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!