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.



  1. I'm going to bookmark this one! So much good information, I get more out of it the more times I read it... Thank you!

    1. Thank you! What do you look for when your dogs are in odor - any signs to add to the list?

  2. Very informative, especially for someone like me who is so new in this sport!This article gives me excellent pointers to follow. The more I read, the more excited I get about Nose Work.Thank you!

    1. Thanks for the feedback! K9 Nose Work is one of the rare dog sports where the possibilities for new and exciting challenges are endless- and our dogs truly love doing it. Get ready to enjoy the journey!

  3. This is great. Thanks. I have a student with an airedale mix - a good searcher, but very independent and his signs at source are very subtle. He won't stay at source long - I think because he absolutely loves to search and the opportunity to continue searching is as rewarding as the treat (he is food motivated and the handler uses good treats). She frequently practices with boxes with multiple rewards, timed to keep the dog's head in the box. He will stay at source after the first reward, the problem is when he doesn't get that first reward fast enough. She is doing a great job of learning to read her dog and I'm inclined to minimize the number of blind searches and keep having her learn to read her dog. I almost never teach a formal alert before the dog has an NW1 title and by then, the dog has an indicator. I have been tempted to teach this dog a formal alert, but this piece has me thinking that I should keep on with my normal training pace and let her keep learning to read her dog. These guys started back in February. Would love to have your opinion.

    1. Donna,

      we always talk about the phrase "trust your dog" in K9 Nose Work, but we should also remind each other to "trust your instructor"! Your observations are right on for this particular dog, and you're right to reduce the ratio of blind to non-blind searches. The dog needs to believe (at least in the beginning stages of training) that the reward is coming from the source odor. Pairing food & odor makes that easy on the handler, but once the dog is searching odor only, the timing of the reward is crucial for some dogs.

      It's possible the dog has a fleeting relationship with source odor because he's more in love with the hunt, but it could also be that he's getting some unwanted communication from the handler that muddles the desired behavior of being clear/staying at odor. Watch the team search and be on the lookout for any cues the dog could be picking up on that interfere with his understanding of the odor/reward delivery process. As handlers, we sometimes exhibit a series of anticipatory actions as our dogs hone in on source odor: reaching for/readying the reward, slowing or stopping, creeping in, stopping breathing, etc. If the handler does any of these things, the dog could be collecting all of that information and giving it some importance with regards to the reward. Like a secret handshake, if he finds source odor, but doesn't see the handler reaching for reward or creeping in, he may move on to the next hide hoping for more of the signs he associates with the reward. In that case, just work simple, non-blind searches designed to phase out any unintentional cues from the handler and - important - make it easy for the handler to deliver a fast reward for that first indication at source odor. You may want to assist the handler with a "yes" or "now" to get the timing down pat.

      A way to deal with the possibility that the dog just cares more about hopping from hide to hide than giving a clear indication at odor is to keep the dog guessing. Again, make it non-blind for the handler, and set up your multiple reward search. Allow the dog to hit each hide and get a fast reward, then turn him right around for a second go on the same hides in reverse. As he's nearing the first hide, sneak in and remove the others and have him rewarded for the find, then keep searching all the way to the end, then back again to the only remaining hide. Mix this exercise in with other stuff, and vary which hide you leave remaining. See if it changes his desire to stay at odor. Hopefully it elicits a kind of "they're all disappearing, I better pounce on this last one and hang on tight" response from the dog. After a while, you can go one step further and sneak one of the hides back in at the end so he doesn't come to expect there will always only be one hide at the end of this exercise.

      If nothing seems to work, pairing is always on the table - and never remedial. Some dogs just need a refresher on the importance of searching for a scent.

      Keep your pace adjusted for the dog to have fun and succeed, and all the pieces will fall together in time.

      Thanks for reading and contributing your thoughts!

      Happy Sniffing!

    2. Thanks Jeff. Interestingly, I have a standard poodle in the same class with the problem you mention. She's great on non-blinds - won't stick the blinds and I think it's because the handler gives lots of indications when the dog is at/near source that the dog is picking up on. This dog and handler also do agility, so the dog is very aware of her owner's movements.

      We are going to to an exercise in our next class (based on your great article) where I have the students watch each other for behaviors that might be cuing the dog. And I'll be doing some videotaping as well. So we'll see if it applies to the airedale mix. But my feeling about this dog is that he works pretty independently of his handler, so I will also try your multiple hides exercise with him. I'll let you know how it goes.


  4. Today, in class, Annie gave me two consecutive very clear alerts on the same suitcase that did not have the hide. I did not reward her until she signaled the correct suitcase.If this would have been a blind hide I would have called a false alert...I was told that the suitcase might have had a strong residual odor . Shoud I worry about this false alerting with less than a month going into our first trial? This is the very first time that Annie gives me a false alert.

  5. Don't panic, Denise.

    In a trial, every effort is made to use search environments with no residual odor (no odor cotton swab to surface contact), and no lingering odor (no contained odor cotton swab hidden in the search area, then moved to another hiding place within the search area).

    In training, you will frequently encounter both residual and lingering odor - partially because you'll use the same search locations over and over again, and partially because you'll move odor around during a single training session. When running a non-blind search, you should make every effort to keep Annie moving and not allow her to go to a final response where no odor is present. If the search is blind, your instructor should coach you to move on before Annie reaches a final response where no odor is present.

    If Annie sneaks in her final response, just shrug and move on. Every dog is different when dealing with what is reward worthy and what is not in a search, but one thing they all understand is that the one thing that brings the reward (in this case, finding source odor) is the thing worth repeating.

    Do a practice session or two before the trial and make sure to choose a search area where you've never placed odor before, and carefully pick an accessible hiding spot for the odor, place it - don't move it - and do the search. See if Annie has any issues in a more trial-like search environment. My guess is she'll do just fine.

    Happy Sniffing!

  6. I just tried my Doberman Jazz at finding hot dog bits hidden in our rock retaining wall. We had never done anything nose related but he knows what “find it” means because I’m always sending him out into the yard to find a certain toy. I never expected the level of enthusiasm and focus that he gave me without me having to redirect him to the task. Needless to say I got excited and ready to dive into training. Then it dawned on me that I had no idea what I was doing.
    SO GLAD I FOUND THIS ARTICLE!!! Thank you for being clear and detailed when explaining all this!
    I can’t wait to try again tomorrow!