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Different Goals for Different Dogs

Those of you who are on your second or third nosework dog can relate…. how do we keep from comparing dogs?  The struggle is very real.  What we have to remember with this sport (as with any sport), is that each dog is on his own journey.

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As I write this, I am on my way back from a 1,000+ mile trip from a not very successful attempt at NW3 with my Standard Poodle, Joey.  I have a choice to make.  My choice is how will I feel and act as a result of not titling.  My feelings in this matter are completely choice.

What we have to remember is that every dog is an individual with individual talents.  Our success in this sport does not define us as handlers.  What defines us a handlers is our ability to work with our dogs and to help them be the best they can be without disappointment.

When everything goes as planned and our second or third dog does well, it’s easy.  We know how to act.  But when our second or third dog is not as successful we have to remind ourselves that the same goals aren’t appropriate for every dog.

This weekend was not very successful for Joey and me as a team.  We had a couple of false alerts on fringe odor.  I think the cause of this was due to a combination of factors.  He is after all still a very green dog skill-wise and the unseasonably hot temperatures attributed to lower drive levels.  What we DID pass was due to a combination of some easier hides and my experience in handling and understanding scent.  On my long drive home while talking on the phone, a friend of mine said to me, “you are in a pretty good mood considering.”  What I told her was that it was a good weekend and I met my goals.

Yes, my goal was not to title.  Sure, titling would have been great.  We all love getting the ribbons.  My goal though was different.  My goal was happy searches.  I wanted a dog with his tail up and interested in working.  I got that!  Sure we fringed a couple of times…. but it’s not the first time a dog has done that.

So my goals for Joey are different than the goals I have set for my other dogs.  If I had the same goals for Joey as I do for Judd (aka Nosework Rockstar), I would be setting myself up for disappointment and it would be completely unfair to Joey.  Why?  Because you simply cannot compare dogs.  Where Joey needs skills and often needs motivation, Judd seems to have come out of the womb looking for Birch.  Judd is my Elite dog who was the second dog in the country to achive ELT3, has a score breaking 90 putting him high in the Nationals Ranking chart and is well on his way to becoming one of the first Elite dogs to achive ELT-CH.  Those are some BIG shoes to fill!  Judd is a true Elite dog.  Will Joey ever get there?  Well, Joey is currently 9.5 years old and has just started his NW3 journey.  I have to be realistic.  He’s a GREAT dog.  He’s also not Judd.  To compare them, even subconsciously wouldn’t be fair to Joey.  Joey is Joey….  and I love him to pieces…. and I’m PROUD of what he has accomplished to date!

My third dog, Why, has his own set of goals.  Why is a timid, highly environmental dog.  He has a good amount of skills.  There’s no doubt to that.  I’m sometimes in awe as to how well he can solve converging odor!  But my goals are different.  With him, my goal is confident searches.  If the search is confident, it’s a success regardless of whether he found the hide(s).  My ultimate goal for him (and Joey) is NW3 Elite…. but Elite Division?  I’m not sure he can handle the rigors.  (As an aside, It’s my opinion that nearly every dog can get through NW3 Elite…. Elite Division is a whole different world, requiring different skills and drive.  Successful Elite Division dogs are in some ways born, not trained.  To have a successful Elite dog is an honor and in many ways just due to sheer luck of genetics.  Not every dog will get there and that is OKAY!)

I have about 4 more hours to drive to get home.  Am I disappointed?  No, not really.  The amount of times we get to trial with our dogs is Finite.  With every title, we shrink the number of times that we get to be out there playing with our dogs and having fun.  Why goes next weekend for NW2.  Will I be thrilled if he titles?  Sure.  But I’ll be equally happy with him if he doesn’t.  Joey and Why aren’t Judd.  Instead of being big ribbon dogs, they are my teachers.  And they are GOOD teachers at that!  The two of them were huge contributors to my philosophies in teaching and training the sport of Nosework.  Judd is a truly Great Dog.  He IS one of the Greats.  A friend of mine once joked that I could drop Judd off at a trial and pick him up at the end of the day with his ribbons. She wasn’t too far from the truth!  Handling Great Dogs is FUN, but only handling Great Dogs makes us flimsy, one dimensional trainers.  So BIG THANK YOU to my other dogs!

Bottom line is be PROUD of your dog no matter what the result.  Be realistic about your goals and be proud of each and every search regardless of the outcome.  Remember that you are a TEAM.  A part of being a team is supporting your teammate when he’s had a not so very great day.  In Joey’s case, my responsibilities were to still party on the way back to the car with lots of hot dogs.  We did that!  Does Joey know that we crashed and burned in Interiors and Containers?  LOL…. Possibly…. he’s an incredibly intelligent dog…. but does he sense disappointment from me?  No.  I was out there playing with my 9.5 year old dog doing the greatest dog sport ever invented….and he got hot dogs and love from me!

At the end of the day, your feelings toward your dog and your successes or un-successes are what really matter.  Love your dog be proud of your dog…. Always.

Why Dogs Don’t Remember Changes of Behavior

Have you ever truly watched your dog do a multi-hide search?  How many of us have been in a trial and think (later), that we wish our dog returned to such-and-such area to find a hide we missed?  Have you ever wondered WHY your dog doesn’t return?

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I have a theory.  It’s based on watching many, many hundreds of videos of dogs searching as well as research I’ve done regarding the dog’s brain and olfaction. 

My theory is that they literally CAN’T remember a Change of Behavior.  Why?

One of my favorite articles is in Psychology Today called “Smells Ring Bells”.  It articulates that the sense of smell is processed through the limbic system where the other senses are processed through the the more “cerebral” parts of the brain.  The limbic system is responsible for emotions and influences long term memory.  It’s not an area where actual thoughts are processed.  Short-term memory however is processed through the pre-frontal lobe.  

For a dog to literally remember where he had a Change of Behavior he would have to process this information through short-term memory.  However, that connection is less than indirect when scent is routed through the limbic system. 

When a dog is actually sourcing odor, he gets actively engaged in the process and this is no longer an issue.  He can “focus” on the task at hand and source the hide.

The challenge comes when the dog is working multiple hides

This is why it’s of paramount importance that the handler pay attention to the dog’s Changes of Behavior.  After all, in the moment, we have processed that change of behavior through our short term memory and we can act on it.

I’m currently teaching an online class (NW230 through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy) where I asked my students to film a baseline video showing a multi-hide search.  I was fascinated by this phenomenon when I watched a young, green, talented Australian Shepherd source converging odor.  His owner has graciously allowed me to use her video in this blog.  Here’s the search.  I have narrated the search (the voice you hear is mine).

Watch how Rankin catches odor but is enticed to source the second hide.  He doesn’t remember the first hide.  This is NORMAL!  Once he catches odor for the second hide he works it to source beautifully.

The other wonderful thing about this search is that Rankin is green.  Why is that wonderful?  It’s wonderful because green dogs share with us what scent is really doing.  Experienced dogs will sometimes seem to “skip steps” in order to get to odor.  The very best thing you can do for your Nosework education is to watch green dogs work!  Watching an enthusiastic green dog such as this is both a joy and a privilege.

So what are the ramifications of all of this?

It means that YOU have the responsibility to read your dog.  When we are handling, the optimum ratio is 80% dog / 20% handler.  Reading your dog means that you are taking the 20% by the horns and really fulfilling your end of the bargain.

Are you noticing your dog’s Changes of Behavior?  THAT is one of the biggest success factors of a successful search.

Happy Sniffing!!

Knowing Your Nosework Dog

Learning your dog can be one of the most challenging aspects of training.  The training part is actually rather easy.  It’s understanding the creature that you are training that can be difficult.  The more complex the soul, the more creative and empathetic the trainer needs to be.  You have to learn what makes your dog tick.  You have to take a leap of faith and ask yourself if you have perhaps falsely labeled your partner in a negative way.  Have you lost your belief in your partner?  Do you attend trials not believing you will title?  Do you expect to fail and tell yourself that you’re only being realistic?

If the answer to any of these questions is Yes then you need to take a good hard look at your four footed friend and try to figure out if there is something that he hasn’t told you yet.  Has he told you what really makes him tick?  Do you know the inner JOY in your dog?  These are the questions we need to ask ourselves.

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When I debuted Joey at NW1, I went for JOYFUL searches.  That’s just what he gave me…  When I think of “JOY”, I think of that day.

There’s no recipe to training, at least there’s no successful recipe for every dog.  To train a dog, we need to know where we are starting from, and that can sometimes be the most difficult part of the process.  We have to strip away our preconceptions and take a good hard look at what we have in front of us.  When we do so, sometimes we are pleasantly surprised and sometimes we realize that we have a lot of work ahead of us!  The important thing to realize is that either of those scenarios is OKAY.  Starting at the real beginning is the important part, not the beginning that we either believe we are at or wish we were at.  Reality just IS.  We have to embrace it and love it.  It’s how we effectively respect the dog.  To respect dog is to know the dog.

So the first step in training a Nosework dog is REFLECTION. 

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To do this we have to look at our dogs fundamentally.  We have to look at their temperaments, their likes and dislikes, their general constitution.  To do this we have to become Observers.  Our dogs aren’t simply squirrel chasing creatures whose lives are run by the when the kibble hits the bowl.  They are complex souls with no verbal way to communicate their likes and desires to us.  We have to query the dog on his own terms.

So the second step in training a Nosework dog is EMPATHY.

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Once we reflect and empathize with our dogs, we start to know them.  We start to really know them and we start to appreciate not only what they can do but what they can teach us.  When we get to this point, we are able to appreciate this sport for it’s spirit.  Nosework touches the dog’s soul because it’s consummate DOG.  A dog’s brain is 1/8th dedicated to olfaction.  Nosework allows the dog to use himself in ways so natural that the consequences of doing the sport within it’s intended spirit results in growth in the dog’s capacity and happiness overall.  Few other sports can make that claim!

The Behavioral Benefits of Nosework

Recently I gave a webinar on this topic and it’s so front of mind that I thought a blog was appropriate!

We all hear that Nosework is good for the reactive dog or the dog needing confidence..  But WHY???

Recently I read an article in Psychology Today called “Smells Ring Bells”…  you should look it up.  It’s utterly fascinating…  Anyway, the part that interested me was how scenting passes through the limbic system and that other senses don’t.  Hearing and Seeing is more “cerebral”.  Scent goes right through our fight or flight processes and our emotional memory.  Have I gotten your attention???

In the canine brain, 1/8th of the brain is dedicated to olfaction.  WOW.  Just WOW.

This is a cross section of a canine skull and brain.  You can actually SEE the olfactory lobe!  And check out the equipment dedicated to olfaction.  Bottom line is that our sweet pets and companions live through their noses and perceive the world in a very different fashion than we do.

So if 1/8th of the canine brain is dedicated to olfaction AND we have the opportunity to develop strong emotional connection to scent related activities because of the routing of olfaction through the limbic system…  what does this mean???  It means that we have a huge opportunity to leverage Nosework in a therapeutic sense.

How?  We work the dog under threshold…  meaning in a calm state… in nosework and then transition the dog, very slowly and very carefully, to an environment that may contain triggers.

I’ve seen this first hand with my Miniature American Shepherd, Why.  Why is a low confidence, reactive dog.  In fact, a year ago he had a visual threshold of about a 100 yards with other dogs.  He was highly reactive.  I couldn’t even interact with him in my front yard.

He would lunge and bark…  true story.

Now, he’s working towards NW2 and can be within 8 feet of another dog without reacting.  He’s confidently searching novel locations.  Working in novel locations at all before Nosework wasn’t even a possibility.

That’s the most amazing part…  he is so much less reactive.

I established a very positive Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to Nosework with him by teaching him Nosework AT HOME where he was comfortable and under threshold.  He patterned success and confidence and developed emotional memory associated with searching.  Only then when he was confident at home, did I take him on the road.  Even then, I started minimally…  he searched three boxes….  in many, many locations before I started setting searches.

Nosework is therapeutic.  That much is definite…  however keep in mind that you need to always train your dog under threshold.  In a lot of cases, dogs can go to an in person class and be just fine…  but there are those that literally can’t cope in that environment. These are the dogs that truly benefit from the sport.  However, they often don’t benefit from in person, stressful classes.  Luckily there are options for training!  The online format is perfect for these dogs.

If you have a reactive or low confidence dog, consider Nosework…  it can literally be life altering for these dogs.

Author’s Note: Online education is available in many places.  Please check out www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com 


What Constitutes a YES in Elevation?

What constitutes a YES in elevation and why do we care?

By knowing what we will take as a YES, we provide clarity to our training and we reduce the frustration level in our dogs.  Our training becomes powerful and not haphazard.  We take accountability for our dog’s training.

Hide Placement is half of the equation.  The other half of the equation is how we respond to the dog!

Knowing what constitutes a YES is critical in training elevation.  It's the information that keeps us from overworking the hide.

I'm going to show you a painful video...  Painful in that I'm watching it, yelling at the screen, "CALL IT! CALL IT!"  This is a video of me working Judd when he was training at the NW3 level.  It's a wonder why he didn't go on strike for a new handler!  Here I should have called it at 0:35!  Instead I have to encourage him to come back.  Watch how he deflates after 0:35....  we don't want that.  Had I PICKED criteria for a YES, I would have called it on time.  This also shows that dog's are rather resilient to our training mistakes!  We just don't want to make them often.


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In this video, I've wised up a bit.  I took this video over the Summer after Judd had earned his ELT2...  still a "green" dog by many standards but his skills have REALLY come a long way!  And luckily he's brought me along without too many major issues!  In this video, I placed a hide in my second story window as part of an exercise to work his extreme elevation.  I've been criticized for actually calling this hide TOO SOON.  I'll take that, no problem.  He worked this hide with zero frustration.  That's my goal!  The reason why I took what I took was an understanding of (1) air flow and (2) what I was going to take as a YES.  There's a big difference.  (Judd is working extreme elevation for NACSW Elite Division trial preparation.  Please only attempt elevation that your dog is ready for.)

On the Extreme Elevation video, I DID feed several feet to the right of where he indicated.  That's OK!  Why?  Because I fed him directly below the window, AND within the "realm of YES".  The other thing I want you to notice is the difference in Judd's CONFIDENCE in working these hides!  He's really maturing into a good working dog.  His Confidence is due to more reward scenarios like the second video than the first!

In order to determine what constitutes a YES, we need to consider three things...

     1.) Air Flow / Scent Theory

     2.) Structure of the hide

     3.) Resilience and training history of the dog

Notice I didn't just say, "underneath the hide" or "when the nose is pointed at the hide".  Granted, it's very possible / probable that these constitute a YES, they don't describe the whole picture.

In the Extreme Elevation video, my YES looked like this:

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WOW!  That's broad huh?  Well, that's what would have been accepted FOR A 15 FOOT HIDE at a trial.  The width of YES is going to vary depending on the hide.

Let's talk a little bit about Air Flow / Scent Theory...

We like to think that odor is nice and neat and falls straight down like this:

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Sometimes it DOES!!  But as the hide get higher, the scent starts falling like this:

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See how much wider the swath of YES would be?

So the higher the hide, the wider you give your dog for marking a YES.  Also, the windier it is, the more leeway you will want to give your dog!

Structure of the hide is important too!

Hides along walls like in the videos above require that the dog orient UP and within a band of a certain width.  If we were doing a suspended hide (hide suspended with nothing below it), we would take a conical shape. If the hide was on a pole or a column, we'd take the pole (basically because the pole provides a focal point).

Do you see how we can use this information to reduce frustration in our dogs?

I also mentioned the resilience and training history of the dog...  yes!  We have to take the dog into account!  AND...  we have to consider the dog as an individual.

Judd has taught me a lot of things...  all dogs do!  What he taught me was how to train in resilience into Nosework.  Although he's still fragile, he's a lot more resilient now than he was a year or two ago.  It's a progression! I built in resilience by not frustrating my dog.  Frustration bleeds confidence....  meaning, the more you allow your dog to be frustrated, the more you are damaging his confidence.

Remember this pyramid and what our foundation is:

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So that said, what is YOUR dog's Resilience and Confidence level?  Are you going to call it earlier (say with a glance) or make him work for it a little?

When you train, what is a YES?

Happy Sniffing!!

False Alerts and the Final Response

Those of you who know me either through my blog, through my instruction, by seeing me at trials or just seeing me on Facebook know that my position on Final Responses is “JUST SAY NO”….  what do I mean by that?  Don’t do it!  It’s the path that leads to the Dark Side.  I think Yoda phrased it well when he said, “Once you start down the path of the Dark Side, forever will it dominate your destiny.”  I know he wasn’t thinking about Final Responses as the path to False Alerts…  but his insight was brilliant nonetheless.

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Luke: “Yoda, IS the dark side stronger?”

Yoda: “No.  Quicker, easier perhaps, but not stronger.”

Ok….  yes, I’m one of those nerds that can quote Star Wars…  LOVE!!  And yes, the original 3 were WAY better than the New School Star Wars, but THAT is totally not on topic….

Final Responses are the Dark Side.  Why?  Because they are the #1 cause of False Alerts….  and oh man, are they tempting!  They are “quicker, easier perhaps”.  What do I mean by that?  Folks are thinking “No!  My final response took TIME to acquire!”….  yep!  That crutch was carefully honed, it was!  What I mean is that encouraging a Final Response (whether selected as in training a Passive Alert, or simply encouraged through reinforcement), is desired as something to read in lieu of reading the dog’s body language.  SO MANY PEOPLE ask me how to strengthen their dogs’ alerts!  Don’t do it people!!

The "Light Side” is learning how to read your dog’s search language…  it’s the interpretation of all things unconscious to the dog.  Did you see a Change of Behavior?  Did you see interest in a smaller area that looks like sourcing of target odor?  Is your dog trying to reach something?  THIS IS THE POWER OF OBSERVATION.  By taking on the responsibility of reading your dog, you can virtually eliminate false alerts.  (That’s not to say that we will ever misinterpret or straight out not see the change…  but what it DOES mean is that when we see these behaviors we can TRUST THE DOG.)

So what’s so wrong with a Final Response?

Here’s the thing…  Final Responses are CONSCIOUS BEHAVIORS.  Your dog understands that this conscious behavior results in a cookie.  In encouraging a Final Response, you’ve given your dog a tool.  This tool can either provide that much desired neon sign that says “CALL ALERT HERE HANDLER” or it can be a tool that the dog uses to stop a search by choice.  Oh, but wouldn’t it be nice if our dogs could show us that neon sign so that we could be SURE of the call?  No….    Why?  Well because our dogs are supremely intelligent.  They KNOW what results in reward.  That tool can be used at any time in the search to stop the search.  We would hope that they are stopping the search because they’ve sourced the hide, but that’s not always the case.

Why would a dog CHOOSE to stop a search?

This could be for a number of reasons….  the dog is stressed…  the hide is too hard… the dog wants to please the handler…  or maybe just out of optimism that it will result in a cookie.

BTW….  this is WHY Final Responses should NEVER, EVER be taught to low drive or timid dogs…  DRIVE and ONLY DRIVE can overcome the reasons why a dog would choose to stop a search.  If you have an Ultra High Drive Dog and you want a cool looking Final Response GO FOR IT.  Seriously.  Do.  It will lower the damage that your Ultra High Drive Dog will do to the search area.  The other dogs?  Well, they just don’t have much of an impetus to destroy the search area trying to get to source.  It’s highly unlikely that you will get faulted in NACSW with a lower drive dog.  Sure in venues that encourage a final response you might lose points, but you can go into the search knowing that a Yes is more valuable then a No, and a Yes is going to be more likely in your case!  (In the case of those venues, I simply write the Alert as “Nose Orients to Source”…  the dog has to sniff the hide no matter what…  POOF!  LOOPHOLE!!)  Keep in mind that the concept of a Passive Alert was developed by handlers of cherry picked, purpose bred dogs with DRIVE and RESILIENCE….  the concept of the Passive Alert was never intended to be used on the Pet Dog…. and let’s face it, 99.9% of the dogs competing in Nosework were NOT bred and selected for the sport based on Drive and Resilience! And NO ONE is going to die if you get a No.  You might feel that way walking away from the search area but it’s simply not true!  

Conscious behaviors are the ultimate Opt Out button.  The result?  False Alerts.

But wouldn’t it be COOL to have that Neon Sign?  Not so much.

Why?  Well here’s the thing…  once you have a Final Response you tend to trust that Final Response.  You wait for it to hit you over the head before you actually call Alert.  So where is the downside in being “sure”?

First of all, the Final Response is the only Conscious part of the behavior chain AND it’s the Last Part.  That means that it’s the first thing to go away.  Stressed dog?  Green dog?  Relying on a Final Response may mean two things: (1) you miss a reward opportunity because your dog never gave you that Neon Sign, or (2) the dog gives you the Neon Sign with sole purpose of ending the search.  Either result is a bad one.  The first case is actually the worst case…  the dog finds the hide and doesn’t get a reward?  Bad Training that will ultimately extinguish the search entirely.  The second case is False Alert and a No.

So what now?  What do you do if you HAVE a Final Response?  Should you quit Nosework???  NO!!!  Darth Vader found the Light Side ultimately….  so can you!  All you have to do is LEARN TO READ YOUR DOG….  and when you get that Neon Sign, evaluate it before calling it.  Did you get all of the unconscious search behavior first?  If the answer is Yes, then you can probably trust the Alert.  And…  Learning to Read Your Dog has another upside…  you won’t miss reward opportunities!

Let’s say you are already a Jedi Knight and you read your dog and trust your dog…  will you ever get a No?  Yeah.  You’re HUMAN!  But it’s always better to know that the No is yours and yours ONLY and not a training issue.

Jedi Knight in Training?  Don’t be tempted by the Dark Side!

Happy Sniffing!!!

Training Emotion in Nosework for Peak Performance

Yes!  You can train emotion in Nosework!

Typically, when we think of training, we think of Skills Training.  Skills training has its purpose however it’s only a piece of a good, solid foundation.  Good foundations also include the confidence and motivation to perform.  To develop confidence and motivation, we need to balance emotion and arousal.

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Essentially we are looking to train at the Optimum State!

Let’s break this down….

From Wikipedia:

Arousal is the physiological and psychological state of being awoken or of sense organs stimulated to a point of perception. It involves activation of the reticular activating system in the brainstem, the autonomic nervous system, and the endocrine system, leading to increased heart rate and blood pressure and a condition of sensory alertness, mobility, and readiness to respond….

….  Arousal is important in regulating consciousness, attention, and information processing

We want the dog at the optimum state of arousal so that he can be attentive and “in drive”.  In this state, he is neither anxious nor bored and is primed and ready to search.

So what we are trying to do is to control the optimum state of arousal.  We know from the Yerkes-Dodson Law that there is an optimum state of arousal at which performance is at it’s greatest.  At too high arousal, the dog is anxious and may exhibit frantic behaviors.  At too low arousal, the dog may seem distracted, bored, even disinterested.

We also know that through Conditioned Emotional Response (CER), the dog can develop an emotional association to a situation.  This is the beauty of training emotion.  We can work to develop a positive CER by putting the dog in confidence building situations and we can modulate motivation by affecting state of arousal.  So with the optimum state of arousal and a positive association to Nosework, we can tip the balance in our favor and train a focused, happy dog.

Things to keep in mind:

1.)  Never train a frightened dog…  always train “under threshold”

2.)  Train when you are in positive state of mind…  energized and optimistic

3.)  Avoid over-facing your dog by taking into consideration potential air flow complications before you set your hides

4.)  Consider your dog’s energy level starting from leaving the car or crate, all the way to the start line and then back to the car.  Either increase or lower excitement levels as necessary.

5.)  Train new skills in a comfortable, known environment before you “take it on the road”

So HOW can we train this??

One exercise is to:

- Set up an EASY search in a known or easy location

- Take the dog out of the car and acclimate him to the area briefly (5 or 10 minutes depending on what the dog needs)

- PARTY to the start line, use personal play or other engagement techniques to increase the dog’s attitude

- RETURN TO THE CAR!  (yes, you read that right…)

- Repeat the party to the start line but this time you can search!

- PARTY on the way back to the car

This exercise is WONDERFUL.  (1) It increases anticipation for the search thereby increasing motivation.  (2) It helps the dog to acclimate.  (3) It associates FUN with approaching the start line.

Here’s an example of this exercise.  I love this video.  This is a student with a “lower drive” Newfoundland.  I say Lower Drive because that is typically what she would be labled.  However, I prefer the terms “in drive” and “not in drive” and “high natural energy” and “low natural energy”.  In this case, this dog has a tendency to have a low natural energy and not to be in drive.  We have been working using this exercise and the results have been nothing but spectacular.  She is engaged, in drive and focused on the search…  and she’s starting to haul her owner to the start line!!  What is beautiful is that this Newfoundland is tapping into love for the sport.

So you can see that we are affecting the balance between emotion and arousal with this Newfoundland in a very positive way!

Yes!  You CAN train emotion in Nosework!

Happy Sniffing!!

Where Lies Confidence and Motivation?

I’ve been doing A LOT of thinking about this relationship lately…  the relationship between Canine Olfaction, Ethology and Learning Theory….  In fact it’s partly the basis for my new class NW340 The Four Cornerstones of Trial Preparation.

Let’s explore….

Between Canine Olfaction and Ethology we have “sniffing”….  Sniffing is a self soothing behavior that dogs exhibit when stressed or when interested in their environment.  This is sniffing that dogs do naturally or in response to his environment.  Perhaps he smells a dog in heat?  Or perhaps there is just a chipmunk nearby.  This type of sniffing is the bane of many an Obedience competitor and I would classify this type of sniffing as “non-productive” sniffing.

The relationship between Ethology and Learning Theory is Applied Behavior.  It’s in this intersection that Behavior Specialists change and influence canine behavior in order to help the dog with coping skills and the ability to live peaceably in society.

Nosework exists in a couple of these intersections.  Between Canine Olfaction and Learning Theory, we have Nosework skill training.  We might be training converging odor, elevation or perhaps just getting to source!  When a lot of people think about “foundations”, skills training pop into their minds.

The real power though is where all three of these spheres come together…  this is where REAL foundations are created.  In this intersection we understand Confidence and Motivation.  These are two aspects commonly missed in foundation training.  Good trainers will incorporate these aspects into their training program.

4 Cornerstones Graphic

The Four Cornerstones are CONFIDENCE, MOTIVATION, SKILLS and STAMINA.  I purposely present these as a pyramid because foundations are built in Confidence and Motivation.

Let’s go back to the first diagram.  Because of how these three circles come together we can see that Nosework is sniffing with therapeutic intent.  It’s the gateway between displacement sniffing and productive sniffing.  Through productive sniffing, the dog learns to feel like Superman and confidence is developed.  This in turn has an overall therapeutic quality for the dog increasing overall confidence.  Amazing, isn’t it?

Learning Theory plays a part because of the Classical and Operant Conditioning that occurs with Nosework training.  We provide clarity, incentive and reward and our dogs in turn search for a target odor.  Because the scent receptors in the canine brain go through the hippocampus and the amygdala in the brain, we are able to evoke intense and pleasant emotions with regards to the sport and to target odor.  These pleasant responses, in the form of positive Conditioned Emotional Responses (CER), are what make this sport so wonderful for each and every dog.  It allows them to transcend sniffing and to grow and thrive.  THIS.  THIS is why Nosework is for every dog.

Happy Sniffing!!

Final Response or Not?

Do you need a Final Response?

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As instructors, we often ask our students, “Why didn't you call Alert?”….  invariably the answer is “because he didn’t look at me” or “he didn’t sit” or something of the like.  Inside we are sitting on our hands either literally or figuratively yelling silently “CALL IT!!”

Why does this occur?

In my experience this is due to an over reliance on a final response.  So what IS a Final Response?  A Final Response is just simply the last piece of a behavior chain.  It’s the piece that gets rewarded the most.  The dog looks back, gets a cookie.  Or perhaps the dog freezes at source…  gets a cookie…  maybe the dog sits…  gets a cookie….  you get my drift?  The last part of the behavior chain can be either trained or simply just encouraged.  The trouble is, when there IS trouble, it’s the first thing to fall apart or dampen.  Alerts, because they are an overt, conscious behavior, dampen under stress.  And…  if they are not rewarded consistently or reinforced in some way, will start to degrade.  The simple act of searching for blind hides with a questioning or new handler is enough to generate variability in consistent reward.  Green dogs who believe that they have communicated source may simply give up and leave the hide which further compounds the problem.

So let’s talk about the behavior chain.  It encompasses 6 parts:

(1) We ask the dog to search

(2) The dog seeks odor

(3) The dog enters a scent cone and displays a Change of Behavior

(4) The dog uses it’s amazing directional scenting powers to narrow down to source

(5) The dog decides where source is (point of indication)

(6) The dog communicates overtly to the handler where source is based on what behavior in the past has resulted in cookies (point of alert)

Interestingly, other than cueing the search, steps 2 through 5 are done without the handler in the picture.  The dog does them as a natural progression and without thought other than the thought of where source is located.  We put this behavior on cue but the dog performs these tasks naturally.  Then in step 6, the dog performs a conscious, overt behavior.  He has to think about it and perform it.  He essentially just did a Calculus problem in his head but in step 6 he has to figure out how to write that on the paper so that it can be turned in and graded.  And the crux of it is, handlers learn to RELY ON step 6.  Because Step 6 exists, handlers naturally tune out most of the other steps.

So what can we do differently?

We can stop the chain at Step 5.

I was in a lesson a few months ago when my own trainer told me that I call hides early.  I replied, “Too early?”.  She answered, “No, just early.”  After some more discussion I told her that Judd doesn’t have a final response and that I call the hides on the indication.  Her response was “No wonder you can call things fast.”

The result of calling hides on the indication rather than the alert is RELIABILITY….  Dogs understand what gets rewarded.  A final response is a conscious behavior and in frustration may be given at any point (false alert) in order to end the exercise and receive a cookie.  I call the hide on a subconscious activity.  If he indicates, I KNOW he’s at source (or as close as he can get to it).

So what if your dog already HAS a Final Response?

GREAT!  No seriously, that’s awesome…  you have a backup plan in case you don’t see the indication.  But what you CAN do is learn to really, and I mean REALLY, learn to read your dog.

So your next likely question is HOW…..  HOW do you learn to better read your dog…  that part is pretty easy actually.  VIDEO.  I mean it.  Get out your tripod or ask someone to record you….  or you can even hold the iPhone yourself!  Then upload the video to YouTube and watch it repeatedly on slow motion.  What you might see are minute changes of behavior that you might have missed in the heat of the moment.  A butt pivot, a head twist, sustained sniffing, etc…  maybe just even a stiffening or a quickening of the tail!

Learn to read your dog….  when you do, you will start to really embrace the phrase “Trust your dog”.

(Oh!  And always Breathe In, Breathe Out before calling Alert…  it helps to avoid a case of Blurt-Alert)

Happy Sniffing!!

Blank Rooms - The Motivation Conundrum

ODOR IS MOTIVATIONAL.  Yes that was in caps.  We spend so much time pairing odor with a positive Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) that odor does indeed become motivational! 

So what happens when we reach a blank room???  Our dogs enter the room, full of vim and vigor to find source and there is nada…  nothing…  no odor…  no chance of reward.  They are in fact cheated out of the game.  Personally I hate blank rooms.  I can read my dog and identify them but I hate the let down and the cheat that they bring to the table.  Give me a room with tons of odor any day because that’s what my boys love.

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But…  blank rooms are a matter of course in the Nosework world.  In fact, in Canada, EVERY Excellent trial will include a blank room!

What do we do about this?

In training, I don’t practice blank rooms.  Period.  I just don’t do it.  My mantra is CONFIDENCE, MOTIVATION, SKILLS and STAMINA…  I personally believe that blank rooms erode both confidence and motivation, and if done too often will erode trust and drive.  So what do I do?  I video my dog in a blank room…once…  and then I STUDY it….  Videos tell us gobs and gobs…  I’d rather torture the TV dog with multiple blank rooms by rewinding and rewatching than set my real dog up for failure by practicing them.  Set up for failure?  Yes.  We ask our dogs to search and then we give them nothing to find???  Not fair I say.  I don’t believe in cheating my hard working nosework dogs…  Some dogs can take it, but should they?  Other dogs just are not naturally resilient.

In a trial situation our dogs WILL come across blank rooms.  So how do we build resilience?  How do we help them to cope with the inevitable?

It all comes down to the post search party!  After every search, regardless of the hides or the outcome, I party on the way back to the car or the crate.  By doing this I am developing that positive emotional association to the act of searching.  Over time, this increases the resilience in my dogs.  When I say party, I mean praise, scritches, hand touches and lots and lots of cookies (or the dog’s preferred primary reinforcer)….  all the way back to the car (or crate).  My goal at a trial is to never seem different on the way back to the car regardless of what my dog has found.  The party is part of our routine.  The post search party not only increases resilience but as a side effect you will notice increased drive!  Drive?  Yes but that’s a subject for another day….

© Stacy Barnett 2015