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The Power of Our Pooches’ Sniffing Machine

Author: Angie Falcsik, CNWI

Most people know that dogs have an amazing sense of smell, but have you ever wondered not only why but just how powerful your pooch’s nose really is?

The dog’s nose consists of a sensory organ, sensory receptors, an olfactory bulb and an incredible nostril, all working together to create an amazing mechanism for detecting a myriad of things.  Their capability ranges from food for basic survival, determining danger, deciphering friend or foe of a human or animal, to detecting multiple types of drugs, money, bomb, accelerants, bed bugs, cancer, change in sugar level in diabetics, seizures, lost humans or pets, and of course, target odors, in the great sport of K9 Nose Work®.

Dogs evaluate their environment through its nose first.  Even before a dog can see something, he can smell it.  That scent is information to a dog, an encyclopedia if you will, which must then be processed.

So, you ask, how exactly does a dog’s nose work?  Dogs inhale through their nostrils and air is exhaled through the sides of its nose.  This amazing process keeps air (scent) that is inhaled from becoming weakened.  When a dog breathes in, air is separated and takes two paths.  “ We found that when airflow enters the nose it splits into two different flow paths, one for olfaction and one for respiration,” says Brent Craven, a bioengineer at Pennsylvania State University. Craven states that 12 percent of air inhaled flows to an area in the back of the nose that is dedicated to olfaction known as the Olfactory Bulb where 250-300 million sensory receptors are housed. A dog’s Olfactory Bulb is about 4 times larger than that of a human!  Olfactory receptors recognize molecules by their shape and send electrical signals to the brain for analysis.  The remaining inhaled air flows down through the pharynx to the lungs to be used for respiration.

When dogs breathe out, the exhaled air flows through the slits on the sides of their noses.  As the air is exhaled out, it creates a swirl which aides in ushering in new odors into a dog’s nose.

dog nose

Figure 1: When a dog breathes in, the air separates into distinct paths, one (red) flowing into the olfactory area and the other (blue) passing through the pharynx (black) to the lungs. Enlarge Photo credit: © Courtesy of Brent Craven

Recent research has shown dogs can detect odors in parts per trillion!  An analogy which illustrates this is described by Alexandra Horowitz, in her book, Inside of a Dog.   Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, writes that while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth.

There are of course multiple scenarios where a dog uses its nose, whether it is for survival or for fun (and yes, even the working dogs are having fun), one of which is the new and incredible activity and sport of K9 Nose Work®!

K9 Nose Work® is an activity whereby dogs use their incredible tool, their nose, and their natural ability to hunt, to search, and find food or their favorite toy.  They first search for food/toys in boxes and then, once their skills have increased, in various other environments.  Dogs build confidence, burn energy, learn focus and problem solving skills and most importantly, have fun doing it!

Any dog can do nose work regardless of breed, age, disability (blind, deaf, tripod), personality (shy, fearful, reactive, etc.) because it taps into and builds on the dog’s natural ability to use its nose!

K9 Nose Work® takes a dog at whatever level they are at and starts out by building on the dog’s natural hunting ability by learning to search boxes, “the hide”, one of which has treats/toys (the hide) in it.  After building the foundation of the game and increasing the drive, the game moves to adding obstacles, going outside and learning to use and trust its nose with their human in tow only to watch and learn how the dogs searches and to be right there to reward when the hide is found!  Bonus – treats/toys in the hide box and more rewards by that two-legged person who tags along!  Double bonus – no obedience required or allowed!

Each time the dog finds the hide box, the dog learns to trust it’s nose, which in turn, builds a lot of confidence as well as builds a  new and stronger bond with it’s human as they are a team in this great activity/game!

The game continues with dogs transitioning to searching for target odors (Birch, Anise and then Clove) doing container/box searches, interior searches, exterior searches and vehicle; some of whom may pursue their ultimate goal of competition, the sport side of K9 Nose Work®.

You may be saying to yourself, my dog is too old for this activity.  Two of my dogs, who had no search or tracking experience, started this amazing activity when they were 8 and 9 years old!  They now both compete and are 12 and 12 ½!  They both have earned their NW1 titles and Indy, my oldest, is working on his NW2.

Another question people ask is whether their dog’s nose works as well when they it gets older.  A dog’s sense of smell is the last sense to go.  Using the information above, let me share how Indy, my 12 ½ year old Collie/Shepherd/Golden takes in, processes and sources odor.

Following about a year working primary foundation with food, Indy moved to the first odor, Birch and now works both Birch and Anise.  When Indy is approaching a search area, you can see his nose working before he even takes a step into the search area.  His nose flares open, twitches, and he inhales the various smells around him collecting “data”.  The odor molecules flow through his olfactory system and the receptors in his Olfactory Bulb recall the Birch and/or Anise scent.  His head lifts and he is off due to repeated receipt of rewards at source for birth and/or Anise.  Depending on the search area, the wind and the hide placement, many dogs will be what we call “in odor” before they even start to search.  Indy is a very honest dog and searches until he hits what we call a scent cone.  This is a cone shaped area filled with odor wherein the dog works in various ways until he is at the source.

Once Indy has hit the cone of odor, his breathing changes, he sniffs a little louder and his pace slows down.  The odor molecules are filling his olfactory system and he is able to discriminate between Birch/Anise and other scents/odors such as plants, flowers, animal smells, environmental scents in the air, etc.  He continues to work the odor cone, bracketing the odor molecules and, once he is at source, he communicates to me, “This is it!”

K9 Nose Work® was founded by three people (Ron Gaunt, Amy Herot and Jill Marie O’Brien) with detection dog handling experience (among other training) who realized that not all dogs can be working dogs, but all dogs can use their nose and have fun!  Therefore they created an activity and sport for companion dogs to give them an outlet and a job using their natural scenting ability.  In 2009, the NACSW™ (National Association of Canine Scent Work) held its first nose work trials in California; by 2011, the word had spread and 43 trials where held in 9 different states throughout the U.S.  In 2012, there were 80 trials throughout the United States and in 2013 that number will be significantly more!

As Michigan’s First Certified K9 Nose Work® Instructor, I have been honored to host two Odor Recognition Tests (ORT’s) and, just recently, Michigan’s First K9 Nose Work® Trial in Charlotte, MI.  K9 Nose Work® is not only an amazing activity and sport, but a true testament to a dog’s most incredible mechanism, its nose!

To find out more about K9 Nose Work® go to or visit my website at

About the Author, Angie Falcsik, CNWI

Indy.Angie.NWRibbon1For over 10 years, Angie has been professionally dedicated to the training, rehabilitation, and rescue of dogs. This has been a lifetime love and passion and one of the goals of her professional career is to educate people regarding responsible dog ownership and the realities involved in being a responsible dog owner. Angie has worked with rescue groups, animal control agencies and shelters for many years and have offered expert advice and testimony in animal abuse and neglect cases.

Angie has been professionally training dogs and have been a Certified Obedience Trainer since 2002, is a Certified Nose Work Instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW), and is an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator.

Angie teaches group classes at AnnaBelle’s Pet Station in Downtown Lansing, Michigan.  Check out her current class schedule and sign up online today to reserve your spot or call 517.599.0995.

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