Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Where? The Question in K9 Nose Work® With an Answer That's Right on the Tip of Your Dog's Nose

A Nose Work dog bounces around a vehicle, sweeps nose over arc of wheel well, checks rear bumper, sniffs tire, looks at handler, checks wheel well again, then sniffs around hubcap, holds his nose on a spot for a moment, exhales, drags his nose up the wheel to the top of the wheel well and looks at handler.

Handler: Alert?!
Judge: Where?
Handler: {flabbergasted, flustered, sweeping hand gesture encompassing the entire horizon} There at the top of the wheel well. 
Judge: No. Sorry.

What just happened? A dog found source odor and a handler panicked and responded to a judge asking where the dog had alerted, resulting in the handler identifying the wrong spot. For many handlers, the dreaded "where" question is one they hope to never hear, and for many judges, they'd hope not to have to put a good team on the spot. While answering the question of "where" is never easy, being well-prepared and having an answer to give based on observing your dog can save your team and prove that both handler and dog are in sync and on their game.

Why Do Judges Ask "Where"? - Here is the official wording from the NACSW rule book:

In the event the judge asks “WHERE?” the handler should identify the location of the source by 
pointing to the location without touching the location. (‘top drawer of the file cabinet,’ ‘right desk 
drawer,’ ‘kitchen sink,’ etc’) If correctly identified FULL POINTS AND TIME WILL BE AWARDED. 
This scenario is most likely with a dog that has a subtle final response that is not as easily 
identifiable or if the judge wants confirmation that the handler knows the location based on the 
dogs change of behavior. NOTE: Once you say “Alert”, if the judge asks “Where”, you must 
respond promptly. This is not an opportunity to re-cue your dog to continue searching to clarify 
the hide location. 

Here are just a few reasons why a judge may ask the "where" question upon your call of alert. Most often, the judge observes your dog clearly working the hide to source, but observes you looking less than confident about what your dog is telling you - maybe your dog has to keep going back to source to tell you three or four times during the search. Sometimes, a dog may have an unconventional way of working the odor and may not be as easy to read; maybe he goes to odor, gives a very subtle final response and moves away from the source before the handler calls alert. The judge might ask where because the dog found the source, moved off the source, and the handler called the alert after the dog left source. When hides are less sourceable, or are inaccessible, the judge may ask the "where" question if she sees all of the right behavior from the dog, say, the dog showing he wants to work a hide on the back of a wall-mounted sink blocked by some objects by bracketing the area and sniffing past objects in a way that shows the objects and the front of the sink aren't the source of odor, but the dog doesn't come to a clear final response. Occasionally, if the handler blocks the judge's view seconds before calling alert, the judge may have to ask the handler where the call is being made because of obstructed line of sight. 

What Is a Good Answer to the "Where" Question? - The best answer to the "where" question is to identify the area where your dog gave his final response! If he worked and worked on a desk and chair, then paused with his nose under the edge of the chair seat and exhaled loudly, you should be prepared to say, "it's under the chair".

If he works from one side of a shelving unit to the other and sniffs high up both sides and across the front, stretching his body, he may be working a hide that is not sourceable. Based on his behavior, you'd probably say you think it's high up on the shelf. If your dog shows that same behavior, but sniffs the shelf surface he can reach, and maybe sniffs a box on the shelf, you need to be able to quickly evaluate what he's communicating - is his behavior showing the presence of source odor on that shelf, or is he just sniffing the closest available scent after working hard to get to the hide that he cannot source? If you practice both types of hides, you should be able to see some key differences and say alert confidently, and answer the question of "Where?"

How Do You Prepare to Make the Right Calls if the "Where" Question Pops Up? - Practice observing your dog.

Watch your dog's change(s) of behavior as he begins to work the odor. Typically, your dog will catch scent, look for a way to follow scent to source, and then become very detailed as he closes in on source. Many dogs quicken sniffing and exhale loudly when at source, some dogs pause at the source for a moment before looking at the handler or sitting/downing. Almost every dog will try to get that nose as close to source as possible. Some do this very quickly and subtly, but they still do it.

Know what your dog looks like in a variety of search scenarios. There's not much to worry about when the hide is in a bucket and your dog sticks his whole head in there to find the odor. But, what about when it's under a table top in a metal channel running the length of the table? Will your dog catch scent moving along the channel and show a final response (even if his changes of behavior don't fully support it)? Sometimes patience is key and watching for your dog's tell-tale signs is the only way for you to know when he's done searching and found the source. What happens if your dog is partially out of your line of sight? Looks like you'll need to practice watching more than just his nose and head! A dog's rear half can give pretty clear signals as to when he's found the source. Maybe your dog's tail freezes when he's on source, maybe it wags really fast! The signs are all there for you to observe and become confident in trusting.

What Will Trial Day Be Like? - So, let's say you've logged some time observing your dog and you are confident in your ability to read him, what will your searches be like on trial day? The searches will probably be very much like you've been practicing for, but you and your dog may both be lacking a bit in confidence because of the unfamiliar location and/or anxiousness on your part because a title and ribbons are on the line. Your dog might not seem as strong or clear at source, and you most definitely will be cautious with your alert calls - or pull a 180 and blurt them out - and you might even be a bit "in your head", trying to size up the search areas and make guesses as to what the challenges might be.

If this is what your trial day might look like, remember your time spent in practice observing your dog. Don't get too focused on what your dog is checking out in the search environment, stay focused on your dog. He may check various objects in his quest for source - and the hide may indeed be in an object, but it could also just be pooling odor that's closer to him than the hide is. You'll only know this if you know your dog well in these scenarios. Look for the signs that he's working something he can reach (often the dog will close in on an area pretty quickly and sniffing will become faster, more intense, and more detailed). An inaccessible hide usually has the dog looking for ways to get closer, to get past items, and he'll usually spend a larger chunk of search time on looking for access to the source. Sometimes, this dog will show a sudden interest in a very accessible object in the area he's been working. This is usually the dog giving in to a handler who has been waiting for some clear indication of source as the dog worked and worked to show the presence of an inaccessible hide. If you recognize that your dog has been working in the area of that very accessible object for a while without showing interest in it, you don't have to call alert on the response you know is questionable, you can observe him working one more time before you make the call. Also, you don't have to wait for your dog to give a final response if all of his behavior is clearly spelling out the location of source odor. Whatever decisions you make, make them confidently.

What if Your "There" is not the Right Answer to Their "Where?" - So you watch your dog work a trash can in a corner and the hide is high on the back side where the dog can't reach it. The dog works up and down the can and spends a little more time on the bottom half so you call alert, get the "where" question, and say the bottom of the can. The judge tells you no. This is an invaluable training opportunity. At your next practice, try to set up similar challenges and observe your dog and look for the behavior you might have missed, or start thinking about how you help your dog to learn how to solve this kind of odor problem so it's more clearly observable for you. Maybe you start by making the hide a bit more accessible, or maybe it's not as high to start. Whatever you choose to do, your goals should be for your dog to learn how to get closer to source and for you to learn how to observe him better so you can make more accurate and confident calls.

As you practice to reach a level of teamwork where the question of "where" is just another opportunity to show how well you and your dog work as team, remember that the question does not get asked if you and your dog are not already a pretty darn good team. In the moments between "Where" and a yes or no from the judge, trust your teamwork, rely on your observations, and make the best of whatever comes next.

Happy Sniffing & Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Guest Blogger Jason Heng, CNWI, Answers the Question: Am I Ready For a K9 Nose Work® Trial?

I first crossed paths digitally with Jason Heng, CNWI, when he submitted a story to the NACSW newsletter about his journey in K9 Nose Work with his Shiba Inu, Atlas. At the time he submitted the story he was just a student with a (difficult) dog. Now he shares his experience, knowledge, and passion with students of his own.

Enjoy this post from Jason, it has lots of helpful information and some important words of wisdom, not just for people considering entering their first trial, but for everyone who wants to have fun with their dogs in the sport of K9 Nose Work.

Am I Ready for a K9 Nose Work® Trial?

by Jason Heng, CNWI

This post came about thanks to a question from a fellow instructor and the realization that hosting a trial locally means this question is going to be asked a few times before the trial.  If you’re a highly competitive person that has competed in other dog sports (agility, rally, IPO, etc) then you probably understand how competing can affect your attitude, learning and experience. If you, however, are competing for the first time the question has probably crossed your mind more than once: Am I or is my dog ready for a Trial?

If you have never competed with your dog, your nerves might be giving you a second thought about if you are ready. The K9 Nose Work community is growing, so reach out and talk with others who have competed and ask about their experiences. It can only help you learn more about the trial experience. If your region has trials happening now, go volunteer; this not only supports the K9 Nose Work community, but will also help you learn all you can for your own competition future. There was a previous blog post about what to expect for the trial day, check it out: The K9 Nose Work Trial Experience. So how do you decide if you and your dog are ready to trial?

Trial Considerations?
The first questions to ask are: is your dog ready for the day; is your dog reactive, does he become anxious in new environments, does your dog travel well, how about staying in a hotel? Any one of the answers might be of great concern. Although some reactive dogs are able to successfully participate in a K9 Nose Work trial, it doesn’t mean that your dog won’t need to be in proximity to other dogs in the parking lot, or on the way to the search areas. If you are considering competing with a reactive dog, attend a trial to see what it's like, visit the NACSW for information on trial readiness, or take the time to speak with a Certified Nose Work Instructor (CNWI) about what to expect with a reactive dog. When I decided to compete with my reactive dog, it was incredibly stressful. I felt confident in my responsibility to manage the environment for our safety and the safety of other dogs, but I wasn’t sure if the overall experience and the potential environmental stressors would be too hard on my dog. Although his reactivity has reduced with K9 Nose Work, entering a new environment with dogs and putting my dog into a stressful situation was of significant concern. The path to the first search area was straightforward after leaving the parking lot from the reactive dog parking and the waiting areas were screened from view, so once we started our process to the search area there were few opportunities to see other dogs (this is not a guarantee at every trial - each location may be different). Be comfortable with the decision to compete, talk with your instructor and other competitors that have reactive dogs before deciding. The NACSW had a policy statement recently regarding the red bandana and reactive dogs, find it in the NEWS section on the NACSW home page.

Travel considerations can be stressful as well. Will it be hot on the trial day? If so, preparing to make your dog comfortable while crated in the vehicle will need some thought beforehand. Even staying in a dog-friendly hotel can present a challenge; if your dog barks at the smallest noise, sleep might be all you’re searching for on the day of trial. Traveling with your dog previous to a trial can be a good way to assess any challenges. Are there any mock trials in your area? Maybe just getting your fellow classmates together in a park to have a dry run, crate in your cars, set some hides for practice, don’t rush through, have a cup of coffee and talk about your concerns. Then run the dogs through one or two elements with someone being the timer and the videographer. Watch the video as part of your day asking each person to contribute some positives about each dog. Many instructors do this in class, so ask about doing a practice run of one or more of the elements.

Go review the trial photos for the last couple of trials on the NACSW website at There is a great deal of information in those photographs; scanning through each element you can get a good idea of some examples of search areas. If you see something you haven’t practiced such as, exterior on gravel, or vehicles on dirt, or containers on carpet then get out and practice in those types of environments. The NACSW is also working on getting some sample videos of trial searches available on the website site soon.

Know how your dog works!
It’s hard to be objective about our own dogs. The dog doesn’t have to be the fastest in class, the most determined, or have found the most challenging hide the instructor set last week. It’s more important that you have grown as a team. From the introduction of birch, to this point your dog has become a detection dog. They go to work with focus in new search areas quickly and work for extended search times. They are odor obedient and therefore work through distractions and source odor with focus. All dogs lose focus from time to time when searching so if they re-focus after little or no interactions from the handler and continue working to source then they have learned that odor is more important. In addition the odor is important enough for them to tell you about it, “Hey! It is right here!” Your dog’s communication is clear enough to you the handler that you have enough confidence to read your dog and say, Alert! Even if your call had a question mark after it for the ORT, consider where you are today. If this describes your team then there is a good chance your dog is ready. If you’re still not sure this describes your dog, have a friend video and watch to give you another perspective. Ask your instructor for their feedback.

How do you deal with disappointment?
How about that team member holding the leash, are you ready? It’s just another day of searching for your dog. Having a positive attitude about the outcome of each element is more important than getting a ribbon. Failure is the lack of success, however learning from your dog and having fun is a successful day. The dog didn’t fail, even if you missed them telling you about a hide, fringed or false alerted. Instead you might have needed to be more patient for your dog to source, or the dog may not have had enough experience for the particular hide placement. Maybe the distraction was too much to overcome at that time: dog pee, acorns, a flock of sparrows flying under a vehicle, or a loud sound (fireworks in the adjacent neighborhood, a train near by, or thunder). All of these distractions and others have happened during trials at one time or another in my trial experience. The dog was still successful. What you learn as a handler is just as important for the next trial. You will have the opportunity to reward at source in the search area at an NW1 and/or at the practice boxes after the search.

You will most likely be nervous or extremely nervous, the day of trial. Seeing the search areas will shower your thoughts with what-ifs. Try to focus on why you are there: to have fun! If you are going to get really upset at yourself, consider volunteering at a trial before you compete. Being able to see other teams work will give a better perspective of the trial day and talk to others about their experiences. Giving a little perspective to the competitive environment can only help frame your expectations for a later trial day.

Learn from the Experience!
So you have decided you’re ready, now what? Your expectations are even more important. When you participate in the walk through on the day of trial and try to guess where the hide has been set, “oh it must be in the desk because the drawer is open a crack”. Your expectations will cloud your perceptions of the dog’s behavior. Remember the point is to have a fun day of searching with your dog as a team. If one of the team members is trying to out-think the nose then encountering difficulties will be inevitable. The big expectation might be about getting that title ribbon, we are human as we measure success based on the acknowledgment of others, no getting around that. The pass rates for NW1s vary on any given day, averaging around 50%. So if it’s pouring rain on the trial day, less people will pass, not because it’s too hard, but because most competitors probably didn’t train enough in rainy conditions to give their dogs enough experience working in the rain. Having a dog that objects to going out to potty in the rain, I can’t imagine the look she would give me if the trial were in a downpour (with no lighting/thunder of course). I would hope to have fun, and my takeaway might be to share with everyone I coach that next time we have class and it’s raining, we are going to practice in the rain.

The trial is a test, but you are measuring your dogs’ progress, it’s not a graduation. In another way, you must be measured in your attitude for that day. Things happen in the moment and if you get too disappointed or too excited it will affect the day’s experience. Yes “experience” it is not a performance! K9 Nose Work is not about performance; birch is not an explosive device nor is anyone going to get arrested based on your call of Alert! Even for those highly competitive folks out there, you are still competing against yourself. Each search is a different dog with a different handler, with a varied experience, strengths and weaknesses, the wind can change each minute altering the conditions, or a dog can pee in the search area plus a myriad of other conditions. When the ribbons are awarded it’s about the fastest time for that search, and although the searches are meant to be as close to the same for each dog as possible, there’s still an unknowable variability each time. So if you get a placement, your dog did extra great to be sure, and I always think of it as he was really on the game for that search and we benefited with a fast time that earned us an extra acknowledgment. That doesn’t make us better than all the other teams but means we shined enough to get the extra bonus. Supporting the sport includes being proud of all the other competitors if you were not acknowledged that trial day. If you get more that one placement or first to third overall, nothing minimizes that for your team’s work was outstanding and you should be proud.

Even as an instructor it’s not always a clear-cut decision when watching a team work to answer are they ready. Consider your learning style, do you need to see examples or can you read about a situation and be comfortable about the process. Can you watch someone tie a knot and tie that knot with little or no practice? My learning style is to learn by doing, so when I decided to trial for the first time, it was to measure our progress as a team. I was willing to pay the entry fee, travel the thousand miles to the nearest trial to have the opportunity to learn all I could about how the trial works. I also volunteered at that first trial weekend to learn more about the trial process. I felt my dog was odor obedient and that the odor was important enough for him to overcome most environmental distractions. I was still concerned about his reactivity but knew I could manage him. I was least sure about being able to read his communication consistently at source, but I was willing to risk taking the jump to competition to evaluate the progress from our year long training. The trial was a blast and Atlas and I had a lot of fun. I learned many lessons, including what I needed to work on, where there were gaps in my training. Oh, and he didn’t get a title that first time, we did get a placement in vehicles, so overall it was a great success. Even for the elements we missed in retrospect he worked well, just didn’t overcome the distraction that day. Regardless of the outcome Atlas was rewarded at source each time. What I learned is that I have a great deal of fun competing with my dog. When he did earn an NW1 title at our 4th trial attempt the pride in my dog was immeasurable! The bar is set high to make the accomplishment of training our dogs as a detection dog just that much sweeter. Seeing my fellow nose work enthusiasts being recognized with titles is part of the great day. Some of those teams I had never meet, some were friends. I am always excited for all of the competitors because a K9 Nose Work title is such a wonderful way to honor your dog!

Thanks again to Jason for sharing this post with everyone. Don't forget to thank a veteran today (and everyday). And don't forget some of those veterans are dogs - so thank a dog, too! Human and canine working together are capable of amazing things, be it to save lives or to enrich a personal relationship.

Happy Sniffing!