Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Setting Better Hides

One of the great things about K9 Nose Work® is the portability of the activity. Anywhere you can take your dog, you can do K9 Nose Work. If you’re just starting in the activity and using boxes, load up the trunk. If you’re on odor, you can get a cool little travel kit that fits in your glove box (visit for official odor kits & supplies). With your dog and your supplies, all you need is to know how to set hides that will be fun for you and your dog, and that will challenge him while being within his abilities.

Sounds simple, huh? Well, yes and no. If you’ve received the right training you should be able to put out your own hides, but what if you try to get ahead of your training, or you have a friend or family member set a hide for your dog, only to have the search go horribly wrong – a cotton swab placed in the interior of a vehicle or an odor tin set seven feet off the ground above a public restroom stall. Too many of these poorly placed hides can result in a dog that cannot find success and loses interest in the activity. Luckily, dogs are forgiving, and most will shrug off an occasional bad experience and happily await a properly set hide with a real chance for success.

What you’ll read in this post should not be considered “instructional” in the sense that you can just go and try it with your dog. Rather, you should use this information to compliment your training with a Certified Nose Work Instructor (CNWI) or attendance at a K9 Nose Work Workshop. Certified instructors know how to maximize learning and success for you and your dog, and they know how to guide you through a difficult search that could otherwise result in a setback for your dog. In my experience, it’s always best to use class and workshops as the setting for introducing your dog to new and challenging search scenarios; then, to go out on your own into other environments and reinforce your dog’s learning by setting up similar searches.

So, as you read on, make sure you always consult with your CNWI or workshop instructor before attempting searches you’ve never done before. And, always obtain permission to search on property that does not belong to you.

Hides That Encourage Patterns

In the beginning stages of K9 Nose Work we want to encourage dogs to search freely and be self-rewarded, building confidence and a drive for the activity. This means lots of off-leash searching (when the area is safe & secure) and very little handler interaction. Free as we want them to be, we still want the dogs to learn how to search efficiently. This is where hide placement plays a big role.

Create patterns with your hide placement to help your dog learn to search parts of a search area he might naturally bypass. For example, corners in an interior area often “trap” odor, and your dog’s natural instinct is to cut the corners. If you introduce your dog to corner hides by setting odor in the corner of a room and letting him search around, he may find it, but most likely, he’ll struggle. The better way is to set boxes along the wall starting at the entrance to the room, including one in the corner, and ending with several along the wall beyond the corner. Take the odor box and place it first at the threshold right inside the entrance to the room, then repeat the search, moving the odor box down the line. As you practice this way, notice your dog’s increased expectation that odor could be anywhere along the wall. Now, he will begin to search the corner even when the odor isn’t there. To avoid creating too strong an expectation, finish with a free room search with hide placement away from the wall and watch your dog start off following the pattern, but break away to find the odor. That’s what we call odor obedience.

For advanced dogs, think about patterns in terms of the size and shape of a search area. Maybe a perimeter search is best, or maybe moving diagonally through the area works better. You can set hides and try the different approaches, or you can watch multiple dogs run the same hides and see which search patterns are most successful.

It’s easy to get excited about pattern searching because we handlers take a more proactive role in setting hides to teach a pattern, then encouraging our dogs to work in patterns through leash handling, body language, etc. Just remember that odor obedience is still king. Have a plan in mind for covering a search area, but let your dog take the lead. Allow him time to investigate an area when he catches odor – even if he zigs and zags around the room. Employ the pattern if your dog can’t seem to pin down the odor source, or if you have a large or busy area and time demands that the two of you have a plan to cover the area quickly and thoroughly.

Hides That Show How Odor Moves

We can’t see how odor moves. Our dogs can certainly smell it and we can watch them work to the source, but we still don’t know how that particular scent is travelling; we don’t know if it’s rising or falling, curling or swirling, moving quickly or slowly. And, even if we do have an idea of how the odor is moving, we often can’t be certain if that’s really what the dog is smelling and following to source.

Setting aside the mysteries of odor movement, there are certain hide placements that create a surprisingly clear picture of what’s happening with odor in a search, even if it may not be what we would expect.

One of my favorite hide placements presents the clearest picture of odor movement when the search scenario is set up for advanced dogs, but the principle at work is the same for a novice level search. An elevated hide on a freestanding object like a tree or a telephone pole, or a low overhang (like a sun shade canopy) will produce an odor plume, with the scent being faint or non-existent directly beneath the hide, and stronger some distance away from the hide. Watching dogs work a hide like this, you will see that they pick up the scent eight or ten feet away from the hide (depending on height of the odor source and wind conditions) and spend some time puzzling out the location of the odor from that position before going in to source it. In most cases, you could almost draw a circle on the ground to mark where that odor plume is falling, and until the dogs get out to that circle or beyond, they cannot work the odor to source. This fascinating scenario is a lesson to us handlers that being close to an object is not the same as being close to odor.

Vehicle searches offer several good opportunities for placing hides where odor movement becomes very clear. Use a vehicle with a running board and place the hide under the edge of the running board somewhere midway between the front and back of the vehicle. Depending on wind conditions, the odor will travel along the running board as if it were on a string. Your dog might chase the odor as it moves away from the source, bouncing back and forth before deciding to close in on the source. This type of search will help you develop patience and a better understanding of how your dog looks as he’s working towards source odor.

For another interesting search, try placing odor in a vehicle’s wheel well, then lining up a second vehicle downwind and parallel to the first. Depending on the wind conditions, you will probably see your dog spend a little time checking the downwind vehicle’s wheel well. This is a sign of odor pooling up and creating a puzzle for your dog. Pooling odor happens in many search scenarios, but it can be especially clear and easy to observe on vehicles. Use this as a chance to understand the difference between your dog in pooling odor and your dog on source odor.

Find an exterior area with a hill and place the odor below the hill on flat ground. Start your dog up at the top of the hill and experiment with your positioning to the left or right of the hide. You’ll find that there is an optimal start position where your dog will pick up odor and immediately go to source, and an inefficient start that will result in a prolonged area search before finally homing in on the source odor. You can also place the hide on the slope of the hill and try starting off above or below the odor and working along the slope. These types of hide placement really make you think about giving your dog access to every part of a search area to increase your effectiveness as a team.

Hides That Break It Down

Any time you can set up searches that simplify concepts for your dog, you’re going to make quick and solid progress.

A whiteboard ledge creates a channeling effect on odor, causing it to travel along the ledge. Start your dog off close to the ledge to keep the search area smaller. Watch how he chases the odor, and maybe even leaves the area and comes back. A vehicle search with the odor placed under the edge of a running board can produce the same effect at a height that is more manageable for less experienced dogs.

A table and chairs is a great way to introduce less accessible odor. Start with the odor hidden under the tabletop with no chairs blocking access. Once your dog is expecting success under the table, add in a few chairs spaced out to make it possible for your dog to squeeze through and get to the source odor. For the last search, place odor on one of the chairs and surprise your dog with an easy access hide.

Once you’ve introduced your dog to these types of hides, you can try them out in more complex searches. Search an entire room, like an office break room; use the edge of the kitchen countertop to produce a channeling effect similar to the whiteboard ledge. For advanced dogs, place a trash can with a plastic liner at one end of the countertop. The odor may drift and collect in the trash can and confuse the dog a bit, but if the dog is experienced, he’ll work it out and learn a good lesson, too.

As you continue to enjoy K9 Nose Work, remember that it is your CNWI or workshop instructor who will teach you new concepts and make sure you and your dog are challenged, but still experience success. The searching you do on your own should be similar to what you and your dog have successfully achieved with an instructor. Don’t worry, that still leaves endless possibilities for keeping the searches new and exciting on your own. A change in environment, wind, temperature, or starting line can make the same kind of hide placement a completely new search experience.

There’s so much to discuss when it comes to placing hides that there may be a part two to this post… I haven’t even touched on multiple odors yet! Next week we get an exciting and insightful firsthand account of the trial experience from competitor & CNWI Jaime Fellows in the June 2011 Denver, Co National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) NW1 trial.  


  1. Excellent article Jeff! Very useful information and good food for thought!

    1. Thank you!

      The founders of K9 Nose Work (Amy Herot, Ron Gaunt & Jill Marie O'Brien) inspired this post. Every time I get to work my dog in a search put out by one of them it's a real learning experience.

      Just last week, Amy set up a three hide interior room search and, wouldn't you know, the most challenging hide of the three was a seemingly simple corner hide - a tin on a chair with a dozen other chairs lining the walls on either side. The room was hot and based on the dogs' behavior the odor was travelling straight up the corner, then drifting along the adjacent walls. The only way for the dogs to source the odor was to get above the chair and follow the scent down to the source. Challenging, but a lot of fun. I'm glad we ran into this puzzle in class and not at a trial!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Yes, please do write Part 2! Very informative & helpful.