Have you seen a dog get his head stuck in a nosework box? If you watch a few pre-trial or container searches, you’ll observe that many dogs do. While that’s not faulted and usually causes the audience to smile, it’s a frequent reminder that safety is important in canine nosework.
Consider what would happen if a dog got his head stuck in a rigid wooden or steel container. You’d need to find a saw to carefully cut the dog out without hurting him. It’s not easy to bring a loud saw so close to the head of a panicked dog. An incident like this can harm the dog, or at minimum it can be a memorably scary, negative experience that may be difficult to overcome.
In comparison, using cardboard boxes is safer for container searches. While not as durable, when a dog gets his head stuck in a cardboard container, you can quickly use your bare hands to help the dog escape. It’s quicker than finding a saw, and less likely to hurt the dog.
Through lessons and club practices, we’ve found that boxes with a 2.5 inch diameter smooth round hole are suitable for dogs of all sizes to put their nose as close to source as possible. We tape the hide inside the box, right next to the whole. Even a large Bullmastiff can stick a portion of his nose in the hole to indicate source. Only a few high drive dogs have pushed their muzzle in the hole far enough to damage the cardboard boxes, caving them in so they are longer usable. But every dog easily dislodged the box and no harm resulted. Of course, containers may be damaged with use, so you do need sufficient replacement boxes, but this is far preferable to emergencies involving metal or steel containers.
A pleasant bonus derived from using cardboard boxes with a round hole arises from the fact that we’re training the dogs to pinpoint the location of source within 2-6 inches. When we position cardboard boxes with holes adjacent to each other, the dogs are practising identifying the hole in the correct box, not the one next to it, which may be as close as 1.5 inches away. Over many repetitions, we never reward close, and only reward nose at source, thereby teaching the dogs very precise sourcing and indicating.
Of course, containers aren’t the only safety concern in nosework. Per UKC nosework rules, don’t allow dogs to crawl under vehicles. Ensure nearby paths and roads have minimal traffic. Don’t place hides in the wheel well of vehicles in case a dog’s head gets stuck there. Wearing booties during vehicle searches may help to prevent scratching volunteer’s generously donated vehicles.
Believe it or not, one test I attended was held at a huge pet convention on a carpeted area that had just been used by a sewing convention, and on the site walk-through we realized that many lost sewing pins needed to be removed from the carpet before it was safe for dogs!
Whenever you consider using any search area, first walk through the area without dogs and consider all possible hazards to both dogs and their handlers in the environment. For example, warehouses may have mouse catching traps and/or rat poison that can be very dangerous to dogs. Nonslip flooring is a must indoors, especially on stairs. Handlers who have fallen and fractured bones will tell you how long and difficult it is to recover from serious injuries that could have been prevented with better flooring. Garbage may contain unknown hazards. Check for broken glass, sudden drops in terrain, and chemicals you don’t want the dogs to eat or contact e.g. motor oils, antifreeze and bleach.
Distractions outdoors frequently include game, and if a dog runs away to chase game, this is a serious safety concern since he could be lost or hit by a car. Poison ivy, cactus, thorns, ants and bees in the search area may cause serious problems. Noises such as nearby shooting ranges, or even very loud fans, may scare and distract dogs, or even cause them to bolt in a panic. Watch for holes and sudden drops in the terrain which may surprise and trip handlers and cause injuries.
In hot conditions, consider using water, cooling coats, cooling beds, fans, air conditioning, pools of water and shade tents to stay cool and hydrated. Dogs should never be left in unventilated hot vehicles. But a fully decked out, properly ventilated, vehicle that is actively kept cool so that a dog is not even panting can actually be safer and more pleasant than being out in full sun!
In cold weather, dogs are allowed to wear coats and booties during UKC Nosework trials to stay warm. As always, dogs are prohibited from wearing dangling items on the collar that may pose choking hazards. Warming your dog up with a 5-10 minute walk can warm up his muscles and prepare for working, as well as focussing his attention and helping to prevent injuries.
Once you’ve walked through the prospective search area, you can decide if it’s suitable or not for the dogs and handlers attending that day. If you do chose an area with environmental safety concerns or distractions, brief all participants so they are fully aware and can make the best choices that keep their dogs safe.
Additionally, at all our practices and lessons, we make it a rule that NO dog to dog interactions are allowed. Dogs should never be closer than 10 feet apart. At one event I attended, a dog bit another participating dog and was allowed to continue playing nosework while the injured dog went to the emergency vet! Don’t be lulled into complacency. Some dogs are reactive, afraid or aggressive, but careful management can prevent problems. When dogs are close enough to sniff, they are close enough to bite, and that’s no fun for anyone! At worst, dogs that display aggressive behaviour should be warned or excused from the event. To keep it fun and safe for all, always brief and remind all participants to keep their distance and prevent problems.
To summarize, for optimal safety, use cardboard boxes instead of wooden and steel containers for nosework. Check prospective search areas for safety concerns, distractions and loud noises before you consider placing hides there. Brief competitors on any concerns that may be present. Stay cool and hydrated in hot weather. Avoid placing your hides in any location where a dog may get stuck or injured by environmental safety hazards. Prohibit dogs from approaching closer than 10 feet from other dogs. Safe nosework is more fun for all.