AKC Novice Handler Discrimination

As I troll various nose work and scent work pages on Facebook, I see similar questions centered around ‘how to train/pass novice handler discrimination.’

Handler discrimination (“HD”) is unique to AKC Scent Work and UKC’s nose work offering.  In it, rather than using cotton swabs scented in specific essential oils, the dog must find an article that has been scented with his handler’s odor.

In AKC novice HD, the handler-scented item is placed in a cardboard box.  The dog must discriminate between which of ten identical boxes, and indicate which box holds the article.  (One of the other boxes holds an article scented by the judge, the other eight are empty).

After having volunteered and spectated at and judged multiple AKC trials, and titling my dogs in both novice and advanced HD classes, I’ve got a couple of suggestions to help those who are working in HD at the novice level.

First: Use a sock.  And not a petite, cute ankle sock.  Use the biggest, heaviest cotton sock you can find.

Last fall, I was in Pennsylvania for a weekend of AKC trials.  I joined a few competitors for dinner on Saturday night.  Several said their dogs had not qualified in novice HD.

“What did you use, a sock or a glove?”  I asked.  Uniformly, they’d used a glove.  They’d rubbed the glove between their hands for several seconds, and then dropped it in the box.

I suggested that they use a big, bulky cotton sock and wear it for several days.

One or two thought I was kidding.  I am not.  Tracking people often wear socks for a couple of days before laying tracks for competitions.  Learn from them!

The next day a few of the competitors who had heard my suggestion used their little cotton socks (which they had worn overnight as they slept).


Improve those odds by using a bigger sock – like the one shown here in the photo:


Clearly, the larger sock has a far greater surface area, and can hold oh, so very much more odor.  Nothing in the rules indicates the size of the sock you can use.  Nor are there rules on how you can scent it.


Screen Shot 2019-04-21 at 1.48.50 PM.png

Next:  containers:  If you’re involved in nose work – even as a beginner – you’re familiar with these ‘ORT’ style boxes.  As handlers, we have a love-hate relationship with these containers.  Your dog finds the hide: LOVE!

You hear the dreaded “No” — not so much love.

This type of container does a good job of keeping odor inside it.  When used for novice HD, the dog must search the seams of the container to pick up odor.

Remember that the container in which the article is places is brand new.  The odor your article holds must be strong enough to be smelled despite the smell of the new box (and that new box odor can be intense).

The scent cone of human odor tends to be far less than the scent cone of essential oil. To give your dog as much advantage as you can, you’ll have to teach your dog to search the seams (cracks) in order to pick up whatever odor is accessible.

Thank your lucky stars, the gods, whomever or whatever if the club that is hosting the trial uses 4-flap boxes rather than ORT containers.  Odor is available!

Also, think about your cue.  I use a different cue for HD with my dogs than I do for essential oil searches.  It helps give them more context that ‘we are searching, but you are seeking something that smells like me.’

In addition, I run my dogs in their collars with an 8 foot lead in HD.  In normal NW, they wear harnesses.  This helps give additional context that ‘we’re searching, but not for essential oils!’

Both of my pups are in excellent HD now.  I am scenting my cotton balls similarly:  I put them in my shoe and leave them there for several days.

Another suggestion:  if possible, keep your dog’s nose clean of essential oils.  Many clubs run HD first if they can, so the dogs have not been exposed to EO’s.  If this isn’t possible (as in, you run interiors or containers first), avoid the warm up boxes (filled with EO odor!) before running HD.

Don’t wing it! Train it!

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