Ever wondered what fun things you could safely do with your tripawd that doesn’t cause much concussive injury to the remaining joints? Yeah, I did, too. Does your dog also love to sniff things until the last molecule of odor could not possibly remain on the object he/she is sniffing? Yep, been there. Does your dog NEED a job? Yup, tripawd or not!
Let me tell you about our journey into nose work (or scent work, depending on the venue). But first, in order to do that, I have to tell you about Tank – or Three-Quarter Tank as he is known on social media and by several folks in our nose work community.
He has 3 legs!
I was working at an emergency veterinary hospital in southwest Virginia. I usually worked four consecutive 10 hour overnight shifts. It was my first night of my week, a Wednesday, and I was being rounded on my first patient, Tank. He was this really cute, 10 month old mixed breed puppy that was stretched out in the kennel – tail justa waggin’! Big, goofy grin, belly in the air, right forelimb flopped awkwardly.
“Ahh, he’s so cute! HI, Tank!!”
**tail beating against the kennel**
“He’s looking for a new home.”
“Hang on, no he’s not. Let me text my husband.”
Tank was brought in after being hit by a car several days earlier on October 30, 2016. Unfortunately, this was an area where not everyone had the means to go forward with such a sudden and expensive surgery so he was brought in be euthanized. Longer story short, here he was staring at me. Surgery to amputate and neuter was scheduled once he was stabilized for Mister-I-ran-off-because-I-smelled-something-pretty.
I was able to bring him home to my existing dog family on November 18. And boy, did he need a job. He knew his name. He kind of knew sit. He was obnoxious. And he was so good at escaping his kennel and chewing things up. Over the next several months I really looked into tripawd-friendly dog sports, games, behavior training, activities – really anything to help this dog. He was incredibly smart and that was part of my problem. I focused on the basic commands and read many books on how scent work can help a dog so I would toss kibble in the yard. I always thought the dog’s ability to smell was incredible and he seemed to always have his nose to the ground, so why not? Unfortunately, I made the decision to move so it put my plans on hold for a while.
Finally, We Can Begin!
We ended up back in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and it wasn’t until August 2018 that I finally found a “local” nose work instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work website. (Local to us means within 2 hours). We finally got started with an Introduction to Nose Work class in October 2018 and Tank loved it! I was nervous because this was my very first sport activity with any pet, but once I saw how much he enjoyed it that quickly fell by the wayside.
By January 2019, we were already in our first Odor Recognition Test (ORT) – I initially wasn’t sure we were going to compete, but again, he loved it so much that it was worth a shot. In order to compete with NACSW, you have to pass your ORT for the birch, anise, and clove essential oils. The ORT is set up with 2 rows of white boxes. There is one hide. Your dog has to indicate to you that the hide is in *this* box! If you’re correct, congratulations! If not, you can’t go on to enter any trials, yet. There are plenty of opportunities to get into an ORT, especially if you are willing to travel a bit. This really applies to any trial and any level. The rules have also changed since we started. You have to pass all three ORTs in order to compete in NW1 because certifying officials want to be able to use all 3 odors at any point.
That day we were entered in both the birch and anise ORTs and passed both! So we tried our hand at our first NW1 (Nose Work 1), scheduled March 2019. Our first trial! There are 4 searches in NW1 – interior, exterior, containers, vehicles (outside of vehicle only). It was cold and misty. We bombed it, but he had a blast. Dogs have zero clue of what the results are, they just show up to have fun. I felt a little out of my element with my lack of sporting history, I didn’t know anyone, and I’m generally pretty introverted unless spoken to first. We even stayed in a hotel for the first time, just Tank and myself, so that proved to be interesting as well:
“Shhhh, there’s people that can complain. I am very aware that we are not at home”
Despite passing 2 of 4 of those searches, we learned what we needed to work on and where to build our confidence. We continued to work with our instructor for 6 months before we competed in our second NW1 in September. It was 95 degrees and the AC in my Chevy Blazer had gone out that morning… Thankfully, in those 6 months I did quite a bit of research into what things you really need for a trial so we were prepared with a Ruffland Kennel, an Aluminet, ramp, and Ryobi fans and batteries. We had cold water and ice packs. It was going to be fine. We went on to earn our NW1 title that day! All of the training paid off, but I did have to carry him to a few search areas due to distance and heat. I didn’t want him to become too tired or overheated.
During those past few months I also looked into AKC Scent Work and we decided to try our hand in that. At the novice level your elements are exteriors, interiors, containers, and buried. Novice buried consists of sand in containers that all look alike. The hide is situated 2 inches down and your dog has to indicate what container the hide is in, but please do not allow your dog to dig it up. Once you are in a higher level, the buried element can then be water or sand and the distance below the surface is changed. We entered 2 trials in one day – having no experience in buried hides – and we kicked ass. He earned High in Trial that day. He loves buried hides.
Ok, We Did It. Next Level!
Next was NW2 – trial scheduled for February 2020. Right before the pandemic. We traveled to St. Michaels, Maryland and spent the entire weekend as a mini vacation which in hindsight was a fantastic idea. A NW2 trial has 5 search areas, 2 hides in each area, the areas are much larger than NW1. This was our worst performance yet and we were only successful in our final search of the day – exteriors. It was so windy and I realized afterwards that this particular location was on the bay. We had never searched near a body of water and that can significantly affect the way the odor moves. Time to train near water!
Then the Covid 19 pandemic hit and put our trialing on hold. We had so many scheduled between NACSW and AKC, several seminars and workshops, but alas, 2020. After several months of the pandemic and things started to open up, we went to as many classes as we could because 1.) quarantine and 2.) we needed to train because there is only but so much nose work I could do at home knowing where I put the hides and inadvertently telling him where they were with my body language (oops, silly humans).
By December 2020, we were entered into our second NW2 – thank goodness, because we both missed the traveling, the day together, the adventures, the miles! Yanceyville, North Carolina was our location. It topped out at 70 degrees. We earned our NW2! I was so proud of him, and us, and all we had learned over the past 10 months that I teared up on our final, “Alert.” “Yes!”. You can hear my voice crack in our trial video. No shame. He’s literally the best boy.
Now’s The Real Test.
Now to NW3 – Nw3 is so much different and in my opinion, a beast, but it’s also really fun. As I am typing this we have competed in 6 of them in 2021. SIX. This number is miniscule compared to other competitors that I have spoken to. The distance you drive also increases because if you get into one, you go (they are difficult to get in to). The furthest we have driven was 4 hours. At this level you have 6 searches – all are quite large – and anywhere from 0-3 unknown hides. If you search an area that is blank, that is the only blank area for that trial. This is where all your hard work, trust and partnership really pay off. We celebrate the fine details – like searching that blank area and having the judge write, “awesome handler at reading your dog” on your score sheet. Or, “Tank is so genuinely happy while he’s working. Nice job!”.
With this level you can earn a title in a couple of ways. You can be 100% on your game for the day, pass everything, no errors, and earn your title. Or you can earn a “leg” toward a title – this allows for 1 error of the entire day, such as a false alert. Two legs will earn a title. Once your earn three NW3 titles you earn your NW3 Elite and can then compete at the Elite level. I hear that the Elite level is so much more fun than NW3 and is based on points. You can earn points toward your title, but not lose them. We have no NW3 titles or legs – we have come so close, but sometimes the human will “blurt alert” and Tank will just look at me like I’m stupid.
You can also earn NW3 element titles at this level. Tank has earned his NW3 Container and NW3 Interior titles. These are earned by passing a particular element in three different NW3 trials. If a trial happens to have two interior searches that day you have to pass both for it to count toward the element title.
Wait, There’s More?!
As if I haven’t covered enough of NACSW trials, there are Element Specialty Trials! Tank loves these – many dogs do, because they are just one element in a trial: interiors, exteriors, containers, vehicles. You can pick your dog’s favorite, your favorite, you can do them all. They’re a great option if your dog excels in a particular element and it’s so much fun to see your dog happy to see his/her favorite thing. We actually utilized a Level 1 Container (L1C) search because we had two NW3 trials back to back with blank container searches. Tank was then put off by containers “because no reward, nothing to find”. He earned his L1C and containers are no longer on his bad side.
I am only covering our experience with NACSW because that’s what we started with and the locations are relatively “local” to me. My idea of local on trials are generally within 4 hours. We also dabble in AKC in between our NACSW trials just to keep up with practice in a trial setting. I generally will not go beyond 2 hours for those. There are other scent work venues, but I am not as familiar with them, nor are they in Virginia. I encourage you to look into them and see if they are a fit for you and your dog.
Why We Love Nose Work
Tank loves it all. He knows it’s a day all about him and mom. He does the thing he enjoys, he gets the best snacks for doing the thing he enjoys, he gets the adventures, and he usually gets a little extra snack on the way home because on the days he’s worked his brain so hard, he deserves it. We generally try to find a dog-friendly activity and/or restaurant on our way back home so we can both celebrate with snacks and fun.
As for the human side of things, I have always been independent and adventurous and this allows me to travel with my dog. The bond I have developed with Tank is like none other so it’s rather therapeutic to get to trial. What I have not been in my life is social, however, I have made so many friends with nose work activities simply because folks see Tank and want the story. We see many of the same people in both class and at trials, regardless of the state we’re competing in. It’s a strong and very friendly community and I’ve learned that I can ask these folks for help (ahem, cue the older vehicle). Most people see us pull up and immediately I hear, “Hey! Three-Quarter Tank!”. Nose work loves tripawds!
Word of Advice for Tripawds
Before I end my first blog post, I want to add that since Tank is missing his right front limb and the majority of a dog’s weight is carried in the front, he does tire before the end of many NW3 trials. These are long days with large searches and often long walks to the searches. If he gives me any indication that he is getting tired, I will carry him. He is only 32 pounds, your dog may be more than that. Nose work is an awesome sport or activity for tripawds, but competition is definitely something to think about as you move up and as your dog gets older.
Some of the interior searches do have very slippery floors. We have worked on Tank’s confidence and core strength for years, so the floors don’t often pose a problem like they did in the beginning. Paw grips may be something to consider.
Tank will also receive Wolf Spring dog vitamin water or The Honest Kitchen Beef Broth during the lunch break to help revitalize. A massage and some passive range of motion of his remaining forelimb are also part of his lunch break. Also remember, your dog comes first.
Where We Stand
Tank currently has his ORT, NW1, NW2, NW3C, NW3I, L1C, L1V with NACSW. In AKC he has his SWN, SWA with many placement ribbons – we are working towards his Novice and Advanced Elite titles, and his Excellent titles.