German Spitz and K9 Nose Work: Teaching the Basics at Home


Maybe you have heard of the dog sport called K9 Nose Work and you are interested in the possibility of teaching it to your German Spitz. Or you have no prior knowledge and you are just looking for ways to keep your German Spitz active and satisfied. Whatever it may be you have come to the right place. I’ll go through the basics of this hobby and we’ll get you and your dog started.

K9 Nose Work is an amazing way to activate your dog. As you know, the sense of smell is any dog’s most powerful weapon and not only are they extremely good at sniffing they enjoy it enormously as well. There are classes where you can go with your dog to learn the secrets of this wonderful hobby, but maybe you live in a place where there aren’t any doggy schools near you? Don’t worry. This is a hobby that you can teach your dog at home, by yourself, and you will able to continue with this activity on your own wherever you like. It will take a few weeks to get you going in full gear but it will definitely be worth your time.

I have attended a Nose Work class with a German Spitz of mine, but I have taught my other German Spitz all about the Nose Work skills on my own at home. In fact, the home schooled one has become very good at this, so from my own experience I can tell you that these skills can definitely be mastered in the privacy of your own home, too. Especially if you never intend to compete in this sport and you only want a hobby for you and your pooch, you can do all the work at home on your own.

What is K9 Nose Work?

You are probably aware that dogs are being taught to recognize certain scents, like the scent of drugs. That’s how detection dogs work: they know which scents they are asked to look for and they get to work trying to find them. Nose Work is a hobby sport that works along the same principles: dogs are taught to look for a certain scent, they find it. Then they indicate their finding to their owner and they get a reward for a job well done.

Only in this hobby sport the dogs are not looking for money or illegal drugs, but they are searching for artificial scents like birch or eucalyptus. This is a sport that was developed in the mid 2000’s by three people who were experts in canine scent detection activity: Ron Gaunt, Amy Herot and Jill Marie O’Brien. Since then it has spread all over the world as people have noticed the benefits of this hobby.

This is in fact a dog sport that people and their dogs compete in. However, it can also be a simple but a great way to activate your dog at home even if you have never any intention of competing. Even energetic dogs tire up really fast doing these types of activities. It is a challenging activity for dogs. It requires them to use all of their mental capabilities at once.

Is the German Spitz a good breed for this sport?

When you think of a dog sport like this your first mental picture might be that of a Labrador. Then you wonder, would the German Spitz be any good at Nose Work? My answer to the question is: yes, absolutely.

You might be surprised by how good German Spitzes are at this. My Mittel was one of the best dogs in his class and I have heard others say the same. I guess it’s because German Spitzes are active but curious, too, and this is a combination that works really well in the learning phase of Nose Work. The shape of their muzzle works well in any scent detection activities and they may even learn more quickly than some other breeds. Remember, these little dogs are really smart!

However, it might be that in the long run when learning more of this hobby and developing it to the competition level Labradors might end up winning anyway. The problem you may find with your German Spitz is that some of them have a short attention span. If your German Spitz does not find the source of the scent fast enough he may give up on the task entirely and find something better to do.

This does not prevent you from competing, but you may need to find more creative ways to keep your dog’s interest up in longer and more demanding tasks. It is a matter of finding new teaching methods that motivate. Of course, if your only goal is to provide your dog something fun to do, then there is no problem.

What equipment do you need to start?

First you need the scent kit, your source of scent. The scents actually vary in different countries. If you are in America the first scent of the beginner level is birch while in Finland (where I’m from) it’s actually eucalyptus. You can buy these in pet shops everywhere and you can order online. Just look around. They are inexpensive and a tiny bottle will last a long time because you only need one single drop per exercise.

So, let’s make a list of what you need:

  1. The scent (most likely birch in your case)
  2. Tweezers (for not to touch the scent with your bare hands)
  3. Cotton swabs cut in half and a so called scent vessel where you can place them (like a jar with holes in it) OR furniture pads
  4. Boxes or baskets, some kind of containers, maybe a few jar lids
  5. Lots of treats

Here is a picture of my scent vessel so you get an idea of what I mean. It is a tiny metal jar that acts as a magnet so it can be attached on metal surfaces. It has holes in it so the dog can smell the odor inside and therefore, find it.

Before you can begin your exercise you need to prepare the scent for your dog to find. While you do this you might want to keep your dog out of the way, maybe in another room. When he knows what you are doing he simply gets too excited and it’s best for him to wait elsewhere.

Like I said, only a drop of the scent is enough for your dog to smell it. If you try it for yourself you won’t smell a thing, but for your dog this is actually a strong odor. It is not a question whether your dog can smell it or not but whether he can recognize the odor out of all the other odors out there and know that it is this odor in particular that he is supposed to be looking for. This is what you are now about to start teaching your dog.

Place a drop of the scent on the cotton swab and place it in the jar. Or use furniture pads that are self-adhesive and can be attached on any surface you want. Do not touch the scent with your bare hands. If you do, there is a chance that you spread the scent everywhere and you will ruin the entire exercise. Dogs can smell it everywhere even if there’s only tiny bit of it someplace and it will be really difficult to get rid of the scent later on.

Let’s begin the first exercise

Take two containers that are low enough for a German Spitz to reach to the bottom. Place the scent in one of them and put the containers on the floor. In other words there is a container that has the scent of a birch in it and another container that has not. Then go get your dog.

You might want to keep your dog on leash while you do these exercises especially if your goal is to compete in this sport one day. This way your dog will get used to working on leash. If competing is not the thing you are aiming for it doesn’t really matter. However, in the beginning phases a leash might be a good idea anyway to gently guide your dog forward.

Remember, your dog can smell the birch scent in the box but he doesn’t know that this scent is any different from all the other scents he can smell. It is your job to teach it to him.

When you bring your German Spitz close to the containers just let him be there without any guidance. Don’t point at the containers, but simply wait and see what your dog will do. Most likely your German Spitz is so curious to see what’s in the containers that he’ll dive in nose first in one of them. If it’s the one without the scent just ignore. However, it this is the container where the scent is located you will need to act quickly to reward your dog right away.

To be able to reward fast enough it is a good idea to use a clicker, or alternatively you can use a marker of your own. I have written about a marker in an article I wrote about puppy leash training. If a marker is unfamiliar to you, maybe you should go read this article first:

How to Leash Train Your German Spitz Puppy?Opens in a new tab.

It is important that your dog will know that it was the birch scent that brought him the treat. No, he does not understand it at this point, yet, but he will soon as you keep practicing.

Switch places of the containers and continue with the exercise: again wait for what your dog will do. Every time he puts his head in the container where there is no scent, ignore him. Every time he puts his head in the container where the scent is, reward him as soon as possible. You can throw the treats in the container next to the scent to accentuate the fact that it’s this scent that is the key here. As you do this your dog will soon start to wonder what it is about the one container that brings him the treats while the other container leaves him with nothing.

Keep your training sessions short because this is actually very exhausting for your dog. Take a short break and repeat the exercise. Take another break and repeat again. Three or four short sessions a day is more than enough. Stop long before your dog loses interest. It is important that your dog will want to do this in the future, too. It is better to practice too little than too much.

It will take a while but in a few days’ time you will notice that your dog will have an idea of where the treats are coming from. You can test this by adding a couple of more containers on the floor. The scent is located in only one of them while the other ones are empty. You will soon see that your dog starts preferring the container with the birch scent in it which indicates that your little German Spitz is getting the idea of the game.

I have a little video series of the first exercises to illustrate this in a better way. In the video you’ll see that I have just started to teach the idea of Nose Work to my dog. You can see in the first video that my Mittel hasn’t got a clue of what is going on but whenever he goes to the right box he will get a reward. He is not very patient as you see. When he doesn’t get a reward he begins to bark. It frustrates him that he doesn’t understand the rules of this game.

In the second video you will see that we have taken a step further. I have placed several jar lids on the floor along with the scent vessel I showed you earlier. The metal scent vessel will totally blend in and a dog will not notice any difference between how these items look. It is the scent that makes the difference and you will see that my Mittel is beginning to see that it is this particular scent that matters.

You probably notice that I say something to my dog in the beginning. I use the command “where” to tell my dog that it is time to start searching. You may want to think about which word you are going to use but at this beginning stage it doesn’t really matter yet. The main goal for you right now is to get your dog to understand what this game is about and that it is the birch scent he needs to be looking for. When your dog has clearly learnt this, then it is time to move forward with your training.

The exercises continue

When it is obvious to you that your dog knows which scent he is looking for it is time to take the difficulty level up a bit. Here’s when it gets fun for both of you because your dog can start searching for real.

Do not make it too difficult, though. Your dog is still a beginner and you need to keep this in mind. This has to stay fun and rewarding for your dog and if he has to search for too long it may be that your dog loses his interest. That’s not what we want.

So far your dog has searched for the smell on the floor but you may try placing the scent at a higher level. This is something that your dog needs to learn to master this sport, but remember that it is always more difficult than searching on the ground. You need to practice this with easier tasks first and slowly make it more difficult.

I have a video clip of this stage of the training, too. You will see that I have taken a chair and placed a furniture pad on it; that is where the odor is located. When my dog finds the source of the scent it is clearly visible by his reactions that he knows he’s found it.

You can do these types of searches at home but keep it in one room so the area where your dog is searching remains rather small. Do three searches during a training session and then stop for the day. I know it doesn’t sound much but like I said this is exhausting for your dog and it is essential that you do not train too much.

If you keep practicing regularly – not every day but maybe a few times a week – you will keep seeing progress. After a couple of months you should be able to do searches that are more difficult: the area where your dog is searching gets bigger and the scent may be located in places that are more difficult.

Again I have a video clip of this type of exercise, too.  You will see that the search area has grown really big, but you do not need an area this big yet. One room is more than enough.  The scent is located on the radiator. Towards the end of the video you will see that my dog finally gets the idea where it is and then finds it.

Now, at this point my dog has become fairly good at locating the odor but he still doesn’t know how to indicate his findings to me. Training a specific indication is part of the K9 Nose Work. You see, when you are competing in this sport you do not know, either, where the scent is located. Your dog is searching for it and may even find it, but how do you know if he’s found it?

That is why we teach our dogs a specific indication that he does as soon as he has found the scent. It may be your dog sitting or keeping his nose on the scent. It doesn’t matter what your indication is as long as you know what it is and/or you can read your dog well enough so that you know when he’s found it. As soon as your dog indicates, you will be able to notify the judge that hey, we’ve located the scent.

In the last video it is obvious that my dog has found the odor, and as I know my dog well and I’m able to read his body language, this would certainly be adequate for an indication. However, teaching a proper indication is definitely a good idea. This way you will have no doubts.

Part two of K9 Nose Work training will be about teaching your dog an indication and going to search in more difficult locations, like outside. You can read it by clicking this link: German Spitz and K9 Nose Work: Indication / Outdoors.

By the way, I’m sorry about the quality of the videos in this article. Addition to them being blurry you can hear my other Mittel barking in the background. He doesn’t understand why he needs to wait while my other dog gets to do fun stuff.

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