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!