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!


  1. I really like how this blog reinforces the philosophy of always allowing the dog to win in order to make the Nose Work fun and rewarding.I read in "Dog Heroes of Septmeber 11th" by Nona K. Bauer how some Firefighters would hide so that the Search Dogs could find them and have some success: the dogs were looking for live people and there were none left...Thank you for this informative blog!