Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The K9 Nose Work® Practice Group

If you're in a weekly K9 Nose Work class or you've attended a workshop, it's safe to assume you're hooked on the activity and you want to practice more than just once a week. You can always practice with your dog alone, but you'll be missing out on the many benefits of practicing in a group. Luckily, the K9 Nose Work culture and community of handlers make it easy to form a group (or groups) that will enhance your overall K9 Nose Work experience. Here are a few ways you can start a group, and a few things you can do with your group.

1. Make a Group Out of Fellow K9 Nose Work Students

The easiest way to start a practice group and know from the beginning what you're getting into is to look to the handlers sitting to the left and right of you in your weekly class. K9 Nose Work promotes a culture of mutual respect and support, and this is what you will find at classes and trials. If you're the extroverted type, you should have no problem forming friendships with your classmates and organizing a group. If you're more the wallflower (me), just relax and be open to any invitations you get from those social butterflies and you'll be just fine.

2. Use Social Networking to Form a Group

If your classmates have hectic schedules or live too far apart from each other and you can't seem to bring a group together, turn to the internet. There are official yahoo groups for K9 Nose Work (ask your CNWI/ANWI for invitation to the groups) where you can find people in your area training at the same level as you.

3. Go to a Drop-In Class

If you're not having any luck getting a group together, then try attending a drop-in class offered by a CNWI/ANWI. You'll get extra practice in, and chances are, you'll meet a few K9 Nose Work enthusiasts like yourself and be that much closer to forming a practice group.

As you continue to train in K9 Nose Work weekly classes, at workshops, and once you begin competing in trials, you'll meet more and more K9 Nose Work handlers and become part of the greater K9 Nose Work community, forming friendships and increasing your opportunities to start or be part of a practice group.

What To Do With Your Practice Group

Once you've formed a practice group, you'll want to have a loose agenda for each training session. Since you're all attending a weekly class, many of your ideas for the practice group can come from exercises/searches your CNWI/ANWI teaches, but you'll still need to get a little creative to get the most out of your practice sessions.

1. Take Advantage of a Variety of Training Locations

A big part of training in K9 Nose Work is to practice the activity in new environments. By yourself it can get tiring looking for new places to  do searches. Each person in your practice group has at least one new location or object to contribute: a house or office, a car, a park no one else knows about, etc. If all your practice group does is get together periodically at a new location to revisit the searches done in the most recent class, the experience gained for all the members of the group and their dogs will be well worth the effort.

If you run out of locations, start thinking about businesses that might allow you to work your dogs on the premises. Petco and Home Depot are two great locations to train, and they come with plenty of distractions! Penny Scott-Fox, CNWI, was the first K9 Nose Work handler to train at big box stores and other busy locations. She dubbed the training, "Extreme Nose Work!". You can read a feature article about her and her dog, Turner, here. Just remember to ask permission before searching on private property, and always take care to leave the property in the same condition you found it so that all K9 Nose Work handlers can continue to have access to the greatest variety of search locations.

2. Set Hides to Surprise Each Other

Whether your practice group is made up of handlers who know each other very well or you're all just acquaintances, you can help each other immensely by all participating in setting hides for each other.

If you know your fellow handler has a habit of ignoring his dog's behavior changes when the dog's working bushes or trees (maybe the handler has experienced false alerts in these areas in the past) setting a multiple hide search with one hide in one of those problem areas can help confront his false alert fears and begin to trust his dog again in those areas.

If you're setting hides for a handler you've never worked with before, you'll probably set something you're familiar with, but the handler may never have encountered that type of search, and without too much effort on your part you'll have introduced this handler to a new search scenario. It's great for the team searching, and great for you, because you get to see how this team works the search and if it's different than what you've seen before.

3. Run Exercises For Each Other

To give your practice group some variety you can work in a few exercises here and there. One of my favorites is what the founders of K9 Nose Work call "running bunny". This requires at least one person in addition to the handler performing the search exercise. You can do running bunny with one hide or several. The game works by moving the hide(s) during the search so the dog is chasing after the odor as if it were a live rabbit darting around a field.

Another great exercise to do when you have extra bodies is a reward timing exercise - no clever name. Set up several hides on a desk or table and use a couple of people as spotters to confirm the dog's sourcing of odor for the handler. This allows the handler to focus on the dog and bring a timely reward, and it gives the spotters more practice recognizing the exact moment a dog finds source odor.

Practice groups can be a great supplement to your regular training, but they're also just a great way to develop camaraderie among fellow K9 Nose Work handlers. Wether you meet on a regular basis, or just get together occasionally, you'll be enhancing your overall training in K9 Nose Work and having a lot more fun!

Happy Sniffing!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What's A K9 Nose Work® Handler To Do?

When starting out in K9 Nose Work, the dog has all the advantages: a hunting instinct, superior sense of smell, an olfactory information processing center in the brain that's forty times larger than in humans, and to top it all off, the dog can self-reward. With these advantages, the dog makes huge leaps early on, learning new skills and gaining tons of experience. As a handler, you are mainly an observer in the early stages and you're learning what not to do (cuing your dog, etc.); but soon enough, you'll need to prove your mettle as an indispensable member of the team. This means you'll have to learn some new skills of your own or risk holding your team back and having less fun. If you're eager to learn from the start, you'll find it fun and easy to pick up new skills and your dog will be happy to have you as a true partner in K9 Nose Work.

Handling Starts With Observing

Observing your Dog - The self-reward process used to start off a dog in K9 Nose Work is a wonderful opportunity for handlers to observe how their dogs work and where they will best fit in to be of help down the road. Here, you can see if your dog is a methodical searcher or a wild, whirling dervish. You can observer the behavior changes he makes when he catches a scent trail, or when he's found source odor.

Once you're delivering the reward, you can still get opportunities to watch your dog work with you out of the picture. Set up a container search and place a chair at the threshold, send your dog off to search then take a seat in the chair. Be sure to jump up and provide a timely reward when he finds source odor. If your dog doesn't want to search without you by his side, start things off with a hide very close to the chair, then move the next hide a few feet further away. You and your dog will be much happier if he's comfortable working away from you - even if it's only five or ten feet.

Important things to look for when you watch your dog are: does he naturally check corners, does he speed past parts of the search area without actually searching, does he get stuck going in the same direction, does he have a hard time locking down odor in cluttered areas or on a flat wall. These are all issues you can use your handling skills to address. 

Observing Others & Being Observed - Enroll in a group class. Watch how other handlers work. See what seemed to help the dogs and what made things more difficult. Ask your fellow students to observe you and point out the positive things you're doing as a handler.

Have your certified instructor (CNWI or ANWI) give you handling tips before & after a search - and sometimes even during a search. Your instructor is a keen observer and can help you change the outcome of the search for your dog just by telling you to change your position within the search area.

Pick Up A Few New Moves

Moving In & Moving Out - Watch enough dog and handler teams work and you'll see some patterns emerge. One of my favorites is what I'll call the crowding effect. This happens when a dog is locking in on a small area, working the odor and nearly to source, only to have the handler creep in and crowd the dog causing him to lose the odor. Handlers most often exhibit the crowding effect because they've acquired some habits from the early stages of training; namely, worry over a timely reward and wanting to support their dogs for fear they won't commit to source odor. Unfortunately, when handlers crowd and dogs fail to find source, the handlers assume their dogs need more support and a faster reward - so they want to be even closer!

The way to break this cycle and be a truly supportive handler is to know when to move in and when to move out. When you see a behavior change in your dog indicating he's caught a scent trail, move in slowly to support his investigation of that area. Once you can see that he's committed to working the area, begin to back away and give him space. If he needs help, move in again, but pick a spot off to one side of the area he's working. If that doesn't help, try the other side, then make the choice to move on and come back later if he's showing no interest anywhere else.

Long/Loose Leash Handling - Think of the leash as a wet noodle. Hold it carefully and try to avoid putting any unintended pressure on your dog. Use this type of handling when your dog is clearly working scent and needs to be free to cover a lot of ground and change direction quickly. Using a leash 10ft in length or longer takes some practice, so start with an open exterior area and a single hide and be ready to run with your dog. As you get a feel for handling the long leash, move to areas with more clutter. You'll know you need more practice if the leash gets in the way of your dog going to source odor (gets caught on an object, trips up you or your dog, etc.).

Short/Tight Leash Handling - If the long leash is a wet noodle, the short leash is a three day old french baguette - indestructible, but it still has a soft spot at it's core. Working your dog on a tighter leash requires that you be able to observe your dog's behavior changes and respond to them immediately with a loosening of the leash. A tight leash is great to keep an eager dog from outrunning his nose at the threshold. It's also useful when you're searching an area that could have multiple odors and you don't want your dog to blow by one odor in favor of another, giving you the impression he's covered all that ground and ruled it out.

Make sure to avoid shackling your dog with a shorter leash. He still needs some freedom - and sometimes he needs to leave an area altogether and come back. Remember your observations of his earlier searches without you in the picture, and try to handle him in a way that helps him learn, but that is not at odds with his instincts.

Body Positioning - Dogs are very aware of their surroundings when searching. They know if something in the environment has moved or changed, and they know when you have moved or changed position - even when they're busy sniffing into a corner and you're halfway across the room. You can use your dog's awareness of his environment to make your own moves in a search count towards success for your team.

If you see that he's working scent in a specific area (along a wall), but can't seem to lock in on the source odor, you can help. Just place your shoulder against the wall six or eight feet from where he's working to form a new, little wall. This minor change to the environment may give your dog what he needs to find source odor. Be sure to do this type of body positioning when he's not working source odor, too. You don't want your clever dog deciding that every time you turn into the human wall, it's treat time.

You can also use your body to give your dog "permission" to search different parts of a search area. Your dog will generally work a certain distance away from you, as if on an invisible leash. You need to make sure you're moving through the search area in ways that give your dog the "okay" to work deeper and gain access to all parts of the search area.

Agility people will be familiar with using their shoulders to communicate direction changes to their dogs - the same works in K9 Nose Work. If you want to have your dog move down a wall and check a corner, instead of placing yourself in the corner (which handlers often do), just lead him with your shoulders. This will avoid the confusion that occurs when your dog goes to meet you in the corner and you move out, prompting him to follow you back out of the corner, and prompting you to move back in, and on and on... add music and you'll be doing canine freestyle dancing!

Handling The Elements

Container - This element is always on leash, so your handling skills play a big part in your dog's success. First, learn to stop caring about the configuration of the containers - two rows, a circle, 'x', spiral, trapezoid - they're all the same. Instead, focus on imagining a grid overlaying the search area. This grid should always extend a few feet beyond the containers and should always have corners. For example, if you have containers in a circle pattern, imagine a larger square outlining the circle.

Now that you have a grid pattern laid out over the search area, have a loose strategy in mind for working the containers - work in rows or columns, work in quadrants, etc. If your dog is highly motivated to break your pattern, go with him, but remember what you've bypassed on the way to whatever it is he smells, just in case it's not source odor.

Make sure to pass containers from multiple angles and don't just be satisfied to see your dog work the containers on the outside edge of the configuration, get yourself outside of the configuration, too.

Be mindful of the speed you move at as you and your dog check containers. Too slow and he may decide to take an interest in the luggage someone's cat used as a bed. Too fast, and that little hitch in his gait when he catches odor will be too subtle for you to see and slow yourself down so your dog can check the area more closely.

Since you control the leash, you control where to go and how many times to go there, this control comes with great responsibility. No matter what level you're playing the game at, there is always the possibility you'll have your dog check the wrong container or area too many times and he'll false alert out of exasperation. This is where strategy helps. Know where you've been, know which direction you've gone, and look for your dog's behavior change signs to tell you which containers or areas might be more productive. Unless you're attempting a very challenging search (shouldn't do this without an instructor), you shouldn't be passing your dog over the containers more than a few times before he and you can agree he's found source odor.

Exterior - This element is usually on leash, but if the search area is secure you may have the option to go off leash. One plus of going on leash is that you control the pace of the search and may be helping your dog detail the area by slowing him down. One plus of going off leash is that you won't be preventing your dog from working scent with heavy-handed leash work.

Exterior areas are tough because handlers tend to forget they have a middle. You beautifully work the perimeter, then turn around and beautifully work it again. Searching the perimeter is great, but leave yourself time to work diagonally, in an 's' pattern, quadrants, zigzag, etc.

Have a plan for when your dog picks up scent, but can't seem to source the odor. Outdoor areas are subject to many factors that can make sourcing the odor a little harder, so when your dog seems to be struggling, don't panic, the source odor may not be too far away.

Let's say your dog is working a three foot high retaining wall at the edge of a search area, sniffing like crazy, detailing all over the corner. You could choose to move on and come back later, but, first you may want to try backing up and moving to your left or right, opening things up for your dog . Your goal should be to turn this section into it's own little search area. Odds are, if you can shift things so that you're moving in where the wall is and your dog is now working back towards the rest of the search area he'll probably follow the scent to source odor at a ground hide twenty feet away from where it all started.

Interior - You'll almost always have the option to go on or off leash. In general, you'll want to start off leash and stay out of the way. Most interior areas have lots of surfaces and corners, lots of clutter. Be thinking about what direction your dog is moving through the area and make sure the two of you don't get stuck on the merry-go-round. Don't just reverse direction, try different angles. Don't just work obvious corners, work the little corners formed by a bookcase against a wall or a chair pushed up to a table.

Vehicles - Like exteriors, this is an on leash search unless the area is secure. Ideally, you want your dog working ahead of you, but you want to keep the leash short enough to prevent excessive wandering. What's excessive? A dog who bounces off a vehicle to a nearby wall - or just out into open space - sniffing with purpose and quickly returning to the vehicle is working the scent in an honest way and should be allowed to follow his nose. A dog who stops sniffing halfway down a vehicle, lunges ahead and blows past the rear bumper with his eyes fixed on something in the distance, or a dog who sticks his nose to the ground, is not chasing the scent.

Try to use the leash to prevent your dog from picking up too much speed or getting more than a few feet away from the vehicle. If you see he's covered the side of a vehicle, but not really searched it, turn him right around and search it again from the opposite direction. If you are both too eager to keep on moving, make a mental note to go back and cover that side of the vehicle if you still haven't found the source odor elsewhere.

Just like with the container search, have a strategy and keep note of where you've been and where your dog has actually searched. If you're having trouble, step away from the vehicles and assess the wind - if any - and pick a new place to "restart" the search.

Also, like containers, be careful how many times you go back to an area that your dog really hasn't told you he's picking up odor at - keep him moving and keep covering ground until you see a clear behavior change and focus on that.

When To Be A Helpful Handler To Your Dog

The alternative to being a helpful handler is to do nothing at all until your dog finds the source odor. There are situations at every stage of training where your dog can and will search and find source odor without any need for you, save for dispensing the reward. For every search your dog can do totally alone, there are a hundred he'll need your help with in some way.

In Training - your instructor can set up search scenarios that require both you and your dog to problem solve, making for a stronger team. Once you've experienced such a scenario, you can recreate it at home for practice. Here's an example:

Set a hide in a corner of a room and then place a fan in front of the hide, blowing along the closest wall and away from the odor. The fan will draw the odor through it's spinning blades and push it away from source. Now, deliberately position yourself somewhere on the side of the room without the hide, and don't cross over to the hide side until you've observed your dog work for fifteen or twenty seconds. What you should see is that your dog is catching the scent, but never getting close enough to the wall to catch the strongest scent trail and follow it back to source. As soon as you walk over to the wall the odor is blowing along, your dog should work close to the wall and commit to the scent trail long enough to follow it to source.

The great thing about training this way is that you did not show your dog the location of the hide, you didn't command him to do anything. You simply changed your position in the search area and he reacted to it and solved the problem. He found success and you found a way to help without weakening his drive to find source odor and communicate the find to you. That's a win-win search.

In Trial - When you have no idea where the odor is, you need to rely on your dog to lead you both to source, but for the exact reason described above, your dog sometimes needs your "invisible hand" to get him to productive areas or to work out a problem.

Here's the difference between practicing your handling in class doing non-blind hides, and making a handling choice in a trial when the hide location is unknown: nerves. Under the pressures of trial, you must be careful not to do anything too deliberate or linger too long in any part of the search area; your dog will be eager to make you happy (alert on source odor) and if you give him too much of an opportunity he will take it.

On trial day, you want to limit the deliberate actions you take as a handler to concerns of covering the search area. Finding source odor should be achievable for your dog if you've trained to the appropriate skill level; you just need to make sure he's getting a chance to search everywhere... and luck just needs to be on your side. If you find yourself trying to help your dog make a decision on scent he's been struggling to lock down, it's better to help him expand his searching or to move the two of you out of the area and come back than it is for you to hang out there and unintentionally encourage him to alert on source odor in an area that only has pooling odor - or no odor at all.

Every Dog is Different, So Every Handler Can Be, Too

Many people who teach the activity and sport of K9 Nose Work are fond of the phrase, "it depends", and for good reason. There are as many paths to success in K9 Nose Work as there are dogs enjoying the game. This is why, even in group classes, you'll see a search adjusted or the handler instructed to do something different than the last person, because there are no absolutes in K9 Nose Work.

In previous posts I've talked about unintentional cues and avoiding obedience commands, etc., but sometimes you need to be willing to go with what works, not what you think should work. A handler with a competitive obedience dog might like to have the dog sit tight against her leg at the start of the search, then release her (and the dog may like this, too). Ideally, you want your dog to only be thinking about odor and getting to odor and not switching into obedience mode, but if this dog is a manic mess for the first thirty seconds of a search without the sit start, what's being gained?

Many dogs prefer to search off leash and away from their handlers, but some dogs just want to know that their teammates are hanging on for the ride. Every once in a while a handler believes it's best to be out ahead of her dog in searches - and you know what? Sometimes, the dog really does seem to need his handler/carrot on a stick for motivation. As long as the dog and handler can find success and have fun, a few search quirks are okay.

The thing every handler should have in common is a willingness to try something different. Always be open to new ideas about handling. Don't resist trying out a long leash because you think running fast with a six foot leash is the same thing (guilty). Try working more of a pattern in a container search even if you think the only acceptable pattern is the one freely chosen by your dog. Let your team's performance in the searches determine which techniques stay and which get left behind. Keep in mind that some techniques are good to use just for practice - to increase drive, promote more thorough searching, - and even if you go back to your usual handling style for most searches, you'll likely see an overall improvement in performance.

Have fun knowing that your dog is always ready to take advantage of your increased handling skills and reveal to you a little more of his unfathomably awesome sniffing abilities.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wind (The Only Thing About K9 Nose Work® That Blows)

As a K9 Nose Work handler I know wind can help my dog catch scent and find source odor - or it can cause scent to pool somewhere and trick her (and me) into thinking it's source odor. As a fisherman I know wind blows phytoplankton around and bait fish eat phytoplankton, so fish where the wind blows against a bank and you might catch something. As a casual listener to the music of Queen I know that any way the wind blows doesn't really matter to them.

Can I walk onto a field and tell you which way the wind is blowing from? Most of the time. Can I step into a courtyard and do the same? It's much harder. Can I explain why the wind seems to change direction, gust, swirl, be stronger at my shoulders than at my ankles, or be moving in two different directions at the same time? At best, I can take a guess. Wind can have a major impact on your dog's efficiency and effectiveness in a search. How much do we really need to know about wind to have fun in K9 Nose Work? The answer, my friends, is - well, it's not an answer per se, just some ideas...

What is there to know about wind?

A lot. Just checking the Wikipedia entry for wind will introduce you to terms like Coriolis effect, geostrophic wind, gradient wind, and the Beaufort wind force scale - and that's just in the first few paragraphs. I won't go into any detail here, but according to the Wikipedia entry, wind is the result of several factors including the earth's rotation and the difference in absorption of solar energy between the equator and the poles.

Professional detection handlers - especially search and rescue (SAR) - need to know a lot about wind. They need to know how wind travels over different terrain, under different weather conditions, and at different times of the day and year. An excellent resource on wind and its effects on scent is SAR handler Hatch Graham. He's written a number of articles on the subject, some with illustrations and simple explanations of the complexities of searching in the wind. Take a look at "Convection Turbulence and the Airscenting Dog".
Illustrations from Hatch Graham's article, "Convection Turbulence
and the Airscenting Dog" show how scent  moves away from a source
under different weather conditions.
Another resource on wind and the air scenting dog is the book READY! - The Training of the Search and Rescue Dog by Susan Bulanda. Here's a link to an excerpt from chapter 6, "Wind, Scent and Dog". Note that her reference to an "odor cone" is now outdated. The current understanding of how scent moves away from a source is described with the term, "scent plume". A depiction of a scent plume would be different than that of an odor cone, with tendrils of scent - varying in length - drifting away from the source odor.

A classic book on scent work, Scent and the Scenting Dog by William Syrotuck, is an overall interesting read. I don't have an excerpt here (you'll have to buy the book), but Chapter 6, "Atmospheric Factors and Airborn Scent", discusses wind and its effects on scent.

Enjoy reading up on the effects of wind on scent, but realize that there is a huge difference between an academic understanding of what wind can do to scent, and applying that understanding to a search to affect your dog's probability of success in finding source odor.

How much do you, the K9 Nose Work handler, need to know about wind?

My mentor and friend, Penny Scott-Fox, CNWI & a founding instructor of K9 Nose Work is well above the average in her understanding of wind and how to read what it's doing in a search area. She's an accomplished sailor, so it's not a magical super power; she acquired her skill through experience reading and using the wind. I have sailed once - on a hobie cat - and have no such ability to use the wind to my advantage. A K9 Nose Work handler can get by with a layperson's understanding of wind (e.g., it's blowing in my face, therefore, I'm facing into the wind), but some search scenarios will be very challenging without a little above average skill.

In the first official NW1 trial the exterior search was set up to cover the area between the curb and the full length of a street-facing building. The hide was placed in the ground in the grassy median between the street and the sidewalk, directly in line with the building entrance. The wind was blowing strong that day and causing the scent to pool against the doors of the building. An understanding of how wind affects scent would have helped more than a few handlers move their dogs away from the doors and back into the wind to avoid a false alert and give them a better chance at sourcing the odor.

Many vehicle searches are made more difficult by wind. A dog and handler team can easily convince each other that source odor is present when it's really just scent from a vehicle blowing under another vehicle and collecting in it's wheel wells or on it's running board.

For most K9 Nose Work searches, as long as you give your dog an opportunity to search the entire area he will likely pick up scent and find the source odor, regardless of what you know about the wind. But, the less you know about the wind, the harder it will be to rule out pooling or blowing scent, or to know which direction might be the most productive for your dog to search. So, don't worry about taking college courses in wind studies, but do try to learn enough to give your dog the help he deserves in a search.

Using your dog to learn about wind

I can go search some storefronts for an odor hidden in a recessed doorway (or any little alcove) with my dog and know little else about the wind beyond the fact that it is blowing, and after our search I can put together a pretty good idea of what direction it was blowing from and what it was doing along the storefronts. If your dog picks up scent along the wall on his way to odor, the wind is blowing at you and you're heading upwind (into the wind). If your dog passes the odor and doubles back excitedly, the wind is likely coming from your back and you were heading downwind (with the wind). Once your dog gets into the alcove, if he traces the scent close to the source, then turns away and works in a circle, possibly even spinning around several times, then the wind is very likely spinning that same way - with help from your dog, you've identified an eddy current!

Parks are great places to learn about the wind with your dog. Find some picnic tables and see how the wind affects the way the odor travels by watching your dog work. If you place a hide at the end of a picnic table top and your dog is catching scent away from the table or on nearby objects and working his way - maybe air scenting - right back to the source, then the wind is very likely blowing from the opposite end of the table. If your dog chases scent along the table or picks it up at the opposite end and works the length of the table back to source, the wind is probably blowing the scent across the table.

Alleys are also fun to do searches in when the wind is blowing. Set a hide on one of the walls, a few feet off the ground - you can usually find a pipe or some object to attach an odor container to - and then do the search from both ends of the alley and note any differences in your dog's behavior. When you start with the wind in your face (upwind), your dog will be very actively working that scent blowing along the wall, bouncing up and down, chasing it with the wind. When you're working downwind toward the odor, your dog might cover ground quickly and pass the odor before showing really clear signs that he's on to something.

The wind isn't everything

As mentioned earlier, wind is just one factor affecting how scent moves and how your dog works that scent to its source. Temperature and terrain are two others. You, as a handler, are also a factor affecting how your dog works. Temperature can make scent rise and fall more dramatically. Terrain can cause scent to trap, or to travel an unexpected path. Handlers can do innumerable things - often unintentionally - to affect a dogs success in a search. While it's helpful to isolate each factor for discussion, none of these factors are completely independent in impacting the scent picture for your dog.

Temperature - A seemingly simple ground hide in a parking lot can become challenging when the asphalt is hot, but the air temperature is cooling. The scent rises straight up and disperses in a plume. The same effect can be seen in an interior corner hide on a chair where the room is very hot compared to the cooling temperature outdoors. The scent rises up and travels along the walls away from the corner making the hide hard to source unless the dog is able to get directly above the hide.

Terrain - A search where the ground is uneven, sloped, or varied in any way can affect scent in ways that are not intuitive to the human observer. An exterior search in a grassy area with trees where a ground hide is placed in a bowl shaped depression can result in scent that traps in the depression, and scent that escapes the depression in such a way that there are not direct trails of scent back to the source, rather, the scent trails are broken and varied. In this scenario, you may observe your dog searching and catching scent all over the search area - even in places far away from the source odor. Often, the only way for your dog to find the hide will be to cross over the depression in just the right way for your dog to catch the pooling scent that will lead him to source odor.

Handler - The scenting abilities of dogs are undeniable. When a dog fails to find source odor in a search, it's almost never because the dog can't smell the scent. A dog can detect scent in the 10's of parts per billion. There are many reasons why the dog might not find source odor, one of those reasons is inadequate access to productive areas. When working on leash, a dog is restricted by where the handler will allow him to go. An experienced handler knows to make sure his dog is searching the entire area in a search. This means observing when a dog has covered the area, but not really searched it. It also means knowing the difference between a dog productively working scent to its source, and a dog who appears to be working scent, but can't seem to source anything or make the decision to move on. The latter dog needs a little help to leave this confusing scent picture and start working the rest of the search area. He needs you. If you're unsuccessful searching the rest of the area, you can always come back to the part of the search area where your dog showed all the interest; a fresh look may give him just what he needs to sort things out and bring success for both of you.

This is still your dog's game

Have fun thinking about search areas in a whole new way, but don't let your own preconceptions - about how scent might travel and how your dog should work an area - get in the way of your dog's superior sniffer. No matter how much you learn and how much you think you might know, your dog is still the expert, using a sophisticated tool to solve a complex problem; and when he does need help, it will be your skills at observing your dog - not the wind - that will make you a valuable teammate in your searches.

Happy Sniffing!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

3 Reasons Why You Need to Get to an Intro to K9 Nose Work® Workshop

Earlier this year I made the easy weekend trek from LA to San Diego (2hrs to go 120 miles instead of the weekday norm of 3-4hrs) to attend an Intro to K9 Nose Work Workshop  taught by K9 Nose Work co-founder, Jill Marie O'Brien & NACSW faculty member and founding CNWI, Kimberly Buchanan. I'm lucky to have started K9 Nose Work back in 2008 with another co-founder, Amy Herot. Having Amy to teach me & my dog, Muriel, week in and week out for these past four years, I'd never sought out a workshop. Oh, what a good time I had at this one.

The workshop was held in Santee, a suburb of San Diego, at a community building on the strip mall-like grounds of Santee City Hall. Attendance was pretty evenly split between working spots (with your dog), and auditing (without your dog). I audited this workshop. As much as Muriel might feel nostalgic for her scarfing treats out of boxes days, we're nose deep in target odors, so a working spot wouldn't have been a fit for us.

If you're just starting out in the activity of K9 Nose Work, definitely try to snag a working spot. An intro workshop is the best way to learn about the activity and to see how easy and fun K9 Nose Work is for your dog. It's also a perfect primer for beginning regular attendance at a K9 Nose Work class taught by a CNWI or ANWI.

Here are a few reasons why - no matter where you and your dog are at in your K9 Nose Work training - you need to attend the Intro to K9 Nose Work Workshop (admittedly, the reasons are aimed a little more at handlers already past the introductory stage of the activity).

1. Unless You're a Duck Billed Platypus, You Need to Keep Evolving to Stay in the Game

I'm not talking growing a second nose on top of your dog's nose! I'm talking about regularly strengthening your foundation: the influence and framework for all of your future training. The co-founders of K9 Nose Work are always attending new lectures and seminars given by the most respected trainers and thinkers in the animal world. They digest all of that new and complex knowledge and figure out how to apply it to K9 Nose Work in simple and useful ways. It's crazy not to take advantage of this!

As I listened to Jill Marie & Kimberly and watched them introduce different dogs to K9 Nose Work, I was kicking myself for not having attended an intro workshop sooner. Their ideas and methods for getting dogs interested in the boxes were fresh and effective, not just for teaching new dogs the activity, but for applying to advanced dogs' training.

I loved the idea of continuous searching for these new dogs (not something we did in my day). The dogs search off leash and once they find the treat box, they're cleverly encouraged to continue searching while the box is reloaded and hidden again. This method gets the dogs used to checking all of the possible hiding places in the search area and helps build drive and intensity. For advanced dogs, you can use a dozen identical chairs and have one odor chair that moves around each time the dog has found it. For really advanced dogs, keep the odor chair out of the search area for a little while and observe what the dog and handler do - the dog might up his intensity to find odor.

Bottom line: when you update your understanding of the basics, you strengthen your training at all levels.

2. Watching Dogs Experience K9 Nose Work for the First Time is Inspiring

One of my favorite things about K9 Nose Work is the artful method of introducing dogs to the activity. Each dog is encouraged and helped to reconnect with his hunting instinct on his own terms. Some dogs dart around the search area, pecking their noses into every container. Other dogs are cautious and methodical, some are even fearful of boxes. Great teachers will know just how to work with each dog, bringing out his strengths and minimizing or eliminating his weaknesses. Each dog comes to love K9 Nose Work in his own way, and just by watching a dog work you can get a good idea of his personality. The intro workshop is the perfect place to watch new dogs take to the activity under the expert guidance of the best teachers in the game.

I really enjoyed watching the blind dog at the intro workshop I audited. This dog was older and had developed his other senses to compensate for the blindness. He started off nicely, letting his nose lead him to the nearby treat box. Surprisingly (to me anyway), he had no trouble digging his head into the box. I guess his lack of sight made objects less scary.

When Jill Marie & Kimberly began to move the treat box around - up against the wall or behind another box, the dog would chase the odor on the air then bump into the wall or stumble over the box. Amazingly, anything he ran into once, he remembered it's position in space (unless it moved a lot). He would stop inches short of the wall, avoid the box he tumbled over, and have greater success getting to the treat box as each round went on. Jill Marie & Kimberly observed the way the dog was learning and placed the treat box strategically to help him map out his surroundings, then set up little challenges to help him learn to avoid obstacles while he was searching. Everyone was in awe of this awesome dog.

There are probably some great lessons here to relate to dogs at different levels of K9 Nose Work, but for me it was enough just to watch these dogs learn and have fun - it was inspiring... Okay, I think it's also important to observe how our dogs learn (their "bumps & stumbles") and to set up searches that help them confront their weaknesses and overcome them.

Take exterior searches, you want to start without too many obstacles (grass being a big one, trash cans), and you want to place hides that help the dog map out the search area (could be one right on the edge of the curb, or on that storm grate). Once you have your dog expecting odor in a variety of places, place one near a tree in a concrete planter, or in the grass right at the edge of the sidewalk. Don't jump right in with a hide on the base of a fire hydrant or other prime pee spot - confront obstacles strategically and with the goal being success for your dog.  

3. This Full Day of K9 Nose Work Will Have a Lasting Positive Effect

I've attended a number of full day K9 Nose Work events over the years, they're called trials. While they've all been fun - some more than others - and full of opportunities for learning, trials are also a test of nerves, sometimes disappointing, and mostly made up of long periods of waiting punctuated by brief and intense blind searches. A workshop is a whole day dedicated to learning and fun. No nerves or disappointment. It's good to have a little variety in your day-long K9 Nose Work events.

The workshop I attended featured lecture and video, demonstration, and q&a time. Even though I knew the history and philosophy of K9 Nose Work going into the workshop, Jill Marie & Kimberly kept things engaging and filled in any gaps in my memory. Watching all the dogs work was pure enjoyment. Getting to see the uncertainty wiped from handlers' faces as their dogs picked up the game and got better with each round was a treat. The q&a time reminded me that - even in the presence of a dozen new dogs picking up the activity like pros - some people want desperately to shape the activity to fit their preferred training style (clicker training an odor response), and they're missing an opportunity to grow and have fun.

It's been almost seven months since the workshop and I still reference my experience when I train or teach. I'm looking forward to attending another workshop - maybe something Muriel can participate in, too; but come next year, I'll be ready to go back to basics, learn a few new tricks, get inspired, and get my K9 Nose Work shot to the arm!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How Do I Know When My Dog Has Found Source Odor (The Hide)?

Almost no one asks this question when starting out in K9 Nose Work®. The dogs are self-rewarding, the hide location is always known to the handler, and success is easy and frequent. As soon as the transition from searching for food/toy to searching for odor is made, and the handler must time the reward with the dog's sourcing of the hide, the question looms large.

For some dog/handler teams, the dog offers up a clear "indication" at the source odor, like a sit or down, or pawing at the source (be careful about encouraging this as it could lead to scratching and damaging surfaces, like vehicles and cabinet doors). Other teams are left to panic that they'll miss the little tail stiffening or the brief look back when their dog has found the hide. Neither scenario is without its challenges, and both can be made better by honing your communication and observation skills.

Here are some tips to help get you and your dog working together more effectively and doing your jobs more confidently:

Get Used to Spotting the Usual Signs - But Look for Them to Occur Together

There are a number of pretty recognizable behavior changes almost every dog shows to some degree when in odor, and when at the odor source. Try to get in the habit of collecting your observations and noting a chain of behaviors that lead up to your dog sourcing the odor. When just one of the following signs is observed before an alert, it's a strong indication your dog is at source odor; when you can count two or more of these behavior changes, it's almost a guarantee he's on source odor or actively getting there.

The Head Turn - when your dog appears to have been stopped by an invisible lasso tossed around his muzzle, causing a distinct change in direction. You can also observe a sudden dropping or raising of the head at the discovery of the scent trail. Any time you see this type of behavior, give your dog a chance to investigate whatever it is that caused him to slam on the brakes and reset course. Most often, your dog has found a direct line to the source odor and you'll see him take charge from here to the location of the hide. Try your best to be ready for this sudden behavior change so your dog has the opportunity to follow his nose and be successful. Often, the kind of scent trail that turns doggy heads is present at corners, surfaces or edges of objects, or close to a contained odor. Try setting up search scenarios where your dog may have the opportunity to catch odor travelling. Every success your dog has from a head turn will make him that much more likely to trust his nose in those moments of scent whiplash.

The Detailing Sniff - depending on how and where odor is contained you'll see a different level of detailed sniffing in the lead up to an alert on source odor. Vehicles are a great search to observe detailed sniffing. Set an accessible hide on the hubcap of a wheel or the wheel itself and watch your dog work. You'll see him chase every little individual trail of scent coming from the source odor as he gets ever closer to the source. Get to know what your dog's detailing sniff looks like and try to observe if he ever exhibits this type of sniffing at places other than close to the odor source - you'll probably find the answer to be almost never. Be a careful observer, though, and note how the odor detailing sniff is different than the "trying to locate a piece of food under the oven" sniff, or the "there's no odor in here, this room is clear" sniff. The odor detailing sniff is precise and careful, unlike the food sniff, which includes more attempts to get at the food than detailed sniffing, or the clear room sniff, which is frantic and general sniffing that says "I'm working extra hard because I can't seem to find any odor in here".

The Odor Exhale - there is a handler whose dog showed none of the more obvious physical expressions of searching when she worked odor, yet the handler was quite successful at spotting her dog's alert on source odor. Hunched over to be closer to her dog's nose level, the handler would shuffle along with her ghost-like white pitbull waiting for the dog to pause and exhale. The exhale at source odor is something many dogs do - some very loudly. A fun way to get tuned into the sound of your dog searching is to do a search in the dark. Make sure to check for safety hazards, and be sure you can confirm your dog is alerting at source (a flashlight works), then turn out the lights and turn on your ears. Listen first for the rapid inhaling and exhaling (interestingly dogs can do both at the same time out of different parts of their noses) that occurs when your dog is working to source odor and doing the detailing sniff. Then prepare to pick out that loud exhale - sounding almost like pressure escaping from a car tire - and reward at source. The exhale sign alone is not foolproof. There are other instances in a search where your dog may make a forceful exhale - at a place where odor is pooling or to expel some unpleasant dust or pollen particles. The key is to use this and the other signs as links in the odor sourcing chain. The more links you can identify, the stronger the chain - the more likely your dog has found source odor.  

Timing & Accuracy Do Matter

You don't have to worry about a well timed, accurately delivered reward when the dog is doing self-reward searches. The hide is the reward. The timing & accuracy couldn't be better. The behavior of sniffing around a room and diving neck deep into a box to gobble up hot dog bits is perfectly reinforced by the gobbling of hot dog bits.

Once the primary reward is moved to the care of the handler and the hide is a target odor (like birch), the dog will find the hide and expect a fast reward that seems to have come from the source odor. This expectation must be met to reinforce the behavior you want from your dog.

Imagine you have a box drill set up with an odor tin in one box among a dozen clean boxes. Your dog begins searching, works the scent to a nearby box, snaps his head back in the direction of the odor box, speeds over to it, sniffs the surface of the odor box enthusiastically, but quickly, glances at you and then moves on to another box. A well-timed reward would be one that appears when the dog is on the odor box. If you miss delivering the reward, you can give your dog a second pass at the box, but every missed opportunity to reward has a diminishing effect on your dog's understanding of the connection between odor and reward.

Now, imagine you're searching vehicles, and the first time your dog finds the tin containing source odor you reward him right at the source. The second search, on a different part of the vehicle, has your dog again alerting right at source, but this time you reward him ten inches away. By the third hide, your dog is stopping around ten inches short of source odor and offering an alert. You wait him out, and after some confusion your dog goes to the source odor. A fast, accurately delivered reward will minimize confusion for your dog. If you're waiting out your dog until he offers his trained response, you could end up creating a routine where your dog alerts close to - but not on - source odor, then dances around with you for a while before going to source. In this case, delivering the occasional fast reward at source odor - not waiting for the alert - will help your dog maintain a clear understanding of what pays.

Keep an Eye on What Your Dog Looks Like When He's Not On Source Odor

As an observer of your dog you need to give just as much weight to all of the things your dog is doing when you know he's not sourcing the odor as you give to the things he's doing that are obvious lead-ups to finding the hide.

Frozen Nose - when your dog stops suddenly and puts his nose an eighth of an inch from the ground and holds it there, intensely investigating something that he does not need you for, this is almost always NOT the target odor. Usually, it's a "critter" smell, another dog's urine scent, or some malodorous scent of unknown origin that interests your dog. When your dog is in odor, he's following the scent to source, chasing it with his nose - moving and rapidly breathing. When your dog finds the source odor, he expects a reward, and since you have the reward, he's likely to engage you (give an indication like sit or down, or at least look at you) to get it.

Instant Alert - when your dog appears to be engaged in searching then suddenly alerts without any of the behavior changes that usually precede an alert at the source odor, it is usually NOT the source odor. Most often, your dog is honestly working the scent, but unclear about what will get him a reward. He may think scent collecting somewhere other than the source odor is also rewardable. Your dog might be trying to alert to certain things you usually do when he's at the odor source - you might stop suddenly when he gets close to odor, or reach for your treat bag. Whatever the cause, the remedy is to make sure your dog gets clear communication from you. Do not reward for any behavior other than alerting at the source odor, and try to minimize any cues that could be misunderstood by your dog as having the same importance as the source odor.

Wandering Sniffer - when your dog seems to be on to something only to double back and pick up some other "promising" scent trail, repeating this seemingly productive behavior over and over, mesmerizing his handler into thinking an alert is coming any moment. This is almost always NOT productive, and if left to go on too long, can result in a false alert. Know when to take an active role in the search and help your dog move on to other parts of the search area. If your dog has been working a particular area for more than 15-20 seconds without real progress, it's time to move on and, if needed, revisit the area after covering other ground. Start trying to note how much time passes between your dog picking up the scent trail and him alerting at source odor when you do your practice searches - you'll find that if he's on the right track, he's not often in search limbo for very long.

Decide Who's Communicating With Whom, and Why/How/When

Your dog is engaged in a constant feedback loop when the two of you work together in a search. He's looking for any information that can lead to a guarantee that he will get his desired reward. As a handler, you strive to make it clear to your dog that finding source odor is the only guarantee of a reward. Ideally, you want your dog to be working independently to find the source odor, and to be communicating it's location to you, with the only confirmation of your dog's alert being your delivery of the reward.

In reality, your dog takes in everything you do and tries to process what it means in relation to getting his reward. Here are just a few of the things handlers do that our dogs take note of:

Eye Contact - There's nothing better than a devoted pair of canine eyes staring up at you, waiting for instruction... unless you're in the middle of a search. Be careful about how you use eye contact when searching, a dog who starts out searching independently for odor can quickly shift to obedience mode if you're giving too much eye contact. The good news is, this problem is as easy to remedy as it is to start: just shift you eye's away from direct contact with your dog, and keep tabs using peripheral vision.

Leash Feedback - For some dogs, the slightest tension on the leash will alter their path, even in the presence of odor. Keep your leash handling as light as possible unless the situation calls for greater control (slowing your dog down in a busy environment). If you do apply control, be prepared to give your dog freedom to follow his nose when he picks up a scent trail. For the best handling experience, try working a long, lightweight leash, one that you can peal out and gather up quickly.

Body Positioning - Always be moving. Even if it's just shifting your weight. This is doubly important when your dog is sourcing a hide. In fact, when he's sourcing a hide, try moving away from him. Many people move closer to their dogs as they are about to alert. The risk in moving closer to your dog is that you may disrupt the area, making it harder for your dog to source the odor. You could also inadvertently support your dog in a false alert. By moving away from your dog while he works, you're giving him space to sort out the location of the odor, and you're telling him that only an alert on source odor will bring you back. You'll be pleased to notice that when you start moving in this way, your dog will be more likely to leave an area of interest that has no source odor, and less likely to leave an area with source odor.

A really good example of communication and feedback in full force is searching an area with lingering odor (hide placement that has moved around leaving behind odor molecules that smell promising to the dog, but are nowhere near the concentration of odor at a source hide). Observe your dog working out the problem, constantly checking in with you to see how you're responding to him picking up a scent trail or offering an alert at lingering odor. If you use your communication skills effectively, and watch your dog carefully, you'll both be more confident at your tasks. Your dog will understand what will and won't get him a reward, and you will be able to trust your dog when he alerts to source odor.

Still unsure about being able to call alert when your dog is at source odor? Don't rush it. Keep working searches where you know the location of the hide, and keep building clear and strong communication between you and your dog. Soon, something will click and you might see that your dog always speeds up in odor, details the area near the source, exhales loudly when he's sourced the odor, and looks at you. Or you may just become really good at spotting that stiffening tail!

Next week I'll share my experience auditing an Intro to Nose Work workshop in San Diego earlier this year, and why I'd go back again and again.