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Follow your nose
Three women and four dogs — ranging from a bulky Bernese mountain dog to a wiry border collie — meet on a Monday evening in the shell of the former Port Angeles Papa Murphy’s. The business, in the process of moving locations, is exactly what they need to train their dogs.
They’re meeting Miriam Rose, a certified nosework instructor, to train their dogs in scent work, a new canine sport that’s grown dramatically over the past four years. Rose teaches her students how to guide dogs around the business’s old shelves, boxes and leftover business work. Over the past three and a half years, Rose estimates she’s taught more than 1,700 nosework classes around Washington.
As she coaxes the dogs around the building with coos and praise, it’s easy to see Rose’s demeanor with dogs belies the seriousness of her other profession — contracted bomb and drug detection services for schools and companies.
“Oh, my gosh, if my mother could see me now. I was raised to be a debutante and marry a doctor,” said Rose. “I was not raised to slide under a bathroom door on my back to check for tripwires!”
While Rose says she gets professional satisfaction from bomb detection, her heart and soul remain in school detection work. “I was very much called to detection work because of loss of life in my life due to drugs.” She says that while she wasn’t able to help her friend, she could help keep teenagers away from drugs by doing detection in middle and high schools. In late 1999, she paid to have her giant schnauzer, Echo, trained in detection and began working in 2000 in states from New Mexico to Washington to Maryland.
“I only worked for schools that had a drug-free policy that I agreed with,” she said. She refused to contract with schools that had excessively harsh or zero-tolerance policies that outright expelled or arrested kids who were using drugs. “I wanted to make a difference, I didn’t want to put kids in jail. I wouldn’t sign the contract unless there looked like a difference could be made.”
Her work with drug detection branched into bomb detection after Sept. 11, with increased corporate fears of explosives. She was invited to work with several larger international detection firms around Washington and has provided her services in Tacoma, Olympia and Seattle.
There’s no second mistake when working with explosives, Rose said. When her dog tests positive for a bomb, and a second dog confirms the scent, “Time kind of stands still and compresses, and what keeps you in focus is all the training you’ve had. It gets cold and quiet inside me, and things get very clear because I have had such a lot of training.” With each contract there’s a protocol that’s established for explosives, and Rose said that it’s important not only to follow the protocol but also to make sure that she doesn’t alert anyone but her chain of command to the situation. Often, she’ll simply tell a supervisor to save a cargo pallet for later.
In 2009, Rose caught wind of a new dog sport starting in California through Ron Gaunt, a retired Los Angeles K-9 trainer. Canine Nosework requires dogs to use their noses to search containers, vehicles, and buildings for objectives within a set time limit. Interested in the sport, Rose brought Gaunt up to teach her nosework several times in 2009, and when she was certified she began her own classes in five different cities to spread the activity around Washington.
It’s a markedly different environment for both her and the dogs, one that combines training and instinct in a fun way instead of a stressful one. A happy outgrowth for the dogs, as Rose says. And teaching is also a way for her to relax.
“It’s like a holiday for me, because nothing’s going to blow up and no one’s going to overdose!”
Rose operates her training on the peninsula between the shell of a Papa Murphy’s in Port Angeles and a large, indoor artificial field in Carlsborg. Using several different scents, she helps owners train their dogs to seek without distraction, which often involves repeated positive reinforcement. Intermixed with these odors are “distractors,” a tasty smelling sausage or other morsel locked in a cage made to distract the dog’s nose.
On one particular Monday, Cindy Witham guided her German shepherd, Daisy, around Rose’s indoor field course in Carlsborg.
The courses can be set up using hiding spots as simple as a pizza box or as complex as desk, and Daisy searched one of three specific scents; birth, anise, or clove. When she found what it thinks is the scent, she raised her head to look at the owner, with questioning eyes asking “Is it here?” When Daisy guessed correctly, Witham rewarded with a treat.
“Aww, aren’t you just a sweetie! Aren’t you just such a good girl,” Rose beamed to Daisey. Daisey has been able to stay active despite a genetic hip issue through scent training. “She can’t do schutzhund, and she can’t do agility, but she can do this,” Witham said with a smile.
Rose said this is one of the most direct benefits scent work has to the animals; its ability to engage them mentally as well as physically, which she said they will find is as tiring as other activities. According to Rose, the sport taps into the dog’s primal hunting instincts and motivates them to stay moving. “They all have these jobs they’re bred to do, and we don’t give them the chance to do them!”
After 13 years in detection and four years of nosework training, Rose doesn’t see a reason to stop. She says that seeing the joy the sport brings to dogs and owners, and the bond between the nosework teams, is enough to get her out of bed each morning.
Rose offers several levels of classes ranging from beginning to advanced skill levels, as well as specialty courses on topics like mushroom hunting. Those interested in teaching their dogs can call her at 206-940-9168 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.