Monday, December 31, 2012

A K9 Nose Work® "Dog In Bloom" By Paula Nowak, CNWI™

As the activity and sport of K9 Nose Work continue to grow rapidly throughout the country, more dog and handler teams are finding opportunities to build their skills in classes and to enter competitions, experiencing new kinds of success. Achieving success - or watching others achieve it - at any level of class or competition can create an expectation of continued success, and can sometimes cause us handlers - often unintentionally - to put a lot of pressure on our dogs to perform. As handlers, we can easily forget who our dogs were before K9 Nose Work and what kind of awe inspiring transformations they've undergone since their journeys began. Most importantly, we can forget that K9 Nose Work is and should be all about the dogs. Paula Nowak's post is a wonderful reminder to treat our dogs with care and patience, playing the game at their pace and enjoying the unique journey we each share with our dogs, as well as the joys of belonging to a community of likeminded dogs and people; all the while knowing that, in time, beautiful things will happen for our dogs in K9 Nose Work.

A Dog In Bloom
by Paula Nowak, CNWI

A rose in bloom is very beautiful, smells good and can brighten someone’s day. It’s a flower that symbolizes love for many people. This flower is also very beautiful while it is still just a bud and as it gradually opens up it slowly progresses to full bloom, which is when it reaches its full potential. The rose’s bloom cycle (the time from pruning the plant until bloom) can be anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks.  Ask anyone who enjoys these flowers and they will tell you it’s worth the wait.

A typical Intro to K9 Nose Work group class covers a 6-week period. During this time each dog has a short amount of time to search within an hour or a little more once a week. In many cases, in this small amount of time once a week, or even within the first week’s session, you’ll see a change in the dog’s level of security and confidence for those dogs who are fearful. The same is true for those fearful dogs that have their first K9 Nose Work experience at a workshop. It’s amazing to the observer how much a dog can change in such a small period of time. For dogs that are in a 6-week course you may see a large change in behavior of various sizes each week.

The “bloom cycle” for a dog to build confidence through K9 Nose Work is very different than the bloom cycle of a rose. There is no set time frame to expect a dog to change in confidence and that is a hard realization for some owners. There is really no guarantee as to when the dog will make progress, but I can attest that it’s very much worth the wait!

Recently, a student in an Intro to Nose Work group class had a fearful dog that had a very challenging time with mild noises or new objects in the search area.  On week 6, he initially thought a folding chair lying flat on the floor was going to kill him. By the end of the night he was able to work a simple hide near the “killer” chair. His mom really felt like he’d progressed, but saw the other dogs in class progressing faster and it seemed she wished he’d been able to progress more. Fast forward to his 7th week (week 1 of his second round of K9 Nose Work) and he was a very different dog. He was much more confident than the previous week. Everyone who’d seen him the previous week, including me, was shocked at the amount of confidence. From that week forward he continued to amaze us by searching in different environments with a new confidence.

It’s sad to think we might have missed his blooming moment, had his mom stopped at his first 6-week course thinking he wasn’t progressing fast enough. The impact K9 Nose Work has on a dog’s behavior cannot always be predicted, but the results time and again show how much it can help them build confidence and help them bloom into a more balanced dog.

Post a comment sharing your dog's "blooming moment" or other special achievement that you gave your dog time and support to realize on his own terms in K9 Nose Work.

Happy Sniffing & Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Your All Access Pass to Inaccessible Hides in K9 Nose Work®: Part Two

For part two of our inaccessible hides post, we're going to focus on: handling tips for blind inaccessible hides, what to do about safety versus letting your dog try to get to source, and when an inaccessible hide doesn't have to be inaccessible.

Keep in mind that your job is to reinforce your dog's communication of the location of source odor. To do this properly you need to know what kind of communication you want, and what you will accept as part of the learning process. Particularly when working inaccessible hides, accept and reward the early signs of interest from your dog, and build up her motivation to work to a strong, clear communication of the location of the hide. Always remember to keep the learning fun for your dog, and to make success achievable. 

Handling blind inaccessible hides and when to make the call - Your best strategy in any blind hide situation is to let your dog lead - but make sure she's covering the entire search area - and to support her with a call of alert when she's actively searched, locked down an area and given her final response. Anything more should be worked out in training.

When there may be inaccessible hides, you should have the following incorporated into your handling as second nature:

1) know your dog's signs that odor is present, but not accessible - if your dog is working a bank of lockers and casting back and forth or jumping up and down between two points, and taking longer than usual to make a decision, those are signs that odor is present, but not accessible. Circling a cluttered area or a table with chairs, looking for an access point, is also a sign. Heavy interest in a closed object, like a file cabinet, or closed door on a wall cabinet or to a room - likely signs of inaccessible odor.

2) give support to even the slightest behavior change - inaccessible odor may also present the added challenge of odor that is mostly trapping at the source, or escaping in ways that make working it back to source extra difficult. A cabinet hide can require several passes from your dog before she makes a real commitment to work the odor to its source. In some cases, she'll show the slightest interest as she passes the source or she'll show interest in the surrounding area, but you'll have to be an eagle-eyed observer.

Even if you're a hyper-vigilant handler, your dog may not show any perceivable interest in the cabinet hide, which means you'll have to do some non-blind training and expose your dog to more of that type of inaccessible hide with a low volume of odor escaping. It's not that your dog can't smell the hide, she just needs to learn that it's important to commit to it like any other hide.

3) be patient, you'll recognize the final final response when you finally see it - once you know your dog is working odor, pay careful attention to where she's working and how she's responding to odor that may be out of her reach. In many inaccessible hide scenarios you may get behavior from your dog that resembles her final response, but if you step back and let her work, you'll see that she's still working out the location of the hide. When she gets as close as she can to the hide, you'll know it.

The big thing to watch for in the whole process is the "ah-ha!" moment from your dog. Some dogs are more subtle than others, but every dog will look noticeably different when they finally get as close to source odor as possible.

A hide placed five or six feet above the ground on a busy wall (cable wires, pipes or downspouts, faucets, etc. below or near the hide) illustrates the difference between behavior resembling a final response and the "ah-ha!", real-deal final response. Odor travelling down the wall may pool at one or two places and cause your dog to react with a shoulder shrug, half-hearted final response that is usually lacking any detail sniffing of the chosen area, and is very often abandoned by your dog the moment your brain is telling your mouth to say alert. If you let your dog work just a little longer, you'll see her follow the scent past the pooling odor areas, higher and higher, until she can't stretch any further, and then you'll see the "ah-ha!" moment.

On the rare occasion that odor is low & accessible, but your dog is showing all the signs of being in high inaccessible odor, try to pay attention to what brought her to the area she's working. It may be that there was no strong behavior change leading to her leaping up a sign post, or climbing a wall, and if you move to another part of the search area, she'll drop what she's sniffing and follow you - a good sign that she never believed there was source odor in that area anyway. No matter where the odor is, you always want to see that your dog has caught the scent (a head turn, a direction change, putting on the brakes, etc.), worked to narrow down an area, and shown a clear signal that she is as close as she can get to the source of the odor.

Your dog practices odor obedience, you should practice obedience to safe handling skills - There is never a time in K9 Nose Work where you would be expected to put your dog at risk of physical harm. That doesn't mean there won't be search areas with potential safety hazards, it just means as a handler, you control your dog's safety. If odor is placed on a countertop, allowing your dog to jump on the countertop to get her nose right on the source of the odor is not safe for your dog. If odor is placed deep behind the wheel of a car, letting your dog go under the car or disappear in the wheel well is not safe. To keep your dog safe, train by rewarding interest before she puts herself in a potentially dangerous position.

Safety issues often develop when the handler has an expectation of where the dog should choose to indicate the source of an inaccessible odor, but the dog is indicating somewhere else. Frustration builds for the dog as she tries to satisfy the handler; that frustration can lead to the dog jumping, climbing, or squeezing her way to odor, often in ways that increase the threat to her safety.

The best way to help with these searches is to stop thinking so much about where the hide is located and where you think your dog should be giving her final response and just watch your dog work. Just because you know the odor is in the top left corner of a bathroom vanity cabinet doesn't make that top left corner the best or the only allowable call of alert. The same goes for certain parts of a vehicle where it's not easy for a handler to know how odor is travelling and where the dog would pick it up strongest and give a final response.

If you've got a push cart that's resting in a corner, and odor is placed under the cart at the furthest point into the corner, you might expect your dog to be drawn as close to the odor as possible, but what if odor is travelling straight across the underside of the cart to the side furthest away from the odor, and that's where your dog is indicating? In most situations, that's a good call. The dog knows better than we do where the odor is concentrating and how it's moving, so we should trust and reward him for good problem solving skills.

Safe handling skills come into play when your dog wants to get on that push cart and try to get to the source of the odor. If you're comfortable with your dog getting on a moving object and possibly hurting herself, that's a handling decision. While you might be more comfortable calling alert because your dog made such an effort to climb to the back of the cart, a handler whose dog is only allowed to sniff the cart from the ground can call alert and still be correct.

While your dog's safety should always be a top concern, don't be afraid to let her search most areas freely (with the exception of vehicles), allowing her to get on her hind legs and stretch to reach higher spots. Climbing onto a picnic table in an exterior search can sometimes be the key to working out an odor puzzle that - even though it could be reached from the ground - might only be solvable for your dog from up above. As long as your dog can make the most of her physical abilities to give you a clear indication of where source odor is (it's here within my reach, or it's way up there beyond where my nose is pointing), there's no need to ask her to risk her safety to give you an "it's right here, stupid!" final response.

It is important to remember that in training non-blind inaccessible odor, when rewarding your dog, always make the reward appear to come from the actual source of the odor. If your dog alerts at the bottom left corner of a cabinet and the hide is actually at the top left corner, your reward should come from the top left corner. Depending on where your dog is at in her training, you may allow her to work the hide a second time and wait for her to follow the odor back to it's source before rewarding.

The amazing inaccessible accessible hide! - it's not a K9 Nose Work magic trick, some hides are just tricky and can be physically within reach, but still a few sniffs away for your dog. A hide placed deep under an office desk that's pushed against a wall, might only be partially blocked by a trash bin and a desk chair, leaving a pathway to the hide big enough for almost any dog. Despite relatively easy access to the hide, there may be nothing drawing the dogs to take that path. What there might be instead is a low volume of odor escaping and causing interest in another part of the search area, and/or a strong concentration of odor leading the dogs away from the easy access point and towards the barriers like the chair or the trash bin, making the dogs think they're in a truly inaccessible odor situation.

A hide like the desk hide should be worked right to source odor. For dogs that get hung up working obstructions like the chair or trash bin, if you get behavior from your dog indicating that what she's searching for is past the chair and past the trash bin, even though she's not physically as close as possible to the odor, she's clearly communicating where it is and is not - that's rewardable; just make sure to allow - or help - your dog find a path that leads to the source odor. A dog that indicates on the seat back of the chair, not even indicating that the source of the hide is under the desk, would not be communicating clearly enough to be considered a success for that search; if asked to point out the location of the hide, the handler would answer, incorrectly, "the chair", instead of the correct call, "under the desk, deep in the back left corner". For that dog, verbal praise can be doled out, and the chair should be moved away from the desk so the dog can rule the chair out and have better access to the hide.

Ideally, you want your dog to end up working independently to find the access point in these seemingly inaccessible hide scenarios, but being able to clearly communicate that this is as far as she can get, but it's not as close as she can get, will be a huge help. Such communication will tell you when an object of interest might be a barrier and not the location of the hide, prompting you to move the barrier or help your dog gain access from another point in the search area.

When you and your dog are ready for inaccessible hides, make sure to use a CNWI or ANWI to guide you through the process; and don't forget: accept less to get more. By properly motivating your dog and giving her a clear path to follow, you will be amazed at the increased level of problem solving she will be capable of in K9 Nose Work.

Happy Sniffing & Happy Holidays (keep those holiday cookies and candies completely inaccessible to your dogs!)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Your All Access Pass to Inaccessible Hides in K9 Nose Work®: Part One

There's a lot to learn in K9 Nose Work before taking on the challenges of an inaccessible hide. Dogs need lots of reinforcement going right to source for their reward, and handlers need lots of practice observing their dogs working odor to its source. Once a dog has developed a strong odor obedience and her handler is clear on when to reward, it's time to work some inaccessible hides.

keep in mind - if you're competing in K9 Nose Work, the NW1 level tests your dog's ability to get to accessible source odor. At the NW2 & NW3 levels is where you may encounter inaccessible source odor. There's so much to train for to be successful at the NW1 level that if you are working towards your first title, you should train mainly on accessible hides. Even at the NW2 & NW3 levels you should keep inaccessible hides down to around 20-25% of the searches you do and always do accessible hide searches as part of every practice session.  

What is inaccessible? - The most obvious examples of inaccessible hides are those that are contained within a larger object, like drawers or cabinets, and those that are out of reach, like a hide six feet off the ground or on a countertop behind a microwave.

Inaccessible hides can also be hides that appear accessible to us humans, but, for various reasons, are not accessible to our dogs. An example might be a hide on the underside of a wire shelving unit with plastic containers stacked on the shelves. The hide appears accessible from underneath the bottommost level of shelving, and maybe even from above that level of shelving by creating a space between containers that would expose the hide. Some dogs could squeeze into the space between the floor and the bottommost level of shelving, but what if the odor is not drawing the dogs to crawl under the shelving? What if, the odor is actually moving in such a way that it collects at the far corner of the shelving unit where the wheel is? What if the dog is too big to fit under the shelving, or what if the dog is too scared to crawl under the shelving?

What might be considered inaccessible in one scenario, for one dog, may be accessible in another scenario or for another dog - or may become accessible further along in the dog's training. Part of what makes it difficult to label a hide as accessible or inaccessible is that dogs come in different sizes, with different temperaments, and different abilities, all affecting how and if they can get to the source of the odor. In addition to the dogs, a variety of environmental factors - wind, temperature, surface area of objects, safety hazards, etc. - can affect the accessibility of a hide.

Get your dog cozy with the odor before you put it out of reach - If there is one thing to impress upon all K9 Nose Work teams, it is this: Make certain that your dog has experience working plenty of hides that are within her nose's reach. A dog with lots of reinforcement working hides she can reach will probably transition very nicely to hides that are truly inaccessible. Now, a dog without lots of practice getting right on the hides that can be accessed may also do very nicely with inaccessible hides, but she may falter on those trickier accessible odor problems.

Table hides are good illustrators of the potential problems a team could face with hides that can and should be accessed by the dog. A hide placed just under the edge of a table top about a foot or so from a corner/leg should be accessible to the majority of dogs. What this means is that the dogs should not decide the source of the odor is at the corner of the table, they should not decide it is on the top of the table, they should decide the source of the odor is on the source of the odor! If you set up a hide like this and your dog gives you a false alert, there's work to be done before you go all crazy with a hide in the top drawer of your office file cabinet four feet above the ground.

Here's where you'll want to enlist the expertise of a CNWI or ANWI. An experienced instructor can guide you and your dog through the process of introducing complex accessible hides. Even more importantly, an instructor can do the following:

Assure you that your dog is not suffering while she works out the difficult accessible odor problem

Keep you from rewarding for a false alert

With the help of your instructor, you'll still have some "holding your breath" moments while your dog works to source the hide, but you'll be so proud - and thankful for your instructor's patience - when she alerts right on source and has a real epiphany. With regular practice setting out accessible hides that require some problem solving on your dog's part, you'll see how quickly she learns and how much your confidence in her abilities increases.

Make a few stops on the road from accessible hides to inaccessible hides - Give your dog a chance to work hides that are harder and harder to access before going completely out of her reach. This can be higher hides that require her to stretch, hides that are blocked by items - chairs, boxes, a mostly closed door - and require going around, over, under, or squeezing through. You want your dog to really feel there's a strong incentive to put out some effort to reach the source odor. Not to mention, this can work wonders on dogs with environmental sensitivity. Have a dog who is afraid to go under a picnic table? Placing hides so that she has to stretch just a little more, take just one more step under the table, etc., to find the odor and get rewarded is a huge confidence booster.

The first inaccessible hides your dog works should be confidence builders - Choose areas without a lot of environmental challenges for your dog to contend with as you begin to work inaccessible hides. Start inside, pick a hide placement that will give your dog a chance to put the scent and the source together like an invisible odor chain. Try a hide that is out of reach and near a corner or somewhere where the odor can collect a little stronger to help lead your dog back to source - a large piece of furniture like a highboy or hutch works well. When you move outside, use a downspout or the corner of a window sill to introduce an inaccessible hide.

Accept less to get more - Amy Herot, K9 Nose Work & NACSW co-founder, has coined this phrase for training inaccessible hides. The idea is that if you start off by rewarding your dog for showing a slight interest in an inaccessible hide, then you will motivate your dog to work longer and harder to make a strong, clear commitment to odor in that search; and, in subsequent searches your dog will make a much faster, clearer commitment to source odor.

This really works, but you'll probably need the assistance of an instructor to help you identify the "less" that you should accept from your dog. You'll also need to devote the time to let your dog progress to the "more", or the strong and clear commitment to inaccessible odor that is your goal.

My favorite types of hides to work using this training philosophy are hides that are suspended with no nearby vertical surfaces - a hide on an awning or low hanging tree branch - and hides that are blocked by objects and set back several feet from the edge of those objects, think a hide on a bathroom vanity mirror with the vanity and a trash can blocking access. When you reward a dog for scenting in the area of the suspended hide and then looking up - rather than waiting two minutes, hoping your dog will start springing up and down beneath the hide - you get a dog who is much more eager to spring up and down the next time and much more reliable in subsequent - and blind - searches. This is especially useful for dogs who frustrate easily and may give up rather than work and work until you decide their efforts are worth a reward. For this type of dog, rewarding the initial interest keeps the dog motivated to work longer and harder to find that source odor.

There is never a set formula you can just plug in for working inaccessible hides - a dog with lots of experience can also benefit from the accept less to get more training philosophy. Still, as your dog gains experience with inaccessible hides, you can certainly wait for a little more of a commitment, a little clearer of a sign, before rewarding.

Next week, in Part Two of this post, we'll discuss how to handle blind inaccessible hides, what to do about safety versus letting your dog try to get to source, and when an inaccessible hide doesn't have to be inaccessible.

Happy Sniffing!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Playing it Safe in K9 Nose Work®

There continues to be an ongoing discussion about safety concerns for dogs and people when practicing and competing in K9 Nose Work, in large part due to the real world aspects of playing the game. When you and your dog do K9 Nose Work, you're interacting with the environment around you in ways that you wouldn't in an agility ring or in a tracking field. Any place you go to do K9 Nose Work could have hazards ranging from sharp or broken objects, discarded food and bones, cleaning chemicals, extreme surface temperatures, and other people or animals. It's important to understand what should be removed from an environment, what should be avoided, and whose responsibility it is to manage the safety of a search area.

Practicing on Your Own - when you do K9 Nose Work with your dog on your own, you are fully responsible for the safety of your team. It's a wise idea to inspect areas you intend to use for searches and remove any obvious hazards (sharp objects or food). It's also important to look for uneven terrain, drop-offs or holes, unstable objects or surfaces, and sharp edges in the environment. Remember that your dog will be very focused on the task of finding the source odor and as a result may be a little less focused on the terrain or objects in the environment.

Competing in NACSW™ Trials - When you enter a trial, you travel to a predetermined location and search different areas within that location (occasionally, you may travel between two or more locations for a single trial). To provide a rewarding experience for dog and handler teams, trials are usually designed around the environment found at the location; so if it's a school, the search areas will be in the actual classrooms, courtyards, and athletic fields found on the school grounds. This makes for a real world search experience, but it also means that real world hazards may be present.

NACSW officials make every effort to remove hazards from search areas, but sometimes an area may have a number of hazards that cannot be removed, like in a machine shop, a lumber yard, or any area that has large or permanently affixed objects. In these cases, the NACSW makes sure to brief competitors on the known potential safety concerns of a search area. Whenever possible, competitors are given a walk-through of the day's search areas so they may visually inspect the areas from the boundaries and raise any concerns for safety of themselves and their dogs. If any search area were to appear too dangerous to a competitor, participation in a trial is voluntary and competitors may withdraw from an element search or an entire trial (see the official NACSW rule book or contact an NACSW official for questions).

What's Unsafe and What's Just Unknown or Scary? - There is a difference between a search area with safety hazards and a search area within which your dog may not feel comfortable. Unusual surfaces can create problems for some dogs; certain types of smooth or glossy flooring, pine needles on the forest floor, etc., can all mess with your dog's search mojo. Your dog may not feel comfortable and may even appear afraid if confronted with unusual types of flooring, even when there is no threat to his safety. In this case, you can try to practice K9 Nose Work on as many unusual surfaces as possible and hope that your dog begins to feel more comfortable, or you can know that some search areas may present problems unique to your team. If there are moving objects - like desk chairs with wheels or push carts - within a search area, those objects could frighten a dog if they move when contacted. Just like with unusual flooring, most dogs can be desensitized to moving objects by setting up simple searches on the scary objects and allowing the dog to view them as potentially rewarding. Remember, most dogs are like gambling addicts, one jackpot (toy or treat reard at source odor) will have them pulling that slot machine lever (going back to scary object) a thousand times just on the hopes of another jackpot.

Sometimes, certain surfaces and objects can actually be unsafe. If flooring in a search area is wet and slippery and there is a high probability of human or dog injury, that is unsafe, and would probably be addressed for all competitors trialling that day. In certain situations, moving objects might be unsafe. A dog could jump on an object and lose his footing because it's unstable or moves unexpectedly. Vehicles are not usually scary or unsafe to most dogs, but if a dog wants to chase odor deep under a vehicle or into a wheel well it could become very unsafe.

There is a way to protect your dog from the dangers of most unsafe objects: restraint. To avoid the tragedy of your dog getting trapped under a vehicle: DO NOT LET YOUR DOG GO UNDER A VEHICLE. The same restraint can be applied as needed to objects like push carts, tables and desks, shelving, stacks of boxes, countertops, etc. If an odor is placed inside of an upper wall cabinet above a kitchen counter, it's true that it is physically possible for a dog to leap or climb onto a countertop and get right on the cabinet door seam where the odor is hidden, but it is not safe or necessary. That same hide can be found by a Bull Terrier whose nose may not even break the plane of the countertop. Remember that our dogs' understanding of scent is far deeper than we can even hypothesize. Always place your dog's safety over your expectation that he get to the source of the hide, especially when you feel the conditions may be unsafe.

Keeping it Safe On Leash - As a handler working your dog on leash, you literally control where he can go. For K9 Nose Work, we talk about being careful not to overcorrect or influence your dog when performing on leash searches, but when safety is the concern, you need to take the lead and keep your dog out of harm's way.

Keeping it Safe Off Leash - Just make sure you have solid recall on your dog to warn and prevent him from putting himself in harm's way. If the search area is big and busy and has potential safety hazards - stacked chairs or lots of computer cables dangling from desks - put your dog on leash and take control of his safety.

How to Handle Going to Source Safely - If you can teach your dog what is acceptable when working in and around potential safety hazards, you will have to do a lot less in the way of managing his safety in a search area.

Vehicles - Sometimes odor is not accessible without a dog going hip deep into a wheel well or under a rear bumper, but that's not always safe. If you teach your dog that going head or shoulders deep (depends on the size of your dog) is far enough, that is what he will learn to do.

If you pick a hide placement deep inside a wheel well and let your dog search, as soon as his nose leads him to stick his head in the wheel well, you can reward. As you continue practicing these types of vehicle searches, you can wait a bit longer before rewarding, but make sure not to allow your dog to go too deep into a wheel well or under the car. What you want to see eventually, is your dog making the decision to alert to odor without having to put himself in a dangerous position.

Some dogs really have a strong desire to get to source and will not alert until they can reach it; these dogs just need more practice and need to do it in more locations and over a longer period of time before they catch on to what we're asking.

Exteriors - If you wouldn't normally let your dog inspect a pool of stagnant, dirty water or a rat carcass, then you shouldn't let him closely investigate these things in a search. If you're working an area with retaining walls or ramps that lead several feet above ground level, think of all the safe ways your dog can search these areas. Some retaining walls are a few feet high on one side and ten feet high on the other; if your dog wants to see what's on the other side, walk him safely around the wall instead of letting him get on top or jump over.

If your search area has large objects in it, like sawhorses with stacks of plywood on them or commercial trash dumpsters, there's no reason to have your dog climb on top of or into those objects to alert to the presence of odor. An odor tin stuck inside a trash dumpster doesn't need to be nose-touched, your dog just needs to be able to communicate to you that source odor is in the dumpster.

Interiors - Here, you want to closely observe what your dog is trying to do, and help him do it safely. If he's trying to maneuver around a desk and chair where wires are dangling, call him before he gets tangled up and reposition him for safe access. If he's trying to crawl under or climb over something, help him get around it instead.

Some safety issues can arise out of the dog's frustration over not being able to source the odor, or being able to source the odor, but not being supported by the handler with an alert. A dog trying to alert to odor in a stapler on a desk might get frustrated and try jumping on the desk if the handler can't make a call based on the dog's behavior. Don't put your dog in danger because you're not comfortable making an alert call.

Containers - There are fewer safety concerns in a container search - just remember to keep your leash from dragging around on the ground to avoid getting it caught on a container and potentially harming your dog.

If you take one thing away from this post, it should be that search areas in K9 Nose Work are almost always real-world environments, and that regardless of the level of hazard-proofing an area has undergone, you the handler should be aware of potential safety hazards and prepared to prevent injury to your dog.

Enjoy searching safely and marvel at how willingly your dog will adapt to safely search things like vehicles and moving objects if you provide him with the right learning opportunities.

Happy Sniffing!

Friday, November 30, 2012

A K9 Nose Work® Day At The Park

The park is one of the best places to practice K9 Nose Work. Whether your dog is new to the activity or working towards an NW3 title, there are myriad ways you can use the park environment to challenge your dog appropriately. If you've yet to take advantage of all that the park can offer, the following tips should help you prepare for a fun and rewarding day of K9 Nose Work at the park.

Before you start searching:

make sure to have a safe, secure place for your dog to rest between searches

check the safety of your environment - look out for dangerous debris like broken glass, check the stability of any objects your dog could lean or climb on, be on the lookout for off-leash animals or wandering park-goers who may enter your search area

think about what you want to achieve for the day (searching amidst high distractions, working on complex hide placements, or just completing a search without your dog peeing!) and choose your areas and place your hides to help meet those goals. Picking a large grassy area and setting a hide at the opposite end from your chosen start line might be setting a pee-happy dog up for failure.

give your dog plenty of opportunities to go to the bathroom; ideally, choose an area away from your search area so your dog is not in search mode when you want him to be in pee mode

plan for a recovery search if anything goes wrong (the environment is too distracting, the hide is too difficult) and don't be afraid to pair to ensure your dog goes to odor and gets rewarded

Okay, let's get sniffing!

Start off with a quick successful search - This is the search that warms your dog up and lets him know that the game is on! Every team can benefit from starting this way. Define a small search area and place a hide close to where you plan to start your search. The effect you're looking for here is the "aah ha!" moment from your dog, not necessarily a bee-line to the hide. What you want to be careful to avoid is misinterpreting your dog's crittering twenty yards away from the hide as part of his warm up routine. This search should not go on for more than a minute, so do your dog a favor if he can't fight the urge to critter, and move him on so his nose gets more chances to cross the path of the odor - that doesn't mean dragging him over the hide, just getting him moving around in closer proximity to the hide.
The blue triangle roughly defines the search area and the red 'x'
approximates the hide location.  Use trees and other objects to help you
identify search area boundaries and hide placements.
the hide is a clear tube with several odor
cotton swabs, partially obscured by a twig. 
Something old and something new - Keep that warm-up hide out and redefine your search area, and while you're at it, add a new hide. Now you can turn a threshold hide into a permiter hide on the outer edge of your new search area. With your second hide, choose something with a slight elevation, like a tin placed low on a sign post. Your start line for this new search are should be a locus equidistant of the two hides. Depending on wind conditions, the elevated hide should be easier for your dog to catch from far away, but the old hide will have some extra value for some dogs as a prior source of reward. Either way, you're likely to have a determined and successful searcher for your second round of hides.

This search shares a hide and a perimeter line with the first search.
The new hide is on the sign post and the start line should be on the
perimeter line closest to the cars and the street. 

Sign post hide in the second search.


  A nose work-out at the park - If you can find a place to set out several contained hides (see picture) spaced out in a line, you can give your dog a fast, multiple reward search that builds a lot of expectation for search & reward in the park environment. Work the line of hides down and back if you really want your dog feeling the K9 Nose Work burn!
Small square holes in the wall spaced about eight feet apart make for the perfect search exercise set up.
Close up on one of the holes in the wall.
You can make their game part of your game - If your dog is showing he's up to the challenge of searching at the park, it's time to add in some distractions to the search. Find a part of the park where people are playing a sport like soccer or basketball and pick some search areas nearby. Keep your hide placements simple and your search areas small until you know your dog can handle something more complex - after all, asking him to search while people run around kicking and bouncing balls can be hard enough. The goal here is to get your dog used to lots of unpredictable movement in an environment. If you're worried that your dog won't search in an environment this distracting, try to set up your hide placement so he can work away from the distractions and keep them part of the background. If something unexpected happens (a very loud noise or a ball hitting a fence near your search area) right as your dog is about to find the hide, make sure to give him lots of support and verbal praise, rewarding the slightest effort he makes to go back to the source odor. When a dog makes it through a distracting or uncomfortable situation and gets to find odor and be rewarded, that makes his efforts seem worth repeating and that's how you build the motivation to search regardless of what's going on in the environment.

A grassy search area adjacent to a basketball court.
A search area closer to the basketball court,  but without the added challenge of searching in grass.
Close up on the hide placed about eight feet away
from the fence separating the search area and the
basketball court.
Don't object to searching some objects - Sure, one of the big draws of the park is getting to work through the distractions of the grassy green pee & critter zones, but focus too much on that and you'll miss an opportunity to get your dog used to searching for odor on objects that present their own challenges. Trash cans are great for placing hides. They have lots of distracting smells inside them and are usually a favorite pee stop for male dogs. Make the hide accessible to your dog and reward quickly the first time he goes to the hide to avoid any confusion over the importance of odor versus critter or pee smells. Another great object for setting hides is bleachers. Just be sure not to set any hides where your dog could lose his footing and fall, hurting himself. Start by setting a hide low on the steps of the bleachers or a little higher on the frame of the backside of the bleachers. Just remember - as with other park hides - give your dog plenty of freedom to work the hide from a distance. It's hard to know where the odor will travel and how your dog will decide to work it back to source, so you need to stay open to the less obvious routes your dog may take.
Search area with trash can and bleachers right off the jogging
Keep things simple and just use a
tin with a magnet inside to hold odor and
stick it to the can.

The odor tin is lying next to the support leg for the bench seat

Try to end your day on a high note - even if that means you don't get to do the cool picnic table search you planned out. It's better for your dog and it's better for you.

After you finish searching:

if you had trouble with any of your searches, think about how you might work on those issues next time. For example, if your dog peed during a search, maybe you had him search too large an area or you searched on grass too soon. A good way to prevent peeing during a search is to place odor in low probability pee areas (on a concrete sidewalk) and to set up searches where your dog should catch odor and go to source in the most direct way.

think about your dog's successes on the day and you'll have a good idea of what to do next time. For example, if your dog handled a multiple odor search on bleachers next to the baseball diamond, search that area again, but put the odor somewhere other than the bleachers. Much of your dog's learning comes from building an expectation, then taking things in a new direction.

make sure you take all of your odor with you. Other K9 Nose Work teams may use the same park as you do for some searches. It could make for some frustrating searching to have a dog alerting to odor you didn't put out and/or can't verify exists.

take your dog out to lunch or dinner. Instead of just making a trip from the house to the park and back, add another stop in before you head home. Next time, add an extra stop before you start your searching. The idea here is to keep your dog from getting wise to your K9 Nose Work plans. Over time, your dog will come to expect a K9 Nose Work search to happen any time and anywhere, not just on single destination trips only.

Get out to the park with your dog, do some searching and have some fun. It will be one of the best things you do for your team in K9 Nose Work.

Happy Sniffing!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Learning K9 Nose Work® From a Certified Instructor

In K9 Nose Work, Certified or Associate Nose Work Instructors (CNWI or ANWI) are the best teachers. A CNWI has completed an extensive certification process, learned from the masters and proven her ability to teach others. An ANWI is in the process of becoming certified, and has gained enough knowledge and experience to be an effective teacher. Anyone serious about having fun in K9 Nose Work should be training regularly with a CNWI or ANWI (going forward in this post we'll use CNWI to stand in for either type of instructor) if one is located in their area. The value of an expert watching over you, providing well-timed instruction and sharing keen insights exceeds the total value of all the things you could do by yourself. So, always always always, take advantage of the best teachers in K9 Nose Work.

Here are a few reasons why a certified instructor is so crucial to your dog's - and your - success in K9 Nose Work.


Identify the proper pace for learning - future success in K9 Nose Work is largely dependent upon the strength of your dog's foundational skills. Starting out with a CNWI will ensure that your dog progresses at the right pace for learning, and that any issues with training can be identified and fixed early.

At each stage of your learning, a CNWI can assess how easily your dog is picking up new concepts and achieving success. A dog may be advancing in skill level, but have a problem area that requires special attention, like distractions in containers searches.

Set up and adjust search exercises - a CNWI will have various planned exercises for you and your dog to do; some of these exercises will require real-time adjustments to ensure the dogs are able to be successful, and to keep things fun for everyone. An exterior search area might need to be reduced in size because the environment is too distracting and the dogs are wandering, and struggling too much.

Just as important as knowing when to adjust a search is knowing when not to change things. A CNWI might set up a threshold exercise in an exterior doorway and notice that the wind is blowing the odor away from the doorway, and the dogs are not catching the odor until they get out into the search area and downwind of the odor. The dogs may not be finding odor in seconds like some threshold exercises work, but the class is able to see how wind changes what would have been a quick and easy search.

Explain the details of a search so you can learn - CNWIs know a lot about how odor moves and how and why dogs choose to work odor in a particular search. Even when your dog does not have easy success in a search, the explanation of what was going on can make your training day well worth the time and effort.

Share observations of many dogs in the same environment - a CNWI sees lots of dogs working the same searches and running the same exercises; you can benefit from her observations of how the dogs are similar and/or different when they work.

Keep you from holding back your dog (literally) - a CNWI is a keen observer of every K9 Nose Work dog and can often tell when something great is about to happen in a search. For example, a dog and handler team may be struggling a bit with a hide on some bleachers - the handler might be restricting the dog to a small area surrounding the hide - and the CNWI will say, "let your dog move just past the outside corner of the bleachers." The handler allows some movement, and like magic, the dog picks up scent, bee-lines across the bleachers to the hide and alerts! Without this kind of help, the dog struggles to the point of giving up, which can lead the handler to direct his dog to odor and miss a great learning opportunity for the team.  

Help you to learn the philosophy of K9 Nose Work - there is an art to teaching K9 Nose Work. A CNWI must facilitate a role reversal, helping the dogs to become more independent and their handlers to give up control and become better observers. There is also an art to practicing K9 Nose Work on your own.

Training with a CNWI will help you to remember that every solo practice session should focus on fun and success for your dog, and that if you think your dog is struggling in a search you should try to manipulate the environment (place an object near the odor) to help him succeed. The belief here is that your dog will gain much more from your indirect help in a search than if you were to lead him to the hide.

What can you do about those times when you're out doing some K9 Nose Work on your own? With no CNWI to guide you, you'll want to make sure that the searches you set up for your dog will be fun and achievable.

What Can You Do Without A CNWI?

Anything with primary reward or paired odor & reward - to help dogs start off in K9 Nose Work it's important for many of them to get immediate gratification for the task at hand, in most cases that means making the hides self-rewarding. While there are many things that can be done to increase a dog's search skills even at the self-reward stage of the game, it's perfectly fine - and beneficial - just to engage the dog's desire to hunt by setting simple hides.

Practice by running searches you learned in a workshop or class - just like in The Parker Videos DVD, which shows how one handler took a single day of workshop training and turned it into months of fun with her dog.

Remember to choose searches you have a good understanding of when practicing with your dog on your own. If your search goes wrong and you can't seem to help your dog by manipulating the environment, have a plan to recover him - a quick and easy hide nearby.

Take every opportunity you have to expand your learning and challenge your dog under the expert guidance of a CNWI. Enjoy time alone practicing with your dog and perfecting your skills as a team. And, prepare for a lifelong journey with your dog in K9 Nose Work!

Happy Sniffing!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Review of the first NACSW™ K9 Nose Work® DVD: The Parker Videos

The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) just released their first DVD, The Parker Videos (2012; running time 41 minutes), a guide to getting started in the activity of K9 Nose Work that features video diary entries of one dog and handler team learning the game. You can purchase the DVD at

One of the best things about the Parker Videos DVD is what it's missing: infomercial style self-promotion. You'll be happy to know that this instructional DVD is packed with video and commentary devoted to introducing the novice handler to the activity of K9 Nose Work. The focus here is on the dogs, and in particular, Parker the doberman.

The DVD opens with a brief segment showing the viewer how to easily begin a dog in the activity of K9 Nose Work. The voice over instruction provided by Christy Waehner, CNWI (and Parker's handler), compliments the video so that a novice handler sitting at home could have her dog successfully searching boxes in no time. A transition to focusing on Parker touches on the path a dog and handler might take from attending a workshop taught by one of the founders, to working on your own and building search skills in the dog over the course of a few weeks or months. Throughout the first ten minutes of the DVD there is an emphasis on letting the dog set the pace for learning, and it's noted that before you progress too far, you want to be sure your dog shows an understanding and a desire for hunting a food or toy reward in the boxes.

The next twenty minutes of the DVD make good use of video diary footage of Parker's progression in the activity of K9 Nose Work captured over an eight month period. In addition to Christy's voice over, K9 Nose Work & NACSW co-founder, Ron Gaunt provides commentary to help the viewer understand Parker's behavior in the searches. We get to see a variety of novice level searches using boxes both indoors and outdoors, as well as a few searches with the food reward hidden in other containers or objects, or simply placed in the environment. By the end of the videos, Parker is searching for the first target odor in competition K9 Nose Work, birch essential oil on a cotton swab, and Christy and Parker are preparing for their first NACSW trial. 

What is evident from the videos of Parker searching is how successful you can make the game for the dog when you limit the size of the search area and contain the odor in a box. Watching Parker work boxes and other objects in a hallway also illustrates how much use you can get out of a single, familiar location and still keep it fun for the dog. There are several videos where handling mistakes are made - specifically, not timing the reward with Parker's discovery of the hide. I applaud Christy for including these videos and viewers should, too. In one video referred to as "basement search", Parker is doing an interior container search and she makes several attempts at alerting to the source odor, but Christy is expecting a different display of behavior. Ron, advises, "don't wait for the dog to sit down, roll over, or whistle dixie. Reward immediately." Watching these videos provides a valuable reminder to all K9 Nose Work handlers to respond to the dog, rather than waiting for what you expect the dog should do in the search.

The last ten minutes of the video are devoted to a glossary of terms used in K9 Nose Work and at NACSW sanctioned events. If you're already watching the video, it's handy to view the definitions of some of the most common terms used in the activity and sport, but if you're looking for a quick access reference tool, it won't be too useful.

While The Parker Videos DVD is clearly aimed at novice handlers who may not have the benefit of joining a weekly instructor-led class, there's plenty here for intermediate and seasoned handlers, too. For less than the price of one weekly class, you get a well summarized refresher on the foundational concepts of getting a dog started in K9 Nose Work, as well as an opportunity to sharpen your observational skills and begin to see how certain patterns emerge in the behavior of every dog as they progress in the activity. Watching the way Parker searches in the series of videos reminded me that when doing searches with my own dog, I need to look for odor obedience - which doesn't always mean the dog is going to go the most direct route to the hide. As a training aid for getting started in K9 Nose Work, a refresher on the basics, or a simple study of a novice K9 Nose Work dog's search behavior over time, The Parker Videos DVD will not disappoint.

I had an opportunity to speak with the founders of K9 Nose Work & the NACSW about their first DVD release. They chose to work closely with Christy and Parker because of their well-documented journey from Intro to K9 Nose Work workshop to searching for the first target odor; as co-founder Amy Herot describes it, "It's a rare situation that you can follow one dog through all the various stages of K9 Nose Work." The hope is that Christy will continue to document Parker's journey for future DVDs (Christy and Parker recently earned an NW1 title), allowing viewers to benefit from the consistency of one dog progressing in K9 Nose Work.

The NACSW is also working on other DVDs, with the intention of showing the wide variety of dogs who enjoy K9 Nose Work at every stage of the game from beginner to competition level. You can expect that some of these DVDs will prominently feature the founders, NACSW faculty, and CNWIs, and will focus on the philosophy and training methodology of K9 Nose Work. As more DVDs become available, there should be a useful mix of students or attendees of workshops applying their learning - as in The Parker Videos - and DVDs featuring more direct instruction from the NACSW. 

Check out The Parker Videos DVD for yourself and post a comment with your thoughts. And, don't forget to keep a video camera running during your K9 Nose Work practice sessions - you never know if you and your dog might be the next stars of an NACSW K9 Nose Work DVD!

Happy Sniffing!     

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Calling it Clear in K9 Nose Work®

If you're into the sport of K9 Nose Work, you've probably seen or heard this two word phrase: blank room (the official terminology is blank area). A blank room is a searchable area with no odor. It can be a bathroom, or it can be an interior area consisting of several connected rooms. A handler must call clear if he believes his dog has searched the room and found no odor present. For most teams nearing competition at the NW3 title level, the blank room looms like some distant and foreboding, sky-piercing mountain on the horizon. If you know your dog and understand his behavior in the presence and absence of odor, you can turn that mountain into a mole hill and move one step closer to that NW3 title.

Be Clear About What Your Dog Looks Like In Odor

Some dogs are painfully subtle with their signs and behavior in the presence of odor, but most dogs display easily identifiable changes when they catch a target odor. If you're competing at an NW2 or NW3 level, you should know your dog pretty well, and be able to see when he's picked up a scent and when he's working up to an alert.

Most dogs exhibit one or more of the following signs when working odor:

- change in pace; if your dog speeds up or slows way down, it could be because he's caught odor
- stiffening of body, lowering of head and shoulders (like when stalking prey)
- head turn or other sudden movement of the head
- intense sniffing around a specific area or in a specific direction (not frozen nose sniffing)
- intense sniffing ending in a forceful exhale
- trotting along and air scenting 

What will throw you as a handler is the occasional high or inaccessible hide. These hides tend to be harder for your dog to commit to and thus it's harder for you to see the signs that he's working odor. The best way to learn to read your dog in these situations is to have your CNWI/ANWI set up search scenarios with high or inaccessible hides and to guide you and make sure your dog has success and you can identify all the signs that he's working odor.

Know What Your Dog Looks Like When Odor Is Not Present

Our dogs are very keen searchers and will show just as many identifiable signs that no odor is present as they will when there's a hide to find.

Look for these signs from your dog when no odor is present:

- no/diminished interest in entering the room
- frantic, generalized searching
- frequent checking in with you
- inconsistent/fleeting interest in some areas, often ignoring the areas initially or ignoring them on subsequent passes

What will throw you here is the amount of time you spend in the room before making a decision to call it clear. Every dog has a threshold for searching, once they've passed it their reliability decreases. If your dog's threshold is forty-five seconds and you're at a minute, he may begin showing increased interest in a specific area where no odor is present and he may even false alert. You'll want to train to avoid this scenario, so have someone force you to make a decision at thirty seconds into the search. If you call clear and there is odor present, it just means you need to try and pick up on some signs your dog shows in those first thirty seconds that would tell you odor is present. 

If you fail to call clear in a blank room, you need to try and recall what your dog did in the first fifteen or thirty seconds of the search. Most likely, your dog showed all the signs that odor was not present, but as time elapsed, he maybe did a head turn in a part of the room he previously showed no interest in, then sniffed something and gave you his alert signal. If you compare a search where odor is present to a blank room search like described above, you will see that when odor is present your dog will usually search a more specific area and make a continued effort to get to odor and alert, rather than randomly showing interest in an area he had previously ignored.

Practicing Blank Rooms

It's best to practice a blank room with someone else present, ideally an instructor or a seasoned handler. What you want to get better at is identifying your dog's signs in the first thirty seconds of the search and making a decision to call it clear or continue searching for odor. The instructor can help by enforcing the thirty second rule and by offering feedback on the search, specifically your dog's behavior and anything you might have done to influence your dog.

Always have a search with odor present set up to do before or after a blank room search. Your dog should never go out to do K9 Nose Work and not do at least one search with odor present.

When you call a room clear, verbal praise is the best reward - a few pats on the back work, too - you just want to let your dog know that you're happy he searched the area. Save your food and toy rewards for when he finds odor.

Try to get exposure to a variety of rooms. Kitchens and highly cluttered rooms are often the most difficult rooms to search and call clear - not necessarily for the dog, but for the handler who perceives the clutter as adding to the difficulty of clearing the room. Surprisingly, room size doesn't affect the dog as much as you might think. A twenty by forty room can be called clear in the same amount of time as an eight by eight room.

Observe the length of time it takes your dog to alert on odor in a variety of rooms. A rule of thumb for experienced dogs is about one minute or less to find the first odor in a room. This means that the dog is actively searching for this odor, most likely from the first seconds of the search. In a blank room, if you hit the minute mark and your dog hasn't been working an odor and on his way to alerting, then you're best strategy is to call it clear.

Going To Trial With The Possibility Of A Blank Room

Try as you may to remember all of your training, at trial you will probably be too nervous and uncertain to call clear in a room search in under thirty seconds. Some of you will probably take all the way up to the ten second warning to make your decision. Try not to go this route. Instead, put your training to the test and find out if your practice has paid off. 

Officially, an interior search at trial *may* contain a blank room or area. If you call an area clear, you will not be told if you were correct until after the trial. If you find out that the room had odor, try to learn the hide placement and see if your instructor can set up a similar search for your next training session.

Some dogs behave differently at trials and competitions (so do their handlers), usually becoming over exuberant and sloppy searchers, or shutting down and giving false alerts. Try to keep your dog calm and focused, but, accept that nothing can substitute for experience. The more you and your dog experience searching in trials, the more reliable your team will be on subsequent trial days.

Enjoy really watching your dog and understanding him a little bit better as you encounter possible blank rooms in practice and at trial.

Happy Sniffing! 


Saturday, October 13, 2012

What Motivates Your K9 Nose Work® Dog to Search?

A few nights ago, I innocently forgot to feed our dogs. When morning came, I got Muriel ready for some searching before breakfast. While I watched her work I looked for any difference in her performance having missed two meals before searching instead of one (Muriel usually searches for treats then gets her meal after she's all done). From what my eyes could see, Muriel seemed to be working as good as ever. I wasn't sure if this was because she was extra hungry, but that was the most obvious variable to me that morning.

Imagine my surprise when I saw a post to the K9 Nose Work yahoo group (you can join by invite only if you've attended a workshop or attend a weekly class taught by a CNWI/ANWI) sharing a link to a study touting the benefits of feeding search dogs before they work. The study found that a dog working on an empty stomach is less successful in a search activity than a dog working with a meal in his belly (I know I'm glossing over the specifics). I have no doubt my own anecdotal evidence is no match for the data collected in a real study; at the same time, I'm working with my dog, not one of the dogs in the study. Perhaps she's just different.

My point is not really to debate the findings of the study. The fact that someone is out there studying how dogs search and providing any information on the subject at all is pretty cool. I say never turn down a chance to learn something new, even if you subsequently decide it has no practical application for you. What I'm interested in are the ways we might motivate our dogs to search more enthusiastically and successfully in the activity and sport of K9 Nose Work.

Finding Out What Motivates Your Dog in the Beginning

Choose the most valuable reward - In K9 Nose Work most dogs start out searching for a high value treat. If you have a dog who loves his rope ball more than anything, let him search for that. The key is to find out what your dog goes a little bit crazy (the good kind of crazy) for and use that.

Give your dog home field advantage - Just as important as what motivates your dog is how comfortable he is in his search environment. Searching for his favorite treat/toy reward is supposed to be fun, so play the game in places your dog feels safe and secure enough to have a good time.

Keep distractions to a minimum - If you're trying to get your dog to search for his favorite squirrel squeak toy in the backyard while a real squirrel scurries across the fence, you won't get too far. The intended reward should be the only reward your dog can get, otherwise you're inviting confusion as to what your dog should put his efforts into searching for.

Stay one step ahead of your dog - Remember that look of excitement in your dog's eyes the first time he was enticed with his favorite reward, then set loose to search for it - try to keep that look in his eyes with each new search. That means setting up searches that are challenging but achievable.

Keeping a K9 Nose Work Dog Motivated

Once your dog gets the game and has progressed from self-rewarding in the searches to searching for the target odor only, maintaining or increasing his motivation to search is about much more than choosing a high value reward.

Build a routine, but be flexible to change - The average K9 Nose Work handler with a dog searching for one or more of the target odors has probably developed a routine for playing the game of K9 Nose Work. I'm a bit OCD, so I'm all about the routine.

I have my K9 Nose Work backpack that holds all of our gear - collar, long line, treat rewards, the hat I always wear. Picking up that backpack is a clear sign to Muriel that we're going searching.

We go to class every Wednesday now for over four years. Muriel has learned to read the calendar and knows exactly when Wednesday is approaching; she makes this clear by burning holes in my head with her laser-eyed stare tracking my every move until I pick up our backpack and drive her to class.

Before a search, we go through a little wind-up routine where I ask here if she's ready to do some nose work and she replies with an enthusiastic muzzle-punch-to-the-face yes. At the start line I hold her leash tight and give her search command.

If you have a routine similar to this, do something every once and a while to surprise your dog. Sometimes I'll set out a hide in my front yard while Muriel's hanging out in the backyard, then I'll just call her in, pop on her search collar and let her go. I also like to carry a travel size odor kit so I can set up random searches when we're on the road.

When we don't have our Wednesday class, I'll sometimes not do any searches with Muriel until the next class - so two weeks go by without searches. When we do get back to the game she's giddy like a puppy to show me she's still got skills. I've witnessed this same renewed enthusiasm for the game in many dogs with time away from training varying from a few weeks to months (not sure any of us could willfully stop playing for months!).

I don't usually change my pre-search wind-up routine, but if I see that Muriel is ready to get down to business right out of her crate, I'll sometimes just let her follow her nose.

Get creative with your training - Sometimes it's just you and your dog with a little free time at home and you want to do some K9 Nose Work, but you feel like your dog has searched the bathroom umpteen times and you just can't think of a good place to set out the hide. This is a perfect time to think outside the box.

Find an object you can place odor in that's accessible to your dog, but requires a little extra effort to get to, like a laundry basket. Creating situations where your dog has to work over, under, around or through physical barriers to get to the odor can increase his overall motivation to search.

Try taping a hide to the inside bottom of a laundry basket and tipping it on its side. Give your dog a chance to put part (or in some cases, all) of his body inside the basket to find the source odor; when he does get to source, reward and praise him. Next, tip the basket upside down so he has to tip it over to get to the source odor.

If your dog is the polite type, or a little timid around objects, and he indicates that the odor is in the basket, but he's just not willing or able to get any closer, offer help. Tip the basket slowly and let him find his way to source odor or, if he's very timid, hold his reward right at source to give him extra incentive to brave getting inside the strange object.

After an exercise like this, you might observe your dog working harder in searches. For many dogs, having to overcome a physical barrier to getting to source odor seems to raise the overall value of finding source odor in all situations.

Get out of your head and let your dog be motivated - As a K9 Nose Work handler you will probably go through times where you feel like your dog has lost his search mojo. You might be working on higher hides and find that he's suddenly alerting up every tree and sign post. Don't dwell on these occasions, it's just part of the learning process. Resist the temptation to help him in any way other than an invisible one, and don't get in the mindset of, "my dog can't do this" or "this is too hard". Just believe in your dog and keep challenging him. He wants to rise to the occasion. When he does achieve new and great things you'll both be happier and that'll keep him highly motivated.

Build a special relationship with your dog outside of K9 Nose Work - There's nothing like the bond that forms from working as a team in K9 Nose Work, but for that bond to be its strongest you and your dog might need one-on-one time outside of the search area. Take walks together, bring your dog to work, just relax together on the couch on a rainy afternoon. If your dog is truly your best friend, there's no doubt he'll be motivated to do his very best K9 Nose Work searching for you.

Keep Searching For What Works Best

It's easy to identify a motivated K9 Nose Work dog: eager to search, happy, willing to face new challenges. It's hard to say exactly what's motivating the dog. For most dogs, it's the food or toy reward, and the reigniting of their hunting instincts. For some dogs it's the fun of the game. If you're hoping to maintain or increase your dog's motivation to search, you have to keep things familiar yet fresh.

Add some variety to your reward - If you always use salmon strips, try rotating in some pizza crust or some steak. You may see a bump in motivation, but don't overuse a special reward - keep it random to keep your dog excited about it.

Try a new location - It can be a familiar location, like a friend's house your dog has visited before, or make it brand new, like a park across town. In both cases, you'll pique your dog's excitement when he realizes every trip he takes could be a K9 Nose Work outing.

Change your handling approach - Maybe you're used to shuffling through the search area, taking long pauses while your dog ploddingly details everything on his way to finding source odor. Then again, you could be racing around at the end of your leash while your dog chases everything from the scent trail to butterflies. In both cases, you might be able to help your dog get motivated to search for the target odor more successfully.

Try varying your pace with your dog on leash. Speeding up with a dog who's slow to make a decision may signal to him that he better hurry or his opportunity will be lost. Slowing down with a rambunctious dog will help him to pay more attention to what he's sniffing and to follow that odor to source more efficiently. Both types of dog will like getting their reward faster, and your change in behavior will keep them more focused.

You can also try keeping your emotional displays to a minimum while your dog is searching, waiting until he's found source odor to beam with pride and shower him with enthusiastic pats and rubs in addition to his usual reward. Your dog's eagerness to see you express yourself may motivate him to search with vigor.

Share Your Ideas

What motivates your dog? Comment below and maybe you'll help a few fellow K9 Nose Work handlers to motivate their dogs.

Happy Sniffing!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

When is My Dog (and When Am I) Ready For an ORT?

In K9 Nose Work®, our dogs are almost always ready for the next challenge before we are, and that's definitely true in the case of the Odor Recognition Test, or ORT. An ORT is meant to be a test of your dog's ability to recognize one of the three target odors used in competition, and of your ability to recognize when your dog has found the target odor. The test is set up as a container search using twelve boxes, one box containing the target odor. While this all sounds simple, an ORT can prove to be unexpectedly difficult. Here are a few signs to look for that will help you know when you and your dog are ready to enter that upcoming ORT.

1. Odor Obedience

An odor obedient dog is one who actively searches for and goes to source odor. An ORT is made infinitely more difficult if your dog is not self-motivated to go to source odor. If the typical search for you and your dog involves you having to take your dog back to the source odor several times to get him to show interest and go to source, you're not yet ready for an ORT.

Make use of pairing the odor with food again to give your dog more time to make the connection that finding source odor is finding food. Keep searches simple so your dog has success without wandering or struggling. Once you move back to odor only, make sure to time your rewards properly to reinforce the desired behavior from your dog. Some dogs will alert to source odor, and if not rewarded quickly, they will begin exploring other ways of getting a reward (usually false alerting or fringing) and may not willingly return to the source odor.

As a handler, avoid cuing your dog during the search. Keep an even pace as the two of you work the search area and don't stop or linger at the hide location; keep moving until your dog has actually gone to source odor. This is especially important when practicing container searches. The scent from source odor contained in a box will sometimes fall on or in the nearest box or boxes, and this will cause many dogs to show strong interest in an empty box, sometimes even resulting in a dog alerting on an empty box. If you keep moving while your dog is investigating empty boxes - even if he alerts - he will eventually learn that the only way to get your attention and get his reward is to alert on source odor.

Keep your ratio of blind to non-blind searches low, say one blind search for every four or more non-blind searches. While blind searches are a way to test your readiness for an ORT or trial, they can also contribute to problems like fringing and false alerting. There's more value in strengthening your dog's understanding of what you want from him in a search (like described in the above paragraph) than there is in working blind and potentially supporting unwanted behavior. Too many times, I've seen a promising K9 Nose Work team rush to do a blind search only to have the dog fringe or false, and the handler reinforce the behavior through his body language - pretty much doing everything but rewarding the dog. The result is a handler who has less trust in his dog and is more likely to second-guess him in a search even when the dog is correct, causing further problems.

This is a good time to remind you to do blind searches with a CNWI/ANWI or a seasoned handler who can help you avoid any major missteps - like supporting a false alert - in the search.

2. Recognizing the Alert 

If you can identify one or more things your dog does when he locates source odor, you're on the path to entering an ORT.

Many handlers have odor obedient dogs and have mastered promptly rewarding at source, yet, when it comes to the alert, some handlers just can't see the signs that their dogs are in odor. For many handlers, the trouble is not that their dogs are too subtle, it's that reading the signs and making a call in real time is challenging.

It turns out, there is a very easy solution to the problem of not being able to read your dog: patience. If you stick to well-timed rewards for your dog and continue to advance your training then you will begin to see the signs indicating your dog has found source odor. Many dogs begin with the "looks at me" alert, looking back to the handler for a reward after finding source odor.

Once your dog begins to offer some kind of alert at source odor, don't expect it every time. Remember that a timely reward is still most important to your dog. If you develop a habit of waiting your dog out for a desired behavior, you may end up with that behavior even when it's not desired. Build a chain of events that lead up to your dog sourcing odor - maybe he always stiffens up and does detailed sniffing right before he finds source odor, even if he doesn't do his "looks at me" alert. If you practice this way, then in a blind search you can use the behavior changes to get a pretty good idea of where the odor is even if your dog isn't alerting, as opposed to figuring out which of the five boxes he alerted to has the odor in it.

3. Handling Under Pressure

That part in the opening paragraph about ORTs being unexpectedly difficult, well, it's usually due to the pressure of searching blind and getting it right in an official setting. Performance anxiety. Sure, you and your dog only get one shot to call it right or you have to sign up for another ORT. Yes, you're likely to be at a new location in front of many unfamiliar faces (or worse, familiar faces you don't want to fail in front of), including officials and judges, and you'll have paid a nice chunk of change for the pleasure. No, there isn't really a way to completely eliminate that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling that goes along with facing a challenge, outcome unknown. So, what can you do?

First, employ whatever relaxation techniques you care to try: meditation, yoga, acupuncture, soothing herbal tea, gregorian chant - be open to anything. If you can relax and keep your cool during a test like an ORT, your team will perform better.

If needles and monophonic monks don't lower your anxiety levels, then try practicing some searches in settings that raise your anxiety levels. Many K9 Nose Work teams fall apart in their first test or competition because the dog senses some major changes going on with the handler and reacts by shutting down or trying to please the handler, often with a false alert. The practice searches don't even necessarily have to be blind; you could do a demo for your son's kindergarten class or some coworkers, or make a bet with your husband offering him nights off from getting up with the baby for a week if you and your dog can't find the hide. The more exposure you give your dog to the various emotional states you might be in during a search, the better he'll cope when it really counts.

Ultimately, the best defense against competition nerves is experience. As your team's skills increase and you and your dog do ORTs and trials, it'll become easier to get into the right state of mind for a test or competition.

Still not sure when you should enter an ORT? Talk to your CNWI/ANWI and see if your class can do a mock ORT for practice. Your dog will most likely be ready and able to do an ORT long before you are, so when you do finally enter one don't forget to relax and trust your dog.

Happy Sniffing!     

Sunday, September 30, 2012

What a Smile Can do for You in The Sport of K9 Nose Work®

This week's post comes to you a little later and a little lighter on the word count, courtesy of my new baby girl, Mackena Grace! She was born on Thursday, September 27, 2012.

I've been tossing around the idea of asking K9 Nose Work & NACSW co-founder, Amy Herot to unearth some early trial footage of me and Muriel to post here for instructional purposes. I have a feeling that the video would speak louder than any words I could conjure up to describe the experience. Still, I'm going to try and conjure some words.

The first trial I entered with Muriel was a December 2008 practice match in Torrance, CA. We were about 3 months into our training and had very little experience on all four elements of competition in novel environments. We had not even searched in grassy areas yet. For these reasons alone, my expectations for the outcome of the trial would have been pretty low, but a bout of fringes and false alerts just days before the trial had me focused on failure as the only outcome.

Trial day came and we took it one element at a time. We finished the day somewhere in the top ten - passing all four elements - and earned the first ever Harry Award; an award recognizing high performance, exceptional teamwork, and the special bond shared by a K9 Nose Work handler and his rescue dog (click here to learn more about the Harry Award). I was so shocked and overjoyed that I cried. Right there in front of all of my fellow competitors, the judges, volunteers, the score room tabulators, and the co-founders of the sport. I cried.

Now is probably the time to explain that I am not that guy who cries in public. Even behind closed doors, I'm just not the lachrymose type. At most, I'm a crying on the inside fella. Here's the thing though, I had adopted Muriel from a little two-woman rescue in Pasadena (Mutts & Moms) with no intention of competing with her - really, I just wanted to save this poor animal from a terrible life that nearly ended in early 2007 in some dusty Bakersfield shelter. What I adopted from Mutts & Moms was not an animal, not a pet, but a piece of my spirit I never knew was missing. That we shared some asomatous connection was the only explanation for why this being whose body and soul had been beaten and abused by humans, would allow me to get close to her. Muriel trusted me unconditionally from the moment we met and her penetrating stare and robotic focus on me were eerie at first, but I now know she merely wanted an opportunity to prove to me what others failed to see: that she wasn't worthless. Once I began to provide Muriel with opportunities to show what she could do, she set out on a path that led to my moment of public weepiness and she continues to amaze me daily.

That December trial was not just significant because we succeeded unexpectedly and earned the Harry Award, but because it was the first time my very personal feelings about my relationship with Muriel were recognized by others through our performance in a sport.

The next trial we entered was on January 25, 2009 and was the first official NACSW sanctioned trial in the sport of K9 Nose Work. I was on a high from the accolades Muriel and I received in the December trial, but I was trying to remain level-headed about the competition and the challenges we would undoubtedly face. First we gave an underwhelming, but successful, performance in the box drill (we got one of those "trust your dog" comments from the judge for not calling her first alert when I was only trying to be certain she wasn't up to her recently acquired fringing/false alert behavior). After that we waited to do the exterior and vehicle searches.

We failed the exterior search. It was a complete and total failure, beginning with Muriel nearly peeing on some ivy and ending with me calling a false alert that may have been caused by odor blowing and pooling, but was nowhere near the source. I was disappointed in our performance and not looking forward to continuing with the other two elements.

The rest of the trial was a far worse display of K9 Nose Work than our failed exterior search. I remember the actual experience being unpleasant - the searches going all wrong, Muriel signaling randomly and the judges begrudgingly uttering no to my feeble calls of alert - but watching the video a week later was painful and embarrassing. The images of me and Muriel searching show a slump-shouldered, blank-faced handler, and a broken dog trying anything she can to make him happy. After watching the video, I realized the January trial was just as significant as the December trial, it was the first time my feelings about our performance had a negative effect on Muriel. It was also the last time.

For every trial since that January 2009 trial I have worked very hard to keep things fun for me and Muriel. I'm still competitive and I want us to perform well at trial, but my number one concern is that we're both having fun. This is especially important when we fail with one or more elements remaining in a trial. Even though I know we won't take home a title for that day, there's no reason we can't do some great searching. I blew it for us on a vehicle search at the December 2011 NW3 trial in Livermore. It was our first element, and it was frustrating, but I knew our failure was because we didn't take our time and move throughout the search area well enough. Instead of bemoaning our loss of a chance to earn a title, I kept a positive attitude and looked forward to the remaining three searches. We ended the day with that one vehicle hide being the only thing we missed. I considered that a great day of searching, and I was very proud of Muriel.

Even professional handlers with working dogs recognize that the dogs see their job as a game, and it's best to play the game with the least amount of stress, especially when the stakes are high. There are accounts of search and rescue dogs working the rubble from the 9/11 attacks getting to search for and find live firemen who'd purposefully hidden themselves to give the dogs a chance to be correct and be rewarded and to keep the dogs' (and handlers') stress levels lower.

While there are many things a handler can do to make sure his dog is having fun while doing K9 Nose Work, one of the easiest things is to remember to smile. All dogs are sensitive to human emotional responses - some dogs to a greater degree than others (there is a great Nova documentary called Dogs Decoded that explores this topic). Don't just smile when things are going well, but try to keep a truly positive attitude when your team experiences failure. Some people like to use the mantra: trial is just another training day; I say do whatever works to keep a positive attitude. As long as your dog is able to enjoy searching and playing the game of K9 Nose Work, you can feel good about the day no matter the outcome of the trial. And, more often than not, your positive attitude will contribute to a better performance that you really will feel good about.

I remember what I said to my classmates the day I watched the January trial footage, I said that I never wanted to cause Muriel to fall to pieces again because I'd become so wrapped up in the outcome of a competition. I watch Muriel have the time of her life doing amazing things in practice sessions on both blind and non-blind searches and I know that there is no difference to her if the search is set up for practice or for competition. There should be no difference to me either. Every time we do K9 Nose Work I should be smiling at how much fun my dog is having doing what she loves and that should be the greatest reward.

Happy Sniffing!