Odor Hygiene at Nosework Competitions

Welcome! I’m excited to be judging for Sniff Alberta’s nosework competition in Calgary, this weekend. We want every team to succeed. Good odor hygiene enables more teams pass searches, and that’s more fun. It’s a really important component of holding a good trial and we need everyone participant’s help. This post will outline some unique considerations for ensuring reliable odor hygiene at nosework competitions so you can be prepared in advance.

What’s the big deal? Volunteers are the lifeblood of events. Thanks for your help; we can’t hold events without your support. But even if you follow perfect odor hygiene at home, nosework competitions introduce complexity and increase the chance of errors. Blind searches mean that we can’t label objects. Hot objects look exactly like cold objects! You won’t know which is which, unless you ask. Simultaneously, people try to avoid talking about searches and accidentally revealing the hide locations. It’s a recipe for potential mistakes. We’d like to minimize the mistakes as much as possible, and knowledge is the first step.

Whether you are aware or not, EVERY PARTICIPANT has either hot hands (with target odor) or cold hands (no odor). Competitors are not allowed to bring scent to the venue, but that’s not the only way to end up with hot hands. Once you handle anything with odor, you have hot hands for the duration of the event. For example, if your dog destroys a hot box in the warm-up area, when you pick up that hide you have hot hands that can contaminate whatever cold boxes, light switches, chairs or objects you touch in future.

Ever give your dog a bath after being skunked? Washing your hands or applying antibacterial hand gels do not remove all of the odor. When in doubt, do not touch any objects!

Newbies looking to learn how to use a scent detection kit for practicing at home can learn more at: Scent Detection Kit Instructions and Supplies for Nosework.

Helpers handling hot items must use gloves. That’s necessary, but not sufficient, because scent travels through the air. Once you handle a hot box, you can’t supply a distraction for the judge because distractions need to be free of odor! Hot and cold must always be kept separate! Please do not carry or store hot and cold items next to each other. For example, do not store extra hot boxes next to the search areas, and then expect dogs to ignore the huge cloud of odor they present.

HOT HANDS (with target odor)

A judge or experienced volunteer will be responsible for assembling and placing all the hides. Everyone who handles hot boxes must wear gloves.

Scent (including hot boxes, kits, hides and odor) must only be:

  • INSIDE the current search area
  • Held by helpers with hot hands (not placed on a table or the floor)
  • Inside labelled self-serve warm up boxes for competitors outside the building
  • Inside designated scent storage areas that are clearly labelled. (At this weekend’s trial, scent will be stores upstairs in the room with the window and downstairs in the laundry room)
  • Inside the judge’s or organizers’ vehicle (inside airtight containers)

Please do not move or store hides or hot boxes anywhere else, or they contaminate that area. If a box in a search is damaged, don’t just move it to the side of the room where a search is being conducted. A person with hot hands needs to move it to the laundry/window room and bring a replacement hot box to the search area.

Never move hot and cold items together e.g. don’t transport hot and cold boxes together in your arms to move them. Never store distractions or cold items close to hot items e.g. do not put a bunch of hot boxes next to a bunch of cold or distraction boxes.

For helpers touching hides (e.g. if a dog demolishes a box and the hide is thrown clear), please be aware that everywhere you and the hide touch spreads odor and may cause dogs to false alert. Whenever possible, don’t allow any hot items to touch the floor in the search areas. Once a container search is done, be careful to move the hot containers directly to the odor storage room, without touching any surfaces on the way.

If you wipe a hot box with a paper towel, then wipe a cold box, you may contaminate the search area. If you throw your hot paper towel or gloves away in a garbage and that room is later used in a search, the odor will be detectable and some dogs will false alert there. All gloves and hot garbage needs to go into a designated scent storage area e.g. in the laundry room for this weekend’s trial.

Separate host club volunteers with cold hands to handle everything else. One of the most common errors clubs make is for volunteers who have touched odor (with hot hands) will then touch tape that is used on the start line, contaminating it and causing false alerts. Also, beware where you store and transport the hot boxes and odor kit. Many times the scent kit is left open where its intense odor plume is detectable from the search area. That’s not supposed to be part of the test. There should only be the set number of hides in the search area, no extras you assume the dogs should ignore.

COLD HANDS (no target odor)

All competitors should have cold hands. Do not bring odor to the trial venue. Please do not touch any item in the search area, or drop food, or you contaminate the search area, making it more difficult for subsequent teams. (Note that dogs are allowed/expected to touch objects in the search area.)

When your turn to search approaches, please help yourself and search the labelled warm up boxes (outside the building). Be aware that if your dog retrieves the hide and/or destroys the box or you touch inside the box, and you touch the hide, you have hot hands for the duration of the event. Anything you touch after that will be contaminated with odor.

The host club’s trial organizer is responsible for bringing a labelled box containing all of the club’s nosework supplies, including cold distractions and markers to delineate search areas. Cold supplies should include:

  • Gloves
  • Well ventilated, clean containers to insert distractions
  • Distractions e.g. toys and food such as crackers, bread, celery, lettuce (for the higher levels as directed by the judge)
  • Cold magnets to test whether a potential hide location is magnetic. Once the cold helper is done testing, (s)he will advise the judge accordingly so the judge can place the hide without moving it repeatedly and contaminating the surface
  • Tape, chalk and pylons to mark start lines and clearly delineate search areas, as directed by the judge.
  • Tape measure
  • Pee/poo cleanup supplies
  • Paper towels
  • Duct tape, scotch tape, glue dots, etc.

Volunteers with cold hands must never touch any odor, kit, hide, or hot boxes. Do not go into rooms where odor is stored (they should be clearly labelled).

Warning: Set Up and Take Down Are Riskiest

During cleanup and takedown, be very careful to avoid mistakes when everyone is tired and wants to get going. Do not handle containers or items in a search area until you know which ones are hot. For example, if you clean up after a container search by carrying all the containers, or putting them together at somebody’s vehicle then you may be mixing hot and cold containers together, contaminating all of them with scent. If you store hot items and cold items inside your vehicle, they all become hot inside that confined airtight space. If a hide falls out of a container, it will contaminate the floor or surface it falls upon. If you leave a hot item at the venue, it contaminates that area and may be unexpectedly found by dogs in future.

In conclusion, it’s very important for every participant at a nosework competition to know whether she has hot hands or cold hands, so we can keep odor where it’s supposed to be, not contaminating or confusing the integrity of the search areas. Together, we can prevent or minimize mistakes.  As always, nosework competitions begin with a judge’s briefing where you can ask any outstanding questions, and we’ll do our best to set you up for success.  Let’s have some fun enjoying sniffing together with some great scent dog detection teams!



About carlalsimon (124 Articles)
From bed bugs to birds, from narcotics to nosework, Dr. Carla Simon BSc MD MBA's motivational training has helped hundreds of K9 scent detection teams to reach their potential. She's been breeding Brittany Spaniels for Hunter’s Heart since 1999, for scent detection, hunting, and athletic partners for families with an active lifestyle. Follow her Blog at: https://nosework.huntersheart.com

2 Comments on Odor Hygiene at Nosework Competitions

  1. Marilyn Strout // February 10, 2018 at 9:52 am // Reply

    Awesome article. Thank you for explaining “hot hands” as I’ve seen students “make the boxes neat” when they’re done, or “put a tin back” if their dog accidentally moves it!


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