Wednesday, June 27, 2012

K9 Nose Work Seminar: Trials Are an Option, but Don't Have to be the Goal

K9 Nose Work is also a sport in which you and your dog can earn titles. Of course, it's not necessary to ever go to a trial; it's merely an option for those who enjoy testing their training in a formal setting. Jill and Kimberly were quick to point out that first and foremost, K9 Nose Work is a fun activity to share with your dog.

But for those who enjoy a bit of competition, here's a little bit of information.

Are You Ready?
There are three levels of competition in K9 Nose Work, and according to Jill and Kimberly, on average each level will require about a year of training. They suggested several ways for you to know that you and your dog are ready for a trial.

First, your dog will have searched in many environments. This helps the dog know that a search can happen any time and in any place. Since an official trial has four elements (more on this in a moment) that happen in four different environments, this is a pretty important thing for the dog to learn.

Next, you need to understand your dog's particular search body language. In a trial, you will need to not only identify when your dog has found the source of the odor, but you will need to be able to tell the judge where it is.

It's also important that your dog has built up some endurance. K9 Nose Work trials tend to last all day and involve four different searches during that time. Since the activity can be pretty exhausting in and of itself (not to mention the fact that he will be in a trial environment for long periods of time), your dog will need some stamina to be successful!

Finally, your dog needs to know what he's searching for, which brings us to...

The Odor Recognition Test is like a mini-trial, where the dog proves that he is able to find (and the handler can recognize when he's found) the target odor. In the first level of K9 Nose Work, the scent searched for is Birch. In levels 2 and 3, the dogs search for anise and clove. An ORT must be completed for each of these scents, and is required before a dog can compete at a trial.

The Four Elements of a Trial
K9 Nose Work trials involve four elements: the container search, the interior building search, the exterior area search, and the vehicle search.

The container search includes 15-20 containers with the target odor in one (or more, depending on the level) of them. These containers can be boxes, although it becomes progressively more difficult as the dog advances. At the upper level there may even be distraction scents of food, toys, or other animals!

The interior building search can happen in a variety of locations. At the seminar, we were shown videos of searches happening inside of a preschool classroom and another in a science lab: challenging indeed! There can be between one and three hides in the room (depending on the level).

The exterior area search takes place outside in a pre-marked area. Nature- including critters and the weather- can make this particular element incredibly challenging.

Finally, the vehicle search requires the dog to hunt for the hidden odor on three to five vehicles, including cars, trucks, trailers, motorcycles, etc.

For More Information
Please see the National Association of Canine Scent Work for more info on scents, ORTs, and trials. There are also some pictures available!

My friend Dawn's son David and his dog Siren recently became the first team in Minnesota to achieve the NW1 title. Read about their experience here.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

K9 Nose Work Seminar: Next Steps

So your dog likes boxes now. In fact, your dog has uncontrollable glee when he sees them, and will enthusiastically search out the reward he knows that is waiting. Whether he does that by careening through the room or by methodically hunting, he's learned what this Nose Work game is all about. It's time to up the ante.

Don't be in a huge rush to get to the end, though; Jill and Kimberly told us that dogs will be happy searching for and eating food from boxes for the rest of their life. They don't need all the flashy stuff we humans want in order to be satisfied. The primary goal of K9 Nose Work is to have fun, after all, and that doesn't have to look any certain way. But if your version of fun includes creating more puzzles for your dog to solve or even competition, you're in luck! Today's post is about just that.

Increasing the Challenge
Once your dog is enthusiastically searching boxes for his reward, it's time to increase the challenge. There are lots of ways to do this using only boxes. If your dog excels at the shell game- where you move boxes around and try to fool him- you should start by changing locations. We were encouraged to get to as many safe environments as we could early on, so that the dog learned that the search could happen anywhere, any time. After your dog has played in a number of different places, you can add in more boxes or increase the search area so that it's larger than what you've used in the past.

You can also get tricky and change the way the boxes are presented. Flipping the flaps of the boxes up or down will change the way the scent drifts. You can close the flaps up part way (or all the way!). You can nestle the boxes inside of one another- we did this quite a bit at the seminar by placing the smaller food box inside a larger box that was on its side. Experiment!

They aren't boxes, but Maisy demonstrates using her nose to find food hidden up high.
Let's Get Down... or Up
One great way to challenge the dog is to change the height of the hidden reward. This teaches your dog to look in places other than just on the ground. It adds to the complexity of the task by requiring your dog to solve a new challenge, and it will be required in competition. Although we didn't get to do this at the seminar (they recommend waiting about a month or so before introducing elevation), we were given a brief demo.

Jill and Kimberly put four chairs out in a line, with a box sitting sideways on the seat of each one. One box had food in it. For tentative dogs, make sure the box can't fall on him when he gets the food. If he's struggling, you can help your dog by putting boxes on the floor below to act as a “catch basin” for the scent. Apparently scent tends to drop down low, and doing this will help collect the scent and thus make it easier for your dog to find. Be sure to alternate heights, and keep some rewards down low.

Beyond Boxes
We were cautioned not to give up boxes too quickly. You really want the dog to be confidently searching for their reward before you introduce this new challenge. For most dogs, this will happen between 2 and 4 weeks, and can happen before or after changing the elevation or search area size.

That said, we were given a sneak peak into this at the seminar; our final run of the day was a “stuff” run. Jill and Kimberly set up the area using boxes, chairs (upright and on their sides), ladders, wicker baskets, coolers, traffic cones, umbrellas, buckets... basically anything that could act as a container. Not only did the dog need to trust his nose and follow the scent, regardless of whether or not it was in a box, but he also needed to contend with how these objects held or moved the scent.

Odors, Cues, and Indicators
Since this was an introductory seminar, we did not have any direct instruction on these more advanced topics. But Jill and Kimberly did give us a bit of information to whet our appetites:

Introducing odor is not necessary unless you want to compete. At trials, dogs search for essential oils (birch in the first level), not food. But even if you don't want to compete, teaching your dog to search for odors can increase the challenge, and offers more options for hiding the scent because it can be put in areas where you just can't stick treats or food. Jill and Kimberly advised that before you introduce odor, your dog's desire to hunt needs to be strong, he needs to have worked in many environments, and you need to know how to read his body language. I'm not even going to touch the how, because while they talked about it briefly, I am not confident in my ability to relate that accurately.

Likewise, we were told that having a cue that tells your dog to start looking isn't necessary in the early stages because the boxes themselves will serve as a cue. At some point, though, you'll want to let your dog know that the hunt is on. If your dog does multiple types of scenting (for example, if your dog also participates in tracking), you'll want to add the cue earlier. But you can also wait until after you've begun introducing the odor so that the cue is for finding the odor, not food.

An indicator is something the dog does to tell you he's found the hide. Some dogs will do a nose touch, or sit, or down when they've found it. Jill and Kimberly recommended holding off on teaching this response. They want the indication to be the dog's decision- he should be confident and reliable that he's found it, not offering an indicator as a guess that maybe he's close in hopes of a reward. It's also important for you as the handler to be able to read the dog's body language. There are often subtle indicators, and they will be your first clue that your dog has found what he's searching for.

Maisy and I are still in the beginning stages of K9 Nose Work. We are still playing the shell game in our back yard. If you and your dog play, I'd love to hear different ways you've created more challenging puzzles. Have you introduced odor? Do you have a cue? How do you know when your dog has found the hide? More experienced nose work friends, please comment!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

K9 Nose Work Seminar: Getting Started

K9 Nose Work- where your dog gets to engage in his instinctive need to hunt, search, and find things using his nose- is a pretty simple activity. Your dog already knows what to do and how to do it, so all you have to do is provide him with the opportunity. This means that scent games in general can be pretty relaxed, but if you want to play the game the NACSW way (and maybe go to trials some day), here are some suggestions on getting started.

What You Need
The most important thing you will need to play Nose Work- other than your dog!- is something he really likes. Since finding something by smell can be pretty mentally taxing, especially at first, you need to be sure that your dog is motivated by the object he's hunting for. For most dogs, this will be food, and it will be good food. During the seminar, food rewards ranged from cheese, hot dogs, lunch meat, and chunks of chicken to more nontraditional things like fast food hamburgers and potato chips (that was Maisy's). Other dogs worked for toys- tennis balls, tug toys, and even stuffies were just as motivating (and maybe more so) for some of them! Either way is fine, as long as your dog wants what he's searching for.

After the motivator, you will need to make sure you have a safe environment in which to play. This is especially important for special needs dogs who may not deal well with new environments or changes to their environment. But even for dogs who can walk into any new situation with aplomb, it's important to set up things to help the dog be successful. The area should be enclosed, and ideally indoors at first. You will want to minimize distractions (other pets should be safely put away), and if you're outside, grass and dirt can be more challenging in the early stages, so it's best if you can find a concrete surface.

Finally, you will need something in which you hide the dog's reward. Honestly, this could be anything, but most people use cardboard boxes. They are ideal for a number of reasons, and the fact that they're free is probably at the top of the list. They are also easy to find, easy to store, and if one gets broken, lost, or just plain disgusting, it's easy to replace. Boxes are great because they contain the odor, which makes it easier for the beginning dog to find the reward. Scent is not a static thing; it moves. It will drift along air currents. It can spread out through a room. For a dog new to the game, this makes things far more challenging, and you don't want your dog to give up because it's too hard. Finally, boxes serve as a valuable visual cue in the early stages. They tell the dog that the game is on!

Setting Up
You will need 5 or 6 boxes to start with; during the seminar we probably had a dozen out on the floor. The boxes can be set up in any way, really. They can be in a line, a circle, or just scattered around. They can be sitting upright or on their sides. They needn't match. They just shouldn't be so big that your dog is intimidated by them or unable to eat out of. Shoebox lids can be great for smaller dogs, or for very hesitant dogs.

You will want to have one dedicated box for the reward. In the seminar, the reward box had the word “food” on it. At home, I have been using one that's been opened from the bottom so that the writing on the sides is upside down. No matter how you mark it, you should always know which box contains the reward, as that allows you to observe your dog's body language and learn how it changes when he is searching and when he has caught the scent.

During the seminar, we just dropped the food in the box loose. The goal was for the dog to self-reward, although we often came in to deliver additional pieces of food. (The dogs searching for a toy got to grab the toy, and then the handler played with the dog as close to the source as possible.)

The First Time
Now that you have a secure environment, something the dog really wants, and your boxes, it's time to play! The very first time your dog interacts with the boxes, the goal is to teach him one simple concept: if he goes into the box, it will pay off for him.

Maisy's first search at home.
In the seminar, Jill and Kimberly did this in four steps. First, they brought the dog into the area and handed the food or toy to him to make sure he was interested in the reward. Then, they put the food in the box and to test whether or not the dog was willing to eat from the box. That might sound silly, but shy dogs are often hesitant to stick their heads inside boxes (I thought Maisy might be one of those dogs, but the power of junk food overcame any uncertainty she might have felt). Next, they had the handler hold the dog on leash, and they would move away from the dog holding the box out in front of them. The goal was for the dog to follow the box. Finally, once the dog had demonstrated interest in the food-laden box, we played a simple shell game.

Using 2 or 3 boxes, Jill or Kimberly would try to get the food in the box without the dog seeing. This might involve waiting until the dog was distracted or looking away, or it might involve picking up a bunch of boxes and setting them down several feet apart in close succession. Sometimes they'd try to fool the dogs by pretending to put food in a decoy box. As the dogs started to figure out the game, it got harder and harder to do this. We quickly learned just how quick you have to be when the dogs catch on!

Your Job and His
The dog's job is to find the food using his sense of smell. Your job is to let him find it. This can be challenging! Dogs who have had a lot of training will often be more dependent on their handler for direction. Likewise, their handlers are used to helping them, and it can be difficult to resist the urge to help. But in K9 Nose Work, the dog must guide the process- they have the better sense of smell, after all! Therefore, your job is to control the environment, not the dog.

As long as your dog is searching, you should do nothing. Don't talk, don't point, don't move, don't help. Just watch. If your dog comes to check in with you, looking for guidance, simply shrug and show him your empty hands. It's amazing how well dogs understand this incredibly human gesture!

That said, you don't want your dog to give up on the game, so there are some ways that you can help without taking over. One of the best ways to do this is by positioning yourself strategically. When a dog started to get lost, Jill and Kimberly would have us handlers move. We didn't necessarily get closer to the box, though. Since most dogs tend to move towards their person, we found that by standing on the opposite side of the search field from the dog we could draw them through the area. In the process, they'd often catch the odor and resume the search. For dogs that were really confused, sometimes we'd tap on the boxes, not to show the dog where the food was, but to simply remind him that he should keep checking them out.

Do you do nose work with your dog? Is this how you started out, or did you do something different? Jill and Kimberly told us that there are many ways to get to the end, and none of them are necessarily correct. Everyone has their own way of approaching the game, so I'd love to hear how others started out!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

K9 Nose Work Seminar: Introduction

For a human, I'm pretty sensitive to smells. I am easily overwhelmed by a wide variety of odors, ranging from the flowering basswood tree in my backyard to the perfumes that people wear to the laundry detergent aisle in stores. But my nose is nothing compared to my dog's; while I probably have around 5 million olfactory receptors, she has somewhere around 220 million!

Despite the fact that we dog people know that our canine's ability to use their nose is far superior to ours, we don't usually let them engage in their natural desire to sniff and search out smells. Still, it's important that they get a chance to do just that, which is why I was so excited to have the opportunity to attend a K9 Nose Work seminar recently. This seminar, presented by Jill Marie O'Brien and Kimberly Buchanan, introduced participants to the basics.

So, what is K9 Nose Work? Well, primarily, it's an activity. When the folks behind K9 Nose Work held the first class in 2006, they just wanted to have some fun and explore what their dogs could do. As more and more people discovered it, it naturally evolved, and now there are even organized competitions held by the National Association of Canine Scent Work.

The cool thing about K9 Nose Work is that it is suited to all dogs, even those with special needs. Reactive dogs, shy dogs, dogs with low impulse control, even dogs currently living in a shelter setting can benefit from this activity. It tends to build confidence, act as an awesome stress buster, release the pressure on the dog, help dogs focus, and burn both mental and physical energy!

My favorite part of the seminar was watching all the dogs work. In the morning, Jill and Kimberly gave a presentation, and the afternoon was devoted to working spots. It was really cool to watch the shy dogs become more secure and confident and the hyper dogs to settle down and focus on the game. And they aren't kidding about it being a good workout- Maisy was so tired when we got home that she chose to sleep in favor of eating supper!

This seminar was an introduction to the activity of K9 Nose Work, and in my next post, I'll share some of what I learned (and what I'm doing with Maisy now). After that, I'll touch briefly on the next steps, and talk a little bit about competition. In the meantime, though, I'd love to hear from any of my readers that are doing Nose Work with their dogs. How did you get started? Where is your dog at now? And what benefits have you seen from doing it?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Luxury of a Lie

As a rule, I consider myself to be a pretty honest person. Although it would have been easy to present Maisy as a better dog than she was (and myself as a better trainer than I am), I've always opted to lay it all on the line on this blog. I've tried to avoid making excuses for her behavior. I've uploaded videos largely unedited. I've talked about some of the dumb mistakes I've made. In short, what I've written on the blog is pretty much things as they are.

But recently, I discovered the luxury of a lie.

No, not online. In real life. You see, Maisy and I were out for a walk around the neighborhood. When we are out, the vast majority of the time I will say no if anyone asks to pet her. If someone tries without asking, I use body blocks to prevent them from getting close. But one of the things that has always confounded me is how to respond to the question, “Does your dog bite?”

 Not biting, but definitely not comfortable, either.

I quickly learned that this is apparently how children in my neighborhood ask for permission to pet a dog, so even though the answer is technically no- at least if you are looking at the past to predict the future- I've found that actually answering in the negative isn't good enough. Kids are fast, and she's come close to biting when I haven't been able to add “but you can't touch her anyway” quick enough. Which is why when the question came up last week... I lied.

The child in question stopped dead in his tracks, and then started backing away. When we were later approached by an 18 month old, I fibbed again, telling the toddler's mom that her child couldn't pet my dog because she bites. The mom thanked me for keeping her baby safe, and continued on their way.

Sure, this departure from stark honesty was a bit weird, but it was also kind of awesome. It was so easy, and I didn't find myself making excuses and giving lengthy explanations for why they couldn't pet my dog. My lie was readily accepted, and incredibly understandable. Some dogs bite, and you shouldn't approach the ones that do. By giving Maisy this really horrible label, I relieved us both of a lot of discomfort.

So while I can't say that I find lying comfortable, exactly, I do find it somehow luxurious.