Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How to Have the Most Fun in K9 Nose Work®

The activity and sport of K9 Nose Work® is designed to bring the joys of searching and scent work to virtually all dogs and people. What you and your dog can get out of K9 Nose Work® is limited only by  your dog's interest and your own creativity.

Whether you and your dog are just considering starting K9 Nose Work® or you've been enjoying the activity and sport for years, here are some important tips for getting the most out of your K9 Nose Work® training and maximizing the fun for you and your dog.

1. Get in the right mindset from the beginning

Part of the K9 Nose Work® philosophy is that dogs are at their happiest when we allow them to learn on their terms, using their natural abilities, especially their amazing sense of smell. So, curb your desire to "teach" your dog the activity, and, instead, watch how he learns through problem solving and self-rewarding. Have the mindset that your dog will be teaching you.

When you do have the possibility of influencing your dog in a search keep your communication with the dog as "obedience free" as possible. Avoid any commands other than a command to begin the search, and allow your dog plenty of independence. If your dog comes to you looking for a free treat, or waiting for you to give him an obedience command, do nothing. Ignore the behavior, avoid eye contact, walk around and shrug your shoulders. Your unresponsiveness lets your dog know that he has to take the lead in this activity, and when that's clear, he'll gladly accept the challenge.

When practicing outside of class, think about all the ways you can be an "invisible" helper. When helping your dog learn, make use of the search environment and bring the search to the dog's skill level, rather than expecting your dog to struggle. Avoid steering your dog to source odor, or otherwise leading your dog to source odor. If you feel your dog is just not getting it, make things a little easier. Success is the most powerful motivator. Only humans take pride in having to struggle at something challenging to achieve a reward. Think like a dog.

In general, the less you interact with your dog in the beginning, the better, but there are exceptions, so remain flexible. If your dog has behavioral or physical issues and requires assistance to enjoy K9 Nose Work®, every effort should be made to make sure the dog is having fun. The guidance of a Certified Nose Work Instructor (CNWI) or associate instructor (ANWI) will ensure that dogs with special needs progress at their own pace and have only positive experiences.

2. Make sure the reward you're offering is always tops on the dog's list

This goes double for people with picky pets. Most dogs will happily search for a wide variety of treats and toys, but even the easy to please dogs will sometimes crave a little variety.

In the beginning, you need a reward that your dog will brave the dangers of the unknown (boxes at first, and then various objects like umbrellas or shop vacs) to get to - not just once, but over and over again. When you attend a class or workshop, bring a variety of treats or toys and don't be afraid to borrow something new from a fellow handler. As you progress, change things up to keep your dog's interest piqued. If you're a competitor, try changing rewards between trials to see how it affects your dog's search intensity, but be careful about making any changes on trial day.

* There are two types of reward in K9 Nose Work®: food or toy. When beginning the activity, whichever reward type your dog prefers should be the type you stick with. Your dog should build a solid foundation seeking out a single reward type (if it's food, it can change from jerky to cheese to bacon, etc.), and progress to demonstrate a clear and consistent proficiency in searching for the reward paired with a target odor, then the target odor alone. Once a dog is solid on searching for odor alone, it is at the handler's discretion to switch between toy and food rewards, but this is not usually needed, because the dog has built a strong desire to find odor and be rewarded with his usual reward type. In the case that your dog loses interest in the reward you've been using, switching to the other reward type is a possible solution, but a solid foundation would need to be built again with this new reward type.

 3. Remember, it's always blind for the dog

When the location of the source odor is unknown to the handler, it's referred to as a "blind hide". Only dogs with a strong foundation and handlers with a good understanding of K9 Nose Work® should be attempting blind hides. It's best to have a CNWI or ANWI setting blind hides and monitoring you and your dog to prevent any setbacks in the dog's training.

In general, it's more beneficial to train on non-blind hides, after all, every search is blind for the dog. The main reason it's best to know where the hide is located is so you can provide a fast, clear and meaningful reward for the dog's discovery of source odor. Another benefit of non-blind hides is that they allow you to observe your dog and take note of how he works the area, giving you insight into certain behavior changes that signal when he's working odor.

Blind hides do come in handy when testing a dog and handler team's performance for an upcoming trial or to see how well the team has learned new concepts they've been training on. Just remember to keep the training positive for the dog. If the dog or handler is struggling with the search, adjustments should be made for the dog to have success. Taking a step back and simplifying the training may feel remedial to the handler, but dogs do not have pride and will only feel too happy to learn from easier searches.

4. It's not how much you practice, but where

A weekly class in K9 Nose Work® will ensure that you and your dog advance your training at a pace that is right for your dog. If you feel the need to do more training outside of class, it's far more helpful to set up easy searches in new environments, than it is to try and push your dog to do that high and deep hide the two of you struggled with in the previous week's class.

The benefits of searching in new environments are innumerable. For starters, your dog learns to expect a K9 Nose Work® search to happen anywhere, not just at the weekly class facility or at home. This especially comes in handy if you compete in K9 Nose Work®, as trial locations are often completely new to the competitors. New environments also expose your dog to new distractions. The more distractions your dog works through successfully, the better.

Next time you travel with your dog, have some of his target odor with you and plenty of high value reward and just pick a public place to set up a fast and easy search. Parks are great, alleys, the sidewalk in a new neighborhood. You'll see real improvement in your dog when it comes time to do the challenging hides in class.

5. Watch other dogs and handlers search

One of the challenges of handling a dog in K9 Nose Work® is that it's hard to know what you're doing wrong - or right - when you're out there doing it. One solution is to have yourself videotaped. If you can't do that, watching others do the same search as you and your dog can help you recognize and fix your own weaknesses.

When you watch your fellow K9 Nose Work® students and their dogs, keep an eye out for the way each dog finds the hide. You may see a pattern emerge where every dog who approached the hide from the left finds it straightaway, but every dog who doesn't struggles for some time. Watch the handlers, too, and see how much effect body language has on the dog's searches.

Take what you learn from observing other teams and test it out in your own searches. A classic example is switching from the standard 6ft leash to a long line (10ft or longer). It takes some getting used to, but the benefits of maintaining a loose leash without having to dash all around the search area are well worth the effort.

6. Stay in the right mindset (forget already? go back to #1)

At a certain point, your dog will have the kind of skills that win talent shows in Great Britain, and you will become obsessed with K9 Nose Work®. Resist the temptation to place expectations on your dog, or yourself. Remember that it's still your dog who leads the team, and your greatest contribution is minimizing your potential to interfere in the search.

When your dog has built up the stamina and resilience to take on more challenging searches, there will be times when it feels like the two of you have failed. Most likely, you'll fail in competition. When it happens, you will begin to analyze the performance and will probably conclude that you need to have more control over your dog and the searches. Don't let yourself go down that path.

Instead, go back to the basics. Set up simplified versions of the searches you're having trouble with and allow your dog to have success and learn independently. Remember that easy and frequent success is what motivates your dog, not grueling, tormenting struggles. Yes, your dog needs to be "pushed" to advance his skills, but it's a very fine line between a tough search that ends in success for the dog and one that creates confusion and stress, and requires recovering the dog. Use the expertise of your CNWI or ANWI when attempting to challenge your dog (and yourself); they will help you develop "invisible" ways to aid your dog in those difficult searches. A few small changes in leash handling, or the way you cover the search area with your dog can mean big strides forward in your training.

If you do have to analyze your searches, place the highest value on the information your dog sends you while searching. You can hold a finger to the wind and guess how it's blowing, but it won't matter if, at your dog's level, the air is stagnant. Your dog will tell you all you need to know about the difficulties of a search. You can then use that information to alter the search environment and give your dog a better chance at success. For example, if you're doing a difficult container search, include some kind of barrier near the container with the target odor to give your dog a surface to catch the odor on and work it back to the source.

As you go out to practice and enjoy K9 Nose Work®, remember that it isn't just about practicing and competing at ever increasing levels of difficulty. That's certainly fun for the humans - and for the dogs when success is achievable. K9 Nose Work® is also about deepening the bond between human and canine, and finding a new kind of respect for your dog as you begin to understand his world and how he communicates, a little more.

Above all, keep it fun for your dog and it will be fun for you, too. Titles and ribbons are nice, but a fast wagging tail and a happy pair of eyes staring up at you waiting for a reward should be your ultimate goal.

Happy Sniffing!


  1. Great post Jeff! It's nice to see all of this written down.

    - Natalie McManus

  2. Thanks Natalie! There are some tips that just seem to ring true at every stage of the game - hopefully a few of those ended up in the post!

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Thank you for the well-written article that reminds us to keep it simple!

  4. "Keep it simple" should be every K9 Nose Work® dog/handler team's mantra!

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Love this post. When I read number one I thought that it should be repeated at the end...and there it was! Guess we are on the right track.

    1. You're definitely on the right track! Thanks for the comment.