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! 


  1. In looking at the 1st picture, I wonder why the odor only travels up? I've been taught (by a CNWI) that the odor will fall & pool at the base. When we began with odor, she would put a box under the hide to collect the odor, if the dog was struggling to find it.

    In the 2nd picture, why would the odor only travel back & not across the front of the wall (to the right of the placement).


    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Sue!

      So, the pictures show a park in Glendale, CA that is near the mountains. The parkway with the planters slopes up towards the mountains. I am not an expert in the fields of physics, thermodynamics, meteorology, etc., but, I do know there is a phenomenon referred to as "valley wind", which causes warm air to flow up the slope. You can check out this nasa site and see helpful graphics and descriptions:

      Based on actually doing the searches with my dog and having knowledge of this phenomenon, the lines depicting the movement of odor in the two pictures are fairly accurate in terms of the strongest parts of the scent plume (not saying there wasn't any odor moving in other directions - just that if there was, it was not strong enough to be picked up and followed back to source).

      I worked other areas of the park: concrete stadium seating behind a ballfield backstop, picnic areas, a retaining wall on flat ground, a grassy knoll between parking lots. In all areas, unless the prevailing wind was strongly opposing, the odor moved up the slope, toward the mountains.

      In an early post, I described an interior hide in the corner of a room under hot summer heat conditions, where the odor was travelling up the wall and the dogs could only source it by getting above the hide.

      Under typical conditions, odor falls and odor travels along surfaces in much the way we would expect, but there are many factors that can affect how odor travels. That is just one of the reasons I love K9 Nose Work so much, it is truly a game with endless possibilities for what you and your dog will encounter in a search and how you will learn and grow from your experiences.

      Happy Sniffing!