Friday, October 24, 2014

TED Talks & K9 Nose Work®: How Jazz & Computers in the Slums of India can Make You a Better Partner to Your Dog

If you're like me, you can't help but draw connections between your everyday life experiences and working with dogs. My kids are a constant source of inspiration for how I structure lessons or approach working with a particular dog - they are especially influential when it comes to how I exercise patience. When I watch sports practices, the way the coaches work with the athletes to develop skills and master them can give me a fresh perspective on how to help a nose work team. Recently, I listened to a few very inspiring TED Talks curated for the TED Radio Hour, and - even though the subjects were a bit removed from working with dogs or training for a sport - I instantly recognized a connection between the messages in those talks and the path to success in K9 Nose Work. As you continue on your own nose work journey, remember that inspiration and the keys to success are often found in unexpected places, so keep your feet on the path, but let your mind wander.

This compilation of related TED Talks had a segment from speaker, Sugata Mitra, which embodied the philosophy of K9 Nose Work. The talk focused on poor children in the slums of New Delhi, and Sugata Mitra's experiments with "self-supervised learning", also called the "Hole in the Wall" project, so named for the hole he and some colleagues dug out of a wall to install an internet connected computer for use by the children in the slum. What Mitra discovered was that the children taught themselves and each other how to use the computer - accessing the internet, and learning keystroke commands so they could open the computer's paint application and create images, all this without a mouse. Mitra knew, and proved through experimentation and observation, that the children just needed an environment conducive to learning - a slum with an internet connected computer - and that their curiosity would fuel their growth and understanding of the environment.

This idea of unsupervised or unstoppable learning, in a structured environment (if you can call a computer in a hole structure) is at the core of K9 Nose Work. Imagine that the computer in the wall is, instead, a collection of boxes, and the boxes are arranged in the environment for the dog to explore with minimal human interaction, such that the dog's curiosity and success drive his learning. When a dog is hunting for a primary/self-reward (like food or toy), the physical presence of the human is most essential to the dog's learning and success as it relates to keeping the environment rich for learning - we move boxes around and place the reward back in the environment, that's it, we otherwise are not needed for the dog to build an understanding of the environment and to learn. Mitra was not physically present in the slums with the children, but he was observing remotely via a net op host application connecting his monitor to the output from the slum computer. Observation is key if we hope to interact meaningfully with the dogs at some point in the future. The early stages of K9 Nose Work are all about the human observing the dogs and better understanding how they learn to hunt through the olfaction process. This is an invaluable skill that deserves plenty of time to be developed and honed for every human involved in K9 Nose Work. Knowing your role in these early stages can maximize the learning potential for both dog and human.

At later stages of K9 Nose Work, even when target odors are introduced and the human is controlling the reward, it is still imperative to the team's success that the human recognize the value of controlling the environment and allowing the dog to learn from the environment. For example, if a dog is having trouble focusing on the task of finding a target odor in a search area, the answer is not typically found through telling the dog repeatedly to "find it", directing the dog around on leash, pointing out parts of the environment for the dog to search, etc.; the answer is found in structuring the environment such that the dog can go out and learn that focusing on finding a target odor in the search area is rewarding - setting up threshold hides and using boxes come to mind as a couple of ways to provide the dog with a positive learning experience through controlling the environment. Any time your dog is facing a challenge in nose work, first think of how you could create an environment in which he can learn to overcome that challenge, and, if you find it necessary to control the dog in some way, consider that a temporary bridge as you work on using environment to teach the dog.

Mitra's talk also brings to mind the human tendency to let ego confuse us as to how we are integral to the success of activities we are involved in, such as teaching kids to be computer literate or teaching dogs K9 Nose Work. In both cases, we are integral not because we directly control the students in their learning, but because we structure the environment and observe the learning that takes place. Imagine if Mitra had felt it was necessary to gather a group of children around a computer in a classroom and to directly control how they learned to use that computer; the outcome for the children most certainly would have been very different, and arguably not as powerful as curiosity driven, self-directed learning. K9 Nose Work is curiosity driven, self-directed learning. Think about that when you ask your dog to sit before a search or when you command him to search, or when you attempt to directly control your dog in any way to reach a defined goal. Could it be different? Could it be that you're not thinking about the amazing power of unstoppable learning? The possibilities are exciting and the results are amazing when you set up your nose work version of the "Hole in the Wall" project and structure an environment rich with learning opportunity for your dog, and filled with observational potential for you.

Where the previous TED Talk spoke to the core philosophy of K9 Nose Work and how we can teach dogs to be motivated, focused, and fulfilled searchers, this segment featuring jazz artist, Stefon Harris, from the Making Mistakes TED Talk compilation resonated with the human end of the leash, and how we can interpret mistakes and perhaps avoid them in the future.

Harris approaches making mistakes from a unique point of view, he considers them to be opportunities that were missed. In his opinion, there are no mistakes in jazz, just a failure to perceive and react to what is going on around you, specifically, what notes are being played by the other musicians. Perhaps, there are no mistakes in K9 Nose Work handling, rather, there are failures to perceive and react to what is going on around you; missed opportunities. Watch 30 or 40 competitors do a search at a trial and you'll see how many missed opportunities stand in the way of success for the teams (or nearly stand in the way).

During his talk, Harris again posits that there are no mistakes in jazz, and this time he explains that a mistake is just a lack of awareness of your fellow band members and a failure to accept their creativity. Substitute dog for band member and this statement could shift the way you work with your dog. Think about the way dogs work odor in an environment, and how musical their movements can be, how creative and unexpected, and as their band members, how influential we can be if we're not prepared to react to their creativity. Let's say you've set your dog up to face a doorway at the start of a search and he tries to turn away from the doorway, so you face him back, and propel him into the search area, only to find that he was working odor from a threshold hide and now you may have missed your opportunity to work that hide and be successful. It's all in how we perceive and react. How about the dog who heads toward a search boundary in an exterior search and keeps on going right out of that search area, unimpeded by the handler, only to chase odor right back to the corner of the search area and make the find. That's some smooth jazz. It's all in how we perceive and react.

So what about ideas for becoming more perceptive, more accepting of creativity and reacting better to your band member, er, dog? Well, Harris says it does not happen by dictating to the band, or imposing your ideas onto the other members of the band. It happens through listening. He says jazz is the science of listening. This guy should handle a nose work dog. K9 Nose Work is all about listening to your dog, becoming a student of your dog, and reacting to your dog. Try setting up several threshold hides for your dog (a hide just inside of the start of a search area, such as a doorway to a room) and standing patiently a few feet back from the threshold to the search and just observe your dog. Does he wait patiently for you to do something, does he wriggle his butt with enthusiasm to fly into the room, does he thoughtfully sniff the air? Listen to your dog. Become more perceptive of his behavior. Learn to react to the behavior that he gives when he is ready and focused to search.

When you succeed at being a listener, and you become skilled at reacting to your dog, you will, in Harris' words, "engage and inspire the other musicians and they give more, and gradually it builds..." This is where Harris and the other musicians effortlessly wow with a lively display of jazz, and this is where you and your dog, with the right mix of self-directed learning, observation, perception and creativity, will wow us, too.

Happy Sniffing!   

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful article with much for me to consider and put into practice. Thank you!!