Saturday, February 9, 2013

Thinking & Acting "Blind" in K9 Nose Work®

One thing that adds to the challenge of scent detection work for any dog - and this includes professional working dogs - is the handler. Even the most odor obedient dogs spend some time and effort in a search reading and reacting to subtle - and not so subtle - cues and behavior changes coming from their handlers. While we're trying our best to read our dogs, they're reading us right back. Most of the time, we have no idea this feedback loop is happening, and so it comes as a shock to us when we attempt a familiar search - like a container search - blind for the first time, and something goes wrong. Thankfully, with a little practice and some outside observation, you can learn to search like it's blind every time, after all, the searches are always blind for your dog!

1) Act as if you don't know, even when you do - There's a common image that we've all seen and/or been part of, and that is the static handler hanging out at the source of the odor waiting for his dog to find the hide. Often, the handler gravitates toward the hide without really being conscious of his actions, but there are times when the handler plants himself there on purpose. The usual result of a handler hanging out at the source of the odor is a dog that not only makes an odor-reward connection, but often makes a handler camping out here-reward connection. When the team does a blind search, the handler expects the dog to find the hide independently, and the dog expects the usual game: handler waiting for me at the hide location. As the search goes on, the handler will often try to read his dog with extra care, stopping to really study him. The handler's strange behavior throws the dog off and gets him mixing together the strong reward cue of going to source odor and the weaker reward cue of handler standing at the odor, and that's when a false indication occurs.

The fix to this kind of problem is fairly easy: move around. Pad around, shuffle, skip, jog, go gangnam style - experiment and find out what works for you and your dog. Just be sure to keep up the movement in some way, even as your dog is sourcing the hide. Your goal is to be as neutral as possible while your dog is working odor, so that odor obedience is his top priority and he gets rewarded for independently working to source, not for cuing off of his handler. The best time for you to make some kind of change in your behavior is when he's indicated to source odor, that's when you rush in and excitedly deliver his reward (or saunter in if you have a mellow dog).

Another instance where you should try to behave as if a non-blind search is blind: when you have your dog on leash. When we know the location of a hide, we have a tendency to lead our dogs on a more direct path to the odor than they might have taken on their own (many of us do this off-leash, too). Generally, it's best to let your dog lead you until a time when it is clear that your dog is not in a productive part of the search area, and not progressing towards locating an odor source. If you have to lead your dog and direct him to search other parts of a search area, just be sure he's actually searching the whole time you're leading him around.

2) Do more blind searching, but with a coach - One of the risks of doing blind searches is that your dog may give a false indication and you will support it with an enthusiastic call of Alert! This certainly exposes a need for further training and experience, but it's not productive for the dog's learning. Save the truly blind stuff for official trials, and take advantage of a certified instructor to coach you in blind searches for practice. If you're searching vehicles and your dog is getting close to a false indication due to wind blowing odor from the opposite side of a vehicle, your instructor can coach you to move on before your dog gets too committed to that pooling odor and before you get too supportive of his interest.

Beyond real-time coaching, an instructor can give you post-search feedback on your handling. As a handler, you can't accurately assess how your actions or non actions are affecting your dog in the search, but you can usually recall specific moments with a little help from an outside observer. If you get a chance to watch seasoned handlers work with their dogs, you'll see very fluid & natural searching and handling, in fact, you're seeing the product of many hours of experience, coaching and reflection.

Keep in mind that there is not just one right way to train for better performance in blind searches; be adaptable and choose what works best for your dog. If you find that your dog benefits more from real-time handler coaching because you're able to be more supportive of your dog's odor obedience, do that. If it turns out that your dog is an independent problem solver and can work through your handling mistakes, use post-search feedback to address your weak spots.

At some stage in your training, you want to feel and see that your dog is becoming less sensitive to handling errors, and odor obedience is his main focus.

3) Practice searching off and on leash - This is a really simple way to see how you affect your dog in a search even if you're a master at finessing the leash. Set up a simple container or interior search and run the search on leash for round one, then move the hide and run the search off-leash. Accepting that there are more variables at play here than just on or off-leash (prior success, lingering odor, etc.), try to observe the path your dog decides to take off-leash and how that differs from the on leash search. You'll probably find a number of key moments where the leash intentionally and unintentionally changes your dog's path and makes the search more difficult than when your dog works off-leash. A common misjudgment made by handlers when doing these non-blind searches is to keep their dogs close to the source of the odor, presuming that is what's needed to find the hide. Off-leash searching reveals that the dogs sometimes need to work quite a distance away from the source of the odor to be able to catch the scent and commit to follow it back to where the hide is located. Hopefully, exercises like this will help handlers react supportively to their dogs' behavior changes on leash and to work search areas beyond their boundaries at times.

4) When and how to support your dog in non-blind searches - While it's true that you want to avoid false indications and minimize the risk of handler influence on your dog while searching, there is a benefit to supporting your dog in non-blind searches when you do it properly.

Using objects within the environment to change the scent picture can help your dog investigate a new area or return to an area of interest and really commit. If a hide placed in a desk drawer is proving challenging, moving a chair over to the desk can cause just enough new interest and investigation to help your dog pick up the odor and commit to finding the source.

Using your body positioning to change the scent picture for your dog can accelerate and solidify his learning. If your dog is having a hard time with a particular hide placement, like a hide on a block wall, you can place yourself perpendicular to the wall at a distance of 10 feet or so away from the hide and see how that helps your dog source the hide.

If you're doing a specific exercise, like working on thresholds or perimeter searching, you can support your dog by using more leash control and not allowing him to run free throughout the search area.

When you're working on new and challenging hide placements like high or deep hides, you might need to give lots of support to your dog, including verbal praise, as well as any combination of the prior examples of supporting your dog in the search.

Be mindful of the possibility that some of the ways you might choose to support your dog in a search can come with the risk of causing your dog to offer a false indication in a blind search. As often as possible, do challenging searches that are achievable for your dog without lots of handler support, and practice being a neutral observer and an invisible assister.

Happy Sniffing!  


  1. Congratulations to you and Muriel for earning your NW3 title. I hope you will tell us about the experience in a future blog.

    1. Thank you very much. Yesterday in San Luis Obispo, CA we earned our second NW3 title (first was Jan 2012)! If it is of interest to people, I can certainly share the experience in a post. It was a challenging trial where many excellent teams put in stellar performances despite there only being one title earned on the day. As always, the dogs had a great time and the handlers were proud of their efforts. Teah of Gentle Pets, the host, put together a great trial at an awesome location.

      Happy Sniffing!