Friday, June 21, 2013

A K9 Nose Work Conundrum: Is it Residual or Lingering Odor My Dog's Sniffing?

This week's post cites information from an article in Police K-9 magazine, which in part describes why scent terminology can be problematic for drug detection dogs. To see the article in its entirety, click here.

There is a key distinction between the work that drug or bomb sniffing dogs perform and the sport of K9 Nose Work we enjoy with our pet dogs, the key lies in how the two worlds define and place importance on what we call residual and lingering odor. According to the article in Police K-9 magazine, in the world of the police K-9, odor is odor regardless of the presence of 'source', or should I say regardless of the strength of the 'source'. If someone had a joint in his shorts three weeks ago, a drug sniffing dog might detect residual and/or lingering odor and alert on that guy's shorts! In the sport of K9 Nose Work we ask that the dogs find only the most concentrated source of the odor, and that they not alert to lingering odor - and try not to alert to residual odor (this can be challenging for reasons to be explained). So why is it that the professional sniffers get to alert to stinky gym shorts and our pet dogs have to parse a specific bloom from the scent bouquet? How do we help our dogs to become such scent sticklers? It might not surprise you to find out that our pet sniffers are capable of picking out a single pollen grain from that scent bouquet, all we need to do is give them a clear understanding of what we want from them in the search and fine tune it over time.

What do we mean by residual and lingering odor? Simply put, residual odor is some concentration of scent left behind after the removal of the source odor. Typically, this would occur when a scented cotton swab comes into direct contact with the environment as opposed to being contained in a tube or tin. Lingering odor is described as the fainter remains of scent in an area where source is no longer present. Where a dog might find a 'source' when residual odor is present, lingering odor is presumed to be much less concentrated and not resembling source odor for the dog. Lingering odor may be present without residual odor, but residual odor cannot be present without lingering (whatever more concentrated source left the residual odor also left lingering, and residual leaves its own, fainter lingering odor).

*Be careful not to contaminate your search areas with residual odor. A cotton swab dropped on the ground or stuck to a block wall is something the dogs can work through, but if the oil used to scent the swabs contacts any part of your search area, it should be removed and cleaned, and no searching should be done in that area until the highly concentrated oil has dried and the vapor has dissipated. Also important, never give your dog a reward and never use negative feedback if your dog gives a final response at a residual odor location. Just say, "okay, good dog", and move on. In most situations, we can be reasonably sure that the residual odor left after hide removal is not as strong as the hide itself, so the best course of action upon moving on is to have a sourceable hide for the dog to find and get rewarded for so learning and reinforcement can take place.

When a dog trained to find drugs or explosives does his job, he will find any amount of that substance or material he can - and in the case of explosives, we all want a dog who can find a subatomic particle's worth of bomb material to save lives and be better safe than sorry. When a dog trained to find birch, anise, or clove does his job, he will find the source of the hide. Birch, anise, and clove are not substances that put lives in the balance or break federal laws for possession (however, concentrated essential oils can be harmful, read product warnings and handling instructions before use). A K9 Nose Work dog can learn to process scent information - lingering and residual odor - and use it to reach the goal of finding source. This makes the activity & sport challenging and exciting; it's like marksmanship in the Olympics, a sniper in the field of battle may get the job done in whatever way necessary (and his is a serious job), but a marksman in a competition must use precision and meet a tighter standard (and his job is the exhibition of his skills).

Now that we can examine just what lingering and residual odor are and how they affect our dogs' performance in K9 Nose Work, how do we confront these challenges and get our dogs effectively using the scent information to find source?

Recognize the dog's earliest introduction to lingering and residual odor situations - dogs searching for primary reward (food or toy) will encounter lots of lingering and residual odor. Food grease leaves residual odor on boxes, food placed in a container and moved from one box to another leaves lingering odor. Take notice of how this is never a problem for the dogs. The main reason being that they know the ultimate reward in the search is the food or toy and there's no point hanging out where it was - only where it is. If you observe your dog as confronting these lingering and residual odor problems from the start, you should be less concerned about problems when you move to a target odor, like birch.

Allow the dog a chance to compare and make a right decision - Just like when we introduce food & toy (or critter) distractions, it's best to put the dog in the same vicinity as what you want him to ignore in favor of source odor - this way he actively chooses source odor over the distraction. With lingering & residual odor the choice is not to ignore their presence, but to use them as a marker on the path to source odor. When doing target odor searches, moving the hide just a few feet and letting the dog encounter lingering or residual odor in the presence of source odor will allow the dog to understand what pays. Keep in mind that we don't use some kind of rigorous process to prepare odor, nor do we use the same number of scented cotton swabs for every hide - it would be impossible to control the concentration of source odor for every hide. The dog does not have to make decisions regarding specific strengths of source odor in a search, he just has to choose the strongest concentration(s). If there are multiple hides, he works to find each one because they are all stronger sources than any lingering or residual odor. The hides can be different strengths, two cotton swabs and twelve cotton swabs, the dog will not ignore the two cotton swab hide because it's not as strong a source as the twelve cotton swab hide, he will treat them both as sources. And, over time, because he's consistently rewarded for source odor, when the dog reaches NW3 level skills and must clear a search area, lingering odor will not prompt him to give a final response unless the handler fails to read the dog and pushes him to search too long.

Keep your searches straightforward for the dog's learning - always make most of your training and practice searches straightforward such that the dog can build his understanding of what we want him to do for the game of K9 Nose Work. If we have him searching hides out of reach too often, we could be rewarding the dog for sniffing odor that is more like the lingering odor we don't want him to give an alert to - this usually happens because we handlers expect our dogs to give a final response in a certain area, but that might not be where the strongest concentration of odor is coming from. A search that allows the dog to puzzle through lingering odor and make a decision at source is more helpful than a search where he alerts at the base of a sign post to a hide that is 6 feet above him.

Teaching our dogs how to interpret lingering and residual odor is an ongoing process - we can add blowing/pooling odor to the list as well. Every search situation presents new challenges, and often the only way for our dogs to learn is to experience the search; we can't create a lab where we can teach them skills that will apply to real world searches, they just need to learn from the school of hard sniffs (with us, their chaperones on hand at all times to keep things from getting too hard).

I have some videos of the searches Muriel & I did at Nationals, so look out for a post in the coming weeks that shares those videos and tries to pull some teachable moments from them (shouldn't be too hard with the handling errors!)

Happy Sniffing!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

K9 Nose Work® Blog Passes 35,000 Page Views!

Many thanks to all of the readers of the blog from all around the world, your continued interest in the weekly posts has helped us reach the 35k mark in less than a year!

A few fun facts to share:

Countries - we have readers from the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia, Russia, and the U.K. (Latvia is on the list, too, but - correct me if I'm wrong, Latvians - it's more likely spammers than sniffers)

Popular Posts - the top five posts are:

Primary Reward: The K9 Nose Work Way
The K9 Nose Work Practice Group
A K9 Nose Work "Dog In Bloom" By Paula Nowak, CNWI
Your All Access Pass to Inaccessible Hides in K9 Nose Work: Part One
A Review of the First NACSW K9 Nose Work DVD: The Parker Videos

Pack Members - We now have 117 members of the blog, as well as a number of people signed up to receive posts via email. Becoming a member of the blog is an easy way to get the latest posts and maybe we'll even do some members only content in the future! Just look for the 'Join This Site' button on the right hand side of the blog page to become a member.
How People Find the Blog - google searches top the list, with Facebook coming in a close second. The yahoo discussion groups also help a lot of people find their way to the blog.

Beyond the Blog - Many of our posts have been printed and shared with students in K9 Nose Work classes and some of our blog posts have been used as handouts in workshops & lectures across the country (thank you Barbara Schwerdt!). If you're looking to become a CNWI, you may even see some familiar content from the blog in the next update to the training manual.

Special Thanks - We try to focus on bringing you the best smelling blog posts out there, consequently, we don't spend a lot of time self-promoting! We'd like to acknowledge some special pack members for making the blog the bark of the town:

Silke Wittig, CNWI, for always enthusiastically sharing the blog with everyone she knows
Barbara Schwerdt, CNWI, for making the blog posts part of workshops and lectures across the country

We'd also like to thank K9 Nose Work co-founder Amy Herot for inspiring most of the blog posts, and handler Gretchen Farrell & her dog Amica for inspiring most of the rest.

Thanks goes to all of the contributors to the blog, including CNWIs Paula Nowak, Jaime Fellows, Gail McCarthy, and Leah Ganglehoff! And, thanks to Christy Waehner, CNWI & the NACSW for releasing the Parker Videos DVD, the review of which is one of the five most viewed posts on the blog.

Last, but not least, thanks to every reader, every commenter, and all the people & dogs who help to grow the activity & sport of K9 Nose Work.

Happy Sniffing!

p.s. - can't forget to thank Muriel, one of many great K9 Nose Work scent translators, helping us humans understand - and write about - the world as the dog smells it.

Muriel at LAX after Nationals, wondering
why they don't make the ribbons out of

Friday, June 7, 2013

Reflections on the 2013 NACSW National Invitational Trial

This would be a great post for pictures, but instead of sharing them here, I will direct everyone to the NACSW facebook page. There you will find lots of great pictures, fun facts about the trial, comments from people all over the world, and a sentimental slide show charting the journey thus far for the sport of K9 Nose Work, the NACSW, and the 13 teams invited to compete at Nationals this year. Here on the blog, we'll reflect on the trial weekend and see how we can apply the very unique searching experience to helping future invitees to Nationals - really any nose work team - have fun and success like was had by the twelve teams that competed this past weekend.

Prep for Trial - what the National Invitational reminded me of was the first NW1 and the first NW3 trials. Dog & handler teams had no idea what to expect and were tossed into the deep end of the ocean and left to swim to shore! The big difference is that the teams at Nationals had the skills - like a Navy Seal team - to handle lots of unknowns and environmental challenges and come out sniffing. Yet, I think all 12 teams would agree that our dogs were pushed to the limit with the heat and test of endurance over two days of searching, and that we all could have used more rest the day before trial and more conditioning to do hot, large area, long duration searches.

Make sure your dog is well rested and comfortable in the days leading up to a trial. If your dog usually likes to go for a long run on Fridays and you're in a Saturday trial, make it a long walk instead. Give your dog plenty of food and water in the days before a trial, but don't feed too much the morning of a trial. If you know you're not likely to search until ten or eleven in the morning, maybe an early AM breakfast is okay, but make sure your dog is hungry enough to get some reward from searching. Remember, even dogs who search for the fun of it - hungry or not - sometimes need a little motivation to hunt from mother nature when going to trial at a new location.

You the handler should be well rested, too. Save the partying for after trial. Don't do too much strategizing leading up to trial or at the trial. Everything that will help you at trial, you already know in your gut from lots of practice and experience. If you fail at something, you'll practice and get better so next time it's in there, too.

Get in the mindset to have FUN. We are not in control of how well our dogs will do on any given day. We are just along for the ride, with a few opportunities here and there to add some value in the search.

No matter what level of nose work you and your dog are enjoying, make sure to expose your dog to as many environments as possible and to as many search scenarios as you can think of. Take advantage of an experienced CNWI or a practice group with some seasoned teams and soak up all of the search knowledge you can.

Finally, in preparation for trial, know the rules (people work very hard to set the rules and update them to make for fair competition), but do not let the rules override your dog's communication to you in the search. For example, many people fixate on the boundaries of a search area and worry about source odor being hidden on the boundary line or inside something that forms the boundary line. Just worry about watching your dog and letting him get where he wants to go - boundaries or not. But, don't be silly, if he alerts 10 feet outside the search area, move on.

Never Forget Foundation Work - a number of the searches at Nationals had some very basic hides that required threshold searching, hitting corners, covering the whole area, etc. Granted, the environment and other factors (converging odor) made finding the basic hides a bit more challenging - and a number of us missed some of these hides altogether - but there's no doubt a few of us could have used some foundation skill building in the lead up to the competition to remind our dogs and ourselves not to complicate the searches and forget about the simple stuff.

In your training, always go back to basics, but give it a fun twist to keep your dog excited. For example, the shell game we play with boxes to introduce dogs to nose work, play that game with your dog using a hide that you move back & forth along the rear bumper of a vehicle. If you have an interior area with several doorways, or pass-throughs - what we would call thresholds - set a hide at every threshold. You can work this two ways, once as a continuous search and once as individual searches where you line up at each threshold to find the odor.

Do lots of very accessible hides the dog can source, this will keep his job very clear and when he does search inaccessible odors, he'll be conditioned to get as close as possible. One thing to be mindful of, some dogs want so badly to get to the source of the odor that they may not stop trying and may not give their final response when a hide is way out of reach. Become a careful observer and take note of the behavior changes that signal your dog is onto an inaccessible odor - but also observe the times your dog is caught up in a blowing/pooling odor situation. The big difference for most teams is that when source is present the dog will not leave the area as readily as when there is no source. Another notable difference is most dogs make a decision on source odor within 15 or 20 seconds (or at least it's obvious they're working toward a decision), whereas they may work for as long as you ask them to in an area with just blowing/pooling odor.

Make a Wrong Call Sometimes (But Make Sure Your Dog Is Always Right) - The National trial was set up to allow competitors to make false calls (at the expense of points) and to continue searching, unlike the NW titling trials where a false call means the search is finished and a title will not be earned for the day.

I think almost all of us in the trial made at least one false call. Some we knew better than to call, and some our dogs sold to us like source odor kool-aid on a hot day! At the end of the first day of competition I learned that Muriel was all over two pretty high hides and I didn't buy in, and the false calls I made stemmed from me not correctly reading her interest in blowing/pooling odor. My poor dog worked back and forth for a minute or more in one search before I finally false called - she only stayed because I thought there was something important in the area.

As scary as it was to be making false calls in a trial, it was very useful in learning to better read and understand my dog's behavior changes. By the end of the trial, I still made a few false calls, but it wasn't because I was convinced Muriel had found source odor, it was because I wasn't convinced and I knew calling it would not mean the end of the search.

In practice, I'd do more blind searches with coaching. Make sure the dog is never rewarded for a handler's false call and that the handler is careful not to make too big a deal about calling the alert - just raise a hand or use another word than alert. The coach should give immediate feedback - often catching a handler before he can commit to the alert call and moving him on. This kind of practice gives the handler more feedback and helps address the root of why these false calls are being made. It's important to note that when we call alert it is not necessarily when the dog has decided he's done searching and has found source. It's when we think he is done and has found source.

Another benefit of going out on a limb and making a call you're not sure of is that you're likely to make all of your calls a little faster. I'm not saying yell alert at the first sign of a nostril flare, but maybe call it once your dog has sniffed to the left and right of an area or object, he's poked his nose in an opening, his whole back half is wiggling and waggling in anticipation of a reward - that kind of faster call. I called many of our finds faster than usual and it only got me once, we were maybe a foot away from a hide when I made the call, but we went back later in the search and sourced the hide. All in all, I feel much better about calling it faster, making a false call, and paying closer attention to my dog. I think it will make me a better observer and better handler when we go to trial and every call has to be right.

Relax and Have Fun - For Nationals Muriel & I traveled by plane from Minnesota to California. Flying her for the first time ever was a little stressful and I know it wasn't easy on her either. Our first two searches on the first day were tough and I got a little down - I made a point to blame jet lag, to say she wasn't being herself (maybe true, but not an excuse). I also think there was a bit of pressure to perform partly because we spent so much money to come to the competition, and to honor the sport by acing these searches. Thanks to the wonderful atmosphere created by the NACSW and the other competitors, it was easy to put things back in perspective and just enjoy the amazing opportunity we were given to search with our dogs.

I think this is how it should be any time we do nose work at any level, regardless of the venue. We did not take our dogs into our homes so they could parachute into the mountains of North Waziristan and find bombs and terrorists, and save the world. The fact that our dogs have learned nose work and become skilled detection dogs, with scenting and searching abilities beyond our wildest dreams, does not mean we always have to earn a placement or go home with a ribbon, or find every hide. We need to have fun and appreciate that our dogs are willing to put out a great deal of effort to find stinky cotton swabs hidden in strange environments.

We also need to remember that every search, every hour, every day is different. The best we can ask is that our dogs go along with us as partners into these searches and that we both do our best and come out smiling. K9 Nose Work trials are very specifically the measure of a dog & handler's search skills at that trial location, on that day, under those conditions. Some dogs have more good days than others, but   any day could be your dog's day to shine.

A future post may look at the individual searches at Nationals in more detail - maybe with some video. A big congratulations to all the dogs & handlers who competed at Nationals. A big thank you to the NACSW, to Amy, Ron & Jill, to the amazing judges for the weekend, and to all of the volunteers and spectators. We can't wait to see what the 2014 Nationals will have in store for the invited teams!

Happy Sniffing!