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!


  1. Reyna LOVES her ball, but it took me a little while to realize she isn't working for her ball, she's working for the game of fetch so just varying the number of throws between searches increases her drive, sometimes it a 20 minute game after a hide, sometimes I just hand her the ball, take it back, and we start the next search.

    I'm loving the blog by the way...keep it coming :)
    Also a few obedience behaviors before a search helps channel her energy so she is focused and ready to go...front, finish, 90 degree pivot...reeaadddyyy GO FIND.

    Another game we have started playing is to take her on walks with her collar and harness on, place a couple hides as we walk when she's not looking, and then when we return to the area about 30-40 minutes later switch her leash to her harness and cue her to search.

  2. Replies
    1. Glad it's useful. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Annie is highly motivated by food. I use a variety of foods, like string cheese or tri tip.She loves beef liver.To keep her motivation I am trying new foods, avoiding dry treats because she chokes due to her high drive!Today I gave her banana (little bit messy, but she loved it!)Also, she only gets her liver, for example, when she is searching.For any other training exercise she gets a different kind of reward.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      Annie definitely has high drive! It'll be fun to see all that energy go into problem solving as the searches get more difficult.

      And messy or not, I'd prefer to handle the banana reward over the liver any day!

      It's also worth noting that any super high value treats (like liver is for Annie) should be introduced in several noncompetitive search/training sessions before using that reward in an ORT or a trial (just like Annie's getting with the liver). Your dog could be so driven to get that steak, bacon, salmon, etc., that he fixates on you and the treats, or worse, he false alerts. It's good to treat competitive events like just another training day and save the filet mignon for a post trial celebration.

      Happy Sniffing!

  4. I recently got a food-pouch tug toy with squeakers in it, from an Agility website. My dog doesn't want to play tug when he's doing nosework, but he thinks rooting around for food in the pouch is funner than just getting it from my fingers. Also, he's excited by the squeaks. He has a crazy-high prey drive, so anticipating the squeak helps him focus outdoors where he's very tempted by critter odor, or even live critters. We just successfully competed in our first NW1 trial, and at the end-of-day round-up the judge made fun of my pouch and said it was unnecessary. I respectfully disagree. I know it helps my dog focus on odor, and makes the nosework game more fun. Isn't that what it's all about?

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      First of all, congratulations on earning an NW1 the first time out!

      Second, if you discover a reward type that motivates your dog and allows you both to have fun and be successful, then that is what you should use. I have my own ideas about what I think works best, but I'm willing to embrace something new and different when I see it have real and positive results for a dog and handler team.

      One of the many things I love about the sport of K9 Nose Work is that we often get to be judged by professional detection handlers. As you might imagine, some of these people come from law enforcement or military backgrounds and can have strong personalities! Every judge I've met means well with their comments and is truly enamored of the dog and handler teams they meet at trials.

      I'm willing to bet that based on your performance, the judge who commented on your reward type was probably speaking to your dog's ability to be successful irregardless of the reward type, and maybe letting a bit of his or her own opinion (to which everyone is entitled) slip in, too.

      Last thought: as competitors, we have to remember that judges are evaluating our team's performance based on a certain standard, and that they do not have intimate knowledge of how we train, what problems we're facing, and what strategies we might employ to be successful at trial. Often, they're meeting us and our dogs for the first time.

      I've seen (and been through it) a scenario play out many times in trial where a handler has been experiencing some false alert issues with his dog leading up to trial and so is planning to be extra sure his dog is being honest. During the search, the judge sees the dog go and try alerting on odor, but the handler moves on, coming back later to watch his dog make a second alert, only then calling it and getting an affirmative from the judge.

      The judge may have a comment like "trust your dog!" and may even give the handler a fault for pulling the dog off odor.

      Is the judge right to do this? Of course. Is the handler wrong to employ his strategy? Of course not (although the handler should work to reduce or eliminate the false alerts so he can trust the first alert).

      Having a better understanding of the different perspectives K9 Nose Work can be viewed from will hopefully promote respect and positive comments from all of us involved in the sport.

      Happy Sniffing!

  5. Nice and very informative post regarding dog work or you can training. By the way I am also dog trainer from Melbourne Australia.