Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Calling it Clear in K9 Nose Work®

If you're into the sport of K9 Nose Work, you've probably seen or heard this two word phrase: blank room (the official terminology is blank area). A blank room is a searchable area with no odor. It can be a bathroom, or it can be an interior area consisting of several connected rooms. A handler must call clear if he believes his dog has searched the room and found no odor present. For most teams nearing competition at the NW3 title level, the blank room looms like some distant and foreboding, sky-piercing mountain on the horizon. If you know your dog and understand his behavior in the presence and absence of odor, you can turn that mountain into a mole hill and move one step closer to that NW3 title.

Be Clear About What Your Dog Looks Like In Odor

Some dogs are painfully subtle with their signs and behavior in the presence of odor, but most dogs display easily identifiable changes when they catch a target odor. If you're competing at an NW2 or NW3 level, you should know your dog pretty well, and be able to see when he's picked up a scent and when he's working up to an alert.

Most dogs exhibit one or more of the following signs when working odor:

- change in pace; if your dog speeds up or slows way down, it could be because he's caught odor
- stiffening of body, lowering of head and shoulders (like when stalking prey)
- head turn or other sudden movement of the head
- intense sniffing around a specific area or in a specific direction (not frozen nose sniffing)
- intense sniffing ending in a forceful exhale
- trotting along and air scenting 

What will throw you as a handler is the occasional high or inaccessible hide. These hides tend to be harder for your dog to commit to and thus it's harder for you to see the signs that he's working odor. The best way to learn to read your dog in these situations is to have your CNWI/ANWI set up search scenarios with high or inaccessible hides and to guide you and make sure your dog has success and you can identify all the signs that he's working odor.

Know What Your Dog Looks Like When Odor Is Not Present

Our dogs are very keen searchers and will show just as many identifiable signs that no odor is present as they will when there's a hide to find.

Look for these signs from your dog when no odor is present:

- no/diminished interest in entering the room
- frantic, generalized searching
- frequent checking in with you
- inconsistent/fleeting interest in some areas, often ignoring the areas initially or ignoring them on subsequent passes

What will throw you here is the amount of time you spend in the room before making a decision to call it clear. Every dog has a threshold for searching, once they've passed it their reliability decreases. If your dog's threshold is forty-five seconds and you're at a minute, he may begin showing increased interest in a specific area where no odor is present and he may even false alert. You'll want to train to avoid this scenario, so have someone force you to make a decision at thirty seconds into the search. If you call clear and there is odor present, it just means you need to try and pick up on some signs your dog shows in those first thirty seconds that would tell you odor is present. 

If you fail to call clear in a blank room, you need to try and recall what your dog did in the first fifteen or thirty seconds of the search. Most likely, your dog showed all the signs that odor was not present, but as time elapsed, he maybe did a head turn in a part of the room he previously showed no interest in, then sniffed something and gave you his alert signal. If you compare a search where odor is present to a blank room search like described above, you will see that when odor is present your dog will usually search a more specific area and make a continued effort to get to odor and alert, rather than randomly showing interest in an area he had previously ignored.

Practicing Blank Rooms

It's best to practice a blank room with someone else present, ideally an instructor or a seasoned handler. What you want to get better at is identifying your dog's signs in the first thirty seconds of the search and making a decision to call it clear or continue searching for odor. The instructor can help by enforcing the thirty second rule and by offering feedback on the search, specifically your dog's behavior and anything you might have done to influence your dog.

Always have a search with odor present set up to do before or after a blank room search. Your dog should never go out to do K9 Nose Work and not do at least one search with odor present.

When you call a room clear, verbal praise is the best reward - a few pats on the back work, too - you just want to let your dog know that you're happy he searched the area. Save your food and toy rewards for when he finds odor.

Try to get exposure to a variety of rooms. Kitchens and highly cluttered rooms are often the most difficult rooms to search and call clear - not necessarily for the dog, but for the handler who perceives the clutter as adding to the difficulty of clearing the room. Surprisingly, room size doesn't affect the dog as much as you might think. A twenty by forty room can be called clear in the same amount of time as an eight by eight room.

Observe the length of time it takes your dog to alert on odor in a variety of rooms. A rule of thumb for experienced dogs is about one minute or less to find the first odor in a room. This means that the dog is actively searching for this odor, most likely from the first seconds of the search. In a blank room, if you hit the minute mark and your dog hasn't been working an odor and on his way to alerting, then you're best strategy is to call it clear.

Going To Trial With The Possibility Of A Blank Room

Try as you may to remember all of your training, at trial you will probably be too nervous and uncertain to call clear in a room search in under thirty seconds. Some of you will probably take all the way up to the ten second warning to make your decision. Try not to go this route. Instead, put your training to the test and find out if your practice has paid off. 

Officially, an interior search at trial *may* contain a blank room or area. If you call an area clear, you will not be told if you were correct until after the trial. If you find out that the room had odor, try to learn the hide placement and see if your instructor can set up a similar search for your next training session.

Some dogs behave differently at trials and competitions (so do their handlers), usually becoming over exuberant and sloppy searchers, or shutting down and giving false alerts. Try to keep your dog calm and focused, but, accept that nothing can substitute for experience. The more you and your dog experience searching in trials, the more reliable your team will be on subsequent trial days.

Enjoy really watching your dog and understanding him a little bit better as you encounter possible blank rooms in practice and at trial.

Happy Sniffing! 


Saturday, October 13, 2012

What Motivates Your K9 Nose Work® Dog to Search?

A few nights ago, I innocently forgot to feed our dogs. When morning came, I got Muriel ready for some searching before breakfast. While I watched her work I looked for any difference in her performance having missed two meals before searching instead of one (Muriel usually searches for treats then gets her meal after she's all done). From what my eyes could see, Muriel seemed to be working as good as ever. I wasn't sure if this was because she was extra hungry, but that was the most obvious variable to me that morning.

Imagine my surprise when I saw a post to the K9 Nose Work yahoo group (you can join by invite only if you've attended a workshop or attend a weekly class taught by a CNWI/ANWI) sharing a link to a study touting the benefits of feeding search dogs before they work. The study found that a dog working on an empty stomach is less successful in a search activity than a dog working with a meal in his belly (I know I'm glossing over the specifics). I have no doubt my own anecdotal evidence is no match for the data collected in a real study; at the same time, I'm working with my dog, not one of the dogs in the study. Perhaps she's just different.

My point is not really to debate the findings of the study. The fact that someone is out there studying how dogs search and providing any information on the subject at all is pretty cool. I say never turn down a chance to learn something new, even if you subsequently decide it has no practical application for you. What I'm interested in are the ways we might motivate our dogs to search more enthusiastically and successfully in the activity and sport of K9 Nose Work.

Finding Out What Motivates Your Dog in the Beginning

Choose the most valuable reward - In K9 Nose Work most dogs start out searching for a high value treat. If you have a dog who loves his rope ball more than anything, let him search for that. The key is to find out what your dog goes a little bit crazy (the good kind of crazy) for and use that.

Give your dog home field advantage - Just as important as what motivates your dog is how comfortable he is in his search environment. Searching for his favorite treat/toy reward is supposed to be fun, so play the game in places your dog feels safe and secure enough to have a good time.

Keep distractions to a minimum - If you're trying to get your dog to search for his favorite squirrel squeak toy in the backyard while a real squirrel scurries across the fence, you won't get too far. The intended reward should be the only reward your dog can get, otherwise you're inviting confusion as to what your dog should put his efforts into searching for.

Stay one step ahead of your dog - Remember that look of excitement in your dog's eyes the first time he was enticed with his favorite reward, then set loose to search for it - try to keep that look in his eyes with each new search. That means setting up searches that are challenging but achievable.

Keeping a K9 Nose Work Dog Motivated

Once your dog gets the game and has progressed from self-rewarding in the searches to searching for the target odor only, maintaining or increasing his motivation to search is about much more than choosing a high value reward.

Build a routine, but be flexible to change - The average K9 Nose Work handler with a dog searching for one or more of the target odors has probably developed a routine for playing the game of K9 Nose Work. I'm a bit OCD, so I'm all about the routine.

I have my K9 Nose Work backpack that holds all of our gear - collar, long line, treat rewards, the hat I always wear. Picking up that backpack is a clear sign to Muriel that we're going searching.

We go to class every Wednesday now for over four years. Muriel has learned to read the calendar and knows exactly when Wednesday is approaching; she makes this clear by burning holes in my head with her laser-eyed stare tracking my every move until I pick up our backpack and drive her to class.

Before a search, we go through a little wind-up routine where I ask here if she's ready to do some nose work and she replies with an enthusiastic muzzle-punch-to-the-face yes. At the start line I hold her leash tight and give her search command.

If you have a routine similar to this, do something every once and a while to surprise your dog. Sometimes I'll set out a hide in my front yard while Muriel's hanging out in the backyard, then I'll just call her in, pop on her search collar and let her go. I also like to carry a travel size odor kit so I can set up random searches when we're on the road.

When we don't have our Wednesday class, I'll sometimes not do any searches with Muriel until the next class - so two weeks go by without searches. When we do get back to the game she's giddy like a puppy to show me she's still got skills. I've witnessed this same renewed enthusiasm for the game in many dogs with time away from training varying from a few weeks to months (not sure any of us could willfully stop playing for months!).

I don't usually change my pre-search wind-up routine, but if I see that Muriel is ready to get down to business right out of her crate, I'll sometimes just let her follow her nose.

Get creative with your training - Sometimes it's just you and your dog with a little free time at home and you want to do some K9 Nose Work, but you feel like your dog has searched the bathroom umpteen times and you just can't think of a good place to set out the hide. This is a perfect time to think outside the box.

Find an object you can place odor in that's accessible to your dog, but requires a little extra effort to get to, like a laundry basket. Creating situations where your dog has to work over, under, around or through physical barriers to get to the odor can increase his overall motivation to search.

Try taping a hide to the inside bottom of a laundry basket and tipping it on its side. Give your dog a chance to put part (or in some cases, all) of his body inside the basket to find the source odor; when he does get to source, reward and praise him. Next, tip the basket upside down so he has to tip it over to get to the source odor.

If your dog is the polite type, or a little timid around objects, and he indicates that the odor is in the basket, but he's just not willing or able to get any closer, offer help. Tip the basket slowly and let him find his way to source odor or, if he's very timid, hold his reward right at source to give him extra incentive to brave getting inside the strange object.

After an exercise like this, you might observe your dog working harder in searches. For many dogs, having to overcome a physical barrier to getting to source odor seems to raise the overall value of finding source odor in all situations.

Get out of your head and let your dog be motivated - As a K9 Nose Work handler you will probably go through times where you feel like your dog has lost his search mojo. You might be working on higher hides and find that he's suddenly alerting up every tree and sign post. Don't dwell on these occasions, it's just part of the learning process. Resist the temptation to help him in any way other than an invisible one, and don't get in the mindset of, "my dog can't do this" or "this is too hard". Just believe in your dog and keep challenging him. He wants to rise to the occasion. When he does achieve new and great things you'll both be happier and that'll keep him highly motivated.

Build a special relationship with your dog outside of K9 Nose Work - There's nothing like the bond that forms from working as a team in K9 Nose Work, but for that bond to be its strongest you and your dog might need one-on-one time outside of the search area. Take walks together, bring your dog to work, just relax together on the couch on a rainy afternoon. If your dog is truly your best friend, there's no doubt he'll be motivated to do his very best K9 Nose Work searching for you.

Keep Searching For What Works Best

It's easy to identify a motivated K9 Nose Work dog: eager to search, happy, willing to face new challenges. It's hard to say exactly what's motivating the dog. For most dogs, it's the food or toy reward, and the reigniting of their hunting instincts. For some dogs it's the fun of the game. If you're hoping to maintain or increase your dog's motivation to search, you have to keep things familiar yet fresh.

Add some variety to your reward - If you always use salmon strips, try rotating in some pizza crust or some steak. You may see a bump in motivation, but don't overuse a special reward - keep it random to keep your dog excited about it.

Try a new location - It can be a familiar location, like a friend's house your dog has visited before, or make it brand new, like a park across town. In both cases, you'll pique your dog's excitement when he realizes every trip he takes could be a K9 Nose Work outing.

Change your handling approach - Maybe you're used to shuffling through the search area, taking long pauses while your dog ploddingly details everything on his way to finding source odor. Then again, you could be racing around at the end of your leash while your dog chases everything from the scent trail to butterflies. In both cases, you might be able to help your dog get motivated to search for the target odor more successfully.

Try varying your pace with your dog on leash. Speeding up with a dog who's slow to make a decision may signal to him that he better hurry or his opportunity will be lost. Slowing down with a rambunctious dog will help him to pay more attention to what he's sniffing and to follow that odor to source more efficiently. Both types of dog will like getting their reward faster, and your change in behavior will keep them more focused.

You can also try keeping your emotional displays to a minimum while your dog is searching, waiting until he's found source odor to beam with pride and shower him with enthusiastic pats and rubs in addition to his usual reward. Your dog's eagerness to see you express yourself may motivate him to search with vigor.

Share Your Ideas

What motivates your dog? Comment below and maybe you'll help a few fellow K9 Nose Work handlers to motivate their dogs.

Happy Sniffing!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

When is My Dog (and When Am I) Ready For an ORT?

In K9 Nose Work®, our dogs are almost always ready for the next challenge before we are, and that's definitely true in the case of the Odor Recognition Test, or ORT. An ORT is meant to be a test of your dog's ability to recognize one of the three target odors used in competition, and of your ability to recognize when your dog has found the target odor. The test is set up as a container search using twelve boxes, one box containing the target odor. While this all sounds simple, an ORT can prove to be unexpectedly difficult. Here are a few signs to look for that will help you know when you and your dog are ready to enter that upcoming ORT.

1. Odor Obedience

An odor obedient dog is one who actively searches for and goes to source odor. An ORT is made infinitely more difficult if your dog is not self-motivated to go to source odor. If the typical search for you and your dog involves you having to take your dog back to the source odor several times to get him to show interest and go to source, you're not yet ready for an ORT.

Make use of pairing the odor with food again to give your dog more time to make the connection that finding source odor is finding food. Keep searches simple so your dog has success without wandering or struggling. Once you move back to odor only, make sure to time your rewards properly to reinforce the desired behavior from your dog. Some dogs will alert to source odor, and if not rewarded quickly, they will begin exploring other ways of getting a reward (usually false alerting or fringing) and may not willingly return to the source odor.

As a handler, avoid cuing your dog during the search. Keep an even pace as the two of you work the search area and don't stop or linger at the hide location; keep moving until your dog has actually gone to source odor. This is especially important when practicing container searches. The scent from source odor contained in a box will sometimes fall on or in the nearest box or boxes, and this will cause many dogs to show strong interest in an empty box, sometimes even resulting in a dog alerting on an empty box. If you keep moving while your dog is investigating empty boxes - even if he alerts - he will eventually learn that the only way to get your attention and get his reward is to alert on source odor.

Keep your ratio of blind to non-blind searches low, say one blind search for every four or more non-blind searches. While blind searches are a way to test your readiness for an ORT or trial, they can also contribute to problems like fringing and false alerting. There's more value in strengthening your dog's understanding of what you want from him in a search (like described in the above paragraph) than there is in working blind and potentially supporting unwanted behavior. Too many times, I've seen a promising K9 Nose Work team rush to do a blind search only to have the dog fringe or false, and the handler reinforce the behavior through his body language - pretty much doing everything but rewarding the dog. The result is a handler who has less trust in his dog and is more likely to second-guess him in a search even when the dog is correct, causing further problems.

This is a good time to remind you to do blind searches with a CNWI/ANWI or a seasoned handler who can help you avoid any major missteps - like supporting a false alert - in the search.

2. Recognizing the Alert 

If you can identify one or more things your dog does when he locates source odor, you're on the path to entering an ORT.

Many handlers have odor obedient dogs and have mastered promptly rewarding at source, yet, when it comes to the alert, some handlers just can't see the signs that their dogs are in odor. For many handlers, the trouble is not that their dogs are too subtle, it's that reading the signs and making a call in real time is challenging.

It turns out, there is a very easy solution to the problem of not being able to read your dog: patience. If you stick to well-timed rewards for your dog and continue to advance your training then you will begin to see the signs indicating your dog has found source odor. Many dogs begin with the "looks at me" alert, looking back to the handler for a reward after finding source odor.

Once your dog begins to offer some kind of alert at source odor, don't expect it every time. Remember that a timely reward is still most important to your dog. If you develop a habit of waiting your dog out for a desired behavior, you may end up with that behavior even when it's not desired. Build a chain of events that lead up to your dog sourcing odor - maybe he always stiffens up and does detailed sniffing right before he finds source odor, even if he doesn't do his "looks at me" alert. If you practice this way, then in a blind search you can use the behavior changes to get a pretty good idea of where the odor is even if your dog isn't alerting, as opposed to figuring out which of the five boxes he alerted to has the odor in it.

3. Handling Under Pressure

That part in the opening paragraph about ORTs being unexpectedly difficult, well, it's usually due to the pressure of searching blind and getting it right in an official setting. Performance anxiety. Sure, you and your dog only get one shot to call it right or you have to sign up for another ORT. Yes, you're likely to be at a new location in front of many unfamiliar faces (or worse, familiar faces you don't want to fail in front of), including officials and judges, and you'll have paid a nice chunk of change for the pleasure. No, there isn't really a way to completely eliminate that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling that goes along with facing a challenge, outcome unknown. So, what can you do?

First, employ whatever relaxation techniques you care to try: meditation, yoga, acupuncture, soothing herbal tea, gregorian chant - be open to anything. If you can relax and keep your cool during a test like an ORT, your team will perform better.

If needles and monophonic monks don't lower your anxiety levels, then try practicing some searches in settings that raise your anxiety levels. Many K9 Nose Work teams fall apart in their first test or competition because the dog senses some major changes going on with the handler and reacts by shutting down or trying to please the handler, often with a false alert. The practice searches don't even necessarily have to be blind; you could do a demo for your son's kindergarten class or some coworkers, or make a bet with your husband offering him nights off from getting up with the baby for a week if you and your dog can't find the hide. The more exposure you give your dog to the various emotional states you might be in during a search, the better he'll cope when it really counts.

Ultimately, the best defense against competition nerves is experience. As your team's skills increase and you and your dog do ORTs and trials, it'll become easier to get into the right state of mind for a test or competition.

Still not sure when you should enter an ORT? Talk to your CNWI/ANWI and see if your class can do a mock ORT for practice. Your dog will most likely be ready and able to do an ORT long before you are, so when you do finally enter one don't forget to relax and trust your dog.

Happy Sniffing!