Friday, January 2, 2015

Give your dog a nose job

Echo uses nosework skills to find some anise in a suitcase.
Okay, so I couldn't resist the cheeky title of the post. But we're not talking cosmetic surgery or remodelling canine noses here - we're talking about a "job" that utilises the already existing, pretty-awesome-thanks-very-much canine olfactory system.

Dogs are known for their acute sense of smell, which is why they’re employed in all sorts of roles from drug-sniffing to search and rescue and even cadaver detection. But did you know that just about any dog can learn to detect scents?

We spoke canine scent experts Fred Helfers and Marion Brand about the concept of “Nose Work”.

Fred and Lexie.
Fred Helfers is a retired police detective with over 30-years experience training dogs while working in law enforcement. Can you tell us a bit about his background?

Fred has actively worked two drug detection canines during his 28 years in law enforcement and has expanded his knowledge of detection canines by training canines and handlers in the fields of insect detection, natural gas detection and accelerant detection.

Fred operated a professional detection dog training kennel and training facility for police officers, training drug detection and accelerant detection canines and their handlers for over 20 years.  Fred’s passion and recognized expertise in training detection canine teams has led him to conduct training seminars and classes throughout United States, Canada, Australia and Brazil. 
He is the past president of the Washington State Police Canine Association and the founding President of the Pacific Northwest Police Detection Dog Association. He recently retired as President of PNWK9 but remains in the position of President Emeritus.   He is also a member of the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Factors.  

Fred has judged numerous detection canine competitions from the Word Police and Fire games (Detection Canines) in Vancouver, Canada; to the National Invitational K9Nosework® Trials in Santa Rosa, Ca.  Over the past 32 years, Fred has trained literally hundreds of professional canines and their handlers. Along with being recognized as a master trainer in detection canines Fred is a certified Nose Work Instructor for NACSW.  
Wow. So how did he become involved in training dogs to detect odours in the first place?
Fred became involved in handling and training detection canines after observing drug dogs in action on the southern boarder of the US. He presented a written proposal to his agency in 1981 and became the agency’s first drug dog handler. A few years after that he was approached by other law enforcement agencies to train detection dogs and handlers in the Pacific Northwest.  The rest is history…

How does a dog's sense of smell compare with a human sense of smell?

The dog’s sense of smell is said to be, on average, many thousands more powerful than a human. The average human has about 5 million olfactory sensory cells, the average dog has about 220 million olfactory cells. [Ed. That explains the pitter patter of little paws down the corridor everytime I open the fridge].

If we can't smell what they smell, how can we train them in this skill?

Most everything in the world gives off some type of scent. While it is true that there are many sources of odour that humans cannot smell, we know through laboratory testing an item is emitting certain gases etc. 

Fred and Daisy in a class.
In the training of detection canines utilizing a source substance is generally enough to start the imprintation of an odour source with the dog.  In the world of K9 Nosework® the odour sources that are used are essential oils.  Those of course humans can smell.

What sort of jobs do highly-trained scent detecting dogs do?

The amazing world of canine scent detection is forever opening new doors to mankind. Detection dogs can be trained for explosive, drug, natural gas, insect, search and rescue,  human remains, cancer, diabetes reaction etc…  If a substance has an odour, dogs can be trained to detect that odour.

Can you tell us a bit about your own dogs?

Over the past 30+ years I have trained numerous dogs and handlers…too numerous to recall all their names etc. (My working dogs who taught me much in the field of the detection of odours are Sammy, Corky, Lexi and Casey (drug detection).  Others of note would be Blaze and Maggie (Accelerant detection) and Dancer (Insect detection).  Many of these dogs worked for 8-10 years before being retired.

Marion's dog Bravo sniffs out birch in a tree. 
Why is "nose work" taking off as a hobby?

The fantastic sport of Nosework that is gripping the pet / sporting dog world introduces the “everyday” dog and their handler to the world of scent detection. This sport teaches the dog to use its nose to find a specific scent or odour and then tell the handler that they have found the odour source.

Nosework encourages the dog's natural ability to hunt using its olfactory system (nose) and is done in a manner that the dog has a lot of fun.  Unlike tracking and other scent work, the team is not limited by access to certain areas. Nose Work can be done anywhere, anytime!  

Any dog that has a nose can succeed in this sport [Ed. I wonder if that includes dogs with lymphocytic-plasmacytic rhinitis?].  Dogs of all shapes and sizes have done tremendously well; even those that are fearful and reactive.  

Unlike other sports, only one dog works at a time in a class.  So, dogs that may normally have a hard time working in a class thrive in the Nose Work environment.  A lot of dog owners who may have been active in Obedience or Agility based sports and can no longer physically compete in those areas are attracted to the sport of nosework.

What do the dogs get out of nose work?

Generally speaking, Nosework dogs work for a food treat.  Therefore Nosework utilizes the dogs natural hunt drive to survive.  To most dogs this comes naturally and dogs that are introduced to the sport of Nosework soon start to thrive and excel at this sport.  Nosework provides exercise, relieves boredom and stimulates the relationship between dog and handler. All positive attributes for a healthy, well balanced dog.

How can people learn more about training their dogs for scent detection?

The best way is to find a good trainer / instructor. Currently the only Australian trained in K9 Nose Work® is Marion Brand of K9 Nose Time. She is available for workshops around Australia and teaches classes in a variety of locations around Sydney. Marion also guides and supports the K9 Nose Work® classes at Helping Hounds in Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula.  For more information Please contact Marion at or

There are also several websites dedicated to Nosework or scent detection activities for your dog. or or

Thank you Marion and Fred for your time.