We started our Scent Work journey in early 2020 after a brief foray into the world of Agility. “Vinca” had the Appenzeller Sennenhund’s athleticism and intelligence to be successful in the ring, but her very low arousal threshold made it too challenging for her to progress. We stumbled upon a local “nose work” class and thought we would give it a try as a diversion, not knowing anything about the sport nor thinking ahead to trialing.
We went to a few COVID-style classes held in parking lots where she would have to search a jumbled variety of cardboard boxes for her favorite treat at the time (hot dogs). She struggled initially, easily distracted, and was unsure about sticking her head in some of the box arrangements. But she quickly came to understand the game and we saw that being successful in this activity would lean heavily on a dog-handler partnership. We were sold, and moved on to private lessons where we started to learn just how intricate and challenging this sport can be. I took on the role of the Vinca’s Scent Work handler while my wife continues to focus on Obedience.
We currently compete in trials with the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) and AKC Scent Work performance events. In the core events, dog and handler teams compete in a diverse set of trial elements where essential oil odors, usually delivered on cotton swabs, are hidden. The elements common to NACSW and AKC are containers, interior and exterior searches. Each sanctioning organization has a fourth element: vehicles, in the case of NACSW, and buried, in AKC.
The level of competition determines which scents are used, how large the search space might be, what and how many containers are used, how high the scents may be placed, how many scents will be placed, if any, and how long the team has for their search. The sanctioning organizations vary on how teams progress, with the NACSW requiring qualifying scores in all elements at the entry-level trials to be completed before titling, while AKC has adopted a cumulative element approach.
It’s this last variable that has made trialing in NACSW the most challenging for us. While we have had good success across the elements, qualifying in all four at a single trial can be challenging for a breed that is always inquisitive and suspicious of her surroundings. I am proud to say that we titled at the NW2 level the weekend prior to my writing this article. We began with a container search that was held in a large room with a dozen plastic toolboxes, two with scented hides and one with a food distractor that she needed to ignore.
The second search was an exterior space in a parking lot, where various tools and equipment were strewn; with three of them having hides of varying odors. The third element was finding a single hide somewhere on one of three vehicles; behind the bumper of a van as it turned out. The fourth search was for a single hide in a classroom, where it was hidden in a file drawer. A twist of the NW2 level is a fifth search repeating one of the elements. On this weekend it was another interior search in a small room filled with chairs, stools, and bins of electronic components where the hide was inaccessible in a drawer of a tool chest.
I admit to being amazed, still, after some of these searches because, even understanding how well-attuned dogs are to detecting and discriminating scents, it is remarkable to see them do what they do. That weekend, I had decided to lead Vinca along the driver’s side of the middle vehicle. She got to the front of it, snapped around, and marched us back the way we came and then directly to the bumper of the van parked alongside. In the classroom, I led her down the front set of tables and chairs, figuring we would sweep through each of the five rows one at a time, but she dragged me, literally, to the back of the room and directly to the cabinet where the hide had been placed—easily 50 feet away. Every search doesn’t go this way, but when they do it is awe-inspiring.
The trials themselves have been good for a dog that easily gets aroused. There’s a lot of down time between runs and Vinca has had to learn to be patient as we “wait our turn.” We do a lot of calming as we prepare for each element so that she can start each one focused on the task. When we first started trialing, there were many times when everyone heard the iconic Appenzeller bark as Vinca tried to herd me along to the staging areas. But we’ve grown as a team and that hardly happens anymore.
When we first started trialing, there were many times when everyone heard the iconic Appenzeller bark…
Training now is much more targeted, as the challenges at each next level are known and are substantial on their own. We now use a virtual coach who, through video homework assignments, gets us working through more challenging topics. We face new things such as an unknown number of hides (including searching spaces with no hides), suspended hides, and increasingly difficult distractors in the search space.
According to the AKC, Vinca was the only Appenzeller titling in Scent Work in 2021, the last year for which they have statistics published. We are currently competing at the Advanced level for containers, Excellent level for buried and exterior, and Masters level for interior. In NACSW, Vinca is the only Appenzeller titling, having earned an ORT, NW1 and NW2 to date.
We love Scent Work, we love that we are breed pioneers, and we are proud that we are the first to achieve these titles. We also look forward to the challenges that lie ahead.
A Scent Work Journey with an Appenzeller Sennenhund
By Keith Hermiz
Photos credited to SpryDog Photography