Top honors at this year’s Westminster Dog Show may have gone to a pampered Bichon Frise, but the dogs on display in Frederick on Sunday brought more than an immaculately coifed hairdo to the judges’ table.

Organized by Breakaway Action Dogs Inc., a Frederick-based obedience and training center on East Patrick Street, Sunday’s trial focused on each dog’s ability to pick out specific scents in a series of timed trials. Beginning with a single scent hidden in a box surrounded by empty boxes, each new trial introduced more scents for the dogs to alert on, as well as potential curveballs and distractions.

To begin with, the dogs competing in the first level were given two minutes to successfully pinpoint the box with the odor hidden in it, said Carol Guth, the group’s training director.

“Each level that you move up, you add another odor and you add another minute, so by the time you get to level six you have six odors and you have seven minutes to find them all,” Guth said.

Breakaway Action Dogs Inc. operates according to the rules and guidelines established by Canine Work and Games — called C-WAGS — an organization set up to train and compete dogs in scent trials, agility and obedience tests, among other competitions across the country.

While many participants start out in obedience classes and gravitate toward agility trials from there, scent trials like the ones showcased Sunday are great activities for almost any breed and most personality types, Guth said.

“Every dog has a nose, and every dog’s olfactory senses are similar, so it’s just a matter of working your dog for that particular activity,” Guth said. “Also, once a dog gets older and they can’t do agility anymore, they’ll need something else to keep their minds occupied, and this is a great sport because they don’t have to climb anything, they don’t have to jump anything.”

Even better, the competition has no qualms about mutts and mixed breed dogs participating, Guth said. Just about any dog owner who is interested in signing up for classes is more than welcome — provided they are quick enough to grab a spot when one opens up.

While some members choose to focus only on scent trials, others took up scent training as a way to introduce their pets to broader competitions and ease them into a schedule of events that could prove too stressful for a new competitor.

Stephanie Strenko, a trainer from Frederick, said she initially wanted to move to agility training after completing obedience classes with Elsa, one of two Chow Chows she competes with.

Unfortunately, Elsa didn’t immediately take to the spotlight and busy arena-type setting of the typical agility course.

“She was really insecure, and I was told that I should maybe put her in nose training because it’s a really good confidence-builder,” Strenko said. “When we started out with the treats in boxes, she really, really enjoyed it.”

The gradual level progression offered throughout the scent training program also provides a great opportunity for even the youngest, most inexperienced pooches to jump right into the action.

Despite having just turned 11 months on Feb. 9, Lil Gunner, a Shetland sheepdog, was still able to take the first steps toward earning a “title,” a designation for dogs that have successfully completed multiple scent trials at a given level.

“He’s only been through three nose-work classes, so when I signed up today, I was expecting it just to be an experience for him, not expecting him to get anything,” said Kathy Hayes, Lil Gunner’s handler. “But now he’s got two legs, so I’m ecstatic; He’s already halfway to a level one title.”

Sunday’s events stretched from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. in both of the training buildings owned by the Breakaway Action Dogs Inc. group. In between levels, many handlers sat down to talk, trade tips or, in some cases, get their dogs used to interacting with their peers, which is an important foundational step in obedience training.

While the air of competition was plainly evident, the dogs were mostly competing against their own times and the atmosphere was casual and friendly, which is another draw for many of the handlers.

“This is a great venue because it’s very localized and a lot of us bring potluck food and a lot of us know each other from other venues,” Strenko said. “So we all kind of get to know one another, and it’s kind of like one big family.”

Follow Jeremy Arias on Twitter: @Jarias_Prime.

Jeremy Arias is the Frederick city and government reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

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