Friday, November 30, 2012

A K9 Nose Work® Day At The Park

The park is one of the best places to practice K9 Nose Work. Whether your dog is new to the activity or working towards an NW3 title, there are myriad ways you can use the park environment to challenge your dog appropriately. If you've yet to take advantage of all that the park can offer, the following tips should help you prepare for a fun and rewarding day of K9 Nose Work at the park.

Before you start searching:

make sure to have a safe, secure place for your dog to rest between searches

check the safety of your environment - look out for dangerous debris like broken glass, check the stability of any objects your dog could lean or climb on, be on the lookout for off-leash animals or wandering park-goers who may enter your search area

think about what you want to achieve for the day (searching amidst high distractions, working on complex hide placements, or just completing a search without your dog peeing!) and choose your areas and place your hides to help meet those goals. Picking a large grassy area and setting a hide at the opposite end from your chosen start line might be setting a pee-happy dog up for failure.

give your dog plenty of opportunities to go to the bathroom; ideally, choose an area away from your search area so your dog is not in search mode when you want him to be in pee mode

plan for a recovery search if anything goes wrong (the environment is too distracting, the hide is too difficult) and don't be afraid to pair to ensure your dog goes to odor and gets rewarded

Okay, let's get sniffing!

Start off with a quick successful search - This is the search that warms your dog up and lets him know that the game is on! Every team can benefit from starting this way. Define a small search area and place a hide close to where you plan to start your search. The effect you're looking for here is the "aah ha!" moment from your dog, not necessarily a bee-line to the hide. What you want to be careful to avoid is misinterpreting your dog's crittering twenty yards away from the hide as part of his warm up routine. This search should not go on for more than a minute, so do your dog a favor if he can't fight the urge to critter, and move him on so his nose gets more chances to cross the path of the odor - that doesn't mean dragging him over the hide, just getting him moving around in closer proximity to the hide.
The blue triangle roughly defines the search area and the red 'x'
approximates the hide location.  Use trees and other objects to help you
identify search area boundaries and hide placements.
the hide is a clear tube with several odor
cotton swabs, partially obscured by a twig. 
Something old and something new - Keep that warm-up hide out and redefine your search area, and while you're at it, add a new hide. Now you can turn a threshold hide into a permiter hide on the outer edge of your new search area. With your second hide, choose something with a slight elevation, like a tin placed low on a sign post. Your start line for this new search are should be a locus equidistant of the two hides. Depending on wind conditions, the elevated hide should be easier for your dog to catch from far away, but the old hide will have some extra value for some dogs as a prior source of reward. Either way, you're likely to have a determined and successful searcher for your second round of hides.

This search shares a hide and a perimeter line with the first search.
The new hide is on the sign post and the start line should be on the
perimeter line closest to the cars and the street. 

Sign post hide in the second search.


  A nose work-out at the park - If you can find a place to set out several contained hides (see picture) spaced out in a line, you can give your dog a fast, multiple reward search that builds a lot of expectation for search & reward in the park environment. Work the line of hides down and back if you really want your dog feeling the K9 Nose Work burn!
Small square holes in the wall spaced about eight feet apart make for the perfect search exercise set up.
Close up on one of the holes in the wall.
You can make their game part of your game - If your dog is showing he's up to the challenge of searching at the park, it's time to add in some distractions to the search. Find a part of the park where people are playing a sport like soccer or basketball and pick some search areas nearby. Keep your hide placements simple and your search areas small until you know your dog can handle something more complex - after all, asking him to search while people run around kicking and bouncing balls can be hard enough. The goal here is to get your dog used to lots of unpredictable movement in an environment. If you're worried that your dog won't search in an environment this distracting, try to set up your hide placement so he can work away from the distractions and keep them part of the background. If something unexpected happens (a very loud noise or a ball hitting a fence near your search area) right as your dog is about to find the hide, make sure to give him lots of support and verbal praise, rewarding the slightest effort he makes to go back to the source odor. When a dog makes it through a distracting or uncomfortable situation and gets to find odor and be rewarded, that makes his efforts seem worth repeating and that's how you build the motivation to search regardless of what's going on in the environment.

A grassy search area adjacent to a basketball court.
A search area closer to the basketball court,  but without the added challenge of searching in grass.
Close up on the hide placed about eight feet away
from the fence separating the search area and the
basketball court.
Don't object to searching some objects - Sure, one of the big draws of the park is getting to work through the distractions of the grassy green pee & critter zones, but focus too much on that and you'll miss an opportunity to get your dog used to searching for odor on objects that present their own challenges. Trash cans are great for placing hides. They have lots of distracting smells inside them and are usually a favorite pee stop for male dogs. Make the hide accessible to your dog and reward quickly the first time he goes to the hide to avoid any confusion over the importance of odor versus critter or pee smells. Another great object for setting hides is bleachers. Just be sure not to set any hides where your dog could lose his footing and fall, hurting himself. Start by setting a hide low on the steps of the bleachers or a little higher on the frame of the backside of the bleachers. Just remember - as with other park hides - give your dog plenty of freedom to work the hide from a distance. It's hard to know where the odor will travel and how your dog will decide to work it back to source, so you need to stay open to the less obvious routes your dog may take.
Search area with trash can and bleachers right off the jogging
Keep things simple and just use a
tin with a magnet inside to hold odor and
stick it to the can.

The odor tin is lying next to the support leg for the bench seat

Try to end your day on a high note - even if that means you don't get to do the cool picnic table search you planned out. It's better for your dog and it's better for you.

After you finish searching:

if you had trouble with any of your searches, think about how you might work on those issues next time. For example, if your dog peed during a search, maybe you had him search too large an area or you searched on grass too soon. A good way to prevent peeing during a search is to place odor in low probability pee areas (on a concrete sidewalk) and to set up searches where your dog should catch odor and go to source in the most direct way.

think about your dog's successes on the day and you'll have a good idea of what to do next time. For example, if your dog handled a multiple odor search on bleachers next to the baseball diamond, search that area again, but put the odor somewhere other than the bleachers. Much of your dog's learning comes from building an expectation, then taking things in a new direction.

make sure you take all of your odor with you. Other K9 Nose Work teams may use the same park as you do for some searches. It could make for some frustrating searching to have a dog alerting to odor you didn't put out and/or can't verify exists.

take your dog out to lunch or dinner. Instead of just making a trip from the house to the park and back, add another stop in before you head home. Next time, add an extra stop before you start your searching. The idea here is to keep your dog from getting wise to your K9 Nose Work plans. Over time, your dog will come to expect a K9 Nose Work search to happen any time and anywhere, not just on single destination trips only.

Get out to the park with your dog, do some searching and have some fun. It will be one of the best things you do for your team in K9 Nose Work.

Happy Sniffing!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Learning K9 Nose Work® From a Certified Instructor

In K9 Nose Work, Certified or Associate Nose Work Instructors (CNWI or ANWI) are the best teachers. A CNWI has completed an extensive certification process, learned from the masters and proven her ability to teach others. An ANWI is in the process of becoming certified, and has gained enough knowledge and experience to be an effective teacher. Anyone serious about having fun in K9 Nose Work should be training regularly with a CNWI or ANWI (going forward in this post we'll use CNWI to stand in for either type of instructor) if one is located in their area. The value of an expert watching over you, providing well-timed instruction and sharing keen insights exceeds the total value of all the things you could do by yourself. So, always always always, take advantage of the best teachers in K9 Nose Work.

Here are a few reasons why a certified instructor is so crucial to your dog's - and your - success in K9 Nose Work.


Identify the proper pace for learning - future success in K9 Nose Work is largely dependent upon the strength of your dog's foundational skills. Starting out with a CNWI will ensure that your dog progresses at the right pace for learning, and that any issues with training can be identified and fixed early.

At each stage of your learning, a CNWI can assess how easily your dog is picking up new concepts and achieving success. A dog may be advancing in skill level, but have a problem area that requires special attention, like distractions in containers searches.

Set up and adjust search exercises - a CNWI will have various planned exercises for you and your dog to do; some of these exercises will require real-time adjustments to ensure the dogs are able to be successful, and to keep things fun for everyone. An exterior search area might need to be reduced in size because the environment is too distracting and the dogs are wandering, and struggling too much.

Just as important as knowing when to adjust a search is knowing when not to change things. A CNWI might set up a threshold exercise in an exterior doorway and notice that the wind is blowing the odor away from the doorway, and the dogs are not catching the odor until they get out into the search area and downwind of the odor. The dogs may not be finding odor in seconds like some threshold exercises work, but the class is able to see how wind changes what would have been a quick and easy search.

Explain the details of a search so you can learn - CNWIs know a lot about how odor moves and how and why dogs choose to work odor in a particular search. Even when your dog does not have easy success in a search, the explanation of what was going on can make your training day well worth the time and effort.

Share observations of many dogs in the same environment - a CNWI sees lots of dogs working the same searches and running the same exercises; you can benefit from her observations of how the dogs are similar and/or different when they work.

Keep you from holding back your dog (literally) - a CNWI is a keen observer of every K9 Nose Work dog and can often tell when something great is about to happen in a search. For example, a dog and handler team may be struggling a bit with a hide on some bleachers - the handler might be restricting the dog to a small area surrounding the hide - and the CNWI will say, "let your dog move just past the outside corner of the bleachers." The handler allows some movement, and like magic, the dog picks up scent, bee-lines across the bleachers to the hide and alerts! Without this kind of help, the dog struggles to the point of giving up, which can lead the handler to direct his dog to odor and miss a great learning opportunity for the team.  

Help you to learn the philosophy of K9 Nose Work - there is an art to teaching K9 Nose Work. A CNWI must facilitate a role reversal, helping the dogs to become more independent and their handlers to give up control and become better observers. There is also an art to practicing K9 Nose Work on your own.

Training with a CNWI will help you to remember that every solo practice session should focus on fun and success for your dog, and that if you think your dog is struggling in a search you should try to manipulate the environment (place an object near the odor) to help him succeed. The belief here is that your dog will gain much more from your indirect help in a search than if you were to lead him to the hide.

What can you do about those times when you're out doing some K9 Nose Work on your own? With no CNWI to guide you, you'll want to make sure that the searches you set up for your dog will be fun and achievable.

What Can You Do Without A CNWI?

Anything with primary reward or paired odor & reward - to help dogs start off in K9 Nose Work it's important for many of them to get immediate gratification for the task at hand, in most cases that means making the hides self-rewarding. While there are many things that can be done to increase a dog's search skills even at the self-reward stage of the game, it's perfectly fine - and beneficial - just to engage the dog's desire to hunt by setting simple hides.

Practice by running searches you learned in a workshop or class - just like in The Parker Videos DVD, which shows how one handler took a single day of workshop training and turned it into months of fun with her dog.

Remember to choose searches you have a good understanding of when practicing with your dog on your own. If your search goes wrong and you can't seem to help your dog by manipulating the environment, have a plan to recover him - a quick and easy hide nearby.

Take every opportunity you have to expand your learning and challenge your dog under the expert guidance of a CNWI. Enjoy time alone practicing with your dog and perfecting your skills as a team. And, prepare for a lifelong journey with your dog in K9 Nose Work!

Happy Sniffing!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Review of the first NACSW™ K9 Nose Work® DVD: The Parker Videos

The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) just released their first DVD, The Parker Videos (2012; running time 41 minutes), a guide to getting started in the activity of K9 Nose Work that features video diary entries of one dog and handler team learning the game. You can purchase the DVD at

One of the best things about the Parker Videos DVD is what it's missing: infomercial style self-promotion. You'll be happy to know that this instructional DVD is packed with video and commentary devoted to introducing the novice handler to the activity of K9 Nose Work. The focus here is on the dogs, and in particular, Parker the doberman.

The DVD opens with a brief segment showing the viewer how to easily begin a dog in the activity of K9 Nose Work. The voice over instruction provided by Christy Waehner, CNWI (and Parker's handler), compliments the video so that a novice handler sitting at home could have her dog successfully searching boxes in no time. A transition to focusing on Parker touches on the path a dog and handler might take from attending a workshop taught by one of the founders, to working on your own and building search skills in the dog over the course of a few weeks or months. Throughout the first ten minutes of the DVD there is an emphasis on letting the dog set the pace for learning, and it's noted that before you progress too far, you want to be sure your dog shows an understanding and a desire for hunting a food or toy reward in the boxes.

The next twenty minutes of the DVD make good use of video diary footage of Parker's progression in the activity of K9 Nose Work captured over an eight month period. In addition to Christy's voice over, K9 Nose Work & NACSW co-founder, Ron Gaunt provides commentary to help the viewer understand Parker's behavior in the searches. We get to see a variety of novice level searches using boxes both indoors and outdoors, as well as a few searches with the food reward hidden in other containers or objects, or simply placed in the environment. By the end of the videos, Parker is searching for the first target odor in competition K9 Nose Work, birch essential oil on a cotton swab, and Christy and Parker are preparing for their first NACSW trial. 

What is evident from the videos of Parker searching is how successful you can make the game for the dog when you limit the size of the search area and contain the odor in a box. Watching Parker work boxes and other objects in a hallway also illustrates how much use you can get out of a single, familiar location and still keep it fun for the dog. There are several videos where handling mistakes are made - specifically, not timing the reward with Parker's discovery of the hide. I applaud Christy for including these videos and viewers should, too. In one video referred to as "basement search", Parker is doing an interior container search and she makes several attempts at alerting to the source odor, but Christy is expecting a different display of behavior. Ron, advises, "don't wait for the dog to sit down, roll over, or whistle dixie. Reward immediately." Watching these videos provides a valuable reminder to all K9 Nose Work handlers to respond to the dog, rather than waiting for what you expect the dog should do in the search.

The last ten minutes of the video are devoted to a glossary of terms used in K9 Nose Work and at NACSW sanctioned events. If you're already watching the video, it's handy to view the definitions of some of the most common terms used in the activity and sport, but if you're looking for a quick access reference tool, it won't be too useful.

While The Parker Videos DVD is clearly aimed at novice handlers who may not have the benefit of joining a weekly instructor-led class, there's plenty here for intermediate and seasoned handlers, too. For less than the price of one weekly class, you get a well summarized refresher on the foundational concepts of getting a dog started in K9 Nose Work, as well as an opportunity to sharpen your observational skills and begin to see how certain patterns emerge in the behavior of every dog as they progress in the activity. Watching the way Parker searches in the series of videos reminded me that when doing searches with my own dog, I need to look for odor obedience - which doesn't always mean the dog is going to go the most direct route to the hide. As a training aid for getting started in K9 Nose Work, a refresher on the basics, or a simple study of a novice K9 Nose Work dog's search behavior over time, The Parker Videos DVD will not disappoint.

I had an opportunity to speak with the founders of K9 Nose Work & the NACSW about their first DVD release. They chose to work closely with Christy and Parker because of their well-documented journey from Intro to K9 Nose Work workshop to searching for the first target odor; as co-founder Amy Herot describes it, "It's a rare situation that you can follow one dog through all the various stages of K9 Nose Work." The hope is that Christy will continue to document Parker's journey for future DVDs (Christy and Parker recently earned an NW1 title), allowing viewers to benefit from the consistency of one dog progressing in K9 Nose Work.

The NACSW is also working on other DVDs, with the intention of showing the wide variety of dogs who enjoy K9 Nose Work at every stage of the game from beginner to competition level. You can expect that some of these DVDs will prominently feature the founders, NACSW faculty, and CNWIs, and will focus on the philosophy and training methodology of K9 Nose Work. As more DVDs become available, there should be a useful mix of students or attendees of workshops applying their learning - as in The Parker Videos - and DVDs featuring more direct instruction from the NACSW. 

Check out The Parker Videos DVD for yourself and post a comment with your thoughts. And, don't forget to keep a video camera running during your K9 Nose Work practice sessions - you never know if you and your dog might be the next stars of an NACSW K9 Nose Work DVD!

Happy Sniffing!