or if you want to take your training to the next level, take a step back and focus on what really matters. You can never take back the foundational work you put in in the beginning, but you can always improve on and rework behaviors that may be giving you trouble.

And, if you haven’t started training yet, or want to start working a dog with no foundations on it yet, now is the time to focus your energy on this foundational framework. Put in the work now and the rest will take care of itself.


We would be happy to help you!