Tuesday, December 25, 2012

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

For part two of our inaccessible hides post, we're going to focus on: handling tips for 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.

Keep in mind that your job is to reinforce your dog's communication of the location of source odor. To do this properly you need to know what kind of communication you want, and what you will accept as part of the learning process. Particularly when working inaccessible hides, accept and reward the early signs of interest from your dog, and build up her motivation to work to a strong, clear communication of the location of the hide. Always remember to keep the learning fun for your dog, and to make success achievable. 

Handling blind inaccessible hides and when to make the call - Your best strategy in any blind hide situation is to let your dog lead - but make sure she's covering the entire search area - and to support her with a call of alert when she's actively searched, locked down an area and given her final response. Anything more should be worked out in training.

When there may be inaccessible hides, you should have the following incorporated into your handling as second nature:

1) know your dog's signs that odor is present, but not accessible - if your dog is working a bank of lockers and casting back and forth or jumping up and down between two points, and taking longer than usual to make a decision, those are signs that odor is present, but not accessible. Circling a cluttered area or a table with chairs, looking for an access point, is also a sign. Heavy interest in a closed object, like a file cabinet, or closed door on a wall cabinet or to a room - likely signs of inaccessible odor.

2) give support to even the slightest behavior change - inaccessible odor may also present the added challenge of odor that is mostly trapping at the source, or escaping in ways that make working it back to source extra difficult. A cabinet hide can require several passes from your dog before she makes a real commitment to work the odor to its source. In some cases, she'll show the slightest interest as she passes the source or she'll show interest in the surrounding area, but you'll have to be an eagle-eyed observer.

Even if you're a hyper-vigilant handler, your dog may not show any perceivable interest in the cabinet hide, which means you'll have to do some non-blind training and expose your dog to more of that type of inaccessible hide with a low volume of odor escaping. It's not that your dog can't smell the hide, she just needs to learn that it's important to commit to it like any other hide.

3) be patient, you'll recognize the final final response when you finally see it - once you know your dog is working odor, pay careful attention to where she's working and how she's responding to odor that may be out of her reach. In many inaccessible hide scenarios you may get behavior from your dog that resembles her final response, but if you step back and let her work, you'll see that she's still working out the location of the hide. When she gets as close as she can to the hide, you'll know it.

The big thing to watch for in the whole process is the "ah-ha!" moment from your dog. Some dogs are more subtle than others, but every dog will look noticeably different when they finally get as close to source odor as possible.

A hide placed five or six feet above the ground on a busy wall (cable wires, pipes or downspouts, faucets, etc. below or near the hide) illustrates the difference between behavior resembling a final response and the "ah-ha!", real-deal final response. Odor travelling down the wall may pool at one or two places and cause your dog to react with a shoulder shrug, half-hearted final response that is usually lacking any detail sniffing of the chosen area, and is very often abandoned by your dog the moment your brain is telling your mouth to say alert. If you let your dog work just a little longer, you'll see her follow the scent past the pooling odor areas, higher and higher, until she can't stretch any further, and then you'll see the "ah-ha!" moment.

On the rare occasion that odor is low & accessible, but your dog is showing all the signs of being in high inaccessible odor, try to pay attention to what brought her to the area she's working. It may be that there was no strong behavior change leading to her leaping up a sign post, or climbing a wall, and if you move to another part of the search area, she'll drop what she's sniffing and follow you - a good sign that she never believed there was source odor in that area anyway. No matter where the odor is, you always want to see that your dog has caught the scent (a head turn, a direction change, putting on the brakes, etc.), worked to narrow down an area, and shown a clear signal that she is as close as she can get to the source of the odor.

Your dog practices odor obedience, you should practice obedience to safe handling skills - There is never a time in K9 Nose Work where you would be expected to put your dog at risk of physical harm. That doesn't mean there won't be search areas with potential safety hazards, it just means as a handler, you control your dog's safety. If odor is placed on a countertop, allowing your dog to jump on the countertop to get her nose right on the source of the odor is not safe for your dog. If odor is placed deep behind the wheel of a car, letting your dog go under the car or disappear in the wheel well is not safe. To keep your dog safe, train by rewarding interest before she puts herself in a potentially dangerous position.

Safety issues often develop when the handler has an expectation of where the dog should choose to indicate the source of an inaccessible odor, but the dog is indicating somewhere else. Frustration builds for the dog as she tries to satisfy the handler; that frustration can lead to the dog jumping, climbing, or squeezing her way to odor, often in ways that increase the threat to her safety.

The best way to help with these searches is to stop thinking so much about where the hide is located and where you think your dog should be giving her final response and just watch your dog work. Just because you know the odor is in the top left corner of a bathroom vanity cabinet doesn't make that top left corner the best or the only allowable call of alert. The same goes for certain parts of a vehicle where it's not easy for a handler to know how odor is travelling and where the dog would pick it up strongest and give a final response.

If you've got a push cart that's resting in a corner, and odor is placed under the cart at the furthest point into the corner, you might expect your dog to be drawn as close to the odor as possible, but what if odor is travelling straight across the underside of the cart to the side furthest away from the odor, and that's where your dog is indicating? In most situations, that's a good call. The dog knows better than we do where the odor is concentrating and how it's moving, so we should trust and reward him for good problem solving skills.

Safe handling skills come into play when your dog wants to get on that push cart and try to get to the source of the odor. If you're comfortable with your dog getting on a moving object and possibly hurting herself, that's a handling decision. While you might be more comfortable calling alert because your dog made such an effort to climb to the back of the cart, a handler whose dog is only allowed to sniff the cart from the ground can call alert and still be correct.

While your dog's safety should always be a top concern, don't be afraid to let her search most areas freely (with the exception of vehicles), allowing her to get on her hind legs and stretch to reach higher spots. Climbing onto a picnic table in an exterior search can sometimes be the key to working out an odor puzzle that - even though it could be reached from the ground - might only be solvable for your dog from up above. As long as your dog can make the most of her physical abilities to give you a clear indication of where source odor is (it's here within my reach, or it's way up there beyond where my nose is pointing), there's no need to ask her to risk her safety to give you an "it's right here, stupid!" final response.

It is important to remember that in training non-blind inaccessible odor, when rewarding your dog, always make the reward appear to come from the actual source of the odor. If your dog alerts at the bottom left corner of a cabinet and the hide is actually at the top left corner, your reward should come from the top left corner. Depending on where your dog is at in her training, you may allow her to work the hide a second time and wait for her to follow the odor back to it's source before rewarding.

The amazing inaccessible accessible hide! - it's not a K9 Nose Work magic trick, some hides are just tricky and can be physically within reach, but still a few sniffs away for your dog. A hide placed deep under an office desk that's pushed against a wall, might only be partially blocked by a trash bin and a desk chair, leaving a pathway to the hide big enough for almost any dog. Despite relatively easy access to the hide, there may be nothing drawing the dogs to take that path. What there might be instead is a low volume of odor escaping and causing interest in another part of the search area, and/or a strong concentration of odor leading the dogs away from the easy access point and towards the barriers like the chair or the trash bin, making the dogs think they're in a truly inaccessible odor situation.

A hide like the desk hide should be worked right to source odor. For dogs that get hung up working obstructions like the chair or trash bin, if you get behavior from your dog indicating that what she's searching for is past the chair and past the trash bin, even though she's not physically as close as possible to the odor, she's clearly communicating where it is and is not - that's rewardable; just make sure to allow - or help - your dog find a path that leads to the source odor. A dog that indicates on the seat back of the chair, not even indicating that the source of the hide is under the desk, would not be communicating clearly enough to be considered a success for that search; if asked to point out the location of the hide, the handler would answer, incorrectly, "the chair", instead of the correct call, "under the desk, deep in the back left corner". For that dog, verbal praise can be doled out, and the chair should be moved away from the desk so the dog can rule the chair out and have better access to the hide.

Ideally, you want your dog to end up working independently to find the access point in these seemingly inaccessible hide scenarios, but being able to clearly communicate that this is as far as she can get, but it's not as close as she can get, will be a huge help. Such communication will tell you when an object of interest might be a barrier and not the location of the hide, prompting you to move the barrier or help your dog gain access from another point in the search area.

When you and your dog are ready for inaccessible hides, make sure to use a CNWI or ANWI to guide you through the process; and don't forget: accept less to get more. By properly motivating your dog and giving her a clear path to follow, you will be amazed at the increased level of problem solving she will be capable of in K9 Nose Work.

Happy Sniffing & Happy Holidays (keep those holiday cookies and candies completely inaccessible to your dogs!)


  1. The best way to help with these searches is to stop thinking so much about where the hide is located and where you think your dog should be giving her final response and just watch your dog work. Just because you know the odor is in the top left corner of a bathroom vanity cabinet doesn't make that top left corner the best or the only allowable call of alert. The same goes for certain parts of a vehicle where it's not easy for a handler to know how odor is travelling and where the dog would pick it up strongest and give a final response.

    Well said. I once put a find in a car without an engine in it. I didn't take into consideration the wind pushing through the grill moving the odor, RIGHT DOWN THE EXAUST! EVERY dog indicated at the tail pipe!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jon!

      K9 Nose Work co-founder, Ron Gaunt, is fond of saying that we can (and should) pour lots of resources into better understanding the dog's world, but that the dog himself is still our best tool for immediate feedback. It's fun to make a guess at how a search will go, but we should never presume to know more than our dogs about how the scent is moving and why they alert in a particular place.

      What we should do, especially in a situation like the vehicle search you describe, is to allow our dogs the opportunity to refine and improve their search performance. If wind is blowing the scent from an otherwise accessible hide, this is a great learning experience for the dogs. This is when we praise them verbally and encourage them to work on and find their way back to the source odor. As the dogs build their skills, they will use the blowing and pooling odor in subsequent searches as a way to work to source.

      This comment also illustrates how we can use our dogs' feedback to help them in their learning. Seeing a group of dogs all alert at the opposite end of a vehicle from the source of the odor tells me this could be a good time to do multiple searches on the vehicle, beginning with the odor at the rear of the vehicle (furthest point down wind) and moving the hide a few feet at a time closer and closer to the front of the vehicle. This way, they're learning to work through wind and pooling odor in a way where success is achievable and repeated.

      Happy Sniffing!