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.