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Nose to Trail – No-Nonsense Nosework Course [2021 Review]

scentwork with french bulldog

I was a little nervous to start this nosework course, as although I’ve trained Dolly to do lots of different things, ‘proper’ nosework isn’t one of them, so I wasn’t sure how she’d get on.

This is a course where you learn to train your dog to focus on using their nose to discriminate between scents and indicate the ‘correct’ one, rather than eat or run off with it!

The course ran over 6 weeks via Zoom for a small group of us. I think Dolly (French Bulldog) was the senior dog at 8 years old and we had a young lively puppy in the group so you can teach scentwork to dogs of any age and breed.

Nose to Trail is run by Rachel Rodgers, an experienced dog trainer and behaviourist based on the Shropshire, Cheshire border in the UK. Having worked with a range of species, from dolphins to dogs, Rachel went on to be a manager for the RSPCA and Dogs Trust Dog School. 

She has a PGCE (Professional Graduate Certificate in Education) and has spent time as a lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare and Canine Behaviour and Training.  

Rachel also has a Master’s degree in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare which gives her a thorough theoretical knowledge to underpin her practical skills.  

This was evident throughout the course, so let’s get on with the review.

Week One – Observations and the Active Find

Rachel sent out some great preparation information, so I spent the morning gathering boxes, toys and different smelly treats, and we were ready to go. We popped the iPad on the floor in the kitchen so Rachel had a dog’s eye view of what was going on and joined the first class on Zoom.

Rachel is a natural presenter, and after a friendly and welcoming introduction, we got stuck into an active find.

I took Dolly out of the room, and then laid out a delightful array of objects including: a cardboard box with balls, a blanket, a snuffle mat, a lickmat, and some tissue paper.

I hid the different treats amongst the objects and then let Dolly in. We watched our dogs behaviour as they sniffed to see what they would do. This type of searching is called ‘freework’. Where we didn’t do anything, just let our dogs sniff out and gobble up the treats in their own time.

Dolly went straight for the garlic treats, which really surprised me as I thought the fishy ones stank the most! She hunted out every morsel and then went back to double-check she hadn’t missed anything, including the last dregs of cream cheese on the lickmat!

We have some homework this week so we’re busy doing that and we can’t wait for next week’s class!

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Freework in the Kitchen

Week Two – Active Responses and Hides

We did our homework and practiced our active find in different locations. This went very well for Dolly, apart from finding cheese on the walk, there were a lot of distractions, but she did snaffle it down and move quickly on!

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Ohh Cheese!

This week’s class we just used our cheese sparingly. Armed with my containers and boxes, I laid out a few pieces of cheese for Dolly to find. She did really well, and it didn’t take her long to get them.

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Next, we made it a little harder and only hid one piece of cheese. I stuck a piece to the side on the stool at head height. Would she find it? Yes, Dolly did well on the single cheese hunt and found it. I love the way she sniffs so hard all around and then suddenly gets a strong whiff and heads straight for the prize.

I’m glad we’re doing this class, as this morning Dolly was diagnosed with arthritis in her back legs. There’s going to be less walkies, more sniffers and definitely lots of nosework activities going forward.

Homework this week is to video some nosework in action to see if I’m any good as a handler, or giving the game away and making it too easy for Dolly. This should be fun!

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Freework is Dolly’s favourite.

Week Three – Active Responses, Handling and Types of Searches

Well, that went better than expected. I can’t believe it is week three already. We did our homework and reviewed the videos together. I hadn’t realised that when Dolly gets stuck and needs help, her default is to sit down in front of me and look at me. None of the other dogs on the course did this. Thinking about it, she does this because I trained her from a young age to sit in front of me and wait for instructions.

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Giving the Find it Cue in the garden
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Dunno where it is mum, help please….

I used the ‘learn to earn’ technique to train her from a pup which is a method where you do not put your dog’s food down, but keep it on you all day, and keep your dog attached to you with a leash. They then have to follow you about, and you reward them throughout the day with their food when they are doing behaviours that you like and want them to repeat, such as sitting by your feet. This has built a solid bond between Dolly and I, and explains why she resets to the sitting in front of me for her next cue. This ‘learn to earn’ technique is not for everyone though and does have its drawbacks, I’ll explain that in more detail in another article.

Back to scentwork training. Homework review done we moved onto developing our skills as handlers. This is where we are supporting our dogs with their search, but not helping them unless they get stuck. It is quite hard not to repeat the ‘Find it’ command, but I use ‘keep sniffing’ to indicate that there is more cheese to be found and only use the ‘Find it here as a last resort when Dolly sits and looks at me.

Dolly and I work well together, I’m looking forward to next week when we are introducing Marzipan into the search, and for some reason I need a sieve!

Week Four – Intro to Passive Responses

Homework has been to do three searches this week and slowly improve the difficulty. Dolly is thoroughly enjoying the attention (as if she doesn’t get enough already) and all the cheese! 

This week it was really hot, so we had more verbal training rather than practical to keep our dogs from overheating. It’s time now to start transitioning from finding cheese and eating it to identifying a scent and indicating where it is to the handler, i.e. me.

Rachel talked us through how we would be doing this and it included teaching a version of ‘snoot’ where Dolly has to put her nose to my hand gesture and keep it there. More cheese involved in this and lots of ‘good’ to mark her correct behaviour. I could have used the clicker, but it was quite easy to get the verbal marker in the right place.

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Next up was priming the scent we would use to teach our dogs how to find and indicate where it is. In order to do this, we are introducing the distinctive scent of marzipan to our dogs which is a great smell and not aversive, unlike some other scents which are used in nosework training. This is where the sieve came in, sort of, as the way to prime ascent is to feed your dog directly over it.

I decided to take Rachel’s advice and bought a road refresher bowl whereby I could pop the marzipan in the bottom and food in the top. The holes that usually let the water through meant that the scent could escape. Perfect.

Week Five – Passive Responses Expanded and Hides

Another week has passed, and Dolly seems a little more settled, but I’m not convinced her leg problem is arthritis, so I’ve been keeping an eye on her.

Our ‘snoot’ command was coming on well too, and this week we worked on developing this into a ‘snoot’ onto one of our little jars (or a new salt shaker I found in the charity shop in my case) as we teach the indication.

Next up we put our jars on the floor and asked our dogs which one had the marzipan. Dolly was able to do this with more of a ‘bop’ on the jar than resting her nose and indicating, but that’s the point. By taking the training one step at a time, we give our dogs the chance to learn successfully. At each step, we work together and don’t move on until we’re sure that the step has been understood and is a repeatable behaviour. Using the ‘push, stick, drop’ method helps with this.

Dolly wasn’t as enthusiastic as usual, so I made an appointment to see the vet again for next week.

Proofing the indication is homework this week. How long can Dolly keep her nose on the correct jar when she finds it?

Week Six – Passive Response Types of Searches and How to Take Nosework on the Road

I can’t believe that six weeks have passed already! This last session, Rachel expanded on different types of searches and how we can now take our nosework training further.

It turns out that my poor little Dolly has a luxating patella so is booked in for surgery next week. Seems that there’ll be plenty of time for crate nosework games over the coming weeks!

Wrapping up

We thoroughly enjoyed this course and thought Rachel was a great instructor. The lessons were well planned, informative, easy to follow and more importantly, great fun! I’ve learnt a lot about scentwork and I know Dolly has enjoyed all that sniffing and the attention. We’ve got our certificate and we will carry on our scentwork together. Thank you so much to Rachel for inviting us to be part of this brilliant course.

If you want to take part in the next course which starts on 20th September, or speak to Rachel about training then get in touch with her here:

No Nonsense Nosework Course (online) – 20th Sept £130.

Nose To Trail Website

rachel rodgers
Rachel and her two doggos
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