3 Things I learned at the CNCA/NACSW Conference

Last week, I attended the joint symposium of the California Narcotic Canine Association and the National Association of Canine Scent Work in San Diego, CA. It was a wonderful opportunity to network, share ideas, and learn about K9 Nose Work’s older, more serious sibling: detection work for law enforcement.

Professional K9 Handlers and trainers, animal behaviorists, and scientists from all over the world shared their knowledge with us instructors (and a few exceptionally dedicated K9 Nose Work students).  On the airplane back home, of all the things we learned, three things stood out to me:

  1.  The training that we pet people put into our detection dogs is much, much more difficult than what law enforcement does.  Professional detection dogs are specifically bred to do the job, then they go through a rigorous testing process (seriously, you should see my notes) to weed out any dogs who aren’t absolutely, positively, perfect for the job.  This includes structure, temperament, health, drive, tenacity – any element you can think of, these dogs are designed for the job.  Then, they receive extensive training – to work.  Not to be a suitable pet.  These dogs are never taught to pay attention to a handler’s shoulder movement on an agility course; they’re never taught to tolerate a toddler hugging them; they’re never taught how to politely greet someone at the front door, because they don’t greet people at the front door.  They know their work, and their human partner, and they love it, but it means that they don’t have competing motivations when they’re working the way our pet dogs do. They don’t multi-task on the job, worrying about whether their human is nervous today or whether that other dog eyeballed them in the parking lot or wondering whether that judge had cookies in his pocket – because they don’t know to.  And yet, hundreds of pet dogs around the world have been taught to compete in K9 Nose Work trials at a professional level – so hats off to those hard working teams!
  2. What law enforcement does with their dogs is so much harder than what we do.  The stakes are so much higher.  If you choose to train a bomb dog who doesn’t know where he puts his feet, you could die.  If you are working a narcotics dog, someone’s life and freedom is on the line if your dog falses or fringes.  If a professional dog develops problems with something trivial like, for instance, stairs, this causes a huge problem for everyone, because that dog is a ten thousand dollar or more asset, and what are you supposed to do with an expensive and invaluable piece of equipment that can’t do its job?  Many dogs “flunk out” of professional detection work, but not before their handlers fall in love with them.   It sounds really rough on all parties.  And yet, science has yet to find a better detection machine than a living, breathing dog.
  3. Dogs are basically an olfactory system with feet.  Seriously.  For example:

–A dog’s nose is designed to pull in fresh air samples with each inhale and exhale in such a way that if they’re close to what they’re sniffing, it creates a turbine which sucks a fresh air sample in with the next inhale.

–Dogs can tell whether a scent is coming from the right or the left with their noses, the way we can with our hearing.

–Scent is water-soluble, which is one of the ways that dogs analyze smells, and probably accounts for why dogs tend to have wet noses.

–When a dog is intently searching, his body basically diverts all of its energy to gathering and analyzing the scent (this is probably why Nose Work is so tiring, even though it’s not physically demanding)

–Dogs pant to cool themselves off, and sniff intently (what we in classes call the “Power Sniff”) at exactly the same rate, suggesting that their bodies have been designed to keep cool while hunting without having to pant with an open mouth.

All in all, the more I learn about how dogs are wired, the more I pity dogs who aren’t encouraged to use their noses!


  1. Priscilla Phillips says:

    Very nice write up on a very successful conference.

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