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.

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