Tiny Daisy darts into the Hessel Grange with a working dog's purpose and a family pet's expectation of fun. The dachshund's toenails tap-tap-tap on the old linoleum as her low-slung body approaches first a desk chair, then a window. In high alert, she catches a whiff well above her in a fuse box on the wall. Her slim switch of a tail turns up as she looks expectantly at her owner, Susan Hewlett, as if to say, "Did I find it?"
"OK, honey. I'll give you credit for that," Hewlett assured her eager friend, offering a tasty reward for "the find."
Daisy and Hewlett are a team in K9 Nose Work, a competitive search game in which owners train their pets to use their keen sense of smell to sniff out hidden odors for entertainment, approval and treats.
"It's fun for them. And if they're happy, I'm hap?py," says Hewlett, a Santa Rosa optometrist who also brought her golden retriever Kira to Ina Scrocco's drop-in class at the Grange hall in Sebastopol.
A 30-year veteran dog trainer, Scrocco is one of several certified instructors for the newest dog sport, created in 2009 by three Southern California detection-dog trainers who figured that pets could be trained just like professional dogs.
But instead of explosives or drugs, Nose Work dogs are trained to detect three scents — birch, anise and clove. The liquid scents are infused on a Q-Tip placed in a tin, pen, tube or other small container. The "hides" are then hidden. When a dog alerts that he's detected a scent, he's given a treat or toy.
The game is played in a variety of places, from cars and parks to schools and dog-friendly stores like Home Depot. People can practice at home just for fun, take classes or engage in competitive trials. There are three levels, with the top dogs achieving "Nose Work Elite" status and competing at invitationals. The National Association of Canine Scent Work holds its big Invitational in Santa Rosa in May.
But for many dog owners and their dog pals, it's simply a hobby. Scrocco said it's a particularly good exercise for dogs who may be timid, drawing them out and helping them gain confidence.
Michelle Chastain, a Santa Rosa speech pathologist who works with autistic children, said her golden retriever Austin, a former service dog, was too timid to even get out of the car the first day she brought him to Nose Work.
"When we finally got him in here, he barely would walk on the floor. It was painful to watch," she said. "But it's been the best thing I ever did for him. Slowly and surely, he came out of himself."
Nose Work instructor Debbie Stoner, a Sebastopol dog trainer who has taught canine agility for years, said dogs are happiest when they can get out and have things to do. Frequently, behavior problems can be traced to boredom — for example, if they're left in the backyard all day with no stimulation.
"It's good for them emotionally and physically as they get older," she said. "Nose Work keeps them active in their minds, the same as people. And keeping them busy doing something they enjoy makes their quality of life better."
Peggy McCutcheon of Penngrove said Simba, her 9-year-old husky mix, knows when it's Monday, the day they go to class.