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scent work
Photo courtesy of Nicole Ellis. Credit: Unleashed Explorers

Certified professional dog trainer Nicole Ellis grew up acting and modeling, so when she adopted her dog Maggie 10 years ago, she decided to train the pup to do the same.

“She hits a [designated] mark, can do every behavior on a hand command or verbal, and with the same enthusiasm the 15th time as the first time,” says Ellis. All that hard work has paid off, as Maggie’s images have graced the pages of Harper’s Bazaar Magazine and have been included in advertising for Petco, Neiman Marcus, and other businesses. She even “died” in a Stephen King film. But with all the training Ellis gave Maggie, the trainer never guessed that Maggie’s most impressive trick would happen unexpectedly in the desert of California’s Joshua Tree National Park — or that scent work classes would be to thank for it.

Earlier this year, Ellis and a friend decided to take a well-earned break by hiking in the Mojave Desert with their dogs. They wandered at their whim through the cacti, and after about one mile, Ellis climbed up to the top of a rock formation. She left her backpack and cell phone at the base of the rocks.

scent work
Photo courtesy of Nicole Ellis. Credit: Unleashed Explorers

When the gang returned to the car, Ellis noticed that her cell phone was missing. The trainer and her friend searched the sandy desert floor under the darkening sky, but the phone was nowhere to be found. Eventually, they gave up for the night. Ellis made plans to head back the next day to continue the search with another friend, Brandise Danesewich.

Danesewich and Ellis co-authored “Working Like A Dog,” a book about working dogs of all kinds, from allergy-alert dogs to search and rescue dogs. “During our photo shoots for ‘Working Like A Dog,’ I got to meet firsthand some incredible dogs that use scent work in their daily jobs, from a dog that found the body of the terrorist that flew the plane into the pentagon on 9/11 to dogs that save lives detecting cancer in humans,” says Ellis. She was so inspired that months before her desert adventure, she signed Maggie up for scent work classes.

“I’m always looking for new ways to bond with my pets and see what they enjoy,” she explains. “Scent work was something new for us both.” More importantly, Ellis understood that scent work is a fun and challenging pastime for a dog of any age. Now that Maggie is 10, “If her hearing goes or her sight goes downhill, I felt that this is something new we can continue doing for a long time together.”

scent work
Photo courtesy of Nicole Ellis. Credit: Unleashed Explorers

Practice Pays Off

At their first scent trial, they worked in four scent environments or elements, but only found one of the targeted odors. That didn’t deter them. The pair kept practicing, simply because Maggie loves scent work.

“I get out our scent kit, and she’s bounding around the house, barking with excitement,” says Ellis. Their scent work trainer, Penny Scott-Fox, taught Maggie to alert by freezing rather than using one of her tricks, such as pawing the box. She also helped Ellis see where she could improve the clarity of her body language and cues.

Six months after the scent work training, as Ellis searched for her phone, she remembered a dog from “Working Like A Dog” that had been trained specifically to find cell phones. An idea blossomed. Ellis gave Maggie the cue to find her scent, but the first time, the pup didn’t make it very far. It seemed like a long shot, but Ellis kept cuing Maggie. When they got to the rocks, the little dog launched into action with her nose in the air. After running, turning, and backtracking, she stood tall and motionless. Under her paw was the lost cell phone.

scent work
The moment Maggie found Ellis’ cell phone. Photo courtesy of Nicole Ellis

Maggie took something the duo had struggled with and proved she understood. Ellis says, “We weren’t in an 8-foot-by-8-foot controlled room, we were in the middle of a desert, and she searched with her nose held high. She did what I asked of her, proudly.”

The grateful owner adds, “Our animals remember what we teach them, and, in that moment, Maggie put it together and our bond shined.” About two weeks after their desert adventure, Ellis and Maggie entered another scent work trial, where the canine companion qualified in all four aspects.

Ellis advises people to find something they can enjoy with their dogs. “Do more with your dogs; take them on adventures, play games, and learn new things together.”

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