Monday, March 17, 2014

K9 Nose Work® Dogs: Hunting Machines in the Making

Recently, I listened to K9 Nose Work co-founder Amy Herot (along with co-founders Ron Gaunt and Jill Marie O'Brien) speaking to a group of soon-to-be certified nose work instructors about just what we aim to do when teaching a dog nose work using the K9 Nose Work methodology. Amy chose two words that resonated with me to describe a K9 Nose Work dog: hunting machine. When I heard that phrase, I thought, "oooh, that sounds cool. That sounds cooler than odor obedience." Don't get me wrong, odor obedience - what we see when dogs will seek out and find a target odor under any and all conditions, regardless of distraction - is awesome, but it's not something you can teach a dog with any reliability if the dog is not a strong, independent, hunting machine. Facilitating a dog's journey to becoming a hunting machine has always been at the heart of the K9 Nose Work philosophy and methodology, starting with the power of primary reward (dogs seeking out and rewarding themselves for food or toy finds in the search environment), and continuing with the idea that the human is not teaching the dog in the traditional sense, rather, the human is providing a learning environment for the dog to teach himself. In this post, we'll examine a few important dos and dont's as you help your dog embark on the journey to become a K9 Nose Work hunting machine.

Do give your dog the power to choose - Many dogs have little opportunity to make independent decisions in the presence of a human in their daily lives. Typically, they are told when they eat, when they pee, when they should sit, lay down, be quiet, stay off the couch, and when they should keep walking instead of stopping to sniff the roses (or the poo... which - if you believe Outkast - is what roses really smell like). Because dogs are dogs, they adapt pretty well to being told when, where, how, and what to do. In many dog activities and sports, the human knows what the goal looks like (running an agility course correctly, performing obedience commands properly, etc.), but in nose work the goal (the target odor source) is hidden from the human and nothing can be done to find it on your own - you are at the mercy of your dog. If you have a plan to direct or control your dog, it may not go very well. Your dog will probably be more than happy to comply with you in your human-driven search, but success will be elusive or fleeting.

Allowing your dog to be independent and make choices is key to success in nose work. When your dog hunts on his terms, driven by his own desire, and working independently of you, this is a scenario you can feel confident about, and a path to long-term success.

From day one of your dog's introduction to nose work, your goal should be to step back and watch. Let him make choices, let him discover things on his own, and watch him begin to confidently desire the hunt. When you can observe that your dog cares less about what you're doing in the search and more about finding odor, then you can think about adding a little more human involvement into the search. Which leads us to...

Don't leave your dog hanging in the search - Yes, it is important for your dog to become an independent hunting machine - and sometimes it's good for your dog to experience your presence in the search when you are no help whatsoever - but you are still a needed part of the team. You want to be your dog's support system, reacting to his behavior in the search and making yourself a tool for him to use, not a solution to his search for source odor.

There is a difference between supporting him in his search for target odor and guiding your dog to success. The guided dog is well aware of the situation and will happily go along using his human as a solution in the search. The dog-guiding human is not well aware of this situation and believes the dog to be searching independently. If you suspect you've got a dog-guiding issue, set up searches your dog can do without help and let him have true independence.

Supporting your dog in the search can manifest in many ways, but there are two major supportive actions you can take in the search: helping your dog gain access to all areas of the search environment, and reacting to your dog's behavior changes in odor and promoting more thorough investigation of an area he might otherwise have sniffed and left. You'll know that you're being supportive when you can confidently say that your dog is not expecting a reward just because you're present in an area, rather, he is taking advantage of your presence to sniff out the possibility of his target odor in the area, and he will act independently to reach his goal; for example, if no target odor is present, he may search the area you're in and try to leave, but he will not communicate to you that he expects a reward just because you're there, too.

When you have an independent hunting machine and you can be his support system and tool in the search, it is the most rewarding form of teamwork a human and dog can engage in, and it happens to be very effective.

Do keep it simple and take it slow - One of the many great features of starting a dog on primary reward is that it eliminates the need for expert timing, and it promotes independence right away, and it is pretty difficult to screw things up. Still, you want to keep it simple and take it slow. Dogs don't need to search a warehouse or a football field, they don't need to scale office furniture or climb ladders to find their food reward. They do need puzzles and challenges, but not what we would consider visually challenging, what they would consider an olfactory challenge or a challenge to their ability to focus. In many cases, just a small change in environment creates the challenge the dog needs.

Once your dog is gaining lots of confidence solving the sniffing challenges, think about introducing your dog to uneven or unusual surfaces, confined spaces, random noises - but use your ability to control environment and make these introductions simple so your dog can have a confidence-building experience. And always listen to your dog when changing environment, he will let you know if you're moving too fast and making things too complicated.  

While you're keeping those challenges simple and achievable, don't be in a rush to get to the next level of searching. Our human goal to see the dogs confidently search for and find source odor in any environment can lead us to throw harder and harder challenges at our dogs and to test the team with blind searches. If you really want to reach your goal, take it easy and focus on your dog's independence, confidence, and desire to hunt and hunt to find source odor. If you find yourself helping your dog a lot, or getting a lot of checking-in behavior from your dog in your practice searches, change things up so your dog is able to work to source odor confidently.

When you keep it simple and take it slow in training, you'll save yourself the headache of fixing your dog's independence, focus, and confidence problems at the time when you should be enjoying success in the face of greater and greater challenges.

Don't get stuck on introducing a target odor too soon - Add to that, don't get stuck on going off of pairing the dog's primary reward with a target odor too quickly.

The coolest thing about watching a dog search for his primary reward is the total independence of the dog in the search. He does not need his human to tell him what to do or to guide him - or even support him - in the search. This makes the dog very reliant on his own abilities to search for and find the odor source.

As soon as the human is inserted into the game and the dog is searching for a target odor that will bring the reward from the human, it is now quite likely that the dog will consider communication with the human to be as important or more important than finding the source odor. This is largely because of timing of reward delivery. The best timing for reward delivery is before the dog is communicating that he's found the source odor and expects a reward. We can't always act on or choose the best timing for reward delivery, and sometimes our dogs will ask for a reward at places other than where the source odor is, for reasons we can't always be certain of - a dog may think he's found the source odor, and maybe he has, but we have an idea of where he should be physically when he finds the source odor and now we're not sure of what to do. When timing is less than perfect, the dog gets confused and may begin trying out behaviors and communication to figure out just what his human wants from him.

There is a solution to less-than-ideal reward delivery when introducing a target odor: paired reward with the target odor. This helps maintain the perfect timing the dog enjoyed when searching for primary, it keeps the dog independent and confident, and it avoids confusion.

If the ultimate goal is clear communication from the dog in a blind search scenario, the best way to do this is to keep the task clear for the dog and provide him with well-timed rewards for finding source odor (primary reward or paired reward and target odor) for as long as possible. When searching for a target odor only, make sure you're setting up scenarios that will give you every opportunity to provide a well-timed reward to your dog.

Do have fun watching your dog do what he loves best - this is a game for the dogs and games should be fun. It is also a gift to the dogs, and gifts should be presented with no strings attached. Dogs exist outside of time and expectation, and if you're going to give them a fun gift, you have to be patient and set aside your expectations. This is not to say that you won't see your dog become an awesome hunting machine, but rather to say that it should happen on his terms. Tiger Woods may have risen to greatness with a golf club glued to his hand from the age of 2, but many other kids never reached greatness, and just ended up resenting their parents and hating whatever sport they were expected to excel at. Imagine that every dog has a Tiger Woods caliber nose - so there's no question that innate talent is present in every dog -knowing this, the journey to greatness can be a 100 meter dash, a marathon, or a trip around the world in a hot air balloon. Every dog will reach the destination, so relax and enjoy the ride.

Happy Sniffing!        

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Fun, Simple Searching: Good Enough for a Police K-9, Good Enough for your K9 Nose Work® Dog

When doing nose work it's easy to see your dog as a super-sniffer, ready to work in any environment, eager to conquer the most challenging sniff problems for nothing in return but the adoration of his handler and a tiny morsel of food. This is most definitely your dog's future potential, but it might not be what your dog wants to do today or tomorrow, or what he wants to do the majority of the time he searches. In fact, your dog most definitely doesn't want to scale the mount Everest of searches - that is, unless he sees it as the mole hill of searches. This is your number one job: give your dog the confidence, success, and motivation to want to search, and be patient as he builds to his full potential in K9 Nose Work.

A recent Police K-9 magazine featured a question in the 'training perspective' section which to my surprise elicited the kind of answers that would apply to any K9 Nose Work dog. For these teams, the answers focused on foundational exercises, motivation, and fun for the dog. If police K-9 detection trainers are prescribing fun and simple exercises for dogs and suggesting that handlers focus on patience and perseverance until the dogs have overcome the challenge, then it has to be worthy of us pet dog handlers.

Has your nose work dog ever been hesitant to go into a tight space? Well, here's what some police K-9 trainers said about getting a dog motivated and having fun when faced with searching crawl spaces:

"I would start back to the basic crawl space search. Start by throwing his favorite toy into crawl spaces... Continue to throw his toys into crawl spaces so he will continually be motivated... Let him [the dog] see the decoy go into the entrance of the crawl space... Next, send your dog into the crawl space and let him have an immediate reward." - Art Lopez, Police K-9 Magazine Nov/Dec 2013

 "All search work and ranging out into unknown areas, longer distances, and hard-to-reach places are dependent upon the dog's expectation of success... I would also like to mention that you have to make sure that during the learning process you keep things highly successful for your dog." - Armin Winkler, Police K-9 Magazine Nov/Dec 2013

"A dog's natural instinct is not to go into a crawl space or tight, confined areas without a reason. If the dog is on task (working in a drive), then he may "drive" into that location without thinking about it... Knowing this, it is the trainer and handler's responsibility to slowly develop the dog's understanding of this task... In summary, start the exercises away from the crawl spaces and slowly work deeper into the problem. Continually reward with bites, toys, or positive civil engagements as you build your dog's knowledge and understanding. Keep the exercises positive and with clear learning for the dog. If you encounter a problem, stop immediately and return to the last spot where the dog was performing at his highest." - Scott Clark, Police K-9 Magazine Nov/Dec 2013

What this means for your K9 Nose Work dog:

Never stop doing the simple and fun search exercises! Use them to keep your dog excited about the search, and use them to help your dog overcome challenges. What might your dog's challenges be beyond tight spaces? What about being too social with people in the search environment, being worried about different surfaces, noises, distracted by other dog smells or critter smells, overwhelmed by large environments, etc.? Keeping it fun and simple and not progressing the challenge too quickly for your dog can make all of the difference. What is a fun and simple nose work search exercise? Anything that can keep your dog's focus and motivate him to search. It can be as simple as moving a hide deeper and deeper into a search environment, giving your dog focus and courage, and setting him up for success.

When you practice with your dog, think about the following things:

has my dog ever worked in this specific environment, if not, has he worked repeatedly in this type of environment?

would my dog become distracted, hesitant or worried if _____ happened in the search environment? (fill in the blank with things like noises or critter smells, etc.)

am I certain of the hide challenge I have set out for my dog?

has my dog ever lost interest or desire during a search?

If any of these questions raise potential challenges to your dog's success for the search, keep it simple! Remember that your dog needs to experience and expect success in order to overcome these challenges, so think of how you can help your dog succeed through simple and motivating searches.

The next time you do nose work with your dog, don't look at your dog finding the hide as being the only goal. Look at your dog's motivation to find the hide. Most of the time we believe the value of the reward drives the dog to want to find the hide - and some dogs are highly motivated in this way. If the reward alone does not seem to drive your dog to find the hide, maybe it's not the key. It's not too surprising that dogs accustomed to regularly scheduled meals might not feel compelled in all situations to seek out a target scent for a piece of bacon just because bacon is delicious. Engage your dog. Excite your dog. Give your dog a high expectation of success. Help your dog focus to achieve success and overcome fears. Bring in the visual aspect to stimulate your dog's curiosity and capture his attention (let him see you checking out an area where the hide is), set simple puzzles for your dog to master easily without losing interest or feeling overmatched (a hide blocked by a pile of items with several possible points of entry). Listen to what your dog tells you is fun and attention grabbing for him, and use that information to ensure successful practice sessions wherever you go.

As you see your dog's desire to search and stay focused increase across a variety of environments, you should take advantage of your Certified Nose Work Instructor or Associate Nose Work Instructor to guide you into those more challenging search scenarios. And what should you be looking for from your dog when the finding gets tough? The same eagerness and confidence to solve the problem as he shows when playing the simple search games. Then you will know that he believes he can do anything - and this belief will lead your K9 Nose Work dog to achieve greatness in the search many times over. Enjoy getting to know and understand your dog, and making searching fun and successful for him, while patiently approaching the search challenges he faces, and you will be richly rewarded. Watching a K9 Nose Work dog work the Mount Everest of search problems as if it were a mole hill is a beautiful thing.

Happy Sniffing!  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Guest Blogger Maura Warnecke Helps Bust K9 Nose Work Sniff Myth #1: Tiny Dogs Can't Sniff Out High Hides With The Big Dogs

Maura has a great perspective and lots of useful information in her post, A Tiny Dog's Nose Work Journey. One thing I took away from her post is that no matter what size your dog is, the most important skill a nose work team can have is understanding. The dog must understand his job, and the human must understand his dog. The latter is the key to being successful in competition. It is not easy, and it is definitely not about waiting for a trained final response. It is about learning what your dog's behavior tells you across as many different types of searches and search environments as possible. When you understand your dog well, you will make the confident call of 'alert', as Maura says, and you will not miss your dog's signals or second guess the information he's passing on to you. Will there still be mistakes made, missed calls, bad days? Count on it. Nose Work is a roller coaster ride with highs and lows, and thrills aplenty. Succeed or fail, it's all part of the journey, and when you embrace the experience, it's a helluva lot of fun!

Thanks again to Maura for contributing to the blog!

A Tiny Dog’s Nosework Journey
by Maura Warnecke
I was very excited when Jeff asked me to guest blog this week to share Rookie’s Nosework story. Rookie is my 9lb Chihuahua mix whose dream came true the day I started Nosework training with him. He was happy to be done with agility, a sport that hurt his body too much, and start doing what all dogs love - sniff and get treats for it! People are always intrigued with his Nosework journey because he is so small yet he has the same drive and excitement towards the sport as the more traditional breeds that are bred for scent work. I've never thought of his height as a problem but more as a great training challenge!
Our Start
We started training in 2010 and Rookie quickly proved to me that he was obsessed with Nosework, and pretty darn good at it! He nailed his NW1 title on his first time out and it built my confidence enough to sign up for a NW2 trial shortly after. Our first NW2 trial he missed only 1 hide - the highest hide of the day on top of a table. I got asked the dreaded “Where?” and out of the 2 objects sitting on top of the table I chose the wrong one. I knew right then that I hadn’t waited long enough, got excited and called alert before he was truly giving me his sure-proof alert signal of licking his lips. If I would have waited 2 more seconds, he would have stopped moving and alerted under the right object. It seemed obvious after the fact and I knew exactly what I had to go home and work on: reading him better when it came to different types of high hides. So that we did.
Human AND Canine Training!
Rookie and I practiced so many high hides that I almost trained him to never search low anymore! Truly, it wasn’t him who needed the extra training; I needed to learn how to better read him. The hardest thing to decipher was how does he alert when the hide is up on top of a table verses in the hinge of the cabinet door or somewhere else along the way up that is also out of reach? A lot of practice and watching videos of ourselves helped me pick up small signals he was giving me to differentiate the different hides. Bobbing his nose and trying to nose-touch if the odor is just out of reach as opposed to scratching and pawing like crazy if the odor is really high like on top of a table. Also giving him extra time to source the odor and stop moving is a good sign that he’s as close to it as possible.
Another thing I had to practice was how to state “alert!” not question “alert?” Sometimes it’s something that simple that is going to mess you up in the end. I was always asked where the hide was, whether it was high or low because I always questioned the alert instead of stating it. So my Nosework practice friends helped remind me every single time I sounded the least bit unsure. How are you supposed to sell the judge on the fact you know where the odor is if you sound unsure?
Our next try at NW2 proved successful - all that hard practice paid off and I’ve never been asked where a hide is again since my alert training! We came across a very similar table hide like we messed up on the first time and I knew exactly what to do. I was happy to show that a vertically challenged dog could title at NW2 since at the time I knew a lot of small dog handlers who had or were about to give up training their short dogs due to so many times at trials with no title to show for it. I then realized that each dog, breed, handler, etc. is going to have their advantages and disadvantages. When Rookie enters a search area if there is a high hide he will start standing on his hind legs to get a better whiff and it gives me a clue that the odor is above his head, thanks to the fact that odor falls. I’ve seen tall dog handlers have to train just as hard to teach their dogs to drop their noses low to find those ground hides. I knew then that height wasn’t going to be an issue anymore, but when you overcome one issue there is always another one not far behind that needs tackling!
After getting our NW2 we went to a very helpful NW3 seminar to start prepping for the many added challenges that come at that level. The seminar was the best money and time I ever spent. We came home with videos that I could reference over and over. The best things I learned from this seminar:
  • Always keep moving. I thought I was always moving my feet but apparently I wasn’t; when I stopped and bent over I would start to convince Rookie he was close to odor. So I learned to keep my feet moving and give him more space when I thought he was in odor instead of crowding him and talking him into something that wasn’t there. It was also then I learned that if he was trying to fake me out he would move along with me but if he was truly on odor he would plant his feet down and stay on odor, regardless of where I went.
  • Plan your route. Always have a route planned and if your dog strays off of it to go to odor then go with him; but always remember where you left off and get back to that area to continue your planned search. Having a plan has helped us both focus a lot better while searching.
  • Clearing a room. We also started training clear rooms and soon learned that clearing a room wasn’t scary at all, it was actually quite simple. When we started clear room training I noticed instantly that Rookie would take in deep breathes through his mouth to try to smell odor so I could easily tell after a short time in the room that there was no odor because he was having to try too hard to source it. If you have a hard time hearing the difference, try training in the dark and listening to your dog!

Rookie’s first NW3 trial was a breeze- we had a great day together and although we didn’t title we had fun working together and came in 3rd place overall. I really thought we were prepared and NW3 wasn’t going to be so bad after all… what a deceiving day that was! Our next trail was our worst; we came in last place and didn’t find half of the hides that day. Rookie wasn’t having fun because he seemed tired and hot therefore I wasn’t having fun either. Rookie can only trial in cool months due to the fact that he thinks heat is for sunbathing in, not working in. Also he is severely fearful of flies and will completely shut down if they are present. Trying to desensitize him to flies is something I chose not to work through with him, instead just planned to never trial in the heat of summer when flies are really present.
Motivating Rookie

Our second NW3 trial day was unseasonable warm so I crated him outside my vehicle near a friend’s dog and the heat mixed with lack of good rest throughout the day made for a tired dog. We did however get all the high hides that day. Going forward I knew I was going to have to be more careful about how Rookie spent his downtime at trials and how far we’d travel to a trial as to not wear either of us out. After that trial we took some time off and when we started training again he seemed to have lost a little bit of his enthusiasm towards the sport. I decided we’d give NW3 one more try but if he wasn’t into it then it might be our last try. In the weeks leading up to the trail I practiced more and it seemed his enthusiasm was partially based on the quality of reward I was providing him. The week before he seemed ready to go after we had our best practice in months with our Nosework friends. I wasn’t going to risk him shutting down again so I brought out the heavy artillery of treats on our trial day, steak cooked in bacon fat- and boy did that get his attention! I made him rest in his crate all day in between searches and I stayed away from the van so I wouldn’t distract him. He was ecstatic to go search every time I took him out that day so he would earn more steak and finally all the pieces fell into place and we earned our NW3 title! The extra rest, amazing treats and previous NW3 trial experience all came together and paid off making it one amazing day of searching together! We definitely weren’t the fastest that day but we got what counted. We didn’t go for speed, we actually ran the clock down to the 10 second call during every search, something we don’t often do, but I knew when leaving each search area that Rookie tried his hardest, searching down to the last second and then even on the way back to our van. I kept his energy up by talking to him on the way into a search or right after in my excited high-pitched voice so he could tell I was excited and that he was doing great!
If We Can Do It, So Can You
A week later and we are still high in the clouds over our achievement. I hope Rookie inspires other handlers to overcome whatever poses as a challenge to you and your dog, and don’t let it hinder you; let it make you a better trainer.  My last tips:

  • Practice with many different people and dogs because there is something to learn from everyone.
  • For those dogs who aren’t super high drive, don’t over practice, less is more most of the time.
  • Listen to your dog, trust him, and most of all have a blast playing this game with your dog!

My motto at our last NW3 trial was “why are we stressing out, it’s not like we’re searching for bombs,” and I think that helped. Any time my dog is having that much fun with me, it’s the best day of my life!

Check out Maura's blog,, you'll find lots more fun posts and pictures. As for the next blog post, I'm thinking since hell has definitely frozen over in the midwest, that it's time to make good on my promise to give K9 Nose Work a try with my Shiba Inu and get the results out to the blog for all to see!

Happy Sniffing!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Where? The Question in K9 Nose Work® With an Answer That's Right on the Tip of Your Dog's Nose

A Nose Work dog bounces around a vehicle, sweeps nose over arc of wheel well, checks rear bumper, sniffs tire, looks at handler, checks wheel well again, then sniffs around hubcap, holds his nose on a spot for a moment, exhales, drags his nose up the wheel to the top of the wheel well and looks at handler.

Handler: Alert?!
Judge: Where?
Handler: {flabbergasted, flustered, sweeping hand gesture encompassing the entire horizon} There at the top of the wheel well. 
Judge: No. Sorry.

What just happened? A dog found source odor and a handler panicked and responded to a judge asking where the dog had alerted, resulting in the handler identifying the wrong spot. For many handlers, the dreaded "where" question is one they hope to never hear, and for many judges, they'd hope not to have to put a good team on the spot. While answering the question of "where" is never easy, being well-prepared and having an answer to give based on observing your dog can save your team and prove that both handler and dog are in sync and on their game.

Why Do Judges Ask "Where"? - Here is the official wording from the NACSW rule book:

In the event the judge asks “WHERE?” the handler should identify the location of the source by 
pointing to the location without touching the location. (‘top drawer of the file cabinet,’ ‘right desk 
drawer,’ ‘kitchen sink,’ etc’) If correctly identified FULL POINTS AND TIME WILL BE AWARDED. 
This scenario is most likely with a dog that has a subtle final response that is not as easily 
identifiable or if the judge wants confirmation that the handler knows the location based on the 
dogs change of behavior. NOTE: Once you say “Alert”, if the judge asks “Where”, you must 
respond promptly. This is not an opportunity to re-cue your dog to continue searching to clarify 
the hide location. 

Here are just a few reasons why a judge may ask the "where" question upon your call of alert. Most often, the judge observes your dog clearly working the hide to source, but observes you looking less than confident about what your dog is telling you - maybe your dog has to keep going back to source to tell you three or four times during the search. Sometimes, a dog may have an unconventional way of working the odor and may not be as easy to read; maybe he goes to odor, gives a very subtle final response and moves away from the source before the handler calls alert. The judge might ask where because the dog found the source, moved off the source, and the handler called the alert after the dog left source. When hides are less sourceable, or are inaccessible, the judge may ask the "where" question if she sees all of the right behavior from the dog, say, the dog showing he wants to work a hide on the back of a wall-mounted sink blocked by some objects by bracketing the area and sniffing past objects in a way that shows the objects and the front of the sink aren't the source of odor, but the dog doesn't come to a clear final response. Occasionally, if the handler blocks the judge's view seconds before calling alert, the judge may have to ask the handler where the call is being made because of obstructed line of sight. 

What Is a Good Answer to the "Where" Question? - The best answer to the "where" question is to identify the area where your dog gave his final response! If he worked and worked on a desk and chair, then paused with his nose under the edge of the chair seat and exhaled loudly, you should be prepared to say, "it's under the chair".

If he works from one side of a shelving unit to the other and sniffs high up both sides and across the front, stretching his body, he may be working a hide that is not sourceable. Based on his behavior, you'd probably say you think it's high up on the shelf. If your dog shows that same behavior, but sniffs the shelf surface he can reach, and maybe sniffs a box on the shelf, you need to be able to quickly evaluate what he's communicating - is his behavior showing the presence of source odor on that shelf, or is he just sniffing the closest available scent after working hard to get to the hide that he cannot source? If you practice both types of hides, you should be able to see some key differences and say alert confidently, and answer the question of "Where?"

How Do You Prepare to Make the Right Calls if the "Where" Question Pops Up? - Practice observing your dog.

Watch your dog's change(s) of behavior as he begins to work the odor. Typically, your dog will catch scent, look for a way to follow scent to source, and then become very detailed as he closes in on source. Many dogs quicken sniffing and exhale loudly when at source, some dogs pause at the source for a moment before looking at the handler or sitting/downing. Almost every dog will try to get that nose as close to source as possible. Some do this very quickly and subtly, but they still do it.

Know what your dog looks like in a variety of search scenarios. There's not much to worry about when the hide is in a bucket and your dog sticks his whole head in there to find the odor. But, what about when it's under a table top in a metal channel running the length of the table? Will your dog catch scent moving along the channel and show a final response (even if his changes of behavior don't fully support it)? Sometimes patience is key and watching for your dog's tell-tale signs is the only way for you to know when he's done searching and found the source. What happens if your dog is partially out of your line of sight? Looks like you'll need to practice watching more than just his nose and head! A dog's rear half can give pretty clear signals as to when he's found the source. Maybe your dog's tail freezes when he's on source, maybe it wags really fast! The signs are all there for you to observe and become confident in trusting.

What Will Trial Day Be Like? - So, let's say you've logged some time observing your dog and you are confident in your ability to read him, what will your searches be like on trial day? The searches will probably be very much like you've been practicing for, but you and your dog may both be lacking a bit in confidence because of the unfamiliar location and/or anxiousness on your part because a title and ribbons are on the line. Your dog might not seem as strong or clear at source, and you most definitely will be cautious with your alert calls - or pull a 180 and blurt them out - and you might even be a bit "in your head", trying to size up the search areas and make guesses as to what the challenges might be.

If this is what your trial day might look like, remember your time spent in practice observing your dog. Don't get too focused on what your dog is checking out in the search environment, stay focused on your dog. He may check various objects in his quest for source - and the hide may indeed be in an object, but it could also just be pooling odor that's closer to him than the hide is. You'll only know this if you know your dog well in these scenarios. Look for the signs that he's working something he can reach (often the dog will close in on an area pretty quickly and sniffing will become faster, more intense, and more detailed). An inaccessible hide usually has the dog looking for ways to get closer, to get past items, and he'll usually spend a larger chunk of search time on looking for access to the source. Sometimes, this dog will show a sudden interest in a very accessible object in the area he's been working. This is usually the dog giving in to a handler who has been waiting for some clear indication of source as the dog worked and worked to show the presence of an inaccessible hide. If you recognize that your dog has been working in the area of that very accessible object for a while without showing interest in it, you don't have to call alert on the response you know is questionable, you can observe him working one more time before you make the call. Also, you don't have to wait for your dog to give a final response if all of his behavior is clearly spelling out the location of source odor. Whatever decisions you make, make them confidently.

What if Your "There" is not the Right Answer to Their "Where?" - So you watch your dog work a trash can in a corner and the hide is high on the back side where the dog can't reach it. The dog works up and down the can and spends a little more time on the bottom half so you call alert, get the "where" question, and say the bottom of the can. The judge tells you no. This is an invaluable training opportunity. At your next practice, try to set up similar challenges and observe your dog and look for the behavior you might have missed, or start thinking about how you help your dog to learn how to solve this kind of odor problem so it's more clearly observable for you. Maybe you start by making the hide a bit more accessible, or maybe it's not as high to start. Whatever you choose to do, your goals should be for your dog to learn how to get closer to source and for you to learn how to observe him better so you can make more accurate and confident calls.

As you practice to reach a level of teamwork where the question of "where" is just another opportunity to show how well you and your dog work as team, remember that the question does not get asked if you and your dog are not already a pretty darn good team. In the moments between "Where" and a yes or no from the judge, trust your teamwork, rely on your observations, and make the best of whatever comes next.

Happy Sniffing & Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Guest Blogger Jason Heng, CNWI, Answers the Question: Am I Ready For a K9 Nose Work® Trial?

I first crossed paths digitally with Jason Heng, CNWI, when he submitted a story to the NACSW newsletter about his journey in K9 Nose Work with his Shiba Inu, Atlas. At the time he submitted the story he was just a student with a (difficult) dog. Now he shares his experience, knowledge, and passion with students of his own.

Enjoy this post from Jason, it has lots of helpful information and some important words of wisdom, not just for people considering entering their first trial, but for everyone who wants to have fun with their dogs in the sport of K9 Nose Work.

Am I Ready for a K9 Nose Work® Trial?

by Jason Heng, CNWI

This post came about thanks to a question from a fellow instructor and the realization that hosting a trial locally means this question is going to be asked a few times before the trial.  If you’re a highly competitive person that has competed in other dog sports (agility, rally, IPO, etc) then you probably understand how competing can affect your attitude, learning and experience. If you, however, are competing for the first time the question has probably crossed your mind more than once: Am I or is my dog ready for a Trial?

If you have never competed with your dog, your nerves might be giving you a second thought about if you are ready. The K9 Nose Work community is growing, so reach out and talk with others who have competed and ask about their experiences. It can only help you learn more about the trial experience. If your region has trials happening now, go volunteer; this not only supports the K9 Nose Work community, but will also help you learn all you can for your own competition future. There was a previous blog post about what to expect for the trial day, check it out: The K9 Nose Work Trial Experience. So how do you decide if you and your dog are ready to trial?

Trial Considerations?
The first questions to ask are: is your dog ready for the day; is your dog reactive, does he become anxious in new environments, does your dog travel well, how about staying in a hotel? Any one of the answers might be of great concern. Although some reactive dogs are able to successfully participate in a K9 Nose Work trial, it doesn’t mean that your dog won’t need to be in proximity to other dogs in the parking lot, or on the way to the search areas. If you are considering competing with a reactive dog, attend a trial to see what it's like, visit the NACSW for information on trial readiness, or take the time to speak with a Certified Nose Work Instructor (CNWI) about what to expect with a reactive dog. When I decided to compete with my reactive dog, it was incredibly stressful. I felt confident in my responsibility to manage the environment for our safety and the safety of other dogs, but I wasn’t sure if the overall experience and the potential environmental stressors would be too hard on my dog. Although his reactivity has reduced with K9 Nose Work, entering a new environment with dogs and putting my dog into a stressful situation was of significant concern. The path to the first search area was straightforward after leaving the parking lot from the reactive dog parking and the waiting areas were screened from view, so once we started our process to the search area there were few opportunities to see other dogs (this is not a guarantee at every trial - each location may be different). Be comfortable with the decision to compete, talk with your instructor and other competitors that have reactive dogs before deciding. The NACSW had a policy statement recently regarding the red bandana and reactive dogs, find it in the NEWS section on the NACSW home page.

Travel considerations can be stressful as well. Will it be hot on the trial day? If so, preparing to make your dog comfortable while crated in the vehicle will need some thought beforehand. Even staying in a dog-friendly hotel can present a challenge; if your dog barks at the smallest noise, sleep might be all you’re searching for on the day of trial. Traveling with your dog previous to a trial can be a good way to assess any challenges. Are there any mock trials in your area? Maybe just getting your fellow classmates together in a park to have a dry run, crate in your cars, set some hides for practice, don’t rush through, have a cup of coffee and talk about your concerns. Then run the dogs through one or two elements with someone being the timer and the videographer. Watch the video as part of your day asking each person to contribute some positives about each dog. Many instructors do this in class, so ask about doing a practice run of one or more of the elements.

Go review the trial photos for the last couple of trials on the NACSW website at There is a great deal of information in those photographs; scanning through each element you can get a good idea of some examples of search areas. If you see something you haven’t practiced such as, exterior on gravel, or vehicles on dirt, or containers on carpet then get out and practice in those types of environments. The NACSW is also working on getting some sample videos of trial searches available on the website site soon.

Know how your dog works!
It’s hard to be objective about our own dogs. The dog doesn’t have to be the fastest in class, the most determined, or have found the most challenging hide the instructor set last week. It’s more important that you have grown as a team. From the introduction of birch, to this point your dog has become a detection dog. They go to work with focus in new search areas quickly and work for extended search times. They are odor obedient and therefore work through distractions and source odor with focus. All dogs lose focus from time to time when searching so if they re-focus after little or no interactions from the handler and continue working to source then they have learned that odor is more important. In addition the odor is important enough for them to tell you about it, “Hey! It is right here!” Your dog’s communication is clear enough to you the handler that you have enough confidence to read your dog and say, Alert! Even if your call had a question mark after it for the ORT, consider where you are today. If this describes your team then there is a good chance your dog is ready. If you’re still not sure this describes your dog, have a friend video and watch to give you another perspective. Ask your instructor for their feedback.

How do you deal with disappointment?
How about that team member holding the leash, are you ready? It’s just another day of searching for your dog. Having a positive attitude about the outcome of each element is more important than getting a ribbon. Failure is the lack of success, however learning from your dog and having fun is a successful day. The dog didn’t fail, even if you missed them telling you about a hide, fringed or false alerted. Instead you might have needed to be more patient for your dog to source, or the dog may not have had enough experience for the particular hide placement. Maybe the distraction was too much to overcome at that time: dog pee, acorns, a flock of sparrows flying under a vehicle, or a loud sound (fireworks in the adjacent neighborhood, a train near by, or thunder). All of these distractions and others have happened during trials at one time or another in my trial experience. The dog was still successful. What you learn as a handler is just as important for the next trial. You will have the opportunity to reward at source in the search area at an NW1 and/or at the practice boxes after the search.

You will most likely be nervous or extremely nervous, the day of trial. Seeing the search areas will shower your thoughts with what-ifs. Try to focus on why you are there: to have fun! If you are going to get really upset at yourself, consider volunteering at a trial before you compete. Being able to see other teams work will give a better perspective of the trial day and talk to others about their experiences. Giving a little perspective to the competitive environment can only help frame your expectations for a later trial day.

Learn from the Experience!
So you have decided you’re ready, now what? Your expectations are even more important. When you participate in the walk through on the day of trial and try to guess where the hide has been set, “oh it must be in the desk because the drawer is open a crack”. Your expectations will cloud your perceptions of the dog’s behavior. Remember the point is to have a fun day of searching with your dog as a team. If one of the team members is trying to out-think the nose then encountering difficulties will be inevitable. The big expectation might be about getting that title ribbon, we are human as we measure success based on the acknowledgment of others, no getting around that. The pass rates for NW1s vary on any given day, averaging around 50%. So if it’s pouring rain on the trial day, less people will pass, not because it’s too hard, but because most competitors probably didn’t train enough in rainy conditions to give their dogs enough experience working in the rain. Having a dog that objects to going out to potty in the rain, I can’t imagine the look she would give me if the trial were in a downpour (with no lighting/thunder of course). I would hope to have fun, and my takeaway might be to share with everyone I coach that next time we have class and it’s raining, we are going to practice in the rain.

The trial is a test, but you are measuring your dogs’ progress, it’s not a graduation. In another way, you must be measured in your attitude for that day. Things happen in the moment and if you get too disappointed or too excited it will affect the day’s experience. Yes “experience” it is not a performance! K9 Nose Work is not about performance; birch is not an explosive device nor is anyone going to get arrested based on your call of Alert! Even for those highly competitive folks out there, you are still competing against yourself. Each search is a different dog with a different handler, with a varied experience, strengths and weaknesses, the wind can change each minute altering the conditions, or a dog can pee in the search area plus a myriad of other conditions. When the ribbons are awarded it’s about the fastest time for that search, and although the searches are meant to be as close to the same for each dog as possible, there’s still an unknowable variability each time. So if you get a placement, your dog did extra great to be sure, and I always think of it as he was really on the game for that search and we benefited with a fast time that earned us an extra acknowledgment. That doesn’t make us better than all the other teams but means we shined enough to get the extra bonus. Supporting the sport includes being proud of all the other competitors if you were not acknowledged that trial day. If you get more that one placement or first to third overall, nothing minimizes that for your team’s work was outstanding and you should be proud.

Even as an instructor it’s not always a clear-cut decision when watching a team work to answer are they ready. Consider your learning style, do you need to see examples or can you read about a situation and be comfortable about the process. Can you watch someone tie a knot and tie that knot with little or no practice? My learning style is to learn by doing, so when I decided to trial for the first time, it was to measure our progress as a team. I was willing to pay the entry fee, travel the thousand miles to the nearest trial to have the opportunity to learn all I could about how the trial works. I also volunteered at that first trial weekend to learn more about the trial process. I felt my dog was odor obedient and that the odor was important enough for him to overcome most environmental distractions. I was still concerned about his reactivity but knew I could manage him. I was least sure about being able to read his communication consistently at source, but I was willing to risk taking the jump to competition to evaluate the progress from our year long training. The trial was a blast and Atlas and I had a lot of fun. I learned many lessons, including what I needed to work on, where there were gaps in my training. Oh, and he didn’t get a title that first time, we did get a placement in vehicles, so overall it was a great success. Even for the elements we missed in retrospect he worked well, just didn’t overcome the distraction that day. Regardless of the outcome Atlas was rewarded at source each time. What I learned is that I have a great deal of fun competing with my dog. When he did earn an NW1 title at our 4th trial attempt the pride in my dog was immeasurable! The bar is set high to make the accomplishment of training our dogs as a detection dog just that much sweeter. Seeing my fellow nose work enthusiasts being recognized with titles is part of the great day. Some of those teams I had never meet, some were friends. I am always excited for all of the competitors because a K9 Nose Work title is such a wonderful way to honor your dog!

Thanks again to Jason for sharing this post with everyone. Don't forget to thank a veteran today (and everyday). And don't forget some of those veterans are dogs - so thank a dog, too! Human and canine working together are capable of amazing things, be it to save lives or to enrich a personal relationship.

Happy Sniffing!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Shiba Experiment: Can K9 Nose Work® Help Me Find a Reason to Tolerate (maybe even like) My Shiba Inu?

Confession time: I have a dislike of my Shiba Inu, Jade, so strong it borders on hatred. When I say "my Shiba Inu", I mean this like a prison warden would call a convict "my prisoner". This dog lives in my house, and I take responsibility for her care, but she's not mine mine. I take care of Jade, mainly because she's used her evil Shiba mind-control powers on my wife, Rachel, and made her have irrational feelings of love. I take care of the Shiba-beast, but, my not-so-secret hope is for this dog to run away in a snow storm and disappear from our lives forever. After over 4 years of living with this soulless creature, I've come to grips with the fact that no matter how many times she's run away or appeared to be choking on food she's stolen from one of the other dogs, this constantly nipping, yipping, shedding, snarling black imp is not leaving my life. Hoping this little Darth Vader dog may have a shred of goodness somewhere inside her, I've decided to turn to K9 Nose Work to bring her to the light. Who knows how this manipulative minion of darkness will respond to such a relationship-driven activity, but one thing's for sure, my Karma bank account should be in the black forever with this act of kindness.

How did Jade & I come to live with - and despise - each other? Human love. My wife, Rachel, had two dogs before we met, Jade, and a mutt named Deogee - who is a great dog & best buds with my dog, Muriel. The first time Jade & Muriel met, Jade forced her into a corner and frightened her so badly she emptied her bladder in fear. The second time they met, Jade physically attacked Muriel. This time I intervened and grabbed Jade by the hind legs, hoping to prevent bloodshed. While dangling in my grip, this serpent-dog coiled up and bit my elbow. The bite caused a reflex that sent Jade flying. She skidded across the floor, hit the wall, and popped up like a fluffy little four-legged terminator, driven by the singular purpose of inflicting pain on me and mine. Only because of my love for her human, was Jade allowed to be a part of my life. When Rachel & I moved in together (first in a one-bedroom guest house in the San Fernando Valley), Jade had numerous opportunities throughout each day to terrorize Muriel and drive me crazy. She would try to bite me any time I touched her for anything, she'd dig under fences, bring near-lifeless birds & squirrels to the front door of the guest house - once she dropped a bird in the landlord's family room - and she would emit a shrill banshee cry for hours each night, no doubt communicating the effectiveness of her dastardly deeds to some distant evil overlords. Like a comic book villain, she's no less black of heart after all these years, rather, she's become more patient and selective in the pain she inflicts. Most recently, she's run away several times, attacked Muriel over food a number of times, frightened the vet's office staff with glass-shattering screams in protest of a temperature reading by rectal thermometer, and murdered a few frogs in the back yard, leaving me to clean up frog bodies like the county amphibian coroner. In between her bouts of mischief and mayhem, she sits calmly with a blank stare that says she's fully expecting to outlast me in our little game of thrones.

Jade isn't entirely new to K9 Nose Work. I've been thinking about the possibility of working with Jade as my next nose work dog for a while now, and I did demo her a month ago at a clinic to show that even convict-dogs can benefit from some time in the "exercise yard". And, true to our relationship, Jade clawed at the ground, pulling against the leash as I led her into the demo area - she probably thought I was planning a public execution. Even as we played the game, she nervously popped around, expecting a trap to spring at any moment. I can't even imagine how we would work together as a team - trust is not something either one of us has found in the other. Yet, as much as I would enjoy the clean slate a puppy brings to the game, I find it much more interesting to try and use K9 Nose Work to dismantle the bad behaviors of the past and repair a broken relationship, with the hope of forging some previously unfathomable bond between dog and handler.

Over the next few months, probably as a members-only feature, I will document and share parts of my K9 Nose Work journey with the cute little excrement sack all of the neighborhood kids want to pet (unless said kids are holding food, in which case Jade will body slam them to the ground), in hopes of capturing the magical power of K9 Nose Work to alter the core of a being (or two beings) and to create trust and a bond where, before, only malice existed.

Jade giving the camera her favorite look: evil.
Here is a photo of Jade, video will probably follow as part of the members-only content. She's a highly food-motivated dog, so, if nothing else works, she'll learn to love food even more and hate that I hold large stores of it captive from her jaws, accessible only through honest sniffing work (not bullying and thievery). As this experiment moves forward, I really have no idea what I will do if this dog & I develop neutral - or worse, positive - feelings for each other. It will truly be a K9 Nose Work miracle!

Happy Sniffing!