Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What Can You do With a Single K9 Nose Work® Search Area?

Here's a challenge: confine yourself to a single area - it can be large or small - and use it in as many ways as you can come up with for searches with your dog. I'm not talking about moving the odor to every square inch of the area - although that's probably not a bad idea - I'm talking about searches that have some sort of purpose: teaching your dog the importance of corners, working lingering odor, elevation, converging odor, working on leash handling skills, etc. This doesn't have to be a marathon day of searching, you can use the same area over time. Take some pictures of your searches, submit them to the blog or to me, and we'll have our own little social search network - instasearch or k9nosebook.

Here's an example:

Search area at the park with blue line representing the
perimeter of the area
I went to a park the other day and saw this area that was naturally defined by the slope of the land. It had two levels of block retaining wall on one end, and a lending library resembling a birdhouse on the other end. Immediately, I knew I wanted to place two elevated hides on opposite ends of the search area that would be on almost the same plane, with a third hide at the lowest point between the two elevated hides.

I actually started Muriel from right beside the car about 50 yards from the search area (she'd done some searches between the car and this current area, so her motivation was pretty high). She took off down the slope, made a 180 back up the slope and into the parking lot and worked the scent on the wind all the way over to the search area. A few yards before the retaining wall hide she turned hard left down the slope and went right to the tin on the block wall.

Hide in tin on block within blue outline. Through the trees would be the
ground hide in the valley, and beyond that, the elevated lending library
hide up the slope at the opposite end of the area
Her next move led us down the slope, across the walking path and beyond what I would define as the search area, but I wanted to see where this was leading. About 20 yards beyond the search area she made a choice to turn around and this time she was on to the elevated hide on the lending library. She got about 5 feet from the hide and hit the skids, turned down the slope and started working the ground hide. Muriel's herding instincts were telling her to round up the flock, which resulted in about thirty seconds of her bouncing between the two scent trails like a ping pong ball. Luckily, her more recently acquired scent detection skills took over and she knew that to find both sources, she best find one first. Up the slope she turned to tackle that elevated hide. The wind was blowing the hide straight across the lending library, Muriel went up and alerted to the first gust of scent she caught - still about a foot away from the very accessible hide. I gave her a shrug and one second to think about her decision and she right away went back to work, sniffed up to and nose-kissed that odor tin.

The distance from the lending library hide to the block
wall hide is about 50 yards. Notice how all three
hides are more or less in line. The wind was
blowing towards the houses in the
background, beyond the parking lot

Nothing like a good hide & a good John Grisham novel

After resolving one of the remaining two hide locations, the ground hide turned out to be pretty easy. Muriel raced down the slope on a scent avalanche from that elevated hide, then picked up the trail of the ground hide and went right to source. All smiles as she scarfed her reward over the odor, Muriel zipped off looking for the next hide (eternal optimist). Taking her back to the car was like telling your toddler that play time at the park is over - she looked a bit like a prisoner in her crate... so I tossed one more odor behind a tree just ten feet from the car, let her out for the quick find, then back into her crate a little happier (I wish it was this easy to get a toddler to leave the park).

The tin is in the bottom right corner of the image (trust me).
The retaining block walls are in the background

Given the way the search played out with the three odors in a line, two elevated, I would continue moving that line like I was creating a starburst pattern. See what happens when the wind isn't blowing two of the hides into the third, when only one or none of the hides are elevated.

Then, I might take away one of the hides and place two on opposite ends of the retaining wall. Or two along the edge of the walking path. Then, I'd try two on diagonal opposites of the search area.

Next, I'd go down to one hide and place it where the original ground hide was, see what kind of problem - or easy success - that creates. Same with the elevated lending library hide, see if that hide is easier by itself (no doubt it will be a little easier with the prior success, so factor that into your observations).

Sticking with the single hide, I'd move to different parts of the search area to start. See if starting at the top of the slope, or in the valley, makes the search different.

If my dog was on a searcher's high right then, I might use the block wall to run a fun exercise. I'd place four odors spaced out evenly on the wall and keep a short leash, giving her enough line to pass an odor, but not enough to pass it and get to the next one. For this exercise, each odor should be found before moving on. I'd do this down and back and rest on that.

Different colored dots and squiggly lines marking hide placements to
begin to illustrate the endless possibilities a single search area can offer

If Muriel and I had done all that in one day, she'd get carried back to the crate, blissfully exhausted from a search marathon! The better thing to do is to spread these different searches over many trips back to that same search area - this way you get the added bonus of different weather conditions to add variety to this single search area.    

See how easy it is to get out and have some fun searching in just one location! Your dog is game for whatever you can come up, wherever you can come up with it.

Let's get sniffing!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Is My K9 Nose Work® Dog Struggling, or is it Just Me?

Typically, it's just you (it's been just me, too, so I'm not pointing any digital digits).

We have a tendency to project our emotions onto our dogs. Heck, we have a tendency to project our emotions onto almost anything (pet rock, anybody). When it comes to K9 Nose Work, we sometimes approach a search thinking only about how quickly and easily our dogs will find the source odor, and that becomes how we measure their success. If our dogs don't find source odor quickly and easily - or by taking a certain path - we sometimes feel that they are struggling and not having fun. If it's a group setting and one dog finds the source odor quickly and easily and as we expected, the likelihood that other handlers will feel less excited about their dogs' performances if they deviate from that gets pretty high.

So how do we know if our dogs are enjoying the challenge of doing K9 Nose Work searches or if they're sending out an SOS?

Happy Dog Signs - A happy dog is usually a working dog. If he appears focused on the search, that's good. A tail that's up and/or wagging is a good sign your dog's enjoying the game. If your dog shows one or more of the common behavior changes associated with working the scent, like a head turn, head rising or dipping to follow scent, detail sniffing, quick direction change, etc., then he's probably enjoying the hunt.

Stressed Dog Signs - a dog who is in over his nose in a search might whine or yawn, or cover the same area in a pacing manner without showing any of the behavior changes mentioned above. A stressed dog will look "checked out". If your dog has searched for an extended period of time and is showing one or more of these signs, he's probably not having his best day.

* If a dog appears to be stressed during a search, make sure to rule out any more serious issues such as injury or disease. Consult with your vet before deciding it's a training issue.

When Happy Dogs Get Stressed - a search can start out great for a dog, but something about the search can present him with one too many challenges - complex hides, larger area, longer search time, unforeseen distractions, tougher environmental conditions - and he can become overwhelmed. This is when you want to have a plan B (and a plan C & D sometimes!). If you can see the signs early enough, you can manipulate the environment to give the dog a better chance at success. If your dog has worked too long and too hard to finish the search, give him a chance to work a very small, separate area with a very accessible hide and give him a break. Return to the challenging search and have a plan to change the environment so your dog can succeed. 

What's Better? The Easy Success or the Lesson Learned Through Blood, Sweat & Tears? - in K9 Nose Work, easy success is never bad. I like to think of easy success searches as conditioning for the dogs. Like a basketball player practicing layups before a game. A search that's too challenging can have less of an impact on the dog's learning than we might hope. Now, a search that is challenging, but within the dog's ability to succeed at - that can be a great learning experience.

I was once part of a search exercise where we set up multiple 3 1/2ft high wood barriers at angles to mimic office cubicles and then we placed chairs among the barriers. Many dogs running this search took a long time to sort out the converging odors and to work through the challenge of the barriers allowing scent to move freely, but not allowing the dogs the same freedom. I had to reassure a few handlers that their dogs were actually having a good time working out the problems and were not struggling or stressed. We had some edge-of-your-seat moments that day while everyone waited to see some of these hard working dogs find success, and big cheers when odor was found!

Could this search have turned into a happy dog getting stressed situation? The possibility is always there. But, it didn't on that day, and the dogs had some great learning and fun being challenged within their ability to succeed. Perhaps the heading for this section should have read: What's Safer? The easy success searches carry little risk of stressing your dog out or hindering his progress, they're easy to set up and guaranteed fun for your dog; whereas, the challenging search that's within the dog's ability to succeed at is hard to plan and execute and often requires the keen eye and quick thinking of an experienced instructor - a CNWI or ANWI. On the plus side, those well thought out, challenging searches can open whole new worlds of scent detection possibilities to your dog.

When You Practice, Follow The 80/20 Rule - also known as the Pareto Principle, it generally refers to 80% of the results being attributed to 20% of the causes for a given event. Applied to K9 Nose Work, aim roughly to make 20% of your training the challenging searches that increase your dog's scenting skills and 80% the easy successes that strengthen and motivate your dog in the hunt. You'll maximize the benefit from the challenging searches, and you'll find that the easy searches you set for your dog will be last month's challenging searches and will carry lots of benefits, too.

Next time you get out to do some K9 Nose Work, look for the signs that your dog is having a good time, and don't worry so much about how fast he's finding it or comparing him to other dogs, let the search itself be part of the fun along with finding the odor. Keep the searches fun and easy and limit the really challenging stuff to class or training with your instructor. And give your dogs some credit, they do amazing things with their sniffers - often times making a very hard task (impossible for our human noses) look easy.

Happy Sniffing!

p.s. - If you absolutely need to project your emotions onto something, I'm sure somewhere they're still selling pet rocks!