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!

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