Sunday, January 20, 2013

A K9 Nose Work® Odor Workout

Flip through any magazine and you're bound to find a little article on health & fitness: five tips for toning thighsgetting in shape for the new year, etc. It's about time K9 Nose Work teams get their quick guide to toning up the sniffing and handling in 2013!

1. Speedy Searches to Strengthen the Sniffer - If you have a small space or a bare space, or just one vehicle, you can change things up and run some searches designed to build intensity in your dog's searching and to promote a fluid leash handling style for you, the handler. You'll need a training buddy to help with some of these searches.

In a small space - like an office or classroom - have your training buddy place one or two odors in the search environment for your dog to find. As your dog finds an odor, you'll direct your dog to keep searching and your training buddy will pick up that odor and change its placement in the search area. The searching will continue without interruption for a few minutes or until the odors have each moved three or four times. What your dog gets from this kind of search is lots of reward and lots of expectation of reward, which builds intensity. Your dog also gets to discriminate between lingering odor and source odor as the hides move around. And, you get to work on leash handling skills as he darts around the environment, chasing the odor.

In a bare space - if you have a parking lot or an empty field to work, you can use the same moving odor game as above, or you can keep the odor placement fixed in a pattern - like a line - and build intensity. With as few as four hides, spaced about eight feet apart, you can have your dog charging towards odor in no time! You'll want to make sure he doesn't stray too far from the line, and that he finds each hide before moving on to the next one in line - all this can be accomplished by keeping a taut, short leash and using yourself as an anchor to make sure your dog doesn't blow by odors one, two and three to get to odor four. Work the line of hides back and forth three or four times before taking a break. Notice how your dog will try to race down the line once he realizes the hides haven't moved - just when you think he's no longer using his nose, he'll do a head snap right as he's passing an odor. If you have a helper, get her to pick up the odors as your dog finds them and let him search down the line with no hides, then place just one hide for him as he's returning. The detailing and thoroughness of your dog's sniffing will be so intense you'll change his name to Dyson!

With one vehicle - sticking with the continuous search style of the earlier examples, a training buddy is most helpful here. Place a single hide on the vehicle and begin searching, when your dog finds the hide, reward him and continue searching, then have your training buddy step in and move the hide. Change the direction you and your dog go around the vehicle a few times, experiment with searching a hide that  only moves within a few feet of its original placement or have the hide move from one side of the vehicle to the other. Just like the line search, remove the hide at one point and let your dog search around the vehicle before replacing the hide. With this kind of search, see if you can tell when your dog is sniffing the lingering odor from a previous placement of the hide versus when he's working the source odor. Observing his behavior change can help you tell the difference between sniffing and investigating pooling or trapping odor and sniffing odor that leads to the source - the hide - in a blind search situation.

2. The Handler Hold at the Threshold - Every search has a beginning, but not every team begins searching from the start. Both dogs and handlers need to practice giving the whole search area importance, especially when it's so easy to enthusiastically charge into a search area and believe you've covered what's behind you. These searches will really condition you and your dog to pay close attention to the search area before either of you takes a step.

In a doorway - if you have a doorway to search, you can work on threshold searching. Place a hide just inside of the doorway you're going to search and have the door open. Approach the doorway with your dog on leash and stop a few feet from the threshold. Wait several seconds to see if your dog shows any behavior change that would indicate he's caught odor. If you can't tell, look for your dog to focus his attention on the doorway. Once you've seen some odor interest from your dog, release him to search the doorway, but only give him enough leash to get his head past the threshold. If he's working the odor, support him with more leash, but don't let him wander deep into the room. As soon as he finds the hide, reward him and take a quick break. Move the hide to the opposite side of the doorway (if this is the side the door is hung on, place the odor where your dog could reach it right at the edge of the door frame under the door) and repeat the search. Really try to watch your dog and time his release to his behavior change - it should be more obvious now that he has an expectation of finding a hide and being rewarded. Change up this search by placing the odor a little higher at the threshold. Tip: use museum putty to stick your hide to the wall.

In a large area - some searches begin in a large, open area, but that doesn't mean there can't be hides near the threshold. To begin this kind of search, set a hide a few feet in and five or so feet to one side of where you'll start. Experiment with how different the search is if you're walking forward as your dog begins searching versus hanging back and allowing your dog to search without you pushing him from behind like a tidal wave. By staying put at the threshold, you'll give your dog a better chance to search the whole area from the start, and you'll have a better chance to watch your dog for behavior changes that signal he's caught odor.

3. Container Circuit Training - Try setting up several container searches indoors and outdoors that you and your dog can run consecutively. Make the container searches different by using different types of containers, different numbers of containers, different patterns, and different numbers of hides. The goal here is to build some stamina and intensity, and to keep your dog on his toes. This is especially useful for dogs who get a little obsessed with the containers themselves and, if searching the same area over and over with changing hide placement, might tend to give too much attention (biting, pawing, pushing, alerting on) to odor-free containers.

4. The Odor Stretch - You can set this search up indoors or outdoors - although, it's best to run it in an area where you can let your dog off leash.  Set out three hides: two low hides on either side of a higher hide (three feet off the ground), and space them out about fifteen feet. Start at one end or the other of the line of hides and let your dog work. What is most likely to happen is that the two lower hides will draw your dog away from committing to the higher hide. This is a great exercise for observing how your dog makes choices in the presence of multiple odors, what he looks like when he catches odor from one hide, then leaves it to find another hide, and how your placement in a search area affects things.

This is the kind of search where you can let your dog take some time to work out the problem. Once he's found the low hides, try not to let him go back to either hide unless it seems like he's a little frustrated and could use a reward before being put back on the challenge of sourcing the high hide. Experiment with placing yourself in the search area; try moving way out away from the wall - high odor sometimes drifts and falls away from the source - or try standing in front of whichever low hide your dog just found and facing towards the high hide to help keep your dog from getting stuck on the hide he's already found.

Have fun keeping your dog's sniffer in top shape!

Happy Sniffing!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

In K9 Nose Work®, Success is All About Location, Location, Location

I've noticed a few things in some recent training sessions that seem to be key components for success in K9 Nose Work for dogs of all skills levels. These are not necessarily new ideas, but in reexamining them, hopefully they will help dogs and their people reach new levels of success and enjoyment in the sport and activity of K9 Nose Work.

Location, as in geographic - It's no secret that a huge part of success in K9 Nose Work derives from training in novel environments. So, is there a magic number of new locations a team should search? No.   While it's ideal to search as many different locations as possible, this isn't going to work for every team, or be necessary. What's more important is to make the most of the locations you do have access to for searches.

Goals when thinking about locations are: exposure to different places, different conditions, and different distractions; and setting the expectation that searching can happen anywhere, anytime. If you can't increase the variety of new search environments to get that exposure and set the right expectation, then bringing variety to your old search areas is the next best thing.

One good park location with grass, concrete, a building (e.g. restrooms), some moderate terrain variability, and typical park distractions can provide months of valuable search sessions. The same goes for an interior, like a small office building with separate rooms, filing cabinets, desks, restrooms, a break room - your dog can get great exposure in an environment like this, and be more prepared to search similar novel environments.

You can turn familiar locations into new search experiences by changing up the routine. Maybe you always search your neighborhood park on Saturday mornings - try a Wednesday night. If you have your dog in the car on a trip to pick up dinner from your favorite take-out restaurant, set a little search in the parking lot, or do a vehicle search on your car. Even your own backyard can be made to feel like a new location if you set up a search during a special gathering or party with lots of extra tables and chairs out and lots of unfamiliar people around.

You can work the same locations in different weather conditions. The park in June is completely different than the park in January. A really windy day can make a search area feel brand new. Inside, you can make use of artificial air movement from oscillating fans and heating/air conditioning units. Turning on a bathroom fan in an interior search - even if the bathroom is not where the odor is hidden - makes a big change to a search environment. 

Location of the hide - When you're setting a practice hide for your dog, it helps to think about what you hope your dog will learn from the search. Are you setting a threshold hide so he learns to turn that nose on right from the start? Is it a hide on a vehicle on a windy day and you're hoping he learns to work through blowing and pooling odor to get to source? Or are you just wanting to set a hide somewhere for a quick search and not have to think about it? Regardless of what you prefer to do, a good CNWI/ANWI can do all the planning, executing, and on-the-fly adjusting of searches for you in a weekly class, and you can choose to replicate the searches outside of class, get creative, or just stick to a simple practice search here or there throughout the week.

What I like about putting some thought into hide placement, is that it can really have a profound effect on the dog's learning. You may place a hide and your dog will struggle to find it - let's say you're at the park and you decide to work a planter like shown in the pictures below. If you place the hide anywhere in the middle of the decorative block wall, it will be a very difficult search. The odor will travel up the wall and will not be very accessible. If you choose the outer column of blocks on either end of the wall, you'll see a very different search. This is because there is a tiny gap between the decorative block and the brick wall that the block rests against. That tiny gap allows odor to travel along the adjoining brick wall and makes sourcing the hide much easier for the dog. Doing this search first, and then trying a hide placement in the middle of the decorative block wall will have a positive effect, because your dog has the success of the prior search to motivate him in searching the whole wall more carefully and committing to less accessible scent.

The red dot represents hide location and the blue lines depict scent
that is traveling up the block and  not very accessible.
photo courtesy of google street view

Again, hide placement is represented by a red dot. Notice how the odor
moves as indicated by the blue lines. This is a much more accessible
hide location.
photo courtesy of google street view
Hide location gets even more fun when you add in multiple odors. Try placing a single odor on a chair in the middle of a room and run the search. Next, move the chair a few feet and add in two odors, spaced about 20 feet apart, to form a triangle pattern with the hides, keeping the chair as the apex and the new odors at the base. Observe how your dog is pulled between the different odor plumes and what order your dog finds the hides in - particularly, see how the two new odors affect the way he works that chair hide. With the right search set up, you can help dogs at any skill level learn how to be more efficient in sourcing multiple hides in a search area.

Another way hide location can really affect your dog's learning is choosing to do a series of perimeter hides in a search area, then placing the hide around the center of the search area for a few searches. This is a great way to get a newer dog invested in searching a novel location. It's also a fun way to play with the expectations of a seasoned dog.

By thinking about hide location, you can use a single search area repeatedly over time. You can choose hide locations that really draw your dog to parts of the search area, and hide locations that require some careful detailing and extra work to commit to and source. Try to keep track of which hide locations were easy finds for your dog and which were challenging, then use that information to plan future searches that push him in the areas he's excelling and help him in the areas he's struggling. This can be as simple as leaving a drawer slightly open with a hide in it in a search one week and closing the drawer with a hide in it for a search the next week. Since the activity and sport of K9 Nose Work are all about searching for and finding the source odor, hide location really factors into your team's success.

Location of the handler - The K9 Nose Work game for the handler is mostly one of trying to avoid doing anything to confuse your dog while he's employing his superior sniffer in the search for source odor. The best way to minimize those palm to forehead (cue SLAP sound effect) moments is to be the best observer you can be and react to your dog in a supportive way.

For beginning dogs, the best thing a handler can do is move around the search area. In searches where the hide location is known, I'm a believer in using your knowledge to help your dog search the areas he needs to search. This is as simple as walking from one side of a room to the other. It can be a little painful to watch a handler planted in the ground as her dog struggles to break free from the invisible leash that exists between them, when just walking a few steps would help the dog move where he needs to be to work the odor. When the hide location is unknown, your movement through a search area should be more of a dance with your dog - but remember, the dog leads. Only if you are seeing clear signs that your dog is not working odor and you know he missed parts of the search area should you take a more active role in directing him around the search area. By practicing moving through a search area and dancing with your dog, you will build a handling style that is optimized to react to your dog, rather than anticipate his movements.

Which brings us to something that should be watched out for and prevented from becoming a habit: anticipating your dog's movements. For beginning handlers in K9 Nose Work, anticipating what their dogs will do is part of delivering a well-timed reward. Well, there comes a time when that lightning fast reward is no longer of such importance, and in fact, the behaviors that develop from anticipating your dog's final response can cause problems for both of you.

First, anticipating what your dog will do often leaves you frozen in place. If you do a lot of freezing in place during searches where the hide location is known, it can become an unwanted cue to your dog that frozen handler means time to perform that final response for a reward. If you're not frozen in place, you're often moving in on your dog, thinking that a final response is near. This can cause lots of disruptions for your dog as he tries to search. If you're used to anticipating his movements, you may start looking ahead to places you think he's likely to search, and miss the actual searching he's doing. Even seasoned handlers can inadvertently stop watching their dogs. I've been in a situation where my dog was working an odor and attempting to work the area around the odor in a square pattern, but I was intent upon moving forward through the search area. My dog kept trying to work her pattern against me, but - kind, obedient soul that she is - she went along with my pattern. Had I reacted to what she was doing, I would have started moving backwards when I saw that's what she wanted to do and it would have allowed her to work the odor and find the hide efficiently.

There's a fun exercise to run with your dog that can really have you feeling and seeing the effects of handler location and movement in a search - it's best done with guidance from an instructor. Basically, it's a continuous search with 1 to 3 hides that get moved each time they get found. As your dog begins to deal with lingering odor from the hides being moved around, you'll see him drawn here and there, maybe leaving one odor to work another or to investigate lingering odor. Your instructor can coach you on when to move around, when to stop and keep your dog working a particular area, etc. This exercise will make you and your dog more likely to work together to commit to a particular hide before darting off to find the next one.      

Have fun keeping your search areas feeling new, setting your hides with purpose, and figuring out where you belong in the search.

Happy Sniffing!