Columbia dogs sniff their way through competition

Thursday, August 9, 2012 | 9:34 p.m. CDT; updated 3:53 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 10, 2012
The Columbia Canine Sports Center trains dogs to track scents in a nose work class. According to Virginia Huxley, an owner of the center, this training starts with teaching dogs to find treats from a few boxes, and the dogs will then begin to learn how to find hidden scents.

COLUMBIA — Cardboard boxes of different sizes lay scattered on the ground. A light brown Pembroke Welsh corgi weaves through the boxes, sniffing the air and periodically dropping its nose to smell the outside of a box. The dog stops at a smaller box and sticks its nose inside.

“Good boy, Bob!” Debbie Christoff says.

She throws a few treats into the box, rewarding her 3-year-old dog for its find. Christoff and Bob were participating in a class at the Columbia Canine Sports Center that teaches dogs a sport known as K9 Nose Work.

Virginia Huxley, co-owner of the center, started in Nose Work two years ago after her partner, Kathy Echols, read an article about the sport. Dogs use their noses to correctly identify the location of a specific scent. The dogs are scored on a 100 point scale and earn points depending on the time it takes them to find the scent. The time limit is usually three minutes but might vary depending on the trial.

“The whole idea is that not only are you playing with their strongest sense, but you’re turning it into a game.” Huxley said.

Scents are placed on the ends of cotton swabs and hidden in different places in four different types of searches called elements. Each element, including a container search, interior building search, exterior area search and a vehicle search, is worth 25 points.

Container searches begin with boxes, but as the dog moves up in experience, the containers become more irregular. Instead of just boxes, scents may be hidden in luggage and distractions, including food and toys, can be hidden among the containers.

Interior building searches consist of rooms, and exterior area searches can include outdoor picnic areas. 

In order to earn a Nose Work title, the dog must earn a perfect score for all four elements and have no more than three faults. Faults can include uncontrolled running or using the search area as a bathroom.

The dog can earn three different titles: Nose Work 1, Nose Work 2 and Nose Work 3. Each title corresponds with a specific number of scents. Dogs that have earned a Nose Work 3 title must be familiar with birch, anise and clove odors.

Dogs compete one at a time, and neither the dog and its owner know where the scents are located. Nose Work challenges owners who are used to controlling their dog's behavior.

“The biggest problem is the owner,” Huxley said. “They want a finished behavior. They want them to already know how to solve the problem, and they want them to solve it the way that they would solve it.”

Judy Harris owns two standard poodles that both participate in Nose Work. She also helps teach Nose Work classes at the center.

“It’s letting the dogs use their natural instincts and kind of letting dogs be dogs,” Harris said.

Huxley said Nose Work is a good sport for those dogs that have physical or behavioral issues. Older dogs that have been injured, are too old for agility activities or don’t get along well with other dogs can take part in an activity that allows them to burn off mental energy.

For Christoff, Nose Work is perfect for her Welsh corgi.

“Bob can’t do agility; he’s not built for agility,” she said. “He doesn’t bend very well. He doesn’t jump very well, and I thought this would be something he would be able to do, and he’s actually pretty good at it.”

Bob got his Nose Work 1 title on his first try two weekends ago. Although Bob is responsible for identifying the scent, Christoff sees the pair as a team.

“I can’t tell you how tickled I am that we found something that we can do together that we’re good at,” Christoff said. “I enjoy spending time with my dogs, and I enjoy doing things that they like to do.”

The sport originated in California in 2006, but official trials didn’t begin until 2008. The first three years of trials took place in California, but in 2011, trials took place in seven different states. States in the Midwest are still in the process of getting trials. Arkansas, Illinois, and Wisconsin have all hosted trials this year.

Huxley hopes Columbia will be able to host a trial in February. The center is currently looking for a suitable location to host what will be a two-day Nose Work 1 trial.

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