Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Engelbart's Law & K9 Nose Work®

"The best design may be the one that gives us a clear path to learning if we choose to. Put another way, designs that helps us transition from tricycle-riding to bicycle-riding, so that if we want, we can choose to go up some really big hills." - Roman Mars; 99% Invisible Podcast; episode 149: Of Mice and Men

Check out the complete 99% Invisible podcast here.

Doug Engelbart is not a well known name outside of certain circles, but his ideas and inventions are inescapably well known. Just take the computer mouse as an example, but don't think that his genius stopped there. For a more complete understanding of the contributions Doug Engelbart made to modern technology and productivity, visit his wikipedia page here

Engelbart held many compelling beliefs regarding technology, intelligence, and the progress of societies, some of which form the tenants of Engelbart's Law. The law states that the proliferation of technology in modern society and humankind's response to that technology can either exponentially increase humankind's collective IQ and problem-solving ability or it can reduce our problem-solving effectiveness and ultimately lead to our demise.

According to Engelbart, humans are limited in their problem-solving ability by the simplicity of the tools with which they approach problem-solving. It's not enough to have people making technology that is affordable and widely available, we need to have large numbers of people making new and complex technology, improving upon that technology, and doing so rapidly. Think about not just one Elon Musk, but one thousand or one million Elon Musks making high capacity batteries and more efficient rockets.  

Engelbart's Law places no limitations on the human's capacity for getting better at getting better, it's a matter of technology, intelligence, desire and commitment. Even 60 years ago, Engelbart knew that if humankind were to advance, computers would have to go from punch card readers to more complex systems, and humans would have to put in the time and effort to learn how to interface with these systems. He also knew that if humans learned new and complex technology it would increase their problem-solving ability and spawn even better technology. Engelbart would not have been impressed with intuitive devices that toddlers can operate, like iPhones or iPads, rather, he'd have worried for the adults who use technology that requires no more skill than that possessed of a two year old. Taking Engelbart's philosophy and applying it to the world of K9 Nose Work, the nose work dog can either be a punch card computer from WWII era or a cognitive computing marvel like IBM's Watson, it's all in how much effort the handler wants to invest in understanding and handling the dog as a complex system.

Let's say that the main goal of a competitive nose work team is to find the hide(s). This is sometimes simple and sometimes maddeningly complex. When working together in a search, the dog is like a super-computing sniffer and, often, the handler is a technologically clueless operator, requiring communication to be distilled down to the lowest common denominator. We could argue that the simplest, iPad-like interface with the dog to achieve the goal of finding the hide is the final response or indication behavior the dog gives after finding the hide, and upon desiring reward. I could probably hand my 2 year old daughter the leash with Muriel attached and ask her to tell me when Muriel was performing a sit. Simple. Or is it? If understanding the final response is the extent of the handler's problem-solving ability, what happens when the dog does not perform the sit or the dog sits, but not with certainty, or not with accuracy to source? What if we imagine a more complex interface with the dog, one where the handler may understand final response behavior, but that is just a piece of the information exchange happening in a search. This handler has the ability to understand the dog, support the dog, and navigate challenging search scenarios with efficiency and success. This handler is a highly intelligent problem-solver interfacing with a complex system and getting better at getting better.

Accepting that the dog is a perfectly designed, complex system for us to learn from, how do we access what the dog has to offer and use it to become better handlers?

Build Observation Skills: The beauty of having a dog hunt for primary reward (food or toy) is that it affords the handler plenty of time to develop useful observation skills to gain a deeper understanding of the dog's behavior when searching, of how odor moves, and how environment affects odor and the dog. All of this will serve the handler well as the dog transitions to a target odor.

Focus on Timing: When we do introduce a target odor, timing of reward is everything. If you understand the dog and what he is doing in the search, you will understand when to deliver reward so the dog develops a clear connection between odor and reward. This is hard for many people. It's well worth the effort to become confident and effective with your reward timing.

Record and Review: As you develop the skills to read your dog and understand search environments, and you provide your dog with consistently well-timed reward at odor source, it will become valuable to you to video some or all of your searches and review them for a deeper understanding of what your dog is doing in the search and how you might be affecting the outcome of the search positively or negatively.

Develop Decision Making Skills: Observations skills help a handler know when the dog is working scent and finding the odor source, but until the handler is working searches with an unknown number, those observation skills are rarely put into play to help a handler decide there are no more odor sources to be found and the search should be finished. Start looking for how the dog tells you if an area has an odor source(s) or not. Look for the various behaviors he exhibits under a variety of search scenarios. Hold yourself accountable for missed hides or false alerts. If you're doing your job correctly, the dog should have access to all parts of the search area and freedom to work a space and move on. Even in the most difficult search scenarios, the dog is providing useful information about the search, it's just that we may not always be able to react appropriately in the moment and do our part to finish the search successfully.

Optimize the Dog & Handler Relationship: Once you've worked on the above skills, you want to look at how you can get even better at working with the dog. Think about learning a second language, and going from basic sentence construction and simple conversation to slang, colloquialisms, jargon, regional dialect, secret handshakes, etc. Do not limit yourself in your quest to become a better and better handler. An ORT, an NW3, a National Invitational - these are all human constructed challenges for a team, they are not the peak of the mountain, or the surface of Mars; they should not limit you in your training. As you feel more capable and confident in facing these challenges, get creative in your training and stretch yourself beyond those challenges. Your dog is capable of amazing things, but he's also happy to go along with with the limits you impose on the team. It's up to you to reach for the hides in the sky.

Regardless of where you are in your nose work journey, ask yourself if you've been working with the iPad version of your dog or the super-computing version. Having a dog that anyone could handle and read is a great concept, but it creates a false sense of confidence for the novice handler (and it takes a very specific kind of dog to be reliably "handler proof"). It removes most of the handler's desire to better understand the dog and the environment. And, when adversity and failure rear their ugly heads, it is much harder for the handler with a limited understanding of the dog to overcome challenges and emerge stronger and better. A handler who is skilled in reading and understanding the dog will not be deterred by failure, rather, it will be another opportunity to learn from the dog and increase handling skills.

Become a native speaker of the language of dog! Happy Sniffing!