Fun and games at MH

What do the following titles “Little and Proud,” “The Girls Have It,” “Four Queens and a King,” and “Handler, Who Needs a Handler?” have in common? If you guessed it, then you clearly follow the antics of the Shelter Scents Team as headed and documented by Burt Greenspan. Burt, Donna Kalal and Peter Ornstein run the most extraordinary canine enrichment program at Marin Humane.

The rest of you might be wondering, “What the heck is Shelter Scents and how can I get my hands on some of those session recaps?” Shelter Scents is a wholly volunteer run mental enrichment program in Behavior & Training. Thrice weekly, rain or shine, Burt and Donna conceal scent “hides” on campus.

A wall of scent!

The scents are either clove, anise or birch, the National Association of Canine Scent Work provides the rules of the game while Peter documents the sessions for posterity. The Dog Pet Pals are on one end of the leash while the dogs do all of the heavy lifting. Moreover, they LOVE IT!

The Shelter Scents team averages roughly 13 one – two hour monthly sessions where 20 – 25 dogs visit the class between 75 – 85 times. Individual Dog Pet Pals come between 1 – 22 times over the month. It is truly extraordinary work by all of these amazing volunteers. All the staff does is provide the facility, the dogs and certified organic chicken (Donna insists on the good stuff!)

Casey living his best life

Let’s hear from the pros! Kathleen Call CNWI, CPDT-KA shares that scent work regulates heart and respiratory rates, reduces blood pressure, increases focus, encourages elimination and expends energy. From a neurological perspective, the activity fires the seeking mechanism in the brain, which produces dopamine, (the I Can Do neurotransmitter). When seeking stops (dog finds food) this fires the pleasure center, which produces endorphins (runner’s high). But wait, there’s more. The activity also provides information about the environment. Information calms dogs with fear, anxiety and/or stress (FAS) because it allows them to thoroughly investigate, and analyze any possible threats or opportunities in the environment. This creates a sense of agency, which is of particular importance to shelter dogs who have limited control over resources or options. Hmmm, I know some people who could use this therapy. I digress.

Photo credit: David Leer, Creekwalker Photography

Perhaps some of you remember my Malinois Loki. I euthanized Loki in 2017 after a protracted battle with lymphoma and prostate cancer. Loki was a rather high-strung Malinois. When he was diagnosed, I experienced some FAS of my own thinking about a year of weekly treatments hanging out in the crowded Pet Emergency Specialty Center’s (PESCM) waiting room. Not to mention leaving him with strangers to administer complex cancer treatments. Happily, I had scenting skills in my toolbox and Loki and I spent much quality time scenting in the PESCM waiting room. Additionally, PESCM had a Malinois savvy oncology tech who helped alleviate the stress of his treatment time by playing tug upstairs. I remember coming to pick Loki up and hearing his nails scrabbling around on the second floor while the staff played with him. Serious props to PESCM! Loki’s scenting and play skills (and PESCM’s commitment) ensured that he not only had a stress free treatment experience but he even enjoyed these visits.

Velo’s got the goods

Jane Aten, who is responsible for both the Dog Pet Pals and the shelter dogs’ behavioral well-being, explains that the dogs receive physical exercise twice daily, morning and evening. Shelter Scents provides mid-day mental stimulation, right before the dogs’ “quiet time.” The dogs are so tuckered that they easily drift into deep sleep, which means they aren’t experiencing stress in the kennel. Not only is this therapeutic for the dogs, but the resultant calm minds make the evening walk go much better. We also provide the dogs with playgroups and kennel enrichment, like puzzle toys. However, Jane feels that Shelter Scents is the most effective enrichment because not all dogs enjoy socializing with other strange dogs, (who may or may not be well-suited playmates) while other dogs aren’t food motivated enough to enjoy solving puzzles for food.

Magic getting the license plate number

No, we are not finished with the feel good vibes! Let’s talk about adoptions. The most challenging dogs tend to stay at the shelter for a relatively long time. These dogs become real scenting pros. These advanced “scenters” go home with a marketable skill! Look what my dog can do! Peter’s videos promote these special dogs to the public. If the adopter continues to do scenting activities with the dog, this promotes a smoother transition because routine and known activities reduce stress.

Amy Herot and the faithful Seven


The sport of Nosework was the brainchild of three working detection dog handlers, Amy Herot, Ron Gaunt and Jill Marie O’Brien. Ms. Herot is a professional K9 handler and has over twenty years’ experience in scent detection work. She has certified teams in Narcotics and Explosives and has over 1,500 instructional hours in detection dog training. Mr. Gaunt began his career in the Inglewood Police Department in Los Angeles. He trained hundreds of police K9s in detection and apprehension and held multiple national certifications in explosives and narcotics detection. Ms. O’Brien came from the animal shelter world. In 1996, she joined the SPCALA and developed the agency’s first Behavior and Training Department since its inception in 1877. She and her dog Beckett were a nationally certified Narcotics Detection Team.

Their goal was to bring the concept of detection-dog style training to dog lovers and their companion dogs. The sport of Nosework made detection training accessible to the average dog owner. It is now one of the fastest growing dog sports in the country. Its mission is “To create opportunities for the dogs to develop their natural scenting abilities, and to conduct competition design and trail sanctioning, official instructor certification and education in an ethical, enriching canine-centered environment.”

Keeping the auditorium safe from anise

Marin Humane has three NASCW certified (or almost certified) instructors on staff. We offer four levels of Nosework instruction in addition to monthly Sniff and Go Events. We also host NASCW Odor Recognition and Nosework trials in Marin and Sonoma counties. These events are wildly popular with the dogs and their humans. The Odor Recognition trials test to ensure that the dog is scent compliant with the three trial odors of birch, anise and clove. Each Nosework trial at the lower levels has four elements, vehicles, exteriors, interiors and containers. There are now eight different titling levels in Nosework: NW 1, 2, 3, Elite 1, 2, 3, Elite Champion and Summit; not to mention the Invitational Championship. The trials are so popular that registration is via lottery. Many competing students will drive several states away to find an open trial! What we won’t do for our dogs!