Monday, April 29, 2013

Primary Reward: The K9 Nose Work® Way

Believe it or not, there are different methods of training scent detection beyond the K9 Nose Work method we use and love. What most of these methods require to produce results are perfectly bred working dogs and expert trainers; and even then, the results aren't always what you'd expect. Some of these methods teach a target odor to the dog immediately, some methods use clickers - both these things put the average pet dog and his handler on a training path that's harder to walk than a tight rope across Niagara Falls on a windy day. With K9 Nose Work, dogs build their hunt drive and learn the foundational skills of scent detection searching for their primary reward; it's like crossing Niagara Falls using a tight rope as wide as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Primary reward refers to scent work where the source the dog is searching for is his reward (food or toy), and the dog self-rewards by finding the source and eating it or playing with it. The key here is that the search and find behavior is perfectly reinforced through the dog's ability to self-reward at source. Once a dog is searching for a target odor only (handlers can choose to stay on primary and/or pair as long as they want), to keep that target odor as valuable as primary reward requires proper search set up, keen observation, and perfect timing - even then, the dog must have a well-developed hunt drive to keep him in the game when things get challenging. By starting dogs on primary and keeping dogs on primary to teach them foundational skills, the hides have the highest value possible, and the dogs get the clearest, strongest reinforcement of the search and find behavior. Whatever your goals in K9 Nose Work may be, one goal everyone needs to have is to maximize the benefits of using primary reward.

How To Use Primary Reward - The earliest stages of K9 Nose Work focus on using boxes to hide the primary reward in - this helps dogs contextualize the search game, it contains the scent so the source is easier to find, and it begins the dogs on a long journey of investigating foreign objects and strange new environments, leading them to discover that these things and places sometimes hold a valuable reward.

The great thing about primary reward is that you can take it outside of the boxes we use to start our K9 Nose Work dogs and you can move it to exterior locations and vehicles when the time comes to introduce your dog to those elements. Primary reward can be used to motivate your dog when introducing the challenges of elevated hides, larger search areas, and multiple hides. You don't have to transition to odor to play these parts of the game.

Do remember that primary reward should always be accessible to your dog for self-rewarding.

How Long To Use Primary Reward - There is no right answer to this question. The best advice to heed is to take your time and make sure your dog will excitedly hunt in a variety of environments and under a variety of conditions before moving on to the target odors. There's no harm in stretching your dog to search a little larger exterior area or a more cluttered interior when you're using primary reward for your hides. But, if you make the transition to a target odor too quickly and your dog can't find success in a search - walks the odor, switches over to crittering, gets stressed out - the recovery process can be difficult without the help of an experienced CNWI or ANWI, and you risk big setbacks in your dog's learning.

If you're really hot to get your dog on odor, use the expertise of a certified or associate instructor. If you have no options for instructor led teaching, give it at least 12-18 weeks of searching for primary before switching to pairing primary and a target odor, and then pair for that amount of time or longer. Really make sure your dog is motivated to hunt and to problem solve. The task of learning a new target odor is a simple one for a dog who has a strong desire to hunt and ample experience problem solving in a variety of searches.

Benefits of Using Primary Reward - To hammer home the point, while there are lots of benefits to searching for primary reward, the biggest benefit is that there are no negatives.

Having your dog search for primary reward is the best way to help him discover the joy of searching independently. It's also great for increasing your dog's overall motivation to search. And, nothing beats primary reward for reinforcing the desired search & find behavior.  

When your dog can self-reward in a search, there's no need for him to search for feedback from you that he's doing the right thing. Sometimes, a dog working a target odor hide may depend on his handler for confirmation that he's on the right track in the search; one of the reasons this can happen is because of a lack of clear communication for the dog - he may not understand that finding the source of the odor is the only rewardable behavior. Other times, the handler may not understand the communication coming from the dog - the dog may be indicating that he's found the source of the odor, but the handler may not read that indication resulting in a missed opportunity to reward the desired behavior. When searching for primary, the possibility of miscommunication for dog or handler is removed from the game.

Beyond Primary Reward - If and when you decide to have your dog search for a target odor, you will use your primary reward paired up with the first target odor ( birch). Once searching for the birch target odor you can pair it with anise and then clove to introduce those target odors.

Having your dog search for target odor only is exciting and fun, but it requires you to manage reward delivery carefully. It's simple enough to imagine your dog's nose pushing through the flaps of a box with an odor tin inside and you running in to deliver the reward, but what about when the searches become more difficult. Will you know when to deliver the reward so that your dog gets the proper reinforcement? One thing most handlers struggle with is setting their own hides once a certain difficulty level is attained. If you set a hide behind the wheel of a car, or on a kitchen counter behind a microwave, will you be able to determine when your dog has properly communicated the location of source odor? If you're missing opportunities to reward the desired behavior in searches, will you realize it before it begins to affect your dog's behavior and manifest as fringing or false alerting, or reduced motivation to search? Watching a number of dogs work the same hide under the guidance of an experienced instructor allows you to expand your understanding of how dogs communicate they've found source and when handlers should reward for maximum reinforcement of the desired behavior.

If ever you feel like your dog is struggling in K9 Nose Work, pairing is a great remedy. There's a phrase in K9 Nose Work: pairing is not remedial. Pairing is also useful if you want your dog to get that immediate, crystal clear reward at the source when you're practicing new and challenging search scenarios.

If you're already past the primary reward stage of the K9 Nose Work game, you should certainly be proud of your dog for those searches during which he works harder than ever before to find the source of his target odor. But, don't forget that he built the motivation to search for a previously meaningless odor by searching for something with high intrinsic value. His motivation came from the searches that got him excited about hunting, and that ended with a clear decision at source odor and a perfectly timed reward; searches where he built valuable scent detection skills. And what was he searching for? Primary reward. He'll search for that target odor now, but it still has to stay exciting and meaningful.

With a good foundation built through the use of primary reward searches and paired target odor/ primary reward searches, we can confidently move our dogs on to searches for a target odor only, with the expectation that they will have developed a strong desire to hunt, along with the necessary problem solving skills to work the scent to source and give us enough time to deliver a fast and meaningful reward that solidifies that search and find behavior. This is what we call a K9 Nose Work dog!

Have fun playing the game with your dog's primary reward. K9 Nose Work is a lifelong journey, take the time to get the fullest reward from the training methodology. Make your dog a super searcher on primary and learning the target odors will be much easier.

Happy Sniffing!

Monday, April 22, 2013

CNWI Gail McCarthy's Scenturion Chronicles: A Rewarding Source for K9 Nose Work® Handlers

In K9 Nose Work, we talk about the different behavior changes our dogs exhibit when in odor and when they get to source, like a head turn or a furiously wagging tail; well, we people can have some pretty strong behavior changes in K9 Nose Work, too! After attending her excellent lecture on scent theory, I was motivated to search for CNWI Gail McCarthy's website, Scentinel Nose Work Dog Training, and what I found had me doing some major "head turns" and "tail-wagging"!

I encourage everyone to read the K9 Nose Work posts on Gail's site - found under the heading Scenturion Chronicles and many of them written in response to her students' questions. Gail has decades of experience handling and training search and rescue (SAR) dogs, and in that capacity she has earned many accolades, including a Massachusetts State Senate Citation recognizing her outstanding "dedication to the promotion of volunteer canine SAR in Massachusetts." Gail's involvement in and dedication to the sport of K9 Nose Work has been just as worthy of a citation. You can read more about Gail on her website.

As you enjoy reading Gail's posts, think about a topic you'd like her to address, and maybe we'll be able to get her to contribute a special post to the blog.

Next week, we look at the power of primary reward, and how it can be used to build a rock solid foundation for your dog in the game of K9 Nose Work.

Happy Sniffing!


Saturday, April 13, 2013

A K9 Nose Work® Road Trip

Happy searcher, Muriel, in her new MN home.

If I had all the time in the world, I could use it to do K9 Nose Work searches throughout all the fifty states, Canada, and the rest of the globe. Every new patch of ground, every hotel room, every abandoned tractor trailer, every snow bank, every tin cow makes for a new and different search experience for dog and handler. This game never gets old, and it always stays challenging. There is no better way to spend time with your dog.

Since I do not have all the time in the world - for my road trip I had barely 3 days to travel 2,200 miles - I had to try to fit in K9 Nose Work across nine states starting in CA and ending in MN with barely a chance to stop for gas, food, and rest. Since I don't know when my next cross country road trip will be, I tried to make the best of it with searches for Muriel in seven out of the nine states we drove through.

Following is a little travelogue and some handy info on K9 Nose Work in each state we visited. I highly recommend you hit the road with your pup for some interstate searching fun!

California - this was our nose work home. The place where K9 Nose Work started in 2006, and where Muriel and I started in 2008. Here you'll find a large, dedicated community of instructors and students, competitors and volunteers, as well as the founders and most of the founding instructors. From San Diego up to Sacramento, the golden state has over 50 listed K9 Nose Work instructors with CNWI status or working towards it (ANWI).

As long as I had been doing K9 Nose Work in California, I'd never searched a U-Haul truck. Check that one off the list! It's a real treat to search a vehicle with so many available areas to set hides. Not to mention the practice you can get detailing when you've got 26 feet to search down each side.

The thinking here was just to have fun with a new and different vehicle - I wasn't trying to see if Muriel could alert to a hide under the engine block or something crazy like that. We worked two hide placements on the truck itself and one hide on our SUV up on the trailer. Muriel looked like an odor mechanic working a vehicle on a lift finding that hide on the SUV!

something about a start gate that gets my
little odor pony ready to race to source
Sourcing a hide on the underside of
of the step
Too quick for the camera guy (my dad)
Muriel sourced the hide on the door
handle and sat waiting for reward to
come from source
The trailer made for easy access to the hide just behind the wheel of
the SUV
Camera guy missed Muriel sourcing the hide on this pay
phone, and handler was already late to reward
We worked a few more hides on our way out of California. Muriel phoned in the first search (the comedy comes free with the blog), and got double the moving truck fun on the second search - I don't know which moving truck rental company is better, but they're both great for K9 Nose Work!

Keep an eye on California in the coming months: June 1-2 in Rialto is the first ever NACSW National Invitational Trial, and later in the summer there may be some Element Trials, the new competition format being rolled out by the NACSW! Find out more about these events at

Arizona - we found ourselves taking it easy at a gas station off the freeway and could not resist doing nose work on a corner in Winslow, Arizona! It was a blustery afternoon, the winds must have been gusting to 30 or 40mph! Muriel worked a little hardscape area at the gas station - no doubt a prime pee place for canine travelers. Once she got downwind of the odor, she picked up the blowing scent and fought her way to source like a weather reporter walking in a hurricane.

The Arizona K9 Nose Work scene was recently host to a popular seminar by Fred Helfers, CNWI. which took place in Tucson. Keep an eye out on the K9 Nose Work website for future offerings of the seminar, and similar workshops & seminars.

New Mexico - We managed to drive through the high elevation of Flagstaff, AZ and miss a wicked storm complete with what my dad called a "dust devil" tornado threatening to toss our U-Haul truck right off the 15 freeway! Once we made it into New Mexico, we stopped in Gallup for the night. Big shout out to the Badlands Grill, a friendly, surprising little gem of a restaurant on the sleepy west end of Gallup. I had the Big Daddy 1lb burger stuffed with green chiles and goat cheese. Nice.

We bunked at the Red Roof Inn off the freeway and did some searching in the hotel room... from the look of the photos, our professional camera operator must have been on his union break. These two hides were at roughly the same height, separated by a dresser with a TV on it. Muriel got to work right away and sorted out the hide under the microwave first - but her initial interest was in the binder hide nearest the entrance to the room.

Hurry up & pay me already!
Working from microwave hide to binder hide
Sourcing the binder hide
This is what happens a lot with multiple hides, the dog notices the first hide, then catches and works the second hide to source. Where it becomes a problem is if the dog does not independently go back to the first hide and source it, or if the handler inadvertently prevents the dog from getting back to the first hide. It's helpful to mix in training where you use the leash to keep your dog in one area until he works out the nearest hide, then let him go to the next one, and so on. Without putting too much control too often, you want your dog to know that it's best to investigate each scent trail and work it to source before moving on. Hopefully, when trial time comes around, he won't leave odor one for odor two and leave you wondering where that first hide is - or if it's an unknown number, you may even think there's only one hide. Just remember, set up your training so your dog can learn what you want him to learn with the least amount of interference from you.

If you want to play K9 Nose Work in New Mexico, then look up Santa Fe's Jaime Fellows, CNWI. She's a great instructor with competition experience, and she's really helping the sport grow in the southwest. For a complete listing of instructors in New Mexico, visit the NACSW instructor listing.

Texas - We stopped for lunch next to a Happy State Bank and it just looked like a fun place for a search. One of Happy State Bank's credos is: I will not allow external factors to affect my business performance. Well, Muriel decided that the pesky wind that pushed us through Arizona and New Mexico and right on into Texas would not affect her search performance! She sourced the hide on the Happy State Bank sign like a real professional. Good thing everything isn't literally bigger in Texas, or my stubby-legged searcher would have had a hard time!

The hide is at the top left corner of the white part of the ATM sign,
probably about 5.5 feet above the ground. Muriel got rewarded for
going up under the ATM sign, not necessarily for being right
under the hide. We don't know where the scent is moving as it
leaves source, so we have to reward the dog for the behavior we want
not necessarily the exact place they're in when they display that desired
Texas has a great nose work community. Julie Eskoff has worked hard to bring the activity and sport to the Lone Star state, and a host of other great instructors, handlers, and dogs have added to the growing K9 Nose Work community. Jason Heng, in Austin, teaches classes and handles his own dog, Atlas, a Shiba Inu. Atlas recently won the "Red Bandana" award at the 2013 GA K9 Nose Work Camp for biggest improvement in a reactive dog over the course of camp or since the last camp. Great job Atlas!

Oklahoma & Kansas - We drove about sixty miles across the panhandle of Oklahoma and we just didn't time our gas/rest stop very well. Our apologies to the state that was home to Will Rogers, Garth Brooks, and the World Championship Cow Chip Throw!

We really wanted to do a search in Kansas, but we ran into a bit of demoralizing news. We arrived in Wichita late on Sunday night only to find out that every - all of them - bbq house in town is closed on Sunday. Some are open until ??? on Saturday, but all of them are closed on Sunday. Real bummer, we settled for Applebee's and then cried ourselves to sleep. No nose work. Sometimes, the humans need motivating treats to play the game of nose work just like the dogs. The next morning we were on a mission to get to Minnesota, and before we knew it, we were in Kansas City, then across the border into Missouri.

While we didn't get to do nose work in these two states, Kansas and Oklahoma do have K9 Nose Work! In Oklahoma, you can look up Khara Criswell, a wonderful person and fantastic K9 Nose Work instructor.

In Kansas, I know we have lots of people playing the game, but I don't know who is teaching out there. Comment on the blog to let us know.

Missouri - The wind was back in full force in Missouruh! We found a few derelict big rig trailers in a field and set to searching them. It was no surprise that Muriel wanted to disappear under the trailers with the way the wind was whipping through that field. I held steady with the leash and Muriel decided if she couldn't go under the trailers, she better just search where she can go, and - BAM! She worked the hide out and we high-tailed it back to the car.

Muriel's working to my left in the shadowy area near the wheels
Getting rewarded for a find just above her head on the underside of the

* If anyone happens by these trailers in who-knows-where Missouri, we found odor during that search, but we also lost my keys. If anyone with a tracking dog finds keys to a Subaru, post a comment to the blog and we'll send you and your dog a special prize!

We picked up our odor off the trailers, but we left my keys
behind somewhere in the field

Missouri is a great place to get a K9 Nose Work fix. There are some dedicated and talented certified trainers, and the state has already hosted competitions in the sport. Keep on truckin' Missouri! Look up Virginia Huxley, she's also a PhD at the University of Missouri!

Iowa - Home to the most recent NACSW instructor training program, Iowa is working hard to churn out K9 Nose Work enthusiasts! Urbandale is Iowa's K9 Nose Work epicenter, so if you're in the area, that's your source for K9 Nose Work. Check out Ryan Anderson & Renee Jetter at Canine Craze.

We hit snow in Iowa, and before it started to get really chilly, we stopped at a welcome center and set out odor. Nothing says K9 Nose Work in the midwest like a search on some dairy cows! Luckily, Muriel's herding instinct isn't too sharp, so she happily sourced the hide on the cow's leg!... it also helped that the cows were made of metal and not alive.

Holy cow! There's odor on this heifer!

Minnesota - We arrived in our new home state to find mountains of snow! Perfect for a first search.

Muriel finds the hide at the top of the snow mound
K9 Nose Work is still in it's early stages in Minnesota. Amy Allwine and Sharon Middendorf held the state's first ORT in February 2013, and hope to hold its first trial in 2014. Down in Rochester, Sara Reusche is bringing the Nose Work fun; last summer she held an Intro to Nose Work Workshop with co-founder Jill Marie O'Brien. Look for Minnesota and the other midwestern states to really grow the K9 Nose Work community in the coming years!

We come to the end of our K9 Nose Work road trip. It was brief, but we covered a lot of ground. Not the easiest way to work new environments, but certainly one of the most fun! East of Minnesota there is a lot happening in the nose work world. Leah Ganglehoff is in Alabama using her considerable talents to teach some wonderful nose work teams; she's also hosting trials and giving area competitors opportunities to earn titles. Jacy Kelley is in Virginia, but he shares his talents wherever students are hungry for nose work. A long-time professional bomb dog handler, Jacy is a talented instructor and his great sense of humor keeps nose work as fun for the humans as it is for the dogs! Gail McCarthy hails from Harvard, Mass and with 20+ years as a SAR dog handler and trainer, she a source you'll want to find for all things scent related. Look for Gail's scent musings to appear on the K9 Nose Work blog in the near future.

It wasn't part of our road trip, and Muriel didn't get to join me, but I had the honor of teaching at this year's K9 Nose Work Camp in Georgia. I learned more from the campers & their dogs, and the other instructors than I have ever learned at any other venue, and I had a great time. I highly recommend you go to a K9 Nose Work Camp, with or without your dog. Check out Dogs of Course for details on the K9 Nose Work Camps in your region.

GA K9NW Camp
Exterior Training Session at
GA K9NW Camp
Container Training Session at GA
K9NW Camp

I enjoy coincidences in life, they make it seem like life is giving us little affirmations that we're on the right path. Well, Muriel discovered a little coincidence in our new neighborhood. We live on Wintergreen Street - wintergreen is otherwise known as birch (although not synonymous for the purposes of the activity & sport of K9 Nose Work as the two are slightly different)!
Muriel extending up to find a tin of birch halfway up
the street sign for Wintergreen St, the street we now live on!
We're looking forward to finding more signs that our nose work journey will continue to be as fun & exciting in the midwest as it's been in California.

Please share what you know about K9 Nose Work in any of the nine states we mentioned here by commenting on the blog. We didn't have the time or resources to research the K9 Nose Work communities extensively in each state, but we'd love to hear about and promote K9 Nose Work wherever it's flourishing!

Happy Sniffing!