Sunday, September 30, 2012

What a Smile Can do for You in The Sport of K9 Nose Work®

This week's post comes to you a little later and a little lighter on the word count, courtesy of my new baby girl, Mackena Grace! She was born on Thursday, September 27, 2012.

I've been tossing around the idea of asking K9 Nose Work & NACSW co-founder, Amy Herot to unearth some early trial footage of me and Muriel to post here for instructional purposes. I have a feeling that the video would speak louder than any words I could conjure up to describe the experience. Still, I'm going to try and conjure some words.

The first trial I entered with Muriel was a December 2008 practice match in Torrance, CA. We were about 3 months into our training and had very little experience on all four elements of competition in novel environments. We had not even searched in grassy areas yet. For these reasons alone, my expectations for the outcome of the trial would have been pretty low, but a bout of fringes and false alerts just days before the trial had me focused on failure as the only outcome.

Trial day came and we took it one element at a time. We finished the day somewhere in the top ten - passing all four elements - and earned the first ever Harry Award; an award recognizing high performance, exceptional teamwork, and the special bond shared by a K9 Nose Work handler and his rescue dog (click here to learn more about the Harry Award). I was so shocked and overjoyed that I cried. Right there in front of all of my fellow competitors, the judges, volunteers, the score room tabulators, and the co-founders of the sport. I cried.

Now is probably the time to explain that I am not that guy who cries in public. Even behind closed doors, I'm just not the lachrymose type. At most, I'm a crying on the inside fella. Here's the thing though, I had adopted Muriel from a little two-woman rescue in Pasadena (Mutts & Moms) with no intention of competing with her - really, I just wanted to save this poor animal from a terrible life that nearly ended in early 2007 in some dusty Bakersfield shelter. What I adopted from Mutts & Moms was not an animal, not a pet, but a piece of my spirit I never knew was missing. That we shared some asomatous connection was the only explanation for why this being whose body and soul had been beaten and abused by humans, would allow me to get close to her. Muriel trusted me unconditionally from the moment we met and her penetrating stare and robotic focus on me were eerie at first, but I now know she merely wanted an opportunity to prove to me what others failed to see: that she wasn't worthless. Once I began to provide Muriel with opportunities to show what she could do, she set out on a path that led to my moment of public weepiness and she continues to amaze me daily.

That December trial was not just significant because we succeeded unexpectedly and earned the Harry Award, but because it was the first time my very personal feelings about my relationship with Muriel were recognized by others through our performance in a sport.

The next trial we entered was on January 25, 2009 and was the first official NACSW sanctioned trial in the sport of K9 Nose Work. I was on a high from the accolades Muriel and I received in the December trial, but I was trying to remain level-headed about the competition and the challenges we would undoubtedly face. First we gave an underwhelming, but successful, performance in the box drill (we got one of those "trust your dog" comments from the judge for not calling her first alert when I was only trying to be certain she wasn't up to her recently acquired fringing/false alert behavior). After that we waited to do the exterior and vehicle searches.

We failed the exterior search. It was a complete and total failure, beginning with Muriel nearly peeing on some ivy and ending with me calling a false alert that may have been caused by odor blowing and pooling, but was nowhere near the source. I was disappointed in our performance and not looking forward to continuing with the other two elements.

The rest of the trial was a far worse display of K9 Nose Work than our failed exterior search. I remember the actual experience being unpleasant - the searches going all wrong, Muriel signaling randomly and the judges begrudgingly uttering no to my feeble calls of alert - but watching the video a week later was painful and embarrassing. The images of me and Muriel searching show a slump-shouldered, blank-faced handler, and a broken dog trying anything she can to make him happy. After watching the video, I realized the January trial was just as significant as the December trial, it was the first time my feelings about our performance had a negative effect on Muriel. It was also the last time.

For every trial since that January 2009 trial I have worked very hard to keep things fun for me and Muriel. I'm still competitive and I want us to perform well at trial, but my number one concern is that we're both having fun. This is especially important when we fail with one or more elements remaining in a trial. Even though I know we won't take home a title for that day, there's no reason we can't do some great searching. I blew it for us on a vehicle search at the December 2011 NW3 trial in Livermore. It was our first element, and it was frustrating, but I knew our failure was because we didn't take our time and move throughout the search area well enough. Instead of bemoaning our loss of a chance to earn a title, I kept a positive attitude and looked forward to the remaining three searches. We ended the day with that one vehicle hide being the only thing we missed. I considered that a great day of searching, and I was very proud of Muriel.

Even professional handlers with working dogs recognize that the dogs see their job as a game, and it's best to play the game with the least amount of stress, especially when the stakes are high. There are accounts of search and rescue dogs working the rubble from the 9/11 attacks getting to search for and find live firemen who'd purposefully hidden themselves to give the dogs a chance to be correct and be rewarded and to keep the dogs' (and handlers') stress levels lower.

While there are many things a handler can do to make sure his dog is having fun while doing K9 Nose Work, one of the easiest things is to remember to smile. All dogs are sensitive to human emotional responses - some dogs to a greater degree than others (there is a great Nova documentary called Dogs Decoded that explores this topic). Don't just smile when things are going well, but try to keep a truly positive attitude when your team experiences failure. Some people like to use the mantra: trial is just another training day; I say do whatever works to keep a positive attitude. As long as your dog is able to enjoy searching and playing the game of K9 Nose Work, you can feel good about the day no matter the outcome of the trial. And, more often than not, your positive attitude will contribute to a better performance that you really will feel good about.

I remember what I said to my classmates the day I watched the January trial footage, I said that I never wanted to cause Muriel to fall to pieces again because I'd become so wrapped up in the outcome of a competition. I watch Muriel have the time of her life doing amazing things in practice sessions on both blind and non-blind searches and I know that there is no difference to her if the search is set up for practice or for competition. There should be no difference to me either. Every time we do K9 Nose Work I should be smiling at how much fun my dog is having doing what she loves and that should be the greatest reward.

Happy Sniffing!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Can You Read My Dog?

I set up a search for Muriel in my backyard on a recent hot and dewy morning; and with the help of my two year old son and a Canon T3i that's nearly idiot-proof, I captured an astonishing number of out-of-focus pics of my determined little cattle dog mix hard at work.

Take the K9 Nose Work® search quiz and see how well you can read my dog!


I've set up a two hide search in an area roughly eighty feet long by twenty feet wide, with the start line/threshold bisecting the search area lengthwise. The search will be off-leash and I won't really be an active handler (other than to provide rewards for finding the hides) since I'll be behind the camera the whole time.

The start line is the threshold in the doorway opening out to
the rectangular shaped search area 
View from inside the search area and just to the right of the doorway/
start line
Looking across the search area (the wall is opposite the doorway/
start line)

1. As a K9 Nose Work handler looking at this search area, it would be important for me to know:

a) Which direction the wind is blowing
b) How tall the grass is
c) how many cracks are in the concrete patio


2. Based upon the photo montage above, Muriel is:

a) Showing no interest in the search area
b) Catching scent and choosing to go to the right as she enters the search area
c) Waiting for me to tell her what to do


3. Assuming these photos are ordered (top left, bottom left, top right, bottom right), it appears that Muriel is:

a) Trying to source a hide in the large crack in the concrete
b) Closing in on a hide on the tricycle
c) ruling out the patio area


4. This sequence of photos (top left to right, bottom left to right) shows Muriel is:

a) sourcing a hide suspended in mid-air
b) working drifting odor
c) dancing to the grass to relieve herself


5. Based upon the photos, Muriel appears to be:

a) trying to escape
b) telling us the hide is low
c) chasing scent back and forth along the wall; bracketing


6. In these photos, Muriel is:

a) checking the wall for cracks and the tires for air
b) Being obedient to me
c) sourcing the hides and sitting to alert me to them

All quizzing aside, some interesting things happened during this search. Here are photos of the hide placements up close, and answers to the quiz along with some additional details about the search:

Tin hidden under the front fender

Clear tube with cotton swabs wedged in between bricks on the wall about
four feet up from the ground

The quiz answers are as follows: 1.a, 2.b, 3.b, 4.b, 5.c, 6.c 

At the start line, there was a slight, but noticeable breeze blowing into our faces, so we were downwind of the odors - a good place to be. Muriel sniffed both sides of the threshold, but chose to follow her nose to the right and out the door.

Once she entered the search area she locked down the tricycle hide, circling once between the center support post for the overhang and the tricycle itself, before detailing the tricycle, finding the hide, and alerting.

Muriel left the tricycle in search of the second odor, which she picked up very near the house and air scented all the way to the grass. Interestingly, because I was taking pictures from the patio, Muriel remained trapped under the overhang working drifting scent for thirty to forty-five seconds. She climbed both sides of the table on the patio and she fixated on the center support post for the overhang - nearly going to an alert at one point (although there were none of the signs leading up to the alert that would have made me believe it in a blind scenario). It was only once I changed position in the search area, moving to the grass, that Muriel broke free of the "scent trap" and started working the wall. Nice lesson learned regarding handler positioning and the "invisible leash" our dogs can sometimes be tethered to even when we think they're free to follow their noses.

Once Muriel hit the wall opposite the start line, she began bracketing the odor, working to the left and right and climbing the wall - clear signs she's locking down a high odor. It took her a while to source the hide, maybe because scent was staying high, travelling along the grooves in the bricks and she thought it was out of reach for her and telling me it's up was good enough. Once she checked high within a few feet to the right of the odor she was able to work the scent back to source and alert.

Overall, a challenging search for Muriel - especially with me present, but not doing my part as handler. A number of the things talked about in past posts played out in this search, and hopefully the pics helped make concepts like drifting odor, waiting at the threshold, and a dog's behavior changes in odor seem a little more concrete.

Happy Sniffing!

p.s. - Here's a pic of my junior handler in training. Doing his best to hold onto Muriel until she picks up the scent coming from the tricycle hide!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Alert! (The Final Response)

In K9 Nose Work®, we consider a dog's final response to be his alert, or indication that he's found source odor. In a competition, when you see your dog give a final response you should yell out "Alert!" This allows the judge to evaluate how well you can read your dog. A clear final response can make it easier to read your dog when he's found source odor, but how do you get from the sometimes subtle behavior changes - tail stiffening, forceful exhale, lip curl - to the solid performance of a sit or down? And is it what you really want? Ask most K9 Nose Work enthusiasts if they would like their dogs to have a clear sit or down response and you will get an overwhelming yes.

*If you're interested in a final response for your dog, discuss it with your CNWI/ANWI to figure out what's best for your dog and how to achieve a final response without adversely affecting your dog's overall K9 Nose Work performance.

Are You "Looking at Me"?

In the transition from self-rewarding to handler delivered reward, most dogs develop a habit of anticipating where the reward will come from (handler) and checking in to see when it's coming. We refer to this as the "looks at me" response.

There are top dogs in the sport of K9 Nose Work who can communicate clearly and consistently just by looking at their handlers once they've found the source.

One benefit of the "looks at me" response is that it develops very naturally and without prompting, so there's less confusion on the part of the dog as to what gets him paid.

How do I Know If My Dog is Ready to Be a Better Communicator

The important thing here is not to rush things. If your dog finds source odor, looks at you, and moves on to sniff the next thing, you need to focus on raising the importance of the odor for your dog. Nothing trumps odor obedience, not even the prospect of your dog striking an odor pose at source.

If you've got an eager searcher, the type who won't leave the odor box even when you're a little slow to deliver the reward, you've got a good candidate for developing a clear final response. 

Sit, Down, or Both?

Just like the "looks at me" should come very naturally, your dog may also display a preference for sit or down - or be agreeable to both. To figure out which final response might be better for your dog, use a box drill with chairs. Have the odor box elevated on a chair and let your dog find it, then move in with the reward in a closed fist and hold it right on the box. Offer your dog enough food (a lick and a nibble from between your fingers) to get rewarded for finding the odor box, but keep the rest for rewarding his potential sit or down. Your dog will probably slide into a sit position to get the food reward from your hand - that is the moment you open it and give him his reward. To see if your dog prefers to down, just have the odor box placed on the ground and use the same closed fist on the box presentation, releasing the reward when he downs (or sits, if that's his preference). Got a tall or small dog? Just think of ways to set the hides as close to the nose height of the dog as possible. Stacking boxes to achieve desired height is one plan, so is using a table top. 

Once you've identified which final response your dog has shown preference for (or which you prefer) you can reinforce it by repeating the drill for a sit or down described above. Keep the search very simplified and do not worry about moving the odor box around. A few repetitions and a short break is more effective than a marathon session. 

Your dog will begin to respond quickly with the sit/down to get at the food in your fist. Now, when he finds the odor box, wait just a few seconds before moving your hand to the box. He should go into the final response all on his own; and, if he does you need to reward him right away. If your dog shows signs of confusion over what you want, don't delay any longer, bring that closed fist in again and wait for his final response. Do not over-train the final response. Make sure you are still doing lots and lots of regular searches and do not expect your dog to exhibit the same kind of final response behavior in these searches that you've been getting in your drills.

As you work on a final response, you may find that your dog sits most of the time, but downs for certain hides. This is not uncommon. It's generally related to hide placement, and can be addressed in your regular searches. If your dog is sitting most of the time, but downs on ground hides, just set out more nose-level hides than ground hides. The repetition and reinforcement on the nose-level hides should help get a sit on every hide. Despite your efforts, there will always be situations where your dog won't offer the usual final response, so don't obsess over the dual final response. 

So, You've Got a Sit Response... to Everything

My dog, Muriel, had a strong natural preference toward sitting as a final response; and, boy did she make it look good. The eager little cattle dog mix would sniff furiously until she found the odor box, then she'd snap her haunches to the ground and eye me for her reward. 

About a week before the first K9 Nose Work practice match in December 2008, Muriel began alerting to everything in the environment. Chairs, cabinets, flooring, stacks of books, etc. This would be fine if odor had been present in all of these items. It was not.

Turned out Muriel began to test a theory that she could get paid solely for striking her sit pose. I panicked and contacted K9NW & NACSW co-founder, Amy Herot, and begged for some miracle advice. Amy gave me a short list of instructions that boiled down to me showing no interest in what Muriel was sniffing and alerting to unless it was source odor. I even changed the pace at which I walked, and kept my body language to a minimum, all in hopes of eliminating every alert but the right one. After just a few days of practice, Muriel was back to being a solid searcher; she even won the first ever Harry Award in the 2008 competition.

Be careful with your own dog and a trained final response. It's easy for some dogs to make the connection between sit & treat and decide that odor is no longer the only thing that could get them a reward. If your dog starts alerting just for the "reward of it", take a deep breath and simplify your searches. Set your dog up a few feet from a hide and give him very little chance to fake you out with a false alert. Work your way back to larger and more complex search areas, but make sure your dog is clear that only odor gets him a reward before going on to challenging or blind search scenarios.    

Do You Really Need The Sit or Down?

The answer is "no." All you need is the ability to read your dog in odor. Even in competition, you need only be able to describe what your dog does when he finds the hide (wiggles three toes, whistles, says "it's right here, dummy!"). In fact, many situations will arise in training and in competition that will cause your dog to offer behaviors other than his usual final response, like odor placed in an area where he can't sit or down, a difficult hide placement or an unusually weak or strong concentration of the source odor (single cotton swab versus a jar of cotton swabs).

A sit or down alert does come in handy when doing blind searches in competition. When you're searching a new environment under the pressure of the clock and you need to be able to trust your dog, a strong and clear alert makes you as a handler feel more confident calling "Alert!"; but it doesn't mean your dog will be any more likely to find the hide than a dog with an ear twitch for an alert.

As much as I'm happy to have a dog with a sit alert, I've gone through a lot over the years to correct her false alerting issues, and to get her to make faster decisions. Just in the past week I've had to deal with her getting sloppy about sitting - now she's nose-touching the hide several times and doing more of a hunchback alert. It's a fixable problem, but it's a problem I wouldn't have if I was rewarding a "looks at me". 

Now, I know a number of people with sit-alert dogs who have been solid since the day they learned their final response, so my experience in no way defines the norm. And, despite the periodic troubles we've had with the sit, I'm committed to this final response and overall glad that Muriel chose it and that we've worked to make it work.

When you're ready to think about an alert behavior for your dog, just remember that the flashy sit or down final response is not what K9 Nose Work is all about. Odor obedience is most important for your dog. Observing your dog is most important for you. A good team that excels at those two things can go far in K9 Nose Work, be it with a sit alert or a nose-hair twitch alert!

Happy Sniffing!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Setting Better Hides: Part II

If you haven't read the first post on setting better hides or you want a refresher, click here.

If your dog has a solid foundation in K9 Nose Work® (shows odor obedience in a variety of search environments), then you should feel confident to get creative with your searches and hide placements. It's good for you to learn how to challenge your dog. It's good for your dog to be challenged. And, it's how you both have more fun doing K9 Nose Work.

First, a few things to think about when setting hides:

Odor Containers - tins are by far the most popular containers for cotton swabs scented with a target odor, but they are not - and should not - be the only container for your scented cotton swabs. You should try to use a wide variety of containers. If you can fit a cotton swab into it, it can become an odor container. Just make sure that whatever you choose as a container does not have other odors in it that could conflict with your dog's K9 Nose Work training. Buy your containers new or boil metal containers to remove unwanted odors. A variety of containers (sample vials, flexible rubber tubing, lip balm tubes, etc.) can be found on the website for official K9 Nose Work supplies, You can also look in places like the Container Store or Home Depot for small plastic containers, soft plastic tubing, and more.

Cotton swabs can be hidden in larger containers - paint cans, plastic storage bins, cardboard boxes - using clear tape. Just be sure to have clear tape on odor-free items in the search so as not to create an unwanted association with tape and the reward. Also, remember that any container used for odor should be designated for odor only for all future searches.

There are occasions to use a single cotton swab without a container, but keep in mind that anything the cotton swab comes in contact with can become contaminated with residual odor. This means that after the cotton swab is removed from the area, what remains can be a strong concentration of odor - sometimes as strong to your dog as the cotton swab itself. Do not set exposed cotton swabs in public places where other K9 Nose Work teams might search and unknowingly encounter residual odor.

Search Difficulty - If you set a hide or hides and your dog works for more than one minute without finding source odor, you need to evaluate the situation and make changes as necessary. Ask yourself if your dog is showing any signs of searching - breathing changes, head turns, following a scent trail, etc. - or if he is losing interest and/or becoming distressed. If your dog is searching and happy to continue working, just make sure you do your part as handler to get him working the entire area so he can have success. If your dog is giving up on the search, the hide placement may be too challenging (or unanticipated factors - wind, temperature, new environment - could be making an easy hide much more difficult). Resist the urge to lead your dog to the hide, you will not be teaching him anything this way. Instead, find an opportunity to slip over to the hide location and move it to a more accessible place. Use your leash to narrow your dog's search area so he can find the source odor and get rewarded. Next time you place hides, keep it simple to start and to finish, with a slightly more challenging search in between.

Okay. Here we go. 

Hiding Multiple Odors

You can have fun with multiple odors at any level. As much as your dog loves getting rewarded once for finding one odor, he really loves getting rewarded two, three, or more times in a search. 

Building Drive - Experiment with setting lots of hides and reducing the number or starting with just one hide and increasing the number. Set them up all around a vehicle to elevate the vehicle's importance in the game and to condition dogs to stay on task.

Drive building exercises are not like regular searches. It may take a little time for your dog to get the maximum benefit from this type of multiple odor setup. Start simple. Set out a few hides along a wall, spaced about four to six feet apart and keep your dog on leash so he does not pass a hide until he has found it. When your dog has found all three hides, turn around and let him find the same three, again. If he responds well to this kind of exercise, increase the number of hides.  

Limit how often you use drive building exercises, and always do a more traditional search with your dog afterward. Try using luggage or other large containers to do a multiple hide drive building exercise (set containers in a circle), then change up the hides - or reduce to just one hide - and let your dog search more freely. The hope is that you're helping your dog to make clear and confident decisions in odor, and to investigate every possible odor source before moving on to what might be a stronger scent trail.

Converging Odors - When scent trails from two or more different hide locations intersect in ways that create difficulties in sourcing one or all of the hides, we call it converging odor.

Some dogs use converging odor advantageously, working one hide to it's source, then quickly sourcing the second hide. Other dogs will show little to no interest in one of the hides in a converging odor situation, but will confidently alert on the other hide. This often causes the handler to decide all hides in that area have been found. Some dogs get caught between the hides, picking up one scent trail and dropping it for another. These dogs may dart around the search area, coming close to each hide, but not alerting until all of the hides in the area have been catalogued. This is somewhat prevalent in herding breeds - round up the flock, then tend to the individuals.

Setting hides to create a converging odor situation is not always easy, so try to gain some experience in your weekly class by working converging odor searches set up by your CNWI/ANWI.

My favorite type of converging odor scenario involves hides of varying height. In most situations, a high hide will draw a dog's attention from further away, but if he catches the scent trail of a lower hide on his way over it will draw him off the high hide. If you're new to setting converging odor hides, try setting your lower hide in an area where the odor will pool and be stronger, like a corner. Set the higher hide on the wall between your start line and the other odor, or set it in the middle of the room if there is something like a desk or table to place it on, and maintain a distance of ten to twenty feet between the hides. You'll know you've created a converging odor problem if your dog catches one odor and leaves it for the other, or if he bounces between the two odors.

These are good searches to practice non-blind and to alternate on and off leash. Don't obsess about setting converging odor hides (after all, we can only guess at what the odor will do when we set hides), instead, watch your dog carefully in every multiple odor search and try to identify when he's working a converging odor problem and how you might use your observations to help the two of you in future searches.

High Hides

It's not the size of the dog in the search, it's the size of the communication in the dog. I have yet to see a high hide placement that could not be accurately identified by a dog too small to actually reach the source odor. Are there blind search situations where big dogs may have an easier time following the scent trail of a high hide? Yes. Are there searches where small dogs will nail a ground hide that big dogs struggle to pick up on and source? You bet.

All dogs can become capable high hide searchers with practice. You must take care not to place your hides too high, too soon. Start with high hides that can be accessed from the ground or in other ways. A hide on the top of a picnic table accomplishes this goal. Your dog can catch the hide from the ground and stretch to his full length to alert or he can climb the bench seat to the top of the table and alert right on the source.

Place hides in recessed areas, like a window sill, to help your dog solve the problem of a high or out of reach odor. Doing this will create scent trails that escape either side of the window and travel across the wall. Your dog will learn to work to the left and right of the source, or to bracket the odor, and this will help him decide more precisely where the source odor is located.

Make most of your high hides accessible for your dog. Out of reach hides should be done less frequently and should always be accompanied or followed with an accessible hide. Remember that your dog will not always been keen to get up high to source the odor, even if it's within his reach. If your dog is reluctant to get off his front feet, keep hides low on objects or surfaces that he could climb (chairs, walls, tables, countertops). Frequent rewards on these objects should make him more comfortable reaching for a higher hide. 

Make sure to give well-timed rewards for your dog's clear communication of source odor. This does not mean waiting him out for his pretty sit alert. When introducing high hides to your dog, he may not offer his typical alert, but he will show all the signs that he's in odor, and he might even stare up at the source or jump up close to or under the source odor. Reward your dog for trying his best to tell you he's found a high hide. Help him a little in the beginning and he'll become a confident high hide searcher. Leave his source odor signals unanswered, and you'll have a dog who doesn't know what you want from him. 

Hides in Unusual Places

Think outside the box when setting hides. You want to set hides that condition your dog to expect source odor to be anywhere. Try setting a hide inside a printer, in the spine of a book, in the end of a garden hose, on or under a trash bin, in a storage cubby full of dirty gym clothes, inside a roll of toilet paper, on the wire fencing of a chicken coop, inside the coin return of a vending machine, under a piece of trash or discarded clothing, under the front of a refrigerator, in a mail slot, in a fire extinguisher spray hose, or under the keys of a keyboard. Try everything you can think of, but keep your dog's safety in mind.
If you can't find an unusual place for a hide, make your usual hide placement unusual. Try a ground hide in a pathway or sidewalk where you can run water from a hose to simulate runoff in a rainfall. Or search in the grass right after sprinklers have soaked the search area. Make use of closets or other closed off rooms within rooms, and see how your dog reacts when odor is behind closed doors. Find a place with shiny, slippery floors (again, safety first) and see how your dog handles searching when he also has to focus on walking without slip-sliding across the room.

You can also go to unusual locations. I once got to search a dozen motorcycles at driving school. I've never searched a farm or a body shop (be safe!), an ice arena, or a movie theater. These are all places that would present plenty of opportunity for setting fun hides.

Hides Gone Wrong

When you set your own hides things sometimes go wrong. You might have set a hide in a public bathroom on the top edge of the stall wall, and - only after running your dog - noticed that several small windows high up on the walls of the bathroom seem to be causing the odor to stay high and travel out the windows. 

Maybe you placed a hide inside of a drainage pipe on the side of a building, but the odor was trapped in the pipe so completely that your dog wasn't showing any signs of smelling a hide in the search area. 

You might have thought it was interesting to place a hide in a cedar birdhouse hanging from the roof of your front porch, but your dog struggled to find a surface to work the odor off of, and ended up alerting all over, except for where the birdhouse hung.

A hide on a chain link fence can become perplexingly difficult if the wind is blowing the wrong way and there's no way to get around the fence and downwind of the hide to work the scent trail back to source.

The best thing you can do when you have a hide placement go wrong is to make success possible for your dog. This can be achieved by manipulating the environment (e.g., placing a trash can or other object next to the pipe opening on the building to get your dog detailing that specific area). You can also choose a time to stealthily move the hide to an easier part of the search area (lower a high hide), and use your leash or your body positioning to keep your dog working a smaller, more productive area. Take note of these searches that were too difficult and try to set up slightly easier versions in other locations so your dog has positive learning experiences. Keep in mind that the best challenge for your dog is one he has a chance at winning.

You and your dog will learn more if you're watching another dog and handler work the hides you've set out and if you and your dog are working another handler's hides. As often as you can, try to practice with at least one other person.

Above all, make sure your dog is having fun when you set out hides for him to find and he will surprise you with how quickly he works his way up to those searches that seemed impossible.

Happy Sniffing!