Thursday, August 25, 2016

Recruit Your Glutes!

"Any dog can do it." That's what everyone always says about nose work, and it is true, any dog can detect odor - they do it all the time just for kicks or because of biological imperatives; and, sometimes, they use their noses for survival. Many dogs become truly amazing detectors of specific target odors that we have made important to them to find for reward. These dogs often excel at the sport of nose work. "Nose work is easy." That's what some people say. Well, yes and no. Nose work is often very easy for dogs, getting harder the more we humans get involved. Most people can manage to handle a dog doing nose work, some can really skillfully partner with a nose work dog. When everything is going right and the dog is fully focused and on task, it's not terribly hard for the team to get out there and search well. Sometimes, there are challenges facing the dog and he can't be at the top of his game, likewise, there can be challenges facing the human - like, being a human - and the team may have a tough time searching. If you've ever searched where both dog and human are challenged, you know nose work is not easy, and sometimes it's downright humbling. Consistently doing well in nose work requires a dog at the top of his game and a handler at the top of her game, working together, like peanut butter and chocolate work together to become a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Two awesome things making a third, even more awesome thing. Only science can tell us which is the dog - peanut butter or chocolate - and which is the handler, and just because you have the raw ingredients, doesn't mean you have the finished product. It turns out, combining a dog and handler to make a nose work peanut butter cup is more art than science, and may just require unicorns and rainbows - or glutes. That's not a typo. I said glutes. Derrière muscles. Butt biceps. Yes, the key to greatness has been right behind you all this time. Don't turn around... no, it's still right behind you. Ok, now you're chasing your tail... Stop it. Sit down.

Stay with me now, people.

A while back, my wife convinced me to attend a BodyPump class at the local YMCA. BodyPump is an instructor led, group workout class, focusing on strength training. Over the course of one hour, various muscle groups are targeted with specific workout routines timed to the beat of catchy dance songs. Let me repeat, my wife convinced me to try this.

I'm no stranger to working out. I learned all about it in high school playing baseball and football. You put way too much weight on a bar, grunt and snort a lot and you throw your back into it or whatever it takes to prove you can lift that weight at least once ("maxing out" is what we used to call it). High fives from your bros. Done. Did it for years. I lifted weights to music: AC/DC, Mettalica, ABBA - you name it, I'll do a seated overhead tricep press to it. I lifted weights in front of a mirror. Bend at the elbow, lift up, resist on the way down. Suck in that gut, puff out that chest. Looks good. I worked out next to other people - we looked very similar, working against gravity to keep heavy things from crashing back down to earth's surface. Walking back and forth, "gettin' loose" and stretching out, sneakily pulling at pesky sweaty workout wedgies and pretend kissing our biceps so we could sniff test for B.O. We've all done it. Point is, I know what I'm doing. No need for an instructor or a group class.

So, when I arrive at this BodyPump class, I have to descend from my metaphorical pedestal of strength training superiority to enter the so-called "workout space", but instead of passing through the double doors like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, I shuffle in like a pebble, awash in a mixture of fear and anger, or "fanger". Fear, because, what if I don't actually know what I'm doing, and anger, because, I don't actually know what I'm doing. I don't know what to expect, I don't know what good BodyPumping is, I don't know what the instructor will think of me, I don't know if the 60 year old lady next to me will put me to shame; I just know I don't want to fail.

The instructor, a bubbly, super fit, smile-talking elementary school teacher (clearly she lifts the kids all day long and loves it) singles me out as the new guy and warns me to go light on the weight (challenge understood and accepted). Long gone are the days of me and a bunch of muscle heads listening to AC/DC, slinging weights until our forehead veins pop. Now, it's me and a bunch of people who look like they belong at a town hall meeting, listening to pop/dance tunes with our step/benches, purple foam coated dumbbells and microban infused yoga mats. I am out of my element.

The class begins. The instructor cues a song and calls for everyone to perform a sequence of lifts with the weight bar. She's counting reps and reminding everyone to follow her lead. We're mere moments into this class, and my fangery feelings are frustratingly high. I'm not struggling to lift the weight bar, but I am displaying - for all to see - a staggeringly sad and amusing lack of musicality and rhythm. I am unable to move in unison with the rest of the class. And I am alone in this struggle, save for the few people around me who are taxed with ignoring my awful timing and remaining on the beat of the song. Let me be clear, I can march to the beat of my own drum (assuming I'm not responsible for keeping a beat or using a drum or actually marching), but keeping in sync with a bunch of strangers in a public setting, I can not do; and, besides, that kind of conformism is a slippery slope to flash mobs, or worse, doing the wave at sporting events, so I could really consider this my strength and everyone else's weakness. As the first song finishes, I entertain the possibility that the next song and exercises will be better. The music starts. Things do not improve. My up is still everyone else's down. In the face of total failure, and unable to pick up the beat no matter how many times I speed up or slow down, or stop and restart, I choose to load up on weight - obviously, one can't be bothered to be rhythmic when hoisting the equivalent of a Chevy Nova above one's shoulders. For the rest of the class, I show an uncanny ability to be in direct opposition to the beat set by the instructor, the beat the entire rest of the class follows. I fail to get my timing right even once, even accidentally. What's worse, I struggle to perform the exercises - surprise, I'm using too much weight. And this instructor explicitly says, no throwing your back into these lifts. Crap. I'm on the ropes. All engines are flaming out. I'm in crisis mode.

By the end of this class, I'm down to just a weight bar, which is like, 5 pounds, and I'm flitting in and out of consciousness as the instructor happily calls out, "just 16 more!" Just 16 more lunges. Kill me now. I have to give up. My wife looks over at me with pity and concern - and I think a veiled smirk, for which I cannot judge her. I see my own face in the mirror smirking at my own body, whatever it is I am now doing demands to be met with smirking and pity. This is not exercise. I'm actually good at exercising. Something is wrong with this class and all of these people. I briefly consider staging a walkout, but I'm only partially conscious and I can barely move my legs after the lunges. The class finishes with a cool down, but for me it's more of a hot, itchy, shame spiral. The 60 year old lady next to me offers to carry my weights back to the storage rack. I don't have the heart (or the grip strength) to turn her down, after all, I wouldn't want her to think she's no longer a valued member of society.

Because I have no shame, and I hate to lose, I agree to return to a second BodyPump class two days later. On my way out of the YMCA, I realize something is terribly wrong with my body. Over the next two days, the extreme soreness in my legs results in one fall down the stairs and one failed attempt to get out of a chair and move across a room to stop a decorative partition wall from falling on my nephew (don't worry, a normal person got up and walked to his rescue, no one was harmed). I question wether I am indeed still an able-bodied, relatively young human being or if the government has secretly stolen my youthfulness and replaced my innards with margarine. No clear answer presents itself, so I resolve to show up to the second BodyPump class and hope for a miraculously different outcome.

At this second class, I feel a little less fangery and I work a little harder to listen to the instructor to get the timing of the exercises down, and I go easy on the weights. It's still tough as hell. Even though there are 20+ people in the class, I feel like the instructor is talking about me when she says things like, "loosen your grip on the bar" and, "drive those heels into the ground". Either way, I incorporate these tips and they seem benign enough. Fifteen minutes into the class, we start the song to work squats and lunges - the exercises that almost turned my lights out last time. I struggle to stay upright and conscious as she pushes us to go extra deep with squats. I'm feeling like this is the end of my foray into BodyPump, but I can't give up. That's when the instructor, super happy, smiling, not a drop of sweat on her face, chirps out, "Recruit your glutes!"

The last thing I need to hear bubbling forth all sing-songy and fresh from the smiling mouth of my way too fit Body Pump instructor while I struggle to stay upright and conscious as we power through extra deep squats with extended pauses is, "Recruit your glutes!"

How exactly do I recruit my glutes? Is this a gr-ass roots movement I've not yet heard about? Can I get their support with robocalls? I need more than a cheeky phrase shouted over a Jason Derulo track while I try to come out of a deep lunge without tipping over and skewering the person next to me with my weight bar.

As if reading my mind - more likely witnessing my physical ineptitude - the instructor guides us through exactly how to recruit our glutes. Surprisingly, I immediately feel reinforcements coming in from the rear. The next few lunges are easier and my body is no longer a rep away from a Chernobyl style meltdown. I'm considering more weight for the next song, and most of my fanger is gone, replaced with cautious optimism, or cauptimism.

Learning to use my glutes was a turning point for me, and made future BodyPump classes useful, and - unexpectedly - fun. It made me think of how I could recruit other parts of my body in other exercises to increase my stamina and strength. I still remained perfectly out of sync with the rest of the class, but my weight load increased and I finally felt like all the parts of my body were working together to reach peanut butter cup perfection - so, I treated myself to a bag of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (which I packed away in double-fisted, polyrhythmic style).

Many teams in nose work could take advantage of their "glutes" to reach their full potential. Here are some key ideas to help you and your dog maximize your search performance:

Get Help Identifying Your Team's "Glutes": In nose work, "glutes" are those underutilized, overlooked attributes in disguise that every team has, but few teams actually take advantage of to help them reach success. It can be as simple as changing leash length, or as complex as learning how to move your dog through a search area with your body pressure and position, while letting him stay in control of finding the hides. It's very difficult to self-evaluate and identify your own team's hidden attributes, which is where an outside observer comes in handy. In addition to a sharp, third-party evaluation, getting outside of your comfort zone is a key step towards activating your nose work "glutes". Be willing to do things that don't come naturally, that haven't become habit, and you'll begin to see a clearer picture of what your team is doing well, what you're struggling with, and how you and your dog could do better.

Start Working All of Your Team's Nose Work Muscle Groups More Often: Most teams are faced with opportunities to improve their performance and achieve more success (a lightbulb moment in class reveals your dog is cueing on your hand moving to your bait pouch), but often, it requires hard work and dedication. It's easier to explain why I can't do something than it is to put in the work that will eventually result in me doing that something. If I avoid working on my dog's "stickiness" to odor because I don't know where to start or it's hard for me to see progress, we won't grow as a team. If I accept that my dog is just "methodical" and loves to sniff everything before finding the hide, I may be missing out on some major opportunities for increasing my dog's efficiency and joy for the task of searching for a valuable scent. If I become accustomed to playing the clueless handler, I may never be confident enough to call finish in a search without making my dog re-check everything three times over. Working on different skills in nose work means taking a more deliberate approach to training, not just doing what feels easy and explaining away your dogs' and your shortcomings as a result of outside forces acting on your team. If I'm utilizing environment for learning (placing threshold hides every time I train) or maybe I'm honing my reward timing and criteria (paying for drive to odor), I should see results from my deliberate use of different nose work muscle groups. If I'm not seeing results, maybe I need to work on my understanding of the concepts and my use of the tools for learning. Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice - or even good practice - makes perfect.

Set Goals, But Have Fun on the Path to Success: Progress and growth do not mean slogging through a checklist of training tasks. If your team is healthy, able, and willing, then reaching your goals should be challenging, but fun. I could have chosen to brute force my way through BodyPump with way too much weight on my bar and a sour, pained look on my face; instead, I reduced the weight load, listened to the advice of the instructor and focused on feeling good and building upon my skills (remember, I had strength training experience and athleticism prior to the class, but that wasn't enough). I accepted that the challenges of the class were going to require a different approach, using my abilities in ways I'd never considered. The challenges of nose work require the dog to use his natural abilities for a specific purpose: find a target odor or odors under time pressure in varying environments. This is not easy for all dogs. Handlers also need to develop skills - mostly so they don't make the search extra hard for the dog, but ultimately so they can actually provide some support that helps the team reach success. Handlers and dogs should feel comfortable, eager, and confident when searching. If you or your dog is not having fun and achieving success, take a step back and figure out how to make it happen. There should always be more gain than pain.

Find Your Team's Rhythm in Nose Work: As you identify dormant nose work training muscles that can be activated to increase your team's success and enjoyment, you also need to understand that every team is unique and every team walks their own path to success. When trying to find your unique path to success, think of it as a spirograph of ever increasing size. You will always be walking forward, but you will sometimes return to the beginning of your journey, you will gain knowledge and increase skills, but you will often re-learn things as if for the first time, you will reach new horizons viewed with wonderment, but just as often you will find yourself on familiar ground that appears new as viewed through wiser eyes, you will experience the same searches, but in different ways. As your spirograph increases in size you gain more clarity, but face more complexity. If your spirograph is not expanding or if you are not on such a path, you will experience lack of growth, lack of stimulation, and an increasing weight on your team to perform in order to have fun. Fun is the key. Performance improves when the task is fun and engaging.

Remember That Your Team's Story is Still Being Written: Sometimes a nose work team is destined for greatness and it's undeniable from the first time the dog sniffs out primary reward. Just as often a team surprises everyone and goes from worst to first or a dog changes from a scaredy cat searcher to a brave and confident sniffer and it's unbelievably awesome. In order to become great, you need to believe that anything is possible. You can't feed a narrative that limits the growth of your team ("my dog can't focus on searching when he's outside because he loves critters too much"). And, even though it's important to get to know your dog, it's vital to expect your dog to surprise you ("I never knew my slow moving searcher was actually just moving at the pace I set, and was more than happy to search with more pep in his step when I started moving faster"). Good stories have twists and turns and surprise endings, but not by accident. You are largely in control of your dog's training experiences, so make sure when you're doing new and different things, that you help your dog close out each chapter with confidence, motivation, and clarity for the task of seeking out target odors.

After my situation with BodyPump improved and I was having fun and reaching my goals, my wife convinced me to try BodyStep (basically a repackaging of Jazzercise), and I did... once. It was like a mixture of River Dance and the torture scene from Braveheart. My glutes were powerless to help. I vowed never to go back, but recently, a friend was telling me how I could use my hips to make the steps easier. Hmm. Recruit my hips or stick to rhythm based strength training and nose work. Maybe I'll ponder this over a few peanut butter cups.

Happy Sniffing!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Engelbart's Law & K9 Nose Work®

"The best design may be the one that gives us a clear path to learning if we choose to. Put another way, designs that helps us transition from tricycle-riding to bicycle-riding, so that if we want, we can choose to go up some really big hills." - Roman Mars; 99% Invisible Podcast; episode 149: Of Mice and Men

Check out the complete 99% Invisible podcast here.

Doug Engelbart is not a well known name outside of certain circles, but his ideas and inventions are inescapably well known. Just take the computer mouse as an example, but don't think that his genius stopped there. For a more complete understanding of the contributions Doug Engelbart made to modern technology and productivity, visit his wikipedia page here

Engelbart held many compelling beliefs regarding technology, intelligence, and the progress of societies, some of which form the tenants of Engelbart's Law. The law states that the proliferation of technology in modern society and humankind's response to that technology can either exponentially increase humankind's collective IQ and problem-solving ability or it can reduce our problem-solving effectiveness and ultimately lead to our demise.

According to Engelbart, humans are limited in their problem-solving ability by the simplicity of the tools with which they approach problem-solving. It's not enough to have people making technology that is affordable and widely available, we need to have large numbers of people making new and complex technology, improving upon that technology, and doing so rapidly. Think about not just one Elon Musk, but one thousand or one million Elon Musks making high capacity batteries and more efficient rockets.  

Engelbart's Law places no limitations on the human's capacity for getting better at getting better, it's a matter of technology, intelligence, desire and commitment. Even 60 years ago, Engelbart knew that if humankind were to advance, computers would have to go from punch card readers to more complex systems, and humans would have to put in the time and effort to learn how to interface with these systems. He also knew that if humans learned new and complex technology it would increase their problem-solving ability and spawn even better technology. Engelbart would not have been impressed with intuitive devices that toddlers can operate, like iPhones or iPads, rather, he'd have worried for the adults who use technology that requires no more skill than that possessed of a two year old. Taking Engelbart's philosophy and applying it to the world of K9 Nose Work, the nose work dog can either be a punch card computer from WWII era or a cognitive computing marvel like IBM's Watson, it's all in how much effort the handler wants to invest in understanding and handling the dog as a complex system.

Let's say that the main goal of a competitive nose work team is to find the hide(s). This is sometimes simple and sometimes maddeningly complex. When working together in a search, the dog is like a super-computing sniffer and, often, the handler is a technologically clueless operator, requiring communication to be distilled down to the lowest common denominator. We could argue that the simplest, iPad-like interface with the dog to achieve the goal of finding the hide is the final response or indication behavior the dog gives after finding the hide, and upon desiring reward. I could probably hand my 2 year old daughter the leash with Muriel attached and ask her to tell me when Muriel was performing a sit. Simple. Or is it? If understanding the final response is the extent of the handler's problem-solving ability, what happens when the dog does not perform the sit or the dog sits, but not with certainty, or not with accuracy to source? What if we imagine a more complex interface with the dog, one where the handler may understand final response behavior, but that is just a piece of the information exchange happening in a search. This handler has the ability to understand the dog, support the dog, and navigate challenging search scenarios with efficiency and success. This handler is a highly intelligent problem-solver interfacing with a complex system and getting better at getting better.

Accepting that the dog is a perfectly designed, complex system for us to learn from, how do we access what the dog has to offer and use it to become better handlers?

Build Observation Skills: The beauty of having a dog hunt for primary reward (food or toy) is that it affords the handler plenty of time to develop useful observation skills to gain a deeper understanding of the dog's behavior when searching, of how odor moves, and how environment affects odor and the dog. All of this will serve the handler well as the dog transitions to a target odor.

Focus on Timing: When we do introduce a target odor, timing of reward is everything. If you understand the dog and what he is doing in the search, you will understand when to deliver reward so the dog develops a clear connection between odor and reward. This is hard for many people. It's well worth the effort to become confident and effective with your reward timing.

Record and Review: As you develop the skills to read your dog and understand search environments, and you provide your dog with consistently well-timed reward at odor source, it will become valuable to you to video some or all of your searches and review them for a deeper understanding of what your dog is doing in the search and how you might be affecting the outcome of the search positively or negatively.

Develop Decision Making Skills: Observations skills help a handler know when the dog is working scent and finding the odor source, but until the handler is working searches with an unknown number, those observation skills are rarely put into play to help a handler decide there are no more odor sources to be found and the search should be finished. Start looking for how the dog tells you if an area has an odor source(s) or not. Look for the various behaviors he exhibits under a variety of search scenarios. Hold yourself accountable for missed hides or false alerts. If you're doing your job correctly, the dog should have access to all parts of the search area and freedom to work a space and move on. Even in the most difficult search scenarios, the dog is providing useful information about the search, it's just that we may not always be able to react appropriately in the moment and do our part to finish the search successfully.

Optimize the Dog & Handler Relationship: Once you've worked on the above skills, you want to look at how you can get even better at working with the dog. Think about learning a second language, and going from basic sentence construction and simple conversation to slang, colloquialisms, jargon, regional dialect, secret handshakes, etc. Do not limit yourself in your quest to become a better and better handler. An ORT, an NW3, a National Invitational - these are all human constructed challenges for a team, they are not the peak of the mountain, or the surface of Mars; they should not limit you in your training. As you feel more capable and confident in facing these challenges, get creative in your training and stretch yourself beyond those challenges. Your dog is capable of amazing things, but he's also happy to go along with with the limits you impose on the team. It's up to you to reach for the hides in the sky.

Regardless of where you are in your nose work journey, ask yourself if you've been working with the iPad version of your dog or the super-computing version. Having a dog that anyone could handle and read is a great concept, but it creates a false sense of confidence for the novice handler (and it takes a very specific kind of dog to be reliably "handler proof"). It removes most of the handler's desire to better understand the dog and the environment. And, when adversity and failure rear their ugly heads, it is much harder for the handler with a limited understanding of the dog to overcome challenges and emerge stronger and better. A handler who is skilled in reading and understanding the dog will not be deterred by failure, rather, it will be another opportunity to learn from the dog and increase handling skills.

Become a native speaker of the language of dog! Happy Sniffing!

Friday, October 24, 2014

TED Talks & K9 Nose Work®: How Jazz & Computers in the Slums of India can Make You a Better Partner to Your Dog

If you're like me, you can't help but draw connections between your everyday life experiences and working with dogs. My kids are a constant source of inspiration for how I structure lessons or approach working with a particular dog - they are especially influential when it comes to how I exercise patience. When I watch sports practices, the way the coaches work with the athletes to develop skills and master them can give me a fresh perspective on how to help a nose work team. Recently, I listened to a few very inspiring TED Talks curated for the TED Radio Hour, and - even though the subjects were a bit removed from working with dogs or training for a sport - I instantly recognized a connection between the messages in those talks and the path to success in K9 Nose Work. As you continue on your own nose work journey, remember that inspiration and the keys to success are often found in unexpected places, so keep your feet on the path, but let your mind wander.

This compilation of related TED Talks had a segment from speaker, Sugata Mitra, which embodied the philosophy of K9 Nose Work. The talk focused on poor children in the slums of New Delhi, and Sugata Mitra's experiments with "self-supervised learning", also called the "Hole in the Wall" project, so named for the hole he and some colleagues dug out of a wall to install an internet connected computer for use by the children in the slum. What Mitra discovered was that the children taught themselves and each other how to use the computer - accessing the internet, and learning keystroke commands so they could open the computer's paint application and create images, all this without a mouse. Mitra knew, and proved through experimentation and observation, that the children just needed an environment conducive to learning - a slum with an internet connected computer - and that their curiosity would fuel their growth and understanding of the environment.

This idea of unsupervised or unstoppable learning, in a structured environment (if you can call a computer in a hole structure) is at the core of K9 Nose Work. Imagine that the computer in the wall is, instead, a collection of boxes, and the boxes are arranged in the environment for the dog to explore with minimal human interaction, such that the dog's curiosity and success drive his learning. When a dog is hunting for a primary/self-reward (like food or toy), the physical presence of the human is most essential to the dog's learning and success as it relates to keeping the environment rich for learning - we move boxes around and place the reward back in the environment, that's it, we otherwise are not needed for the dog to build an understanding of the environment and to learn. Mitra was not physically present in the slums with the children, but he was observing remotely via a net op host application connecting his monitor to the output from the slum computer. Observation is key if we hope to interact meaningfully with the dogs at some point in the future. The early stages of K9 Nose Work are all about the human observing the dogs and better understanding how they learn to hunt through the olfaction process. This is an invaluable skill that deserves plenty of time to be developed and honed for every human involved in K9 Nose Work. Knowing your role in these early stages can maximize the learning potential for both dog and human.

At later stages of K9 Nose Work, even when target odors are introduced and the human is controlling the reward, it is still imperative to the team's success that the human recognize the value of controlling the environment and allowing the dog to learn from the environment. For example, if a dog is having trouble focusing on the task of finding a target odor in a search area, the answer is not typically found through telling the dog repeatedly to "find it", directing the dog around on leash, pointing out parts of the environment for the dog to search, etc.; the answer is found in structuring the environment such that the dog can go out and learn that focusing on finding a target odor in the search area is rewarding - setting up threshold hides and using boxes come to mind as a couple of ways to provide the dog with a positive learning experience through controlling the environment. Any time your dog is facing a challenge in nose work, first think of how you could create an environment in which he can learn to overcome that challenge, and, if you find it necessary to control the dog in some way, consider that a temporary bridge as you work on using environment to teach the dog.

Mitra's talk also brings to mind the human tendency to let ego confuse us as to how we are integral to the success of activities we are involved in, such as teaching kids to be computer literate or teaching dogs K9 Nose Work. In both cases, we are integral not because we directly control the students in their learning, but because we structure the environment and observe the learning that takes place. Imagine if Mitra had felt it was necessary to gather a group of children around a computer in a classroom and to directly control how they learned to use that computer; the outcome for the children most certainly would have been very different, and arguably not as powerful as curiosity driven, self-directed learning. K9 Nose Work is curiosity driven, self-directed learning. Think about that when you ask your dog to sit before a search or when you command him to search, or when you attempt to directly control your dog in any way to reach a defined goal. Could it be different? Could it be that you're not thinking about the amazing power of unstoppable learning? The possibilities are exciting and the results are amazing when you set up your nose work version of the "Hole in the Wall" project and structure an environment rich with learning opportunity for your dog, and filled with observational potential for you.

Where the previous TED Talk spoke to the core philosophy of K9 Nose Work and how we can teach dogs to be motivated, focused, and fulfilled searchers, this segment featuring jazz artist, Stefon Harris, from the Making Mistakes TED Talk compilation resonated with the human end of the leash, and how we can interpret mistakes and perhaps avoid them in the future.

Harris approaches making mistakes from a unique point of view, he considers them to be opportunities that were missed. In his opinion, there are no mistakes in jazz, just a failure to perceive and react to what is going on around you, specifically, what notes are being played by the other musicians. Perhaps, there are no mistakes in K9 Nose Work handling, rather, there are failures to perceive and react to what is going on around you; missed opportunities. Watch 30 or 40 competitors do a search at a trial and you'll see how many missed opportunities stand in the way of success for the teams (or nearly stand in the way).

During his talk, Harris again posits that there are no mistakes in jazz, and this time he explains that a mistake is just a lack of awareness of your fellow band members and a failure to accept their creativity. Substitute dog for band member and this statement could shift the way you work with your dog. Think about the way dogs work odor in an environment, and how musical their movements can be, how creative and unexpected, and as their band members, how influential we can be if we're not prepared to react to their creativity. Let's say you've set your dog up to face a doorway at the start of a search and he tries to turn away from the doorway, so you face him back, and propel him into the search area, only to find that he was working odor from a threshold hide and now you may have missed your opportunity to work that hide and be successful. It's all in how we perceive and react. How about the dog who heads toward a search boundary in an exterior search and keeps on going right out of that search area, unimpeded by the handler, only to chase odor right back to the corner of the search area and make the find. That's some smooth jazz. It's all in how we perceive and react.

So what about ideas for becoming more perceptive, more accepting of creativity and reacting better to your band member, er, dog? Well, Harris says it does not happen by dictating to the band, or imposing your ideas onto the other members of the band. It happens through listening. He says jazz is the science of listening. This guy should handle a nose work dog. K9 Nose Work is all about listening to your dog, becoming a student of your dog, and reacting to your dog. Try setting up several threshold hides for your dog (a hide just inside of the start of a search area, such as a doorway to a room) and standing patiently a few feet back from the threshold to the search and just observe your dog. Does he wait patiently for you to do something, does he wriggle his butt with enthusiasm to fly into the room, does he thoughtfully sniff the air? Listen to your dog. Become more perceptive of his behavior. Learn to react to the behavior that he gives when he is ready and focused to search.

When you succeed at being a listener, and you become skilled at reacting to your dog, you will, in Harris' words, "engage and inspire the other musicians and they give more, and gradually it builds..." This is where Harris and the other musicians effortlessly wow with a lively display of jazz, and this is where you and your dog, with the right mix of self-directed learning, observation, perception and creativity, will wow us, too.

Happy Sniffing!   

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The First 20 Seconds: Who's in Control in a K9NW Search?

In the activity and sport of K9 Nose Work, the dog needs to be a leader and the handler must be supportive of the dog's independent, odor driven efforts. What you do from the time you get your dog from the crate through the first 20 seconds of a nose work search may determine the outcome for that search, and may even have a lasting effect on your dog's desire to express his independence to hunt in future searches. Giving careful thought to the cumulative effect of every interaction you have with your dog in the context of nose work searching will help you better understand and appreciate the roles that dog and human should fulfill in a successful nose work search.

The Pre-Search Routine - Success in nose work really starts before the sniffing. If your dog is going to be a leader, make independent decisions, and stay focused and motivated, he needs to have a way to prepare himself to put these skills into action.

No two pre-search routines need be alike to be effective, but most routines include the following:

Interaction/Excitement - You're about to get your dog out of his crate to do something fun! Let him know this with your body language, vocal intonations, petting or play. If your dog is eager and excited to leave the crate to search, you're on the right track.

Special Gear - Many handlers use specific collars, harnesses, and leashes for the different activities they enjoy with their dogs. For most dogs, this is a very effective way to cue the dog to prepare to do a specific task. If you're going to use special gear for nose work, just remember to remove the gear when you want your dog to relax and be done searching or expecting to search.

Maintaining Readiness from Point A to B... or D - You've got your dog excited, happy and suited up with the proper gear, and now you may have to wait at one or more points on the way to the search area. Having a plan to keep your dog's energy level from spiking too high or flattening out is crucial if you want your dog to give his all once he crosses that start line. Think of an idling car in traffic - the engine isn't off, and it's ready to rev up at the push of the pedal. Can you picture how you'd keep your dog idling while waiting to search?!

At the Start Line - Every dog is different, but in general, a dog with an effective pre-search routine is expectantly searching long before we ever 'ask' him to search. And this is a good thing. A confident dog in control of his environment isn't going to wait for his handler to start sniffing in the presence of odor.

So, with a confident, eager dog at the start line of a search, who should be in control and how should you enter the search area?

Like so many things in the nose work world, it depends. If your goal is to facilitate your dog's ability to be a leader in the search, then you'll seek out ways to do this and evaluate the effectiveness of those ways based on how focused and successful your dog is from the start line. Jason Heng, CNWI, wrote a great piece regarding start lines and how we consider them in relation to the dog's understanding of when a search starts. Click here to read that post.

Deciding to Cross the Start Line - You should use your dog as the determining factor for when to start a search. If your dog appears to be in a focused, ready state, it's time to search. This could mean you wait 10 seconds at the start line, or it could mean as you approach the search area, you keep right on walking over that start line.

While it's easy to develop a start line routine, think about being flexible and observing your dog. Routine is very helpful away from the search area, but once you approach the place where there's odor to be found, your dog should hold final say over the best course of action.

Search Commands - Think about the above paragraphs and how a command fits into an activity where the dog is in the leadership role. If your command is reinforcing what the dog already plans to do independently, then it can be quite helpful, but if your routine has always been that your dog seems a bit lacking in focus and purpose and you use a command to get him going, then it might be necessary to work on your dog's independence as well as the pre-search routine.

And, for probably 99% of the nose work population, there really is little need for your dog to be in an obedient position and/or focusing on you when you give your command. Again, considering the task at hand, it should be more desirable to have a dog obedient to odor and focused on the environment, than to have focus on the handler.

Entering the Search Area as Handler - You've approached the search area, done whatever you think best supports your dog's readiness to focus on finding odor, you've released your dog to search and now the clock is ticking.

In the first seconds of the search, you can choose to remain still and stay at the start line, follow your dog's path and match his pace, or take your own path at your own pace. A few factors will limit your options for any given search:

On/Off-Leash & Leash Length - If your dog is off-leash, you have much more freedom to stay put or move, and similarly, your dog has much more freedom to work the environment. If your dog is on-leash, the length of the leash determines how much freedom the two of you have to move independently.

Lines of Sight Within the Environment - If your dog disappears from your view within seconds of starting the search, you'll most likely have to follow him, or risk missing his alert behavior.

Distance Between Start Line and Searchable Items - For vehicle and container searches, your searchable items may be set back from the start line, in which case, you must move on with your dog. As to how closely you follow your dog, that's still in your control.  

The First 20 Seconds of A Search - You've worked your way from crate to start line and the dog has crossed that start line, maybe you have, too. Already, seconds have passed. Have you noticed your dog's nose curve back toward his shoulder as he trots forward and you trot right along behind him? Did his nose drop to the base of a signpost in the grass and start investigating - and did your "pee alarm" go off, prompting you to move him on? Did your dog seem like he chose his path to the vehicles or containers, and picked which way to go, or were you employing a "let's start with this one" strategy?

So many things can happen in the first seconds of a search that will impact the likelihood of a team's success, and most of them can be evaluated for their impact on the dog's ability to remain in control of the search.

Think about a dog searching off-leash for primary reward in a controlled environment, and picture the confidence, independence, and leadership that dog exhibits as he seeks out what is his to possess and consume or play with. The dog is in control. The dog uses the environment to solve the odor problem and locate the source.

Now think about a dog searching on-leash at his first Odor Recognition Test (ORT). The environment is somewhat controlled. The dog is confident and independent. The search begins. Within a few seconds the dog decides to move off to the right, beyond the two rows of boxes, and the handler uses the leash to direct the dog back onto the boxes. Something profound happened here. The dog had control of the search, then the handler took control. What happens with each subsequent effort on the dog's part to take back control? Will the dog continue to assert his independence and seek out his answers from the environment, or will he turn his focus to the handler and try to figure out what it is that the handler wants from him in the search?

The dog's independence and confidence in the search are not infinite. It's more like fuel tanks that can be depleted through extended efforts to problem solve in the environment. When the handler does not recognize and support the dog's independent decision making in the search, this is like springing a leak in the confidence fuel tank. Remember, the dog wants to do what he believes will bring a reward. While the dog may have strong odor obedience, that may not trump a difficult search challenge and a handler who is not supporting the dog's odor driven agenda. If the dog is getting feedback from the handler that essentially tells him, "no, not that way" or "I don't believe you", then it's likely the dog will do something that seems more in line with what he thinks the handler wants.

Watch for Key Signals From the Dog - Within the first 20 seconds of a search, if you've got proper distance from your dog and can see him well, you can often spot subtle signs revealing his odor driven intentions in the search.

The sniffing a dog does at the start line indicates the presence of odor or the dog's expectation that checking in the environment will reveal the presence of odor.

Once the dog starts moving, dropping or turning the head, or changing pace and/or direction rapidly are signs that the dog is encountering odor. Do not be so quick to move the team on from an area if the dog begins to show these signs.

Let the Dog Decide to Change His Mind - Some dogs are contemplative at the start of a search, some are explosive with a "run to there first, sniff for answers later" attitude. No matter what type of searcher you have, as the handler, you can choose to stay out of the way right from the start - especially at the start. Many dogs will recognize the presence of odor, process it, and want to respond to it with a behavior change. If the human gets in the way of the dog during this sequence of events, it can affect the dog's ability to act on the information he's taken from the environment. If the handler hangs back for even a few seconds, a dog who needs to make an abrupt stop and turn back towards the threshold can do so unimpeded by the handler - and, the handler is in a great position to see the dog's behavior changing, which should reinforce for the handler that the dog is in control.

If a handler moves quickly with the dog, often, the handler senses the dog is choosing a particular path, and now becomes mentally committed to that path and will not see the subtle signs from the dog that he is being compelled to change direction by odor in the environment. Even for dogs with strong odor obedience, it can be difficult to override a handler who is taking control.

Just the physical presence of the handler can be tough for the dog to work through if the handler is not supporting the dog's odor driven behavior. A handler too close to a dog who would prefer to double back and work in the opposite direction may have no clue that she is preventing the dog from exactly what she's asking the dog to do! A handler who is too far from the dog or fixed in one place too long can also create trouble in odor paradise. The dog really needs the handler to be supportive at all times.

Let the Dog Search the Environment at Least for a Few Seconds - If your dog understands the task at hand and knows to search for an odor source, you owe it to him to trust that he's focused on his job.

Container and vehicle searches are often hardest for the handler to support the dog's odor driven behavior. Handlers hate to have their dogs turn their focus away from the items that have been designated searchable. Dogs search for odor. That odor could be moving away from a container or vehicle and pooling on something that could not contain an odor source for this type of search, but that doesn't mean the dog can't search it, process the information, and navigate his way confidently back to the source of the odor. Give your dog control, be supportive, and let him do his job. He's very good at it and understands the environment in ways you never will.

In cases where the dog is given control and freedom to search his environment, but doesn't seem to stay focused on the task of finding source odor, you must determine if the dog has had the proper exposure to this type of environment, if a different approach to your training sessions is required to help the dog maintain focus, or if this was an isolated event that doesn't normally occur.

After the First 20 Seconds - While it is always important to trust your dog and give him control in the search, it is especially crucial that he feels supported by you during the early part of the search as he asserts his independence in hunting down the source odor.

If, at any time in the search, it appears to you that your dog is not staying focused on the task of finding source odor, then supporting your dog can mean taking control. For example, a dog who goes beyond the boundaries of the search area and does not appear to be working odor and actively returning to the search area, needs to be guided back to the searchable area. A dog who switches over to crittering (smelling non-target odors in the environment), may need the handler to take control - but, beware of how you handle this situation, the dog could be very near odor and corrective action could impact his desire to return to that area to find source odor.

Some search areas have lots of complexity - corners, alcoves, three dimensional objects, slopes, elevation, etc. - and the dog may be focused on finding odor, but need some assistance accessing and searching the different parts of the search area with thoroughness. Just remember, once you take control to assist the dog, it can be hard to know when to relinquish control back to the dog. Lots of practice is needed to be successful sharing control with your dog in a variety of search scenarios.

When Success is Out of the Team's Control - There will be some searches where you are supportive of the dog's independence from the start, the dog seems to be focused and driven, and everything is going well, but success will still elude the team. Every search is a learning experience, and no one search is reflective of your team's abilities.

Team Heads to a Deodorized Zone - You and your dog are in sync from moment one of searching, but for whatever reason, you end up in a part of the search area where the dog cannot catch scent. Most dogs will not fare well the longer it takes for them to catch scent. Some dogs lose focus quickly and some will continue to work hard, but become less confident in their searching.

Conditions Create Unintended Challenges - Some hides can become drastically harder as conditions change. Heat and wind are typical factors affecting the difficulty of a search, but many other things can throw the team an odor curveball. If odor becomes very hard to source due to changing conditions, don't get down on your team, just think of ways you might replicate the conditions and the hide placement to give your dog more opportunities to master the odor problem.

Distractions are Just too Distracting - You can't plan for everything. A marching band, a firing range, a parade, kids playing whiffle ball, ATVs, a dead animal, a live animal, and the list of possible distractions during a search goes on. Again, if you run into a challenge that bests you and your dog, try to turn it into a learning experience and future training experiences.

The first 20 seconds of a search won't always be make-or-break time for the team, but it's certainly time that can be well-spent to make any search more successful. With proper training and lots of experience, your dog will go to great lengths to override your bad behavior in the search! And, you will become a better teammate thanks to your dog's confident searching and clear behavior in odor. No matter where you and your dog are in training, just remember, if you want your dog to sniff to the best of his abilities, you have to respect his superior skills and do your best to be a supportive handler.

Happy Sniffing!

p.s. - video of teams from this year's NACSW K9NW National Invitational coming soon, as well as updates to the Shiba Experiment!

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!