Old Dogs Learn New Tricks!

Hello again, from Cherie O’Boyle, Shiner, and Ben (who turns one year old today!!) and also from Patience, the cat.

After about ten years of obedience and agility classes, flyball tournaments, and herding trials, my border collie Shiner was ready for something new. Sadly, by then arthritis had claimed his left wrist joint, making running on uneven ground painful. His hearing was also going, meaning he could no longer follow the long-distance whistles directing him where to herd the sheep. But the dog was still ready to go. I knew I had to think of something fast as Shiner was staring at me with that unmistakeable border collie eye. So what was next?

What was next turned out to be “nose work” or, in AKC parlance, “scent work.” Nose work uses many of the same skills used by professional search and rescue teams, but has become more of a dog sport. Participants may attend “trials” to test their skills and earn ribbons and awards.

When people ask me about nose work, their first question is “How do you teach dogs to smell what you want them to smell?”

The answer, of course, is that we don’t teach dogs to smell what we want them to smell. They already do smell, all the time, although granted, not always what we want them to smell. Dogs live in a universe of scents that we can only imagine.

Nose work involves first, teaching dogs which one of those millions of scents we want to know about and how to make a sign when they’ve found that scent, and second, teaching the human to read the sign the dog makes. Nose work requires a strong bond between dog and human, making it the perfect activity to share.

Having said that, it turns out that many dogs need practice in using their remarkable sense of smell. As humans, we live in an almost exclusively visual and auditory world, and as a consequence, the dogs who live with us are rarely called upon to pay much attention to their olfactory universe. Nose work gives dogs a chance to hone skills they may not have practiced much, to amaze us with their abilities, and even to help us with tasks we would have a much harder time completing without their help. We’ve all heard about dogs being trained to alert doctors to the presence of cancer in patients. The surface of those abilities in dogs is barely being scratched.

Nose work is also a terrific activity for older dogs. It does not require great physical prowess or speed. Dogs who are losing other sensory skills such as hearing and even eyesight can successfully participate. Studies have found that dogs gain in self-confidence when they participate in nose work. Conveniently, I have forgotten how researchers measured self-confidence in dogs, but since the findings mesh so nicely with what I already want to believe, I’ll not lose sleep over that.

There can be no doubt that a shared interest in nose work bonds human and dog in ways little else can. In ideal nose work practice the human has no way of finding the target, and must rely entirely on reading and trusting the signals sent by the dog. There is nothing quite so fascinating as setting your dog on a “find” to search a car that you know has been planted with a scent, and watching the dog’s every sniff, every move, even the slightest head turn, for signs of an alert. And when the dog makes a successful find, celebration!

Sure, your dog may never win any nose work awards, but even practicing together is a fun way to build a connection between you. There are lots of videos available on-line to get you started.

Learning nose work with my dogs has informed my writing in a variety of ways. My most recent release is On Scent, a wilderness thriller featuring both air-scenting and tracking dogs. That one required a great deal of research, not just about canine skills, but also about kidnappings, law enforcement procedures, and fighting forest fires as well.

In my Estela Nogales Mystery series, all of the neighborhood dogs play various roles, always utilizing skills that dogs exhibit every day. They sniff out dead bodies, murder weapons, and bad guys. They tree lost cats, and come to Estela’s rescue simply by appearing at the right time in the right place. At no time in these mysteries do the dogs, cats, or wild boar ever talk or do anything else that these animals wouldn’t do in real life. And thank goodness for that, as, in Estela’s opinion, there is entirely too much yammering going on in the world already without dogs pitching in their two cents.

And just for the record, because whenever we learn something new we always include Patience, the cat, I have to tell you that she is faster and more efficient at finding the target scents than any of the dogs. She would have a boxful of ribbons too, if she cared to attend trials with all those barking dogs. Here she is giving her best “alert” sign on the correct box.

How about you and yours? What do you do to keep an older pet entertained? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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