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!


Jennifer Jo said...

Been enjoying reading about your adventures with nose work. It looks like a lot of fun and quite fascinating learning! Zainey and I are just finally working with the veterinary behaviorist (under 2 mos.), so between that and agility, I'll have to wait a while to start a new endeavor and will live vicariously through you until then!

Jeff McMahon said...

Fun post! The intro seminar taught by Jill & Kimberly is a great way to get started in K9 Nose Work.

Advanced K9NW dogs learn to search for three target odors, and expand their detection skills to solve problems including inaccessible odor, multiple & converging odors, larger/more cluttered search areas, longer searches (back to back searching for up to ten minutes or more) and blank areas (no odor).

At the highest level of competition (Nose Work 3 or NW3), handlers do not know how many hides are in each search area, only that there could be one, two or three hides and that they must call each alert correctly (dog's indication of a hide), as well as call "finish" when they believe all hides have been found. Competition searches always have a time limit, so handlers must balance allowing their dogs to follow scent with covering the whole search area - a challenge that only gets easier (er, more manageable) with experience.

There is an official K9 Nose Work blog (I am the author of most of the posts) that focuses on the practice and philosophy of K9 Nose Work. Posts are aimed at the novice to intermediate K9NW handler, with an advanced K9NW topic popping up here or there.

Check it out and let me know if you find it interesting/helpful. Keep up the the great work playing at and writing about K9NW!

Happy Sniffing!