Thursday, August 1, 2013

Getting to the Source: Finding and Fixing Hidden Training Issues With Your K9 Nose Work® Dog (And You)

Almost every K9 Nose Work team will face one or more training speed bumps on their scent work journey. Some have easy solutions (stop reaching in your pocket for treats just before your dog finds the hide), others, like a suddenly false/fringe alerting dog, take more time. Let's look at a few of the most common issues and some tips on how to fix them so your team can get back to sniffing at highway speeds (regardless of what Sammy Hagar says, in nose work, you CAN drive sniffty-five)!

*Remember to always seek out the knowledge and expertise of a Certified or Associate Nose Work Instructor (CNWI/ANWI) to guide you on your nose work journey and help pump you up when your team's sniffer goes flat. A trained eye observing you and your dog can identify and fix more problems in a few searches than you reading every article on nose work out there and trying to fix things on your own.    

My dog loses interest or gives up in new/challenging environments: This problem can blindside a team that is otherwise strong. If your dog does well in class - his home base for nose work - and advances his skills, there is a tendency to train at that level in all situations. But, a dog who is less experienced in an area - like exteriors - will not respond well to advanced challenges as an introduction to an already challenging environment.

Keeping with the exterior area example, an otherwise strong dog may get into this environment to search for a challenging hide, show a little odor obedience, but not see the search through to source. He may get distracted easily, choose other activities to do instead of searching, and he may even show signs of stress, or give up altogether.

The fix: Shift your thinking back to the early stages of the game and how your dog was introduced to searching. Bring out the boxes, use a little presentation, keep search areas small, keep searches simple. Get your dog to buy-in to the game in this environment. Don't move too fast to increase the difficulty of the searches. Keep the sessions short and end with an easy search. If your dog just won't come on board to search for odor in this environment, pair food and odor.

Tips to avoid this problem: While your dog is searching for primary reward and paired food & odor, try to spread your training out evenly across all the elements of K9 Nose Work. Don't wait until your dog is searching odor only to increase the difficulty level of searches. You're much more likely to see a motivated sniffer working tough problems when his nose tells him there's definitely an edible reward waiting at the source.

My dog suddenly started false and/or fringe alerting: This is not a problem that just fell out of the sky. Your dog has been thinking a lot for a long time about what gets him his reward, and he's probably not the one to blame for this new behavior. This is very simply a communication issue. You don't see too many dogs false or fringe alert when searching for primary reward. They might go back to the last hide placement and check it out to see if what paid once will pay twice, but there's rarely a commitment to that spot, it's more like wishful sniffing.

The problem starts developing when we a) introduce a formal alert or wait for the dog to offer a final response b) start working more blowing/pooling/lingering/inaccessible odor hides c) start working more blind hides. We introduce too many other possibilities for our dogs to be right and get rewarded. Suddenly, pawing after finding source or looking at you after finding source gets a reward. Sometimes a sniffing dog working lingering or pooling odor near source can get a reward because we think that's good enough or we're having a lazy day. With inaccessible hides we can send all sorts of mixed signals; a dog doesn't get rewarded for catching the scent at it's strongest point, because we think that's not correct, or a dog gets rewarded, but could have worked closer to the source.  

The fix: So, the easiest thing to do is slow down on a, b, and c. Go back to easier hide placement (like small cones or buckets that the odor collects in around the hide so the source is easy to find and stick with), go back to instant reward at source, and keep the blindfold off (no blind hides) so you're not giving your dog the wrong signals about what pays. Work your way slowly back to the more confounding hide placements and occasional blind searches, always with an eye to reward your dog for source odor recognition. As much as 'looks at me' is a pretty obvious final response for finding odor, there's a risk that the 'looks at me' behavior becomes the trigger in your dog's mind and the source odor is just an extra step in the process. Odor needs to be the final stop on the train to treat town. Practice rewarding your dog more for a nose sniffing source, and hopefully that will reduce the chances that he'll sniff a chair halfway across the room from the hide and give you that treat eliciting 'looks at me' face.

Tips to avoid this problem: From the very first time you reward, pay careful attention and time your reward to be delivered when your dog is actually sniffing the odor. This is fairly easily done when pairing food and odor, because your dog is already there doing what you want without having to wait on you. As you and your dog progress, there may be times where he gobbles his reward at source and turns to look for seconds from you - this is a good time to chill out and be cool. His nose will go back to that source and that's when you bring in that reward. Do that often enough, and even if he looks at you occasionally, he'll be a true believer that only odor pays.

When I say "show me" my dog sometimes doesn't go back to source: I am always interested to see this command in action. The luckiest handlers speak it and the dog goes and finds the hide again and gets his reward, but most of the time this command translated to dog speak goes something like this: "Well, if I found it the first time and didn't get paid, why am I going back to that same spot? Maybe, I'll try something else." And so you get a dog that starts checking other spots around the source of the hide, and maybe he sweeps over the source again and you reward, but maybe he doesn't - and you reward. You can see how this gets confusing for the dog.

The fix: Zip your lip and let your reward do the talking. If you miss an opportunity to reward when your dog is sniffing source, have patience and be ready to deliver a well-timed reward the next time he finds the hide. If getting your dog to stick on odor is a chronic problem, then see the fix for the prior problem and work on setting hides that promote your dog sticking at source. When you reward, pay it out slowly so your dog stays at source longer, and don't hand out a reward for him looking at you, only for him sniffing at source.

If your use of "show me" comes from past experience misreading your dog and calling an alert too soon, it's best to phase the phrase out of your vocabulary. Your dog could actually get used to the chain of events you're reinforcing, get in odor and close to source, check-in with handler, get told "show me", sniff again somewhere near source and check-in for reward. It's better to set up non-blind searches and plan only to respond to your dog sniffing source. That means if he stops two feet before the hide and looks at you, just keep on walking, and if you must stop, don't engage your dog with eye contact or body language. Be patient and only come to life and deliver a reward when he finds that hide.

Tips to avoid this problem: Don't introduce a "show me" command. Instead, observe your dog carefully in non-blind searches and get to know the signs that he's found source odor. When you encounter the rare situation where you're not confident in your observational skills or your dog isn't giving you his normal signs, just relax. He'll know there's only one way to get his reward: go to source; and if you miss him going there the first time, he'll go back, because he's never been paid for anything but going to source.

My dog urinated in a search. He's never done this before!: Dogs relieve themselves during searches for many reasons. Some dogs reveal themselves early on in the game as uninhibited eliminators. Other dogs show pretty good control, closing the flood gates on command before so much as a drip of urine drops to the ground. All dogs have the potential to go to the bathroom during a search, no matter how long they've been doing nose work. Still, it's shocking and embarrassing to a person when his dog soils a perfect search record by answering nature's call in the search area.

The fix: Management. Try a pre/post-search routine that involves a command to get busy and empty the tanks. When searching known areas of urinary interest, don't support your dog's pre-potty routine. Keep him moving until he's actively working the hide. Take note of how your dog looks in areas that have no nearby hides. Often, with no or very little available scent dogs will check out of the search and check in to relieving, marking, checking their peemail. If you learn to read the signs, you can manage your dog in the search and keep odor obedience at the top of his list.

If and when your dog eliminates in the search, don't panic. Give him a break and get back out there to find that odor. Adjust the search to make the hides easier to find if necessary. The key is not to keep your dog from areas where he's likely to pee, it's to increase the importance of odor in areas where he's likely to pee. If odor obedience is winning 9 times out of 10, he's doing great.

Tips to avoid this problem: There's no avoiding nature's call. It's better to face areas that he may want to eliminate in and do your best to set him up for success: pre/post-search elimination routine, easy hides in smaller search areas, careful observation of when he's switched over to critter/pee mode.  

Despite the different issues that can pop up in our K9 Nose Work journeys, our dogs are uber-forgiving and always willing to wait for us to catch on to the problem and offer a solution. So, be the handler your dog deserves and approach each bump in the road knowing that the road was smooth to start, you probably caused the bump, and the road can be smooth again if you focus on clear communication and odor obedience for your dog.

Happy Sniffing! 


  1. Thanks for another very informative article, Jeff! Fringing was Melvin and my last foible, which cost us an NW2 title. Darn blowing odor! Is it possible or even advisable to attempt practicing blowing odor searches?

    1. Definitely practice blowing odor searches. Remember the times we used fans in class and had the dogs work back to source from odor pooling into a corner or onto an object? These are useful exercises to allow the dogs to experience and understand the difference between source and blowing/pooling/lingering odor. If you practice on your own, just keep the hide placements such that your dogs can work back to source, and start with something you're fairly confident they'll find - set up a fan blowing towards the corner of a room, place a hide on the side of a wastebasket and set it between the fan and the room corner, hide facing the corner. If, for some reason, the hide is hard to source, turn off the fan. That's a pretty safe search set-up. What's not advisable, is if you set up a blowing odor problem with an inaccessible hide and you don't really know what you want to accept as a good indication from your dog, that's not an ideal training set-up.

      Go get 'em Melvin & Nina!

      Happy Sniffing!

  2. Great advice, as always! Thank you.

  3. Ah teh pee mode. Tully does that when he's at a class in a new location, and/or when we have taken a hiatus. He's so doggone HAPPY to be there he wants everyone to know!

    It's embarrassing, even when we've (seemingly) exhausted the supply before the search.


    1. At least Tully is HAPPY! Eventually, he'll decide it's not the end of the world to curb the urge to purge during searches. Meanwhile, a fresh pee spot in a search area gives the rest of the dogs running a good challenge to work through. They should all thank Tully for that.

      Happy Sniffing!

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