Thursday, January 30, 2014

Fun, Simple Searching: Good Enough for a Police K-9, Good Enough for your K9 Nose Work® Dog

When doing nose work it's easy to see your dog as a super-sniffer, ready to work in any environment, eager to conquer the most challenging sniff problems for nothing in return but the adoration of his handler and a tiny morsel of food. This is most definitely your dog's future potential, but it might not be what your dog wants to do today or tomorrow, or what he wants to do the majority of the time he searches. In fact, your dog most definitely doesn't want to scale the mount Everest of searches - that is, unless he sees it as the mole hill of searches. This is your number one job: give your dog the confidence, success, and motivation to want to search, and be patient as he builds to his full potential in K9 Nose Work.

A recent Police K-9 magazine featured a question in the 'training perspective' section which to my surprise elicited the kind of answers that would apply to any K9 Nose Work dog. For these teams, the answers focused on foundational exercises, motivation, and fun for the dog. If police K-9 detection trainers are prescribing fun and simple exercises for dogs and suggesting that handlers focus on patience and perseverance until the dogs have overcome the challenge, then it has to be worthy of us pet dog handlers.

Has your nose work dog ever been hesitant to go into a tight space? Well, here's what some police K-9 trainers said about getting a dog motivated and having fun when faced with searching crawl spaces:

"I would start back to the basic crawl space search. Start by throwing his favorite toy into crawl spaces... Continue to throw his toys into crawl spaces so he will continually be motivated... Let him [the dog] see the decoy go into the entrance of the crawl space... Next, send your dog into the crawl space and let him have an immediate reward." - Art Lopez, Police K-9 Magazine Nov/Dec 2013

 "All search work and ranging out into unknown areas, longer distances, and hard-to-reach places are dependent upon the dog's expectation of success... I would also like to mention that you have to make sure that during the learning process you keep things highly successful for your dog." - Armin Winkler, Police K-9 Magazine Nov/Dec 2013

"A dog's natural instinct is not to go into a crawl space or tight, confined areas without a reason. If the dog is on task (working in a drive), then he may "drive" into that location without thinking about it... Knowing this, it is the trainer and handler's responsibility to slowly develop the dog's understanding of this task... In summary, start the exercises away from the crawl spaces and slowly work deeper into the problem. Continually reward with bites, toys, or positive civil engagements as you build your dog's knowledge and understanding. Keep the exercises positive and with clear learning for the dog. If you encounter a problem, stop immediately and return to the last spot where the dog was performing at his highest." - Scott Clark, Police K-9 Magazine Nov/Dec 2013

What this means for your K9 Nose Work dog:

Never stop doing the simple and fun search exercises! Use them to keep your dog excited about the search, and use them to help your dog overcome challenges. What might your dog's challenges be beyond tight spaces? What about being too social with people in the search environment, being worried about different surfaces, noises, distracted by other dog smells or critter smells, overwhelmed by large environments, etc.? Keeping it fun and simple and not progressing the challenge too quickly for your dog can make all of the difference. What is a fun and simple nose work search exercise? Anything that can keep your dog's focus and motivate him to search. It can be as simple as moving a hide deeper and deeper into a search environment, giving your dog focus and courage, and setting him up for success.

When you practice with your dog, think about the following things:

has my dog ever worked in this specific environment, if not, has he worked repeatedly in this type of environment?

would my dog become distracted, hesitant or worried if _____ happened in the search environment? (fill in the blank with things like noises or critter smells, etc.)

am I certain of the hide challenge I have set out for my dog?

has my dog ever lost interest or desire during a search?

If any of these questions raise potential challenges to your dog's success for the search, keep it simple! Remember that your dog needs to experience and expect success in order to overcome these challenges, so think of how you can help your dog succeed through simple and motivating searches.

The next time you do nose work with your dog, don't look at your dog finding the hide as being the only goal. Look at your dog's motivation to find the hide. Most of the time we believe the value of the reward drives the dog to want to find the hide - and some dogs are highly motivated in this way. If the reward alone does not seem to drive your dog to find the hide, maybe it's not the key. It's not too surprising that dogs accustomed to regularly scheduled meals might not feel compelled in all situations to seek out a target scent for a piece of bacon just because bacon is delicious. Engage your dog. Excite your dog. Give your dog a high expectation of success. Help your dog focus to achieve success and overcome fears. Bring in the visual aspect to stimulate your dog's curiosity and capture his attention (let him see you checking out an area where the hide is), set simple puzzles for your dog to master easily without losing interest or feeling overmatched (a hide blocked by a pile of items with several possible points of entry). Listen to what your dog tells you is fun and attention grabbing for him, and use that information to ensure successful practice sessions wherever you go.

As you see your dog's desire to search and stay focused increase across a variety of environments, you should take advantage of your Certified Nose Work Instructor or Associate Nose Work Instructor to guide you into those more challenging search scenarios. And what should you be looking for from your dog when the finding gets tough? The same eagerness and confidence to solve the problem as he shows when playing the simple search games. Then you will know that he believes he can do anything - and this belief will lead your K9 Nose Work dog to achieve greatness in the search many times over. Enjoy getting to know and understand your dog, and making searching fun and successful for him, while patiently approaching the search challenges he faces, and you will be richly rewarded. Watching a K9 Nose Work dog work the Mount Everest of search problems as if it were a mole hill is a beautiful thing.

Happy Sniffing!  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Guest Blogger Maura Warnecke Helps Bust K9 Nose Work Sniff Myth #1: Tiny Dogs Can't Sniff Out High Hides With The Big Dogs

Maura has a great perspective and lots of useful information in her post, A Tiny Dog's Nose Work Journey. One thing I took away from her post is that no matter what size your dog is, the most important skill a nose work team can have is understanding. The dog must understand his job, and the human must understand his dog. The latter is the key to being successful in competition. It is not easy, and it is definitely not about waiting for a trained final response. It is about learning what your dog's behavior tells you across as many different types of searches and search environments as possible. When you understand your dog well, you will make the confident call of 'alert', as Maura says, and you will not miss your dog's signals or second guess the information he's passing on to you. Will there still be mistakes made, missed calls, bad days? Count on it. Nose Work is a roller coaster ride with highs and lows, and thrills aplenty. Succeed or fail, it's all part of the journey, and when you embrace the experience, it's a helluva lot of fun!

Thanks again to Maura for contributing to the blog!

A Tiny Dog’s Nosework Journey
by Maura Warnecke
I was very excited when Jeff asked me to guest blog this week to share Rookie’s Nosework story. Rookie is my 9lb Chihuahua mix whose dream came true the day I started Nosework training with him. He was happy to be done with agility, a sport that hurt his body too much, and start doing what all dogs love - sniff and get treats for it! People are always intrigued with his Nosework journey because he is so small yet he has the same drive and excitement towards the sport as the more traditional breeds that are bred for scent work. I've never thought of his height as a problem but more as a great training challenge!
Our Start
We started training in 2010 and Rookie quickly proved to me that he was obsessed with Nosework, and pretty darn good at it! He nailed his NW1 title on his first time out and it built my confidence enough to sign up for a NW2 trial shortly after. Our first NW2 trial he missed only 1 hide - the highest hide of the day on top of a table. I got asked the dreaded “Where?” and out of the 2 objects sitting on top of the table I chose the wrong one. I knew right then that I hadn’t waited long enough, got excited and called alert before he was truly giving me his sure-proof alert signal of licking his lips. If I would have waited 2 more seconds, he would have stopped moving and alerted under the right object. It seemed obvious after the fact and I knew exactly what I had to go home and work on: reading him better when it came to different types of high hides. So that we did.
Human AND Canine Training!
Rookie and I practiced so many high hides that I almost trained him to never search low anymore! Truly, it wasn’t him who needed the extra training; I needed to learn how to better read him. The hardest thing to decipher was how does he alert when the hide is up on top of a table verses in the hinge of the cabinet door or somewhere else along the way up that is also out of reach? A lot of practice and watching videos of ourselves helped me pick up small signals he was giving me to differentiate the different hides. Bobbing his nose and trying to nose-touch if the odor is just out of reach as opposed to scratching and pawing like crazy if the odor is really high like on top of a table. Also giving him extra time to source the odor and stop moving is a good sign that he’s as close to it as possible.
Another thing I had to practice was how to state “alert!” not question “alert?” Sometimes it’s something that simple that is going to mess you up in the end. I was always asked where the hide was, whether it was high or low because I always questioned the alert instead of stating it. So my Nosework practice friends helped remind me every single time I sounded the least bit unsure. How are you supposed to sell the judge on the fact you know where the odor is if you sound unsure?
Our next try at NW2 proved successful - all that hard practice paid off and I’ve never been asked where a hide is again since my alert training! We came across a very similar table hide like we messed up on the first time and I knew exactly what to do. I was happy to show that a vertically challenged dog could title at NW2 since at the time I knew a lot of small dog handlers who had or were about to give up training their short dogs due to so many times at trials with no title to show for it. I then realized that each dog, breed, handler, etc. is going to have their advantages and disadvantages. When Rookie enters a search area if there is a high hide he will start standing on his hind legs to get a better whiff and it gives me a clue that the odor is above his head, thanks to the fact that odor falls. I’ve seen tall dog handlers have to train just as hard to teach their dogs to drop their noses low to find those ground hides. I knew then that height wasn’t going to be an issue anymore, but when you overcome one issue there is always another one not far behind that needs tackling!
After getting our NW2 we went to a very helpful NW3 seminar to start prepping for the many added challenges that come at that level. The seminar was the best money and time I ever spent. We came home with videos that I could reference over and over. The best things I learned from this seminar:
  • Always keep moving. I thought I was always moving my feet but apparently I wasn’t; when I stopped and bent over I would start to convince Rookie he was close to odor. So I learned to keep my feet moving and give him more space when I thought he was in odor instead of crowding him and talking him into something that wasn’t there. It was also then I learned that if he was trying to fake me out he would move along with me but if he was truly on odor he would plant his feet down and stay on odor, regardless of where I went.
  • Plan your route. Always have a route planned and if your dog strays off of it to go to odor then go with him; but always remember where you left off and get back to that area to continue your planned search. Having a plan has helped us both focus a lot better while searching.
  • Clearing a room. We also started training clear rooms and soon learned that clearing a room wasn’t scary at all, it was actually quite simple. When we started clear room training I noticed instantly that Rookie would take in deep breathes through his mouth to try to smell odor so I could easily tell after a short time in the room that there was no odor because he was having to try too hard to source it. If you have a hard time hearing the difference, try training in the dark and listening to your dog!

Rookie’s first NW3 trial was a breeze- we had a great day together and although we didn’t title we had fun working together and came in 3rd place overall. I really thought we were prepared and NW3 wasn’t going to be so bad after all… what a deceiving day that was! Our next trail was our worst; we came in last place and didn’t find half of the hides that day. Rookie wasn’t having fun because he seemed tired and hot therefore I wasn’t having fun either. Rookie can only trial in cool months due to the fact that he thinks heat is for sunbathing in, not working in. Also he is severely fearful of flies and will completely shut down if they are present. Trying to desensitize him to flies is something I chose not to work through with him, instead just planned to never trial in the heat of summer when flies are really present.
Motivating Rookie

Our second NW3 trial day was unseasonable warm so I crated him outside my vehicle near a friend’s dog and the heat mixed with lack of good rest throughout the day made for a tired dog. We did however get all the high hides that day. Going forward I knew I was going to have to be more careful about how Rookie spent his downtime at trials and how far we’d travel to a trial as to not wear either of us out. After that trial we took some time off and when we started training again he seemed to have lost a little bit of his enthusiasm towards the sport. I decided we’d give NW3 one more try but if he wasn’t into it then it might be our last try. In the weeks leading up to the trail I practiced more and it seemed his enthusiasm was partially based on the quality of reward I was providing him. The week before he seemed ready to go after we had our best practice in months with our Nosework friends. I wasn’t going to risk him shutting down again so I brought out the heavy artillery of treats on our trial day, steak cooked in bacon fat- and boy did that get his attention! I made him rest in his crate all day in between searches and I stayed away from the van so I wouldn’t distract him. He was ecstatic to go search every time I took him out that day so he would earn more steak and finally all the pieces fell into place and we earned our NW3 title! The extra rest, amazing treats and previous NW3 trial experience all came together and paid off making it one amazing day of searching together! We definitely weren’t the fastest that day but we got what counted. We didn’t go for speed, we actually ran the clock down to the 10 second call during every search, something we don’t often do, but I knew when leaving each search area that Rookie tried his hardest, searching down to the last second and then even on the way back to our van. I kept his energy up by talking to him on the way into a search or right after in my excited high-pitched voice so he could tell I was excited and that he was doing great!
If We Can Do It, So Can You
A week later and we are still high in the clouds over our achievement. I hope Rookie inspires other handlers to overcome whatever poses as a challenge to you and your dog, and don’t let it hinder you; let it make you a better trainer.  My last tips:

  • Practice with many different people and dogs because there is something to learn from everyone.
  • For those dogs who aren’t super high drive, don’t over practice, less is more most of the time.
  • Listen to your dog, trust him, and most of all have a blast playing this game with your dog!

My motto at our last NW3 trial was “why are we stressing out, it’s not like we’re searching for bombs,” and I think that helped. Any time my dog is having that much fun with me, it’s the best day of my life!

Check out Maura's blog,, you'll find lots more fun posts and pictures. As for the next blog post, I'm thinking since hell has definitely frozen over in the midwest, that it's time to make good on my promise to give K9 Nose Work a try with my Shiba Inu and get the results out to the blog for all to see!

Happy Sniffing!