Many lucky K9 Nose Work dogs and their people just wrapped up an enjoyable long weekend of nose work - with the added bonus of a beautiful backdrop - at Colorado K9 Nose Work Camp, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. Last month, a great group of nose-workers gathered in Pennsylvania for K9 Nose Work Camp in the Poconos Mountains. Attending a K9 Nose Work camp is a singular experience in the nose work world, it's also a big commitment of time and money. Similarly, attending seminars or workshops, or traveling a long distance for K9 Nose Work classes, requires you to give more than just love for the opportunity to learn K9 Nose Work with your dog. When you invest your time, money - and your love - into K9 Nose Work, it's easy to let the desire to reach certain goals, as well as expectations for the way training should happen, get in the way of true learning for the dog (and the human). If you want to reach your desired goals and have your expectations met, you have to be willing to be all about your dog in K9 Nose Work.
What do I mean when I say you should be "all about your dog" in K9 Nose Work? Here are some ideas:
Set Your Dog Free - on or off-leash, beginning or advanced, your K9 Nose Work dog needs to spread his scenting wings and fly. He needs to start making his own decisions and coming to his own conclusions about what pays and what doesn't and how you fit into the picture when you are part of the search. The smaller and more insignificant a role you play in the game, the better. The more freedom you give your dog to explore and rule things out, and to come to the one right behavior independently (find source odor), the better.
The easiest way to do this in the beginning is to have your dog work off-leash and search for primary reward, then paired odor & reward hides with random supplemental reward, and to have an instructor do most of the interacting necessary in the search until your dog is confident that source odor is the only game in town that pays.
As your dog progresses, you'll be a bit more involved in the searches (rewarding, helping make sure areas are fully covered), so it's as important as ever to make sure your dog is still searching freely without getting hung up on things you're doing (knowingly or otherwise) in the search. Your reward should not be hidden from your dog. We humans would probably love to snatch a paycheck from our boss' hands before our 40hr week was over, but we know, even if that check is dangling before our eyes, we won't get it unless we put in the work. Your dog can be the same way. He'll happily work for his paycheck even if it's right there in your hand. In fact, he'll understand more clearly that it's there and waiting for him as soon as he finds source odor. When you play the disappearing/reappearing coin trick of reward tucked behind your back or stuffed in a bait bag, this can be confusing for your dog - especially if you're early or late with the reward and he fixates on where it's coming from. Finding source odor should be your dog's only goal, not trying to outsmart you and your spring-loaded treat hand.
Just like you shouldn't hide the fact that your dog's reward is right there waiting if he just finds source, you should not keep him in the dark about your movements and actions in the search. At some point, your dog is going to need to know with certainty that sometimes you might stand in an area, by an object, or even ask or direct him to search something/somewhere, and at no time should that mean to your dog that a reward is forthcoming; only if source odor is found does your dog get that reward. Same goes for distractions, and clear areas. If your dog cannot confront these scenarios and go through the possible outcomes (always leading him to the one and only outcome that pays: find source for reward), then it should not surprise you if he pulls one over on you at the time when you are most vulnerable (blind search).
Early and always, let your dog discover how he can be right in the search, even if it means he tries some of the wrong behaviors as he works on understanding that finding source is the one right behavior in all situations.
Try to See Things Your Dog's Way - I don't mean get down on all fours and sniff around - although that's fun and probably has some kind of value in some alternate nose work universe! I mean, think about how we are different from our dogs, especially how we react to experiences and how we process information. Humans have a tendency to focus on the negative in any situation. To dwell on it, in fact. And, to apply prejudice to similar situations they might encounter in the future. Dogs - and this is just an observation - appear to take what works from any given situation, and forget the rest. It makes sense; you wouldn't last long in the wild if, when devouring a tasty rabbit, all you thought about was the terribly long time it took you to locate the rabbit, the multiple times you pounced and he wasn't there, the few times you sniffed up trees when he was hiding down in the thatch, the extended bout of sniffing you went through while he cowered right beneath your nose. You'd do much better to see it as a successful hunt (you are eating the rabbit, after all), and you'd make sure on your next hunt not to be so easily fooled, maybe to pay closer attention to the information your nose is bringing in.
When working with your dog in nose work, think in terms of what the experience of searching means to the dog when success is always achievable - not always easy, but achievable. It means that the experience is almost always positive, and will result in better performance in subsequent searches. For example, a dog who works a container search with a hide in a flat bag where scent is escaping in such a way that the dog doesn't commit to investigating the bag, rather he looks everywhere else, will usually respond much differently to similar situations in future searches - he'll make sure to check flat bags sooner and more carefully, and if the hide is in a flat bag, he'll commit to it with more confidence.
Imagine if you watched your dog search the flat bag from your human perspective, you would probably feel like he was struggling, and want to do something about it. You'd be thinking "Why is it taking so long? How come he's passed it 6 times? Why is he leaving the area to sniff random things?". You might try to put him on leash and guide him on a path to the bag, or to stand by the bag and call him back every time he leaves. You'd probably be focusing on why he wasn't doing better, finding it faster, being more clear with his indication - all the negative things. Consequently, you'd be missing the fact that your dog was learning that whole time, and that he was working toward an achievable success. while we may have to manipulate a search environment or handle our dogs differently depending on the search scenario, the best strategy to begin with is to be patient and let your dog learn.
Be Willing to Try New and Different Training Ideas... at Least Once - some of the best things I've ever done with my dog in our K9 Nose Work training were things I felt so at odds with when I first tried them, that if I had not kept an open mind, I would have dropped the ideas in a heartbeat. After seeing how Muriel responded to the different ways of handling her in different searches, I would have been robbing her of excellent learning and skill building if I would have let my feelings of discomfort and doubt influence our training.
New exercises often take several repetitions over time and in different environments before your dog is reaping the full benefits. Sometimes, the exercises are working for the dog even when they're not working for us.
If you're training with an instructor at a camp or seminar, or in your weekly class, and you're asked to try new or different ways of starting a search, handling your dog, or rewarding your dog, then make a real effort for your dog - even if you have your own ideas about how the new strategies will play out. You may not even be aware that you're giving your dog way too much leash in the search, starting him when he's not paying attention/ready to hunt, or paying him too many times for finding the same hide. Going along with a new way of working can help your dog shake some of these bad habits you've been promoting.
Are there times you should not try something new & different? Sure. If you're getting information from a source that's not familiar with the activity & sport of K9 Nose Work, you might not want to try things on blind faith. Instead, you should absorb the information you receive and think about how some part of it might be applicable to your nose work training.
Let Your Dog Teach You - you may be the handler part of the nose work team, but what you should really be doing is observing. Your dog has so much information to share in any given search that if you're ready to watch, you'll be amazed by what you can learn that will help your team in the search - or at least not do any harm!
Try pairing your reward with the source odor so you can just watch the search instead of worrying about your role in the game and whether you will inadvertently cue your dog with poor reward timing.
Use what you've learned to be a better handler. If you see that you're trapping your dog in certain parts of a search and he's not moving out independently, there's an opportunity for you to positively affect the search, just by moving around more. Maybe your dog starts his searches at 90mph and doesn't turn the sniffer on until he hits 200mph, so he begins most searches by jumping into the deep end of the odor pool and then spending way too much time doggy paddling around without a plan. Be more patient at start lines, set threshold hides, set multiple hides in a row for your dog to find one after another close together. A handler who learns from his dog is a handler who starts to think like a dog - and, in most searches, that's a good thing!
Whatever stage of nose work training you and your dog are in, try to keep things fun and exciting for your dog - exciting usually means challenging, but achievable. Do your best not let your own preconceptions or feelings about a search project onto your dog. And, remember, if your dog wasn't having fun, he wouldn't get right back in the searching game and do it all over again, tail wagging & face beaming. So, trust that your dog is both an excellent student and teacher, fade yourself into the background a bit and be all about your dog!