Sunday, June 8, 2014

While We Wait For 2014 NACSW K9 Nose Work National Invitational Videos

The 2014 NACSW K9NW National Invitational took place earlier this month in Santa Rosa, CA and was a thoroughly enjoyable event with great weather and fun searches, all taking place among a great community of nose work enthusiasts. Like last year, the founders of the sport have graciously promised video of the searches to all 31 competitors (34 teams actually qualified)! We each get whatever video is available of our own searches, and we are free to do as we please with this video (as long as it's not commercial use), which is a rare opportunity to let the general public get a look at the ups and downs of competitive nose work searches. These are not your average searches, either, these are some of the most challenging scenarios a team will come across at any nose work event. So, while we wait for the video to become available, I'll share some thoughts on my own experience at the Invitational this year.

Friday May 9th - Day 1 of the 2014 National Invitational

This year I drove from Minneapolis, MN to Santa Rosa, CA - with the help of my dad - and I was much happier about Muriel's well-being than last year when I flew her in the cargo hold of a plane. Muriel is something of a road warrior (see the A K9 Nose Work Road Trip post), so she jumped out of the back of the car at the hotel on Thursday night looking ready as ever to do some nose work.

For day 1 of the National Invitational, the 31 competing teams had four searches. Our group of competitors searched a vehicle search and an interior first, then an exterior search and a container search the second part of the day.

Day 1 Vehicle Search:

posted # of hides: unknown
actual # of hides: 4
search time: 3:30

layout: 4 vehicles in a line from search area start line to far end of search area. There was a 4-door car, a Prius, a pickup truck, and a conversion van. The vehicles were separated by cones.

clever twist: if your dog left the area around vehicle #1 as marked by cones and moved to vehicle #2, you could not return to search vehicle #1 again.

outcome: many teams succeeded at this search. Vehicles 1 & 4 each had 1 hide, vehicle 3, the pickup truck, had 2 hides. The Prius, the zero emissions vehicle, was also a zero hide vehicle.

If you looked at this search rationally during the walk-through, it was like doing several 1-vehicle searches in a row; but, if you were actually searching, with the way the wind was blowing, it seemed highly likely that your dog would be enticed to leave odor on the vehicle he was working for the promise of odor on the next vehicle.

For me, as a first search, it left me guessing as to how many hides we'd left behind, even though we pushed to the 30 second warning. I was not feeling like a superstar handler going into the next search!

Day 1 Interior Search:

posted # of hides: 6
search time: 3:30

layout: this search area was a female jockey locker room with multiple adjoining rooms. The locker area was the largest room, with open faced wooden lockers along three of the walls, a few chairs and a mop bucket were also in this room. The other rooms were a sauna with wooden benches, a shower room, and a large bathroom. Between the locker room and the other three rooms was a short hall with a bench against one wall.

outcome: Another successful search for many teams. As it turns out, knowing how many hides are in a search area doesn't really make it any easier to keep track of how many your dog has found! Here is the hide breakdown:

2 hides in the locker room; one in a mop bucket and one under a chair in the opposite corner of the room

1 hide in the small hall under the bench (the hide was actually in a spigot on the wall)

1 hide in the sauna under a bench seat where the leg meets the seat

2 hides in the bathroom; one under a sink at the back left corner closest to the wall and one in a bathroom stall inside either a toilet seat cover dispenser or the toilet paper dispenser - hard to remember!

More than a few teams got to the 5th or 6th find (me included) and spun around feebly attempting to tally up the hides found!

For me, this search was much more in my comfort zone. Muriel was driven from hide to hide, all I had to do was stay out of her way and make sure she didn't completely miss an area. Speaking of search area coverage, the shower room was blank and Muriel had little interest in searching it, but I made her search a bit more thoroughly - typical trust your dog learning moment.

Day 1 Exterior Search:

posted # of hides: 1 to 4
actual # of hides: 4
search time: 3:00 (i think)

layout: standing at the start line, a building with a large overhang forms the left perimeter of the search area, to the right of the building, forming the bulk of the search area, is a large grassy plot of land. The perimeter opposite the building is formed by a road that also forms the perimeter along the front of the area where the start line is. Within the area there are several plastic wheeled trash bins, some concrete planters, a fire hydrant, a few irrigation pipes & maintenance boxes in the grass, and some trees.

outcome: This was the first search with some near impossible challenges. First off, there were 4 hides. No team found all 4 and no team found this one hide in particular: maybe 15 feet from the start line and about 9ft up (maybe higher) under the overhang of the building where a pipe running up the wall meets the ceiling of the overhang.

The other 3 hides were very doable, two were ground hides straight ahead from the start line on the concrete walkway under the building overhang. These were maybe 20ft apart (guessing). The third hide was out in the grass area where some irrigation pipes and a maintenance/access box was located.

I know a number of teams reported noticing their dogs working up the posts supporting the overhang or even working up the building wall, but no one had enough time to see the dogs interest through to an alert call. Muriel found the two in-line ground hides pretty quickly, then we spent a great deal of time wandering the rest of the search area and not really having much success. She came near the overhang at one point and worked up a post to a hand sanitizer dispenser, but we ended up calling finish at only 2 hides found. Wah wah waaaaaaah.

Day 1 Container Search:

posted # of hides: 2
search time: 2:00(?)

layout: the infamous hanging boxes search! A very cool setup with twenty white ORT-style boxes suspended from EZ Up tent frames on dirt and a bit of straw in the middle of a sheep barn. Everything about this search was fun. It was in a sheep barn, the boxes were hanging, the number of hides was known.

outcome: Most teams did just fine with this search. We found out there were no distractions, just two boxes with odor, the rest of the boxes were blank. One odor box was near the front of the search area, and one near the back. Muriel decided to take the perimeter of the sheep ring instead of going toward the boxes, I didn't fight her and so we made our way to the back side of the search area where she picked up odor and worked to her first find of the search. From here it gets pretty messy! Now that Muriel finds the hanging boxes valuable, she starts working through the middle of the area and tracing up the legs of the tent frames. I misread her behavior and call not one, not two, but three false alerts! Finally, we make our way to the beginning of the search area and I call her on the second odor box. Torturous search for me. Muriel is very honest in container searches, but, this was something we had never done before and that clearly made us both a little silly.

This is the kind of search I didn't agonize over failing at because it was just too damn fun!

Day 2 Large Exterior Search

posted # of hides: 1 to 5
actual # of hides: 5
search time: 4:30

layout: a large grassy exterior with picnic tables, an asphalt patch (10ft wide x 10ft long??), trees, and some utilities pipes on a concrete slab. This area was quite large for the time allotted to search, and there was a strong wind - which helped when you worked it right. Three of the hides were all the way to the back of the search area. One in a knot hole at the base of a large oak tree, one on a picnic table where an angled board supporting the table top meets the center of a horizontal board connecting the bench seats, and one under the edge of the concrete slab with utilities pipes on it. The other two were about midway into the search area, one off to the left side in a crack in the asphalt patch, and one more to the right side on a picnic table in the middle of the table top (i think).

outcome: a fun, challenging search. Two dogs managed to find all 5 hides, and a number of dogs found 4, with many teams running beyond the 30 second warning. The wind was at our backs from the start line, but gusting back and forth at times. Some teams reported critter interest - especially the far right side of the search area, I guess there were a bunch of gopher holes! A few teams had trouble with dogs peeing, but mostly it was just a large area to manage with time pressure. Muriel raced to the back of the search area and found the 3 hides without wasting too much time (she did spend a lot of time on the picnic table hide at the back of the search area, but I could have called it sooner). After finding 3 hides, we wasted a bunch of time working in unproductive parts of the search area and ultimately falsed, then timed out. I over-handled and failed to read her working near the asphalt crack hide, and we didn't even really give the second picnic table hide a chance. This was the third search where I felt very disappointed with my handling, and this made me dearly miss Amy Herot's weekly instruction. Those of you with an instructor you value, thank them, hug them, and never let them go!

Day 2 Banquet Hall Interior Search

posted # of hides: unkown
actual # of hides: 6
search time: 5:00

layout: a large banquet hall with tables and chairs filling the center of the room, a bar/galley area to the right about midway into the search, some chairs stacked on large push carts off to the left near the start, a trash can in the front right corner, and spectators all the way in the back.

outcome: what an interesting search this was. A handful of teams found all 6 hides with no falses or time-outs, many teams found 4 or 5, and the majority of teams worked beyond the 30 second warning.

1 hide was in the caster of a wheel on a push cart holding chairs off to the left of the search area and closest to the start

1 hide was in the trash can handle off to the right of the start

1 hide was on a table and 1 on a chair - do not ask me to remember which table and chair!

1 hide in the bar/galley area

1 hide in a panel (?) on a wall, left side of the search area beyond the chairs on push carts - I think. It's a blur!

Muriel was a goof in this search and spent what felt like 45 seconds doing the Wiley Coyote around the start of the search area before the tables and chairs started. She seemed to be running into scent plumes and frantically adjusting course as if there were 100 hides out there! She finally started working and I could not tell you the order in which we found the panel hide, the chair, the table, and the bar/galley hide. I can tell you that within the 30 second warning she worked the trash can, but showed no commitment, and as I was calling finish, she found the hide on the caster. I probably could have done better at keeping the pace and not wasting so much time in the beginning, turned out we could have used an extra 30-45 seconds!

Day 2 90's Style TV Interior Search

posted # of hides: unknown
actual # of hides: 5
search time: 4:00

layout: a long rectangular search area with a gaggle of old cathode ray tube (90's style) TVs on the floor just ahead of and to the right of the start line, to the left were freestanding wood shelving and metal bunk beds in a line from front to back of the search area, at the back of the search area was a sink, soap dispenser on the wall, an old-fashioned upright scale, on the right of the area was a chair (or two) in the back right corner, and open-faced lockers lining the right wall - and the TVs.

outcome: Another fun search. Challenging for the human, which made it challenging for the dogs. I think a lot of people enjoyed the number of challenges packed into one search, even though a lot of people found 3 or fewer hides. It just goes to show that if the challenge is fair and well-thought out, a team doesn't need to have found everything to have had a fun search.

2 hides in lockers - both high up in the open-faced lockers, can't remember how many lockers separated the two hides

1 hide in the neck of the upright scale

1 hide in the frame of a metal bunk bed closest to the back wall of the search area

1 hide on wood shelving - can't remember if it was the second or third freestanding shelving unit from the front

Muriel liked this search. If memory serves me, we found the wood shelving hide and one of the locker hides on a first pass, then we found the metal bunk bed frame and the scale hides on a second pass... then we wasted time on the TV area. Nothing there, duh. I don't recall seeing interest in the second locker hide, but then I don't recall being much of a help in any search that weekend! I was very proud of Muriel for climbing into a locker and getting as high as she could, and for sourcing the scale hide, as it appeared to be tricky for her with the sink, a trash can, and wall-mounted hand dispenser nearby.

Day 2 Small Exterior Search

posted # of hides: 1-4
actual # of hides: 4
search time: 3:00

layout: a rectangular space at the end of a sheep barn. The start line was an opening/entry a bit left of center on one of the long sides of the search area. The left end of the search area was open, the right end was closed. To the right of the start line was a slatted wood wall and to the right of that was an opening/entry to the barn. Across from the start line was a walkway into the barn and to the right of that was a small shack (maybe a bathroom??) with a drinking fountain mounted to the wall facing the start line.

outcome: This was a tight search area with a lot of wind whipping through it, and some interestingly placed spectators! Many teams found all 4 hides and many did so before the 30 second warning. There was a hide under the drinking fountain, a hide at the open end of the area off to the left - maybe in an aluminum fence post, a hide behind a pipe in the slatted wood wall between the start line and the other opening/entry. The fourth hide eludes me... maybe it was in the wood wall at the right end of the search area.

I think this was the kind of search that every team felt was 100% doable. The only hide that caused Muriel any trouble was the drinking fountain, the wind was whipping around and she started low where the source was, then chased hight to a hand sanitizer dispenser, and that's where I called it. I knew I shouldn't have even as I was calling it. The other hides all seemed very straightforward. I really enjoyed working the left end of the search area where Muriel tangled the photographer up in the leash - whoever it was, great job of getting untangled so we could find the hide!

Day 3 - Finals

I will hold off on details of the 4 searches that the top 12 competitors participated in until I get an account or two of the day from a top competitor. As a spectator, I enjoyed watching the teams search, but I wasn't really retaining information regarding hide location, number of hides, search times, etc.!

What I do remember is that the teams searching on day 3 really kept their stamina up and finished strong. The 10 minute exterior search tested stamina levels for some teams, but even teams that were pushed seemed to bounce back for the other searches. It also was clear to me that the teams competing in the day 3 searches were just thrilled to have made it and were searching with less stress than they had the previous two days. The last thing I noted was that after day 1&2 the spread from first place to twelfth place was 4 points, after day 3 the pointed spread from first to twelfth place was 7. I think that shows how much teams rise and fall in the standings each day. Who knows what the competition would have looked like with a second day of top 12 searches?!

I have to give special acknowledgement to Dana Zinn and Kudos as the winners of this year's National Invitational. What I got to watch of their searching on Sunday was magical. I have seen them search before, competed with them, and practiced with them, and this was the most effortless partnership I've ever seen displayed by any team. The two of them were so relaxed and in the zone. Awesome nose work, Dana!

It's already nearly a month since Nationals, but it feels like yesterday. What a great time spent with nose work friends old and new, with students ( I counted 5 of my & Penny Scott-Fox's students competing!), and with our dogs! K9 Nose Work is simply the best activity & sport for dogs and their people.

Happy Sniffing!  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Is Your K9 Nose Work Dog Working You?

Here is a link to a study done with the goal of testing the influence of handler beliefs on dog detection outcomes:

In case you aren't compelled to comb through these studies, I'll share with you the major differences in their findings: the first study found that handler beliefs influence dog detection outcomes in a way that produces false alerts (a handler interpreting dog's behavior or trained response as a positive sign of the presence of a trained scent), the second study found that "the dogs indicated the target scents independently of handler beliefs and decoy scents." The second study noted that handler beliefs do seem to increase false alerts, but not in a statistically significant way.

I'm not taking a position on the topic of the studies in this post, rather, I want to spark some thinking on the part of nose work handlers as to how we interact with our dogs in searches, how we get to know our dogs, and how we learn to trust our dogs and be great teammates. 

This happened the other night in one of my classes during a practice run with 10 white ORT-style boxes, one containing a target scent. The location of the odor box was known to the handler.

Handler and dog stand at the start of the search.

Handler: Which box is it in?
Me: Third box on the left.

The team begins the search. The dog, an earnest, hard-working black lab, works boxes and the environment in a search for odor. As they work, the handler ends up turned around and facing the start line, watching her dog work back towards the start of the search. There's a strong head turn as he passes by the odor box, followed by a head drop and intense sniffing of the odor box, punctuated by continued sniffing of the odor box as the lab pushes it across the floor.

Me: (gentle urgency) Reward. Uh, get in and reward!

Handler dutifully - yet confusedly - rewards dog.

Handler: That's it?! I thought you said the third one on the left (points to third box on right)?

In this scenario, the dog actually found the odor despite the handler's belief that odor was not present in the box the dog was indicating. This was not a double blind study, not a blind search, just an example of a good dog doing his job despite unintentional handler interference.

What I like about this example is how well it worked out for the dog in terms of being able to focus on his task and show clear behavior indicating the source odor box. Without intending to do so, the handler turned down the background noise for the dog as he searched, allowing him to search, find, and be rewarded. When I say noise, I mean the various cues that a handler gives - sometimes subconsciously - during a search.

When thinking about handler beliefs influencing the dog, don't forget to think about the training the dog is receiving, and how that is affecting the outcome of the search. Well-timed reward for the dog finding source odor is a major factor affecting the outcome of the search. If your training is leading the dog to believe his reward will come for something other than finding source odor, then you've got a problem that won't necessarily get better with improved handling.

If your training is sound, and the dog is getting rewarded for being at source, then handler beliefs, and handler cues, could be holding up the success of the team. For our purposes, we'll consider handler beliefs to cause most handler cues. For example, thinking odor is or is not present in an area based upon factors other than your dog's behavior (the classic belief, "they would never hide it in the trash can") is a handling belief that may change your body language or facial expressions, producing a cue that your dog reads that interferes with his ability to find source odor.

Here are some handler cues that can make it difficult for the dog to be clear in his task:

- hand in the treat pouch in the moments leading to your dog finding source odor
- stopping and facing the odor source at the slightest behavior change from your dog
- guiding your dog to an odor source other than as part of a specific training exercise
- moving quickly and in a disinterested way through parts of a search area you know contain no source  odor to get to parts of the area you know are productive
- verbally marking your dog's behavior at the odor source
- rewarding your dog away from source after he's found source odor and given an indication behavior

Here's why these can be challenging cues for the dog: these cues almost never occur in training when odor is not present, and most of these cues typically precede a reward delivery. In the case of moving through known unproductive parts of a search area, the reverse is true, the handler almost never acts as if odor is present in those areas, but almost always leads the dog to a productive part of the search in a more direct manner. As handlers, we are being studied by our dogs just as much as they are being studied by us, only, our dogs are much more skilled at picking up on our behavior and giving us what we're asking for - whether we're aware it's what we're asking for or not! 

What can you do to minimize handler influence on the dog's indication of source odor? Here are some biggies in my opinion:

Spend more time building independence in your dog through self-reward searches - this is huge for pet dogs. Think of all the independence you build as your dog solves problems in your presence with no need to seek help from you. Also, think about your dog's daily life outside of nose work; how often his independence is denied ("don't sniff about while we're on a walk") and how often you are his solution to a problem by way of your dog responding to your commands and controls to produce a reward from you.

Watch as many dogs & handlers do nose work searches as possible to build your observation skills - you learn a little from handling your own dog in a group class. You learn more from watching a few other teams in your class do searches. You learn a lot watching 25-50 teams coming from all over a region do searches. Start dedicating some time to watching teams work. Volunteering at events is a great way to get your observation fix, and it supports the sport!
Practice being a neutral observer when handling your dog, and when you do choose to interact with your dog in the search, be more of a responsive handler - a neutral observer allows the working dog the freedom to work and practices movement in the search that neither traps the dog in one area, or draws the dog away from an area without good cause. A responsive handler makes choices based on the dog's behavior (good cause), to support the dog's independent searching. Great teamwork can play out in many different ways, but it's ultimately the result of a very observant handler who trusts and knows his dog.

Remember, the handler doesn't necessarily have to be interfering in the search in an unusual way, other factors can create a difficult challenge that makes the dog more susceptible to handler cues that the dog would otherwise ignore in favor of doing his job. If you can identify these factors, you can set up training scenarios for your dog to learn from and hopefully overcome the same challenges in future searches. Every search should be a learning opportunity.

Create training scenarios for your dog that challenge his expectations and promote problem-solving to find odor - it's simply not enough for a nose work dog to think odor is equal to food. As one of the studies above mentions, companion dogs lack the independent problem-solving skills of working dogs, in fact, companion dogs often look to humans for help in a way working dogs do not. It is this understanding of companion dogs that makes it most important to create a learning environment for the dogs that allows them to build their problem-solving skills. What is a problem for a dog? Confronting change in their environment (it was here and now it's not), challenging their expectations (it was in the corners and on the perimeter of this room the last 10 searches, now it's not), and overcoming environment (how do I get through this narrow space/how do I walk on this wobbly floor/how do I navigate this rubble pile/how do I work with that noise in the background?). Make the dog a problem-solving, hunting machine, and odor importance will be easy.

If handlers can be such a drag on the dog, why be involved in the game at all? Well, as inferior as a handler can be when compared to his dog, the human end of the leash is actually quite vital. In training, you help the dog shape his natural talents to the human-chosen task. In competition, you possess important facts that help the team succeed under the conditions of the search (what are the boundaries of the search area, what is the search time, where have we gone or not gone, this is a container search or this is a vehicle search, etc.). And, probably most importantly, your dog wants to work with you! Yes, you provide a reward for finding source odor, but you're also your dog's partner, and he's excited to make discoveries with you. 

So, when will you get to the point where you're not a cue-producing factory on the end of the leash spewing out signals to your dog that challenge his ability to focus on finding source odor? The Dr. Seuss in me wants to say, "I don't know, go ask your pup." Most likely, it will happen in stages, over time. There will be progress and setbacks, highs and lows, and the learning will never end. If you find yourself doing searches with a deeper understanding of your dog's behavior, a deeper trust of your dog's independent efforts, and a less intellectual, more intuitive way of being in the search, you're definitely on the right track. Enjoy the nose work journey with your most excellent partner in sniff.   

Happy Sniffing!

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!