Monday, February 18, 2013

To Trial or Not to Trial? What Your Reactive Dog Thinks About Competing in K9 Nose Work®

Since the early days of K9 Nose Work and the NACSW, there has always been overwhelming support for reactive dogs being able to enjoy the activity of K9 Nose Work. Let's define reactive dogs as overreacting to certain stimuli out of fear or aggression. A handler might see his mildly reactive dog growing agitated or anxious as another dog passes by, but the handler will be able to calm his dog or redirect his attention. A severely reactive dog will become uncontrollable in certain situations, and could be a danger to himself and those around him. Any time a reactive dog's fear or aggression responses are triggered, his stress levels will rise and he'll be less able or unable to focus and have fun. K9 Nose Work workshops and classes are designed to provide safe and comfortable working space for dogs to learn the game and enjoy its many benefits - increased confidence being near the top of the list. The activity of K9 Nose Work can be done anywhere that a dog feels most comfortable and will most likely have positive learning experiences. The sport of K9 Nose Work is very much like the activity of K9 Nose Work, except that dogs and handlers are called upon to perform searches in novel environments under real-world conditions with variables that may be beyond the control of trial organizers or participants. Now that we are in the fourth year of official NACSW trials for the sport of K9 Nose Work, many reactive dogs and their handlers are competing at trials and many questions are surfacing as to how trials should be organized to accomodate reactive dogs. The most important question to ask is: is it in the best interest of your dog to compete? 

Before K9 Nose Work, my dog Muriel had fear issues. Before I adopted her she was abused and mistreated, and who knows what other terrible things happened to her. If a human that frightened her invaded her space, her initial reaction was to threaten to bite. If a strange dog approached, Muriel's fearfulness would often put them both on edge, on one occasion, leading a dog to bite her on the muzzle.

In her first few K9 Nose Work classes Muriel had a difficult time focusing entirely on the hunt, this was never more obvious than when K9 Nose Work & NACSW co-founder Ron Gaunt was visiting class. Muriel feared pretty much every male expect for me, and when she would start her search with Ron present, she'd just about get completely focused on the hunt, then she'd catch Ron in the corner of her eye and hit the deck, frozen in fear. We kept playing the game in class and at home, and it didn't take long for Muriel to gain enough confidence to focus completely on the search no matter who was present or what was going on around her.

Our first few trials were eye-openers. The environmental challenges were like nothing we'd done in class or at home - lots and lots of people and dogs, small spaces, strange surfaces. Even more challenging was the waiting. We were not used to waiting so long between searches, waiting so long on deck, and not knowing how long we'd be waiting! Muriel was out of her comfort zone, and I certainly wasn't confident enough as a handler to carry us. I recall one search where we were waiting and a male photographer approached to take some pictures and Muriel nearly jumped out of her fur (suprisingly, the pictures turned out nicely). Our performance in these trials was mixed, and I wasn't sure about our future competing in the sport of K9 Nose Work.

Things got much better for Muriel - and me - at trials. In our case, we did our best to adapt to the trial experience. Muriel's training expanded to include lots of novel environments and K9 Nose Work became an anytime, anywhere game with odor always on hand for things like random side-of-the-road searches. I resolved to approach trials with less concern about the rules, determined to let my dog do her thing and find some odor. At trials, we would chill in the car, getting out for a quick potty break and a jog, and we learned to be patient, to relax. When we searched, I tried to keep the energy as much like it is in classes and practice sessions as possible. In a trial last year, we had a man in a straw hat walk right through our exterior search and Muriel barely acknowledged him. Today, I can confidently take Muriel anywhere and know that she's excited to search.

I'm the first to acknowledge that I got lucky with Muriel's transformation from scaredy-cat to daring-dog, as I know a few other dogs with lots of K9 Nose Work experience whose reactivity issues still present added challenges at trials. These dogs are generally happy to search at a trial location, and their reactivity issues are less devastating to them than to their handlers in terms of the effect they can have on titling and placing. As long as the dog can cope with and/or recover quickly from the many variables - known and unknown - at a trial, the experience can be quite positive regardless of whether titles and awards are earned on the day.

So, what factors might put your reactive dog under too much stress and make trialing less of a positive experience?

Lots of dogs and people - depending on the trial title level and the location, there could be 40 or more dogs and twice as many people potentially invading your dog's space bubble over the course of a trial day.

Tight spaces - sure, hanging out in your little corner of a large parking lot is no big deal, but what about walking through a doorway into a small bathroom and having your dog come within a few feet of several strangers? What about getting your dog out of his crate and having a handler come walking his dog by unexpectedly?

Loud noises - will your dog shut down and stress out if loud retorts from a nearby shooting range ring out? How about industrial saws whirring in a warehouse only 20 or 30 yards from your vehicle search - will that be too much for your dog to handle?

Strange flooring and surfaces - some dogs won't walk on tile or marble, some won't cross lava rock. Will you try to force your dog to walk on these surfaces that he fears? He probably won't be focused on the search if he's worried about what he has to walk on.

The unexpected - will a run-in with a fellow competitor's dog set your dog off, and will you be able to calm him down? What if a soccer game is taking place near a search area and your dog lunges and  barks and only wants to chase the soccer ball or the players?

If you think some of the things listed above will cause your dog stress and possibly set off a fear or aggression response, but you still want to have the experience of competing at trial, here's what I suggest:

Choose practice locations that prepare your dog for trial - if you just practice at home and at class, don't expect your reactive dog to be focused on the game at a real-world trial location. Get out to the park, see if you can get permission to search a store or an office, try a school or community center. Just make sure that you're setting your dog up for success. Don't expect him to search ten feet away from the doggy obedience class being held at the park.

Work on the reactivity issues outside of K9 Nose Work - while K9 Nose Work helped my dog gain loads of confidence, it wasn't the only tool in our toolbox for dealing with fear and reactivity. I used to take Muriel to the park with a pocket full of treats and just get her used to being around so many dogs and people and getting a positive reward. Now that she's so invested in K9 Nose Work, I can use the game to help her get comfortable in new environments. If your dog needs more help than you can give on your own, get your trainer involved.

When you attend your first trial, here are a few things to think about:

Red Bandana is just a helpful reminder to others, not a magical force field - in K9 Nose Work, a reactive dog can wear a red bandana to signal to others that he needs some space. In theory, everyone would give red bandana dogs space all of the time. In reality, every trial location is different, and everyone is focused on their own tasks - competitors focused on their own dogs, volunteers focused on their jobs - so the red bandana sometimes fades into the fur. As a reactive dog handler, you should use the red bandana as a secondary identifier, and expect to have to be vocal regarding your dog's space requirements.

Find a quiet place for you and your dog - Usually, reactive dogs are able to crate separately from the rest of the dogs at trial. Take advantage of this and set up your dog's space so that he can relax and not have to put up with 25 dogs walking back and forth in front of his crate all day.

Know the layout of the location and plan for how you will move your dog from crate to search and back - even with as seasoned a competitor as my dog is now, I still prefer to go crate to search and back without any stops or doggy or human meet-ups. Your reactive dog will prefer this, too. Know the routes you will have to take throughout the day and don't plan on making any detours.

Playing the game is more important than titling - If your reactive dog goes to trial and tries very hard to focus on the searches all day, but a few things don't turn out as planned, call that a success! If the day is a total disaster, take it easy and stick - for now - to playing the game in comfortable, controlled environments where you can ensure your dog will be successful and have fun.

As you consider entering a trial with your reactive dog, think about what's more rewarding: getting to trial quickly, but having an overwhelming and disappointing experience, or waiting for the right time and sharing a positive experience with your dog? The right time could be a year or two down the road, but the wait will be worth it.

There is a dog named Thai, a female yellow lab, whose reactivity issues were very frightening at first. Her, "hello, I'm Thai" appeared more like an "I'm going to eat you", and seemed to be triggered just by the presence of other beings - dogs or people. Once she got set off, it was very difficult to calm her down. For many months, Thai's K9 Nose Work training was more about getting Thai to calm down enough in the presence of people and odor than it was about preparing for trial. After a year and a half of watching Thai lunge to the end of her leash, barking her head off, and having to be guided to odor, something magical happened, in the middle of a crazy mindless bark, Thai caught odor and the drive to find source took over her whole being. Thai's reactivity went from the first two or three minutes of a search, down to the first minute and then the first thirty seconds. After several years of training, Thai was now predictably odor obedient. Let her get a whiff of odor in the air, and she was super focused.

Thai would not have had a positive experience at trial before that pivotal moment in her training. As it happens, she and her handler, Emma, competed in California in May 2010 and managed to complete three out of the four searches. Overall, the day was a nice experience for a handler with a dog who used to flail and bark for three minutes in a search. It was also a big challenge for Thai to be in an environment with so many unknowns and so many potential triggers of her reactivity. Thai has not competed since the 2010 trial. Does this make Thai's accomplishments any less amazing? Definitely not. What Thai can do in a more controlled environment is still proof of her advancing skills in K9 Nose Work, even if she'll never be able to perform to that level at trial. Most importantly, Thai has finally reached a point of success and enjoyment when she does K9 Nose Work, if she did get entered into another trial, how would this affect Thai's enjoyment of the activity, and would the potential to title be worth exposing Thai to harmful stress?

We each have to be making decisions that are in the best interest of our dogs. After all, they come along for the ride without much say in the matter, the least we can do is make it fun for them. So, when you think about competing with your reactive dog, think about preparing him for all of the potential real-world challenges of a trial, be patient, and understand that, ultimately, you must be your dog's advocate and there may be times when what your dog needs just isn't possible on that day at that trial. Finally, be willing to set aside your desire to compete in favor of your dog's safety and well-being. As far as your dog is concerned, playing K9 Nose Work at home, the park, a friend's house, your office, is no less rewarding than playing it at a trial location. Let's keep K9 Nose Work all about the dogs and keep it fun!

Happy Sniffing!


  1. Another great read! Thank you so much for sharing your journey with your own pup, Muriel, and bringing to attention what K9 Nose Work® - and any other interaction with our dogs - should be about...having fun with your dog and not pushing them too far past their limits because of your own selfish goals :) I also feel very fortunate that my CNWI understands the importance of going at each team's pace and supporting them when/ where needed. She does a phenomenal job setting up training sessions at new and different types of locations; something I know I have benefited from immensely!

    1. Thanks for the comment! There has been lots of great discussion regarding reactive dogs and trials on the K9NW yahoo group. I think the overwhelming majority of K9NW handlers just want their dogs to have fun, and will make the right decisions to that end.

      Where it gets challenging is that the experience of trialling can be exciting and fun for both dog and handler, deepening the bond they share, so it's a very desirable thing to want to compete with your dog. In wanting that special experience so much, we can overlook that our dogs might not be as excited to go to trial.

      As long as we keep our eyes on our dogs, they will tell us when they're ready, and then it's fun for everyone!

      Happy Sniffing!

  2. I was just thinking about Thai the other day!

    As you know, Nose Work has greatly helped both of my reactive dogs - I think a huge percentage of Cinnamon's increased tolerance for being around other dogs is due to Nose Work. I don't even park in the "reactive dog" section at trials anymore (I don't think she freaked out at any dogs at the last NW3, which was trial number 8 for us, total). She made a lot of progress in obedience classes and practice as well, but I really think it's Nose Work that helped change her immediate reactions and calm her stress levels. Hazel also has been able to get over a lot of her fear of strange people. She has a huge drive to work (it supersedes everything) so having a job she can focus on that we can take anywhere has been invaluable. And I, too, know that I am lucky at the level of their transformations. And trialing has really helped both of them "generalize" what they've learned in the classroom.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Natalie! I agree with everything you've said, and your observation of Hazel's drive to work superseding her fears is spot on - I feel that same way about Muriel.

      You've done a fantastic job with your dogs; anyone who watches you search with your dogs can see there's a strong bond and you're all having fun!

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Happy Sniffing!