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!


  1. LOL! I should keep a pet rock in my car :)

    1. Shouldn't we all :)

      Thanks for reading & commenting.

      Happy Sniffing!

  2. Love this post. And, as Laura said, I also should probably get a pet rock to keep in the car.

    1. Thanks for the the comment. Maybe we'll start to see some new items for sale at nose work trials.

      Happy Sniffing!