Recently, I listened to K9 Nose Work co-founder Amy Herot (along with co-founders Ron Gaunt and Jill Marie O'Brien) speaking to a group of soon-to-be certified nose work instructors about just what we aim to do when teaching a dog nose work using the K9 Nose Work methodology. Amy chose two words that resonated with me to describe a K9 Nose Work dog: hunting machine. When I heard that phrase, I thought, "oooh, that sounds cool. That sounds cooler than odor obedience." Don't get me wrong, odor obedience - what we see when dogs will seek out and find a target odor under any and all conditions, regardless of distraction - is awesome, but it's not something you can teach a dog with any reliability if the dog is not a strong, independent, hunting machine. Facilitating a dog's journey to becoming a hunting machine has always been at the heart of the K9 Nose Work philosophy and methodology, starting with the power of primary reward (dogs seeking out and rewarding themselves for food or toy finds in the search environment), and continuing with the idea that the human is not teaching the dog in the traditional sense, rather, the human is providing a learning environment for the dog to teach himself. In this post, we'll examine a few important dos and dont's as you help your dog embark on the journey to become a K9 Nose Work hunting machine.
Do give your dog the power to choose - Many dogs have little opportunity to make independent decisions in the presence of a human in their daily lives. Typically, they are told when they eat, when they pee, when they should sit, lay down, be quiet, stay off the couch, and when they should keep walking instead of stopping to sniff the roses (or the poo... which - if you believe Outkast - is what roses really smell like). Because dogs are dogs, they adapt pretty well to being told when, where, how, and what to do. In many dog activities and sports, the human knows what the goal looks like (running an agility course correctly, performing obedience commands properly, etc.), but in nose work the goal (the target odor source) is hidden from the human and nothing can be done to find it on your own - you are at the mercy of your dog. If you have a plan to direct or control your dog, it may not go very well. Your dog will probably be more than happy to comply with you in your human-driven search, but success will be elusive or fleeting.
Allowing your dog to be independent and make choices is key to success in nose work. When your dog hunts on his terms, driven by his own desire, and working independently of you, this is a scenario you can feel confident about, and a path to long-term success.
From day one of your dog's introduction to nose work, your goal should be to step back and watch. Let him make choices, let him discover things on his own, and watch him begin to confidently desire the hunt. When you can observe that your dog cares less about what you're doing in the search and more about finding odor, then you can think about adding a little more human involvement into the search. Which leads us to...
Don't leave your dog hanging in the search - Yes, it is important for your dog to become an independent hunting machine - and sometimes it's good for your dog to experience your presence in the search when you are no help whatsoever - but you are still a needed part of the team. You want to be your dog's support system, reacting to his behavior in the search and making yourself a tool for him to use, not a solution to his search for source odor.
There is a difference between supporting him in his search for target odor and guiding your dog to success. The guided dog is well aware of the situation and will happily go along using his human as a solution in the search. The dog-guiding human is not well aware of this situation and believes the dog to be searching independently. If you suspect you've got a dog-guiding issue, set up searches your dog can do without help and let him have true independence.
Supporting your dog in the search can manifest in many ways, but there are two major supportive actions you can take in the search: helping your dog gain access to all areas of the search environment, and reacting to your dog's behavior changes in odor and promoting more thorough investigation of an area he might otherwise have sniffed and left. You'll know that you're being supportive when you can confidently say that your dog is not expecting a reward just because you're present in an area, rather, he is taking advantage of your presence to sniff out the possibility of his target odor in the area, and he will act independently to reach his goal; for example, if no target odor is present, he may search the area you're in and try to leave, but he will not communicate to you that he expects a reward just because you're there, too.
When you have an independent hunting machine and you can be his support system and tool in the search, it is the most rewarding form of teamwork a human and dog can engage in, and it happens to be very effective.
Do keep it simple and take it slow - One of the many great features of starting a dog on primary reward is that it eliminates the need for expert timing, and it promotes independence right away, and it is pretty difficult to screw things up. Still, you want to keep it simple and take it slow. Dogs don't need to search a warehouse or a football field, they don't need to scale office furniture or climb ladders to find their food reward. They do need puzzles and challenges, but not what we would consider visually challenging, what they would consider an olfactory challenge or a challenge to their ability to focus. In many cases, just a small change in environment creates the challenge the dog needs.
Once your dog is gaining lots of confidence solving the sniffing challenges, think about introducing your dog to uneven or unusual surfaces, confined spaces, random noises - but use your ability to control environment and make these introductions simple so your dog can have a confidence-building experience. And always listen to your dog when changing environment, he will let you know if you're moving too fast and making things too complicated.
While you're keeping those challenges simple and achievable, don't be in a rush to get to the next level of searching. Our human goal to see the dogs confidently search for and find source odor in any environment can lead us to throw harder and harder challenges at our dogs and to test the team with blind searches. If you really want to reach your goal, take it easy and focus on your dog's independence, confidence, and desire to hunt and hunt to find source odor. If you find yourself helping your dog a lot, or getting a lot of checking-in behavior from your dog in your practice searches, change things up so your dog is able to work to source odor confidently.
When you keep it simple and take it slow in training, you'll save yourself the headache of fixing your dog's independence, focus, and confidence problems at the time when you should be enjoying success in the face of greater and greater challenges.
Don't get stuck on introducing a target odor too soon - Add to that, don't get stuck on going off of pairing the dog's primary reward with a target odor too quickly.
The coolest thing about watching a dog search for his primary reward is the total independence of the dog in the search. He does not need his human to tell him what to do or to guide him - or even support him - in the search. This makes the dog very reliant on his own abilities to search for and find the odor source.
As soon as the human is inserted into the game and the dog is searching for a target odor that will bring the reward from the human, it is now quite likely that the dog will consider communication with the human to be as important or more important than finding the source odor. This is largely because of timing of reward delivery. The best timing for reward delivery is before the dog is communicating that he's found the source odor and expects a reward. We can't always act on or choose the best timing for reward delivery, and sometimes our dogs will ask for a reward at places other than where the source odor is, for reasons we can't always be certain of - a dog may think he's found the source odor, and maybe he has, but we have an idea of where he should be physically when he finds the source odor and now we're not sure of what to do. When timing is less than perfect, the dog gets confused and may begin trying out behaviors and communication to figure out just what his human wants from him.
There is a solution to less-than-ideal reward delivery when introducing a target odor: paired reward with the target odor. This helps maintain the perfect timing the dog enjoyed when searching for primary, it keeps the dog independent and confident, and it avoids confusion.
If the ultimate goal is clear communication from the dog in a blind search scenario, the best way to do this is to keep the task clear for the dog and provide him with well-timed rewards for finding source odor (primary reward or paired reward and target odor) for as long as possible. When searching for a target odor only, make sure you're setting up scenarios that will give you every opportunity to provide a well-timed reward to your dog.
Do have fun watching your dog do what he loves best - this is a game for the dogs and games should be fun. It is also a gift to the dogs, and gifts should be presented with no strings attached. Dogs exist outside of time and expectation, and if you're going to give them a fun gift, you have to be patient and set aside your expectations. This is not to say that you won't see your dog become an awesome hunting machine, but rather to say that it should happen on his terms. Tiger Woods may have risen to greatness with a golf club glued to his hand from the age of 2, but many other kids never reached greatness, and just ended up resenting their parents and hating whatever sport they were expected to excel at. Imagine that every dog has a Tiger Woods caliber nose - so there's no question that innate talent is present in every dog -knowing this, the journey to greatness can be a 100 meter dash, a marathon, or a trip around the world in a hot air balloon. Every dog will reach the destination, so relax and enjoy the ride.