There continues to be an ongoing discussion about safety concerns for dogs and people when practicing and competing in K9 Nose Work, in large part due to the real world aspects of playing the game. When you and your dog do K9 Nose Work, you're interacting with the environment around you in ways that you wouldn't in an agility ring or in a tracking field. Any place you go to do K9 Nose Work could have hazards ranging from sharp or broken objects, discarded food and bones, cleaning chemicals, extreme surface temperatures, and other people or animals. It's important to understand what should be removed from an environment, what should be avoided, and whose responsibility it is to manage the safety of a search area.
Practicing on Your Own - when you do K9 Nose Work with your dog on your own, you are fully responsible for the safety of your team. It's a wise idea to inspect areas you intend to use for searches and remove any obvious hazards (sharp objects or food). It's also important to look for uneven terrain, drop-offs or holes, unstable objects or surfaces, and sharp edges in the environment. Remember that your dog will be very focused on the task of finding the source odor and as a result may be a little less focused on the terrain or objects in the environment.
Competing in NACSW™ Trials - When you enter a trial, you travel to a predetermined location and search different areas within that location (occasionally, you may travel between two or more locations for a single trial). To provide a rewarding experience for dog and handler teams, trials are usually designed around the environment found at the location; so if it's a school, the search areas will be in the actual classrooms, courtyards, and athletic fields found on the school grounds. This makes for a real world search experience, but it also means that real world hazards may be present.
NACSW officials make every effort to remove hazards from search areas, but sometimes an area may have a number of hazards that cannot be removed, like in a machine shop, a lumber yard, or any area that has large or permanently affixed objects. In these cases, the NACSW makes sure to brief competitors on the known potential safety concerns of a search area. Whenever possible, competitors are given a walk-through of the day's search areas so they may visually inspect the areas from the boundaries and raise any concerns for safety of themselves and their dogs. If any search area were to appear too dangerous to a competitor, participation in a trial is voluntary and competitors may withdraw from an element search or an entire trial (see the official NACSW rule book or contact an NACSW official for questions).
What's Unsafe and What's Just Unknown or Scary? - There is a difference between a search area with safety hazards and a search area within which your dog may not feel comfortable. Unusual surfaces can create problems for some dogs; certain types of smooth or glossy flooring, pine needles on the forest floor, etc., can all mess with your dog's search mojo. Your dog may not feel comfortable and may even appear afraid if confronted with unusual types of flooring, even when there is no threat to his safety. In this case, you can try to practice K9 Nose Work on as many unusual surfaces as possible and hope that your dog begins to feel more comfortable, or you can know that some search areas may present problems unique to your team. If there are moving objects - like desk chairs with wheels or push carts - within a search area, those objects could frighten a dog if they move when contacted. Just like with unusual flooring, most dogs can be desensitized to moving objects by setting up simple searches on the scary objects and allowing the dog to view them as potentially rewarding. Remember, most dogs are like gambling addicts, one jackpot (toy or treat reard at source odor) will have them pulling that slot machine lever (going back to scary object) a thousand times just on the hopes of another jackpot.
Sometimes, certain surfaces and objects can actually be unsafe. If flooring in a search area is wet and slippery and there is a high probability of human or dog injury, that is unsafe, and would probably be addressed for all competitors trialling that day. In certain situations, moving objects might be unsafe. A dog could jump on an object and lose his footing because it's unstable or moves unexpectedly. Vehicles are not usually scary or unsafe to most dogs, but if a dog wants to chase odor deep under a vehicle or into a wheel well it could become very unsafe.
There is a way to protect your dog from the dangers of most unsafe objects: restraint. To avoid the tragedy of your dog getting trapped under a vehicle: DO NOT LET YOUR DOG GO UNDER A VEHICLE. The same restraint can be applied as needed to objects like push carts, tables and desks, shelving, stacks of boxes, countertops, etc. If an odor is placed inside of an upper wall cabinet above a kitchen counter, it's true that it is physically possible for a dog to leap or climb onto a countertop and get right on the cabinet door seam where the odor is hidden, but it is not safe or necessary. That same hide can be found by a Bull Terrier whose nose may not even break the plane of the countertop. Remember that our dogs' understanding of scent is far deeper than we can even hypothesize. Always place your dog's safety over your expectation that he get to the source of the hide, especially when you feel the conditions may be unsafe.
Keeping it Safe On Leash - As a handler working your dog on leash, you literally control where he can go. For K9 Nose Work, we talk about being careful not to overcorrect or influence your dog when performing on leash searches, but when safety is the concern, you need to take the lead and keep your dog out of harm's way.
Keeping it Safe Off Leash - Just make sure you have solid recall on your dog to warn and prevent him from putting himself in harm's way. If the search area is big and busy and has potential safety hazards - stacked chairs or lots of computer cables dangling from desks - put your dog on leash and take control of his safety.
How to Handle Going to Source Safely - If you can teach your dog what is acceptable when working in and around potential safety hazards, you will have to do a lot less in the way of managing his safety in a search area.
Vehicles - Sometimes odor is not accessible without a dog going hip deep into a wheel well or under a rear bumper, but that's not always safe. If you teach your dog that going head or shoulders deep (depends on the size of your dog) is far enough, that is what he will learn to do.
If you pick a hide placement deep inside a wheel well and let your dog search, as soon as his nose leads him to stick his head in the wheel well, you can reward. As you continue practicing these types of vehicle searches, you can wait a bit longer before rewarding, but make sure not to allow your dog to go too deep into a wheel well or under the car. What you want to see eventually, is your dog making the decision to alert to odor without having to put himself in a dangerous position.
Some dogs really have a strong desire to get to source and will not alert until they can reach it; these dogs just need more practice and need to do it in more locations and over a longer period of time before they catch on to what we're asking.
Exteriors - If you wouldn't normally let your dog inspect a pool of stagnant, dirty water or a rat carcass, then you shouldn't let him closely investigate these things in a search. If you're working an area with retaining walls or ramps that lead several feet above ground level, think of all the safe ways your dog can search these areas. Some retaining walls are a few feet high on one side and ten feet high on the other; if your dog wants to see what's on the other side, walk him safely around the wall instead of letting him get on top or jump over.
If your search area has large objects in it, like sawhorses with stacks of plywood on them or commercial trash dumpsters, there's no reason to have your dog climb on top of or into those objects to alert to the presence of odor. An odor tin stuck inside a trash dumpster doesn't need to be nose-touched, your dog just needs to be able to communicate to you that source odor is in the dumpster.
Interiors - Here, you want to closely observe what your dog is trying to do, and help him do it safely. If he's trying to maneuver around a desk and chair where wires are dangling, call him before he gets tangled up and reposition him for safe access. If he's trying to crawl under or climb over something, help him get around it instead.
Some safety issues can arise out of the dog's frustration over not being able to source the odor, or being able to source the odor, but not being supported by the handler with an alert. A dog trying to alert to odor in a stapler on a desk might get frustrated and try jumping on the desk if the handler can't make a call based on the dog's behavior. Don't put your dog in danger because you're not comfortable making an alert call.
Containers - There are fewer safety concerns in a container search - just remember to keep your leash from dragging around on the ground to avoid getting it caught on a container and potentially harming your dog.
If you take one thing away from this post, it should be that search areas in K9 Nose Work are almost always real-world environments, and that regardless of the level of hazard-proofing an area has undergone, you the handler should be aware of potential safety hazards and prepared to prevent injury to your dog.
Enjoy searching safely and marvel at how willingly your dog will adapt to safely search things like vehicles and moving objects if you provide him with the right learning opportunities.