Updated: Feb 11, 2021
Ever try to sniff out the rotten smell of a cheese stick left in your car from training last week? If you haven't had the pleasure, let me tell you it's a lot of work! I ended up running out of breath by the time I worked my way through the front seats and had to take a small break before finding the troubling cheese wrapper tucked between the console and the back seat!
This might seem to be an odd thing to bring up in a blog, but it brings up an important topic! Fitness!
A Fit Dog Will Out-Perform an Unconditioned Dog
When your dog is asked to do scent work, you are asking for them to use their amazing nose to track down the source of an odor in a novel space. This seems like a pretty low energy activity, but there will be some consistency across high performing dogs at the upper levels.
Your dog needs to inhale and exhale, at a very fast rate in order to take in enough information to determine where the source of odor could be. One report says dogs sniff up to 300 times a minute! The way that they sniff is slightly different than ours, meaning the air being pulled into the nose isn't actually being pulled all the way into the lungs each sniff. This allows for the more rapid air transfer without them feeling light-headed (like I do looking for that cheese wrapper in my car!).
All this activity does require that your dog has some fitness and endurance in order to continue the sniffing over longer periods of time. Sniffing for 5 minutes (or even 10 minutes!) can take a LOT of endurance from your dog. Dogs that get regular cardio type fitness work will definitely perform better!
The sport of scent work seems pretty modest in the novice level. Hides are around nose height, they are in simpler spaces, and the searches can be as short as 4 seconds! Searches from NW2/Excellent and higher levels will start to introduce hides that might require some strength. The height limit in Excellent AKC Scent Work is 4', and 5' in Master. NACSW does not specify in their rules, but once you get into Elite, the possibilities are endless! Here are a few examples of how the placement of hides can require some physical strength.
I have seen dogs struggle with elevated hides if their core and hindquarters aren't strong enough to support them while they have their nose in the air or while they are walking on their hind legs!
I have seen dogs struggle with low hides or hides placed in the cracks of pavement because the weight shift of keeping their head low to work out the puzzle (and nose on the ground) causes them to feel off-balance and stress the muscles within the shoulders.
What You Can Do
When I start looking at most dogs doing this sport from the point of view of a Canine Massage Practitioner and Canine bodyworker, most dogs have some sort of weakness or conditioning that can be improved. The question to ask is - does my dog's current fitness level limit my dog's performance to a degree that concerns me?
If your dog is 10+ years and this is their "Retirement" career, then just maintaining their current condition is the priority. Your goals should be to make sure your dog's weight is kept low enough that it doesn't stress their joints, and that they maintain hind rear strength to allow them to maintain their mobility.
If you have goals of Detective searches, Elite level NACSW, or even Summit, I highly recommend optimizing your dog's fitness level. There are many amazing fitness professionals in this world, and it could be to you and your dog's benefit to consult with one to develop a program to best support your dog! Sport vets, Certified Canine Fitness Professionals, and other qualified Canine bodyworkers can be a huge asset.
If you are out to play and just enjoy doing something fun with your dog, I still recommend that your dog isn't overweight, but specific fitness training likely is not as important. Just doing regular walks or other types of exercise that raises their heart rate and keeps them moving can be highly successful (just please don't resort to ball throwing, that is a recipe for joint injury even if it is easy and your dog enjoys it).
I routinely work with dogs and their owners to optimize their dog's fitness and create specialized fitness plans to target the muscle development that they need to be amazing in their sport. Contact me if you'd like to schedule a session!