Sunday, December 16, 2012

Your All Access Pass to Inaccessible Hides in K9 Nose Work®: Part One

There's a lot to learn in K9 Nose Work before taking on the challenges of an inaccessible hide. Dogs need lots of reinforcement going right to source for their reward, and handlers need lots of practice observing their dogs working odor to its source. Once a dog has developed a strong odor obedience and her handler is clear on when to reward, it's time to work some inaccessible hides.

keep in mind - if you're competing in K9 Nose Work, the NW1 level tests your dog's ability to get to accessible source odor. At the NW2 & NW3 levels is where you may encounter inaccessible source odor. There's so much to train for to be successful at the NW1 level that if you are working towards your first title, you should train mainly on accessible hides. Even at the NW2 & NW3 levels you should keep inaccessible hides down to around 20-25% of the searches you do and always do accessible hide searches as part of every practice session.  

What is inaccessible? - The most obvious examples of inaccessible hides are those that are contained within a larger object, like drawers or cabinets, and those that are out of reach, like a hide six feet off the ground or on a countertop behind a microwave.

Inaccessible hides can also be hides that appear accessible to us humans, but, for various reasons, are not accessible to our dogs. An example might be a hide on the underside of a wire shelving unit with plastic containers stacked on the shelves. The hide appears accessible from underneath the bottommost level of shelving, and maybe even from above that level of shelving by creating a space between containers that would expose the hide. Some dogs could squeeze into the space between the floor and the bottommost level of shelving, but what if the odor is not drawing the dogs to crawl under the shelving? What if, the odor is actually moving in such a way that it collects at the far corner of the shelving unit where the wheel is? What if the dog is too big to fit under the shelving, or what if the dog is too scared to crawl under the shelving?

What might be considered inaccessible in one scenario, for one dog, may be accessible in another scenario or for another dog - or may become accessible further along in the dog's training. Part of what makes it difficult to label a hide as accessible or inaccessible is that dogs come in different sizes, with different temperaments, and different abilities, all affecting how and if they can get to the source of the odor. In addition to the dogs, a variety of environmental factors - wind, temperature, surface area of objects, safety hazards, etc. - can affect the accessibility of a hide.

Get your dog cozy with the odor before you put it out of reach - If there is one thing to impress upon all K9 Nose Work teams, it is this: Make certain that your dog has experience working plenty of hides that are within her nose's reach. A dog with lots of reinforcement working hides she can reach will probably transition very nicely to hides that are truly inaccessible. Now, a dog without lots of practice getting right on the hides that can be accessed may also do very nicely with inaccessible hides, but she may falter on those trickier accessible odor problems.

Table hides are good illustrators of the potential problems a team could face with hides that can and should be accessed by the dog. A hide placed just under the edge of a table top about a foot or so from a corner/leg should be accessible to the majority of dogs. What this means is that the dogs should not decide the source of the odor is at the corner of the table, they should not decide it is on the top of the table, they should decide the source of the odor is on the source of the odor! If you set up a hide like this and your dog gives you a false alert, there's work to be done before you go all crazy with a hide in the top drawer of your office file cabinet four feet above the ground.

Here's where you'll want to enlist the expertise of a CNWI or ANWI. An experienced instructor can guide you and your dog through the process of introducing complex accessible hides. Even more importantly, an instructor can do the following:

Assure you that your dog is not suffering while she works out the difficult accessible odor problem

Keep you from rewarding for a false alert

With the help of your instructor, you'll still have some "holding your breath" moments while your dog works to source the hide, but you'll be so proud - and thankful for your instructor's patience - when she alerts right on source and has a real epiphany. With regular practice setting out accessible hides that require some problem solving on your dog's part, you'll see how quickly she learns and how much your confidence in her abilities increases.

Make a few stops on the road from accessible hides to inaccessible hides - Give your dog a chance to work hides that are harder and harder to access before going completely out of her reach. This can be higher hides that require her to stretch, hides that are blocked by items - chairs, boxes, a mostly closed door - and require going around, over, under, or squeezing through. You want your dog to really feel there's a strong incentive to put out some effort to reach the source odor. Not to mention, this can work wonders on dogs with environmental sensitivity. Have a dog who is afraid to go under a picnic table? Placing hides so that she has to stretch just a little more, take just one more step under the table, etc., to find the odor and get rewarded is a huge confidence booster.

The first inaccessible hides your dog works should be confidence builders - Choose areas without a lot of environmental challenges for your dog to contend with as you begin to work inaccessible hides. Start inside, pick a hide placement that will give your dog a chance to put the scent and the source together like an invisible odor chain. Try a hide that is out of reach and near a corner or somewhere where the odor can collect a little stronger to help lead your dog back to source - a large piece of furniture like a highboy or hutch works well. When you move outside, use a downspout or the corner of a window sill to introduce an inaccessible hide.

Accept less to get more - Amy Herot, K9 Nose Work & NACSW co-founder, has coined this phrase for training inaccessible hides. The idea is that if you start off by rewarding your dog for showing a slight interest in an inaccessible hide, then you will motivate your dog to work longer and harder to make a strong, clear commitment to odor in that search; and, in subsequent searches your dog will make a much faster, clearer commitment to source odor.

This really works, but you'll probably need the assistance of an instructor to help you identify the "less" that you should accept from your dog. You'll also need to devote the time to let your dog progress to the "more", or the strong and clear commitment to inaccessible odor that is your goal.

My favorite types of hides to work using this training philosophy are hides that are suspended with no nearby vertical surfaces - a hide on an awning or low hanging tree branch - and hides that are blocked by objects and set back several feet from the edge of those objects, think a hide on a bathroom vanity mirror with the vanity and a trash can blocking access. When you reward a dog for scenting in the area of the suspended hide and then looking up - rather than waiting two minutes, hoping your dog will start springing up and down beneath the hide - you get a dog who is much more eager to spring up and down the next time and much more reliable in subsequent - and blind - searches. This is especially useful for dogs who frustrate easily and may give up rather than work and work until you decide their efforts are worth a reward. For this type of dog, rewarding the initial interest keeps the dog motivated to work longer and harder to find that source odor.

There is never a set formula you can just plug in for working inaccessible hides - a dog with lots of experience can also benefit from the accept less to get more training philosophy. Still, as your dog gains experience with inaccessible hides, you can certainly wait for a little more of a commitment, a little clearer of a sign, before rewarding.

Next week, in Part Two of this post, we'll discuss how to handle blind inaccessible hides, what to do about safety versus letting your dog try to get to source, and when an inaccessible hide doesn't have to be inaccessible.

Happy Sniffing!


  1. Is a Q-tip inside a stapler, placed on a desk in a classroom, considered inaccessible hide?

    1. This is a good question that could potentially bring forth many more questions about inaccessible hides. Some hide placements that conceal the odor are not necessarily creating an inaccessible odor situation. In the case of the cotton swab hidden in an item like a stapler, the stapler becomes the hide, it is in effect, an odor container like a tin, tube, or other container used to keep a cotton swab from direct contact with the environment. So, hiding a cotton swab in a stapler does not make it an inaccessible hide. Dogs searching for that hide would have to indicate that it is the stapler (dogs too small to reach the desk top would have to be clear enough for the handler to know that the hide was on top of the desk in the vicinity of the stapler).

      Placing the stapler at the back of the desk behind a larger item and putting it beyond the reach of most dogs could make it inaccessible. This hide placement would create a problem that might have to be solved by the dog communicating, "I know it's on the desk somewhere, but I can't get to it", maybe by showing lots of interest from one end of the desk to the other, or by climbing and stretching as far as possible at one place on the desk and displaying the same behaviors as when the hide is accessible.

      In general, an inaccessible hide is one where the location of source odor might have to be identified without the dog being able to get to it. A hide set back on a kitchen countertop or behind boxes stacked on a shelving unit is not accessible to the dog and requires the dog to make a decision and indicate where she believes the strongest source of odor is located. Containers, like boxes, bags, or paint cans are accessible to the dog and contain the odor in such a way that an indication anywhere on the item is correct. Found items in an environment, like a dust bucket, stapler, or tool box may contain odor, but do not necessarily make it inaccessible.

      Sometimes, it's harder to label a particular hide as accessible or inaccessible. Hides in cabinets and drawers fall into that category. Usually, if there is more than one way for a dog to correctly indicate the source of the hide, it is inaccessible. A hide placed behind two cabinet doors can fill a much larger space with odor and have more allowable area for a dog to indicate source odor than a hide placed inside of a small drawer that contains the odor. Having multiple odors in a search can contribute to a hide being less accessible.

      One of the early NW2 trials had an exterior search in a small courtyard containing a basketball hoop. It was a two hide search with one hide in a watering can and one hide under the base of the basketball hoop (think a foot square piece of steel raised about an inch off the ground). The basketball hoop hide caused most of the dogs to circle the base of the hoop over and over looking for a way under, until finally deciding to indicate source odor. For that hide, an indication from any side of that base was correct. The odor was inaccessible and required the dogs to clearly indicate that the odor was under the base of the hoop. A large flower pot with wheels would create the same inaccessible odor problem, with a good call being anywhere at the base of the flower pot such that the dog is showing that it's under the flower pot.

      Hope this helps! When practicing, if you're ever in doubt of what a good indication from your dog should be for a particular hide, make the hide more straightforward and accessible so you'll be comfortable rewarding your dog for an indication.

      Happy Sniffing!