Distractions Don’t Have (Large) Scent Cones

Well, they do actually.  Technically.  But in general their scent cones are much smaller!

I’m going to tell you a story…. It’s about Judd’s first foray into SDDA Elite.  SDDA is the Canadian nosework association.  It’s a super organization and I’ve been to a handful of trials.  Judd is currently working on his Champion and has started the Elite level.  In SDDA, a false alert means "Do not pass GO.  Do not collect $200”.  We were in a trial where Containers (2-4 hides), Exteriors (0-3 hides) and Interiors (0-5 hides over 2-3 search areas) were to be done back to back. We started with Containers.  There were 19 or 20 pieces of luggage on the floor and on chairs in a conference room.  Judd has challenges with distractions.  I was nervous!  There were only 2 hides, both in snap close change purses.  We found them both with no false alerts!  Next up was Exteriors. The area was probably 1500 square feet, maybe a little larger.  Judd found the single hide on the picnic table (he climbed on it and sourced it from above) and we called Finish correctly.  Phew!!!  On to Interiors….  There were two rooms.  In the first room Judd found one hide.  Then I asked him to detail….  He nosed the flap on the air conditioner.  I called “Alert” with trepidation and received a dreaded “No”.  It was a big chunk of dog food roll (like Happy Howie’s).  SUNK.


In SDDA, UKC and AKC you will encounter food distractions (and other distractions) in general searches.  It got me thinking…. I should have known!


Well to begin with, distractions have small scent cones and essential oils have large scent cones.  THAT MEANS THAT I SHOULD HAVE CALLED FINISH!  This is astute; really it is…. If you do a sweep of the room and you don’t find something, don’t belabor it and detail the area.  You WILL find distractions that didn’t entice your dog to alert earlier.

It all comes down to vapor pressure….

Essentially, without getting into the technical mumbo-jumbo like the Antoine Equation, vapor pressure dictates how volatile a substance will be…. Meaning how easily scent particles will dissipate into the air.  A substance with a high vapor pressure, such as an essential oil, will vaporize easily.  Happy Howie’s, however yummy, just doesn't have a vapor pressure as high as essential oils.

This means…. Your dog is more likely to follow essential oils to source than a chunk of processed meat.

This is good news!

This means…. Trust your dog….  And call Finish BEFORE you find the distraction!

Happy Sniffing!

Do You Have a Box Smasher?

Let’s talk box smashing…. I’m not talking about socially responsible recycling; I’m talking about full out canine assault on odor boxes.  Does your dog make a mess in Containers?

Picture this…. You, the handler, stand on the start line for your Container search.  You see scads of white (or brown) boxes in front of you.  Your heart begins to race.  It’s racing because you don’t know what carnage will be had when your heavy footed canine partner is through.  You know you need to call Alert FAST but what if it’s fringe odor?  What if you get a No?  If you let him destroy the boxes then it’s probably a Fault.  You release your dog into the search area and all of that negative visualization DOES indeed result in a No…. And in the unnecessary death of a few boxes.

Does this sound familiar?

Judd Box Smashing small

You have two choices to make.

(1) Do you ignore the behavior and take the Fault?  This might actually be the right answer for many teams.  Perhaps you have a very low drive dog and you're happy with whatever they give you as long as it’s an Alert!  Or perhaps you're at the point in your dog’s career where it just doesn’t make sense…. For example,  my dog, Judd, is a Box Smasher.  He’s also an Elite Champion (ELT-CH) and competing at the Master level in AKC.  Changing my criteria now may not make sense for him.

(2) Do you take the plunge and change the behavior?  Changing the behavior involves changing criteria and managing arousal states along with an element of being able to read your dog more effectively.

Ideally of course we train for a passive indication from the beginning!  However, retraining IS possible!

What if you have a less confident dog?  Here’s the good news…. Clarity begets Confidence.  If your dog truly understands what will result in a reward, his overall anxiety (and thus arousal) will subside to a degree.  By giving your dogs the decoder ring that unlocks the Reward Cookie from the handler, your dog has now become more autonomous and therefore, confident!  

What do I mean by that?  Well picture a situation where you have a big project due at work which will result in a substantial increase to your annual bonus.  The trouble is that your boss has been extremely vague regarding what he actually WANTS as a result of the project.  How confident are you one this situation?  Likely not very.

Picture this also.  For most nosework dogs, they have started their careers interacting with boxes.  Whether that be eating food from them or using them as “game boxes”, playing the shell game.  Both approaches emphasize an arousal increase that can be due to the excitement of boxes as a contextual cue.  Let’s face it!  Boxes are FUN!!!  So are driving Corvettes although I wouldn’t put my nephew behind the wheel of one until he’s something like…. I don’t know…. 50???  Instead, my nephew would need a solid foundation in driving before trying out the Corvette.  For many drivers though, they wouldn’t get in trouble in a Corvette but for some they could easily smash it up.  Some dogs just are more inclined to smash boxes.

I make criteria very clear with the dog when I’m retraining (well I admit that I’m MUCH better now at doing this right in the first place!).  To help the dog, I step away from boxes until I have a behavior that is solid and fluent.  I use metal switch boxes with a mud ring screwed on.  I place odor inside the metal box and shape an indication.  This gives the dog a very big hint because it’s easy to encourage the dog to place his nose inside the metal box.  From here, we gradually transition to boxes and then build generalization skills.  

Smashing boxes CAN be fixed and you CAN avoid that Fault.  This method is extremely useful and effective.  If you’d like to try it but you need a little more handholding and detail, I’m teaching a class that starts on June 1 called Box Smashers Anonymous.  It’s an online class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  Registration is OPEN! Click here for more information, including a helpful sample lecture!

AKC for Less Confident Dogs?

This weekend my very timid and shy Miniature American Shepherd named Why debuted in AKC Scent Work.  Why has a NW1, L1C and L1V… he really struggles with searching in new locations although we have worked on it for years.  I was on the cusp of retiring him entirely from competition.

Why blew me away this weekend.

I entered him in 2 of the 4 offered trials at the Greater Louisville Dog Training Club AKC Scent Work trial in Louisville, KY.  He did all of the Novice classes offered each of the morning trials during the 2 day trial.  He Q’d in 8/8 runs.

And he earned High in Trial for Novice in both trials!

The interesting thing is that this weekend has given me a little more insight into the beauty of AKC for sensitive dogs (when the trial site is suitable).  This isn’t something I expected and quite honestly I entered him on a whim just because he was going to be in the van anyway!

Why Louisville Ribbons

I originally hadn’t planned on trialing either Why, or my older Standard Poodle, Joey in AKC.  My two Labradors, Brava and Judd, have already been competing (successfully) in this venue since October of last year…. Judd was Second Overall at the AKC Inaugural Scent Work Trial at the Eukanuba Performance Games last September.  To be honest, I was blindsided this weekend by the realization that AKC is AWESOME for my other dogs!

The fabulous realization came when I finally put 2 and 2 together…. In AKC you don’t need to enter every class or work your dog for the entire day.  You can have one rough search and your day isn’t shot.  You keep your Q’s!

In AKC, they don’t cater to the “reactive” or the “special” dog…. I have to state that.  However, if you have a well managed dog who wants to play, this might actually be an awesome opportunity for you.  Just be smart in picking the trial location.  This weekend we were at a camp.  Had this been run in conjunction with a large Conformation trial, I probably would NOT have entered him.  That wouldn’t have been the right setup for a timid, shy dog like Why.  However, this was perfect…

I’m so pleased that AKC Scent Work is exploding!  And I’m truly proud of the program.

If you have sat out in the “wait and see” crowd, I encourage you to give it a shot!  AKC Scent Work is FUN, challenging and rewarding!!

Happy Sniffing!!

(Why was adopted from MARS, Mini Aussie Rescue and Support…. A nationwide breed rescue for Miniature American Shepherds)

A Roadmap for Foundations in Nosework

We have all heard the phrase “Train the Dog in front of you”.  In fact, it’s the title of my favorite book…. by Denise Fenzi.  I tell all of my students to read it…. And it is not overtly about Nosework!  In fact though, it’s extremely relevant!  It nests quite perfectly with my Roadmap for Foundations.

Those of you who know my philosophies know that I structure everything around my Pyramid: The Four Cornerstones of Trial Preparation.  Confidence and Motivation are everything.  Emotions are trained.  Arousal is a habit.  These are core concepts of what I teach.

This of course is just the high level framework.  The Roadmap for Foundations is the directional course of how to apply the Pyramid.  For the Roadmap, I leveraged the concepts in Denise’s book written in Chapters 2 and 3.  She’s entirely spot on when she describes dogs along the spectrums of Cautious to Secure and Environmental to Handler Focused.  These two spectrums are critical in assessing the Nosework dog and in establishing a path forward.

Very often we are presented with a training challenge and we need direction.  Which way we go depends ENTIRELY on these two spectrums!

The first step is to read Denise’s book which you can order here:

The second step is introspection.  This step isn’t always easy!  Sometimes we label our dogs as what we want them to be rather than what they really are.  This is where the book comes in handy.

Once we know where our dog falls, we can use the roadmap to figure out HOW to train. 

In general your Secure dogs should focus on Motivation while the Cautious dogs should focus on Confidence.  The nuances come into play when we consider when the dog naturally orients towards us or the environment.  Keep in mind that this isn’t “trained” orientation…. This is personality….  However this is still relevant for “trained” orientation…. The dog will still need to develop independence!

Let’s talk about the Focus of each quadrant…

Environmental / Secure:

These dogs are naturally secure and naturally very interested on what is going on around them.  Things like critters and other dog smells can be VERY important to this dog.  Focus on Odor Obedience and Motivation.

Handler / Secure:

These dogs are just really “into” their person.  They are truly engaged with their person and focus on their every movement and word.  These dogs need to learn to work independently and should focus on drive to odor (motivation).

Environmental / Cautious:

These dogs are typically worried about their surroundings and may “check out”.  They tend to be sensitive and may seem like they’ve forgotten that the handler is on the other end of the leash.  These dogs need confidence and careful generalization in different easy environments.  Acclimation will help this group of dogs immensely.

Handler / Cautious:

These dogs are a bit unsure and seek out security in their person.  Their handler may have difficulty getting away from their “velcro” dog during a search.  These dogs may also worried about their environment but they look to their handler for solace.  Some of these dogs are okay with the environment but lack confidence in their own abilities.  These dogs need to build confidence and the feeling of “I can do this”.  Working in easy environments doing easy skills can help this group of dogs develop confidence to be able to work away from their handler.

It should be noted that Cautious dogs often tend to need BOTH confidence in the environment and confidence in their skills.  Confidence is generally built by working easy skills in easy environments before ratcheting up the challenge level.  These dogs' tendencies towards the environment or the handler simply tells us that we need to take slightly different tactics to reorient them towards the search.

In general, secure dogs need to work on the value for odor so that there is a shift in their priorities from either the handler or the environment towards target odor.

Now that you have a Roadmap, you can develop tactics in shoring up Foundations!

Interested in learning more and developing tactics?  These concepts are the core of my Confidence & Motivation Seminar topic.  Now booking Fall / Winter of 2018 and early 2019.

Happy Sniffing!!

Hide Placement is Important, Yo.

In other sports we wouldn’t dream of not being logical with our training decisions.  In agility, would you send your dog over an A-frame for the first time (at full height no less) and hope for the best?  When teaching a dumbbell retrieve in Obedience, you wouldn’t just throw a dumbbell and see if your dog decides to retrieve it?  No!  Of course not.  But in Nosework, I see people setting hides quite randomly and then wonder why their dog lacks Confidence, Motivation or Skills…

At the very best, people sometimes set hides to work on skills but without proper understanding of how the hide will work and whether that hide will actually help the needed skill.  The hard part about this sport is that science plays a real part in whether our training setups will work or fail.  How many of us have set a high hide only to find out that odor went up instead of down?  Do you know how to avoid these pitfalls?

The key to setting a good hide is 3-fold….

(1) utilize Scent Theory to understand what the odor is likely to do,

(2) set the hide with PURPOSE so that you know what you are challenging, and

(3) know what you will accept as a YES.

Good hide placement requires STUDY and EXPERIENCE.  The Experience part can be shortened simply by understanding air flow.  Ultimately though, the more you set thoughtful hides, the easier it will become.

I tend to set hides in terms of Puzzles.  Each puzzle expands the experience of my dog.  Experience is really the only way to train a Nosework dog after all.  They come to us with a Harvard education in olfaction.  Through hide placement, we can “train” our dogs by giving them a variety of scenarios so that they can more rapidly and effectively solve a problem in a trial atmosphere.  Through these “puzzles” our dogs became Olfactory Rocket Scientists.  We simply enable them to fulfill their potential.  Add in a dose of carefully crafted handling and you end up with an amazing and unbeatable team.

Puzzles that I tend to set include a combination of one or many of these elements:

(1) Converging Odor (inaccessible and accessible)

(2) Elevation

(3) Inaccessible Hides

(4) Pooling Odor

I utilize temperature and pressure differentials to make these puzzles powerful.  Temperature and Pressure Differentials are in the end, what makes air move!

We also can’t forget PURPOSE…. When you set a hide, are you trying to build Confidence, Motivation or Skills?  Or more importantly, are you thinking of these aspects when you set hides?

This term I’m teaching a class called NW370 Hide Placement for Powerful Training. If you are interested in learning more, I’d love to have you join!

The Learning Journey… Competence and Perspective

Have you ever looked back after you’ve mastered a skill to realize just how much you’ve learned?  And you realize that you have learned so much more than you thought you would?  Well this is NORMAL.

As a perpetual student and a teacher, I’m intrigued by the process of learning. What I’m writing about today is perspective and competence.

There’s a model that was developed in the 1970’s by Noel Burch and then was later attributed to Abraham Maslow that described the process that an individual traverses when learning a new skill.  This model has been dubbed, “The Four Stages of Competence”.  And, as most things are, can be applied directly to learning nosework!

I find that speaking about this model helps my students to put things in perspective.  Knowing where you are in the journey can be both helpful and cathartic.

Let’s investigate…

Unconscious Incompetence:

This is when you don’t know what you don’t know.  Simply put, you are a neophyte and you are unaware of the size of the body of knowledge ahead of you.  In Nosework, you are at the stage where you think the sport is easy.  The dog does all the work, right?  I mean, doesn’t he just find the odor?  At this phase you are unaware of the complexities or of the sheer artistry of handling.  Perhaps you discount the sport as “easy”.  At this point you may choose to pursue the sport, or not!  If you choose to continue, you are blissfully ignorant of the challenging (and exciting) path ahead of you.

Conscious Incompetence:

As you start along the path of learning, you start realizing that the body of knowledge required to master this sport is pretty awe-inspiring.  You realize that this sport is nuanced with science and art.  You see searches done by advanced teams and it seems magical to you.  You work hard at your handling, but it feels stilted and difficult.  This is the phase of frustration, and if we aren’t careful, despair.  We know what we don’t know.  And it seems insurmountable at times!  We struggle with placing appropriate hides and we don’t know why some searches seem so easy while others seem to baffle our dog!

Conscious Competence:

As we study and practice, things get a little easier!  We can finally execute and when focused, can draw upon our building knowledge.  We get Scent Theory.  We know WHAT we need to do to improve on our handling.  In this stage, the hardest searches are at trials.  We have all of this knowledge but we still struggle to call upon it “when it counts”.  This is when our videos teach us SO MUCH.  We can watch our own videos with a critical eye and we can self diagnose problems after the fact.  We know we know stuff but we still feel frustration at not being able to call on it at will.

Unconscious Competence:

At some point on our journey, we edge into mastery.  The transition into this phase comes quietly in the night.  All of a sudden it FEELS easy.  We realize that we can call upon our knowledge at will.  Our handling feels fluid and we experience a connection with our dogs during a search, yes even at a trial, that just makes us want to do more.   This is the point where we become a true team with our dog and the partnership is effortless.  We understand what Teamwork really is.  And it’s beautiful.  And then we realize that there is still more yet to learn…. And the process restarts!

The power of all of this is that it puts our journey in perspective…. We learn that it IS a journey and it helps us to be at peace with our frustration.. knowing that it’s NORMAL and TEMPORARY.

What stage are YOU in?

Happy Sniffing!!

Acclimation and Engagement for Scent Sports by Denise Fenzi

Guest Blog by Denise Fenzi:

If you are in the dog sports world, you have probably heard the words “Acclimation” and “Engagement”.  Indeed, many people feel like this has become the "secret sauce" to their success in dog sports.  So what are acclimation and engagement, and why do you need them?   Most students find that it takes some time to be comfortable with the complexities of these topics, but we’ll go ahead and introduce them here so you can begin that process.


Acclimation means allowing your dog to explore a space where you would like to train.  This process continues until the dog feels safe, emotionally comfortable, and not overly curious or excited about the location. The goal of acclimation time is to get to the point where your dog clearly thinks that what you have to offer is way more attractive than the environment.

And what might you have to offer? Food, toys, interesting work, and your fabulous personality!

Dogs that are properly acclimated are in a much better place to care about doing things with you.   Ideally, the dog is allowed to acclimate long enough that they are just a little bit bored, and looking for something to do.

And that is where engagement training steps in.

Before “formal" engagement training, a properly acclimated dog is probably going to wait for you to indicate that you want to start training.   After engagement training, your dog will understand that the rules have been reversed.  This is because engagement training transfers responsibility for pushing for the start of work from the handler to the dog.   By training the dog to push the handler progressively harder over a series of stages (called the stages of engagement), the dog learns not only to let the handler know that they are ready to work, but to actually demand that work begin!

Anyone who is been through the process of engagement, and who now works with the dog who is as enthusiastic to train as they are, knows the value of this training, and indeed, would not be likely to train a dog who does not demand engagement first.

If you find yourself pulling on the leash to get your dog to focus on you, calling their name to get them to reorient, using cues like no sniff, or watch me,  or simply being frustrated at your dog’s lack of commitment to interacting with you or the work,  it’s time to explore engagement training

I take engagement training through several stages:

In the first phase, the human starts engagement by showing the dog a combination of personality and classic reinforcers.  I am doing all of the work!  This is fine to get a young dog started, but if you keep it up over the long run you’ll set yourself up for a lifetime of working harder and harder to get and keep engagement, or you’ll resort to begging, harassing or corrections to maintain attention when your dog is no longer a puppet being manipulated by your efforts.   Not to mention, you’ll make sensitive dogs downright neurotic with a long term application of this approach (a story for another day).

The next stage of engagement (Stage 2) occurs when you shift responsibility for starting training from the human to the dog.  This shift is critical, and allows you to assess the readiness to work and overall comfort level of your dog, and really gets to the heart of Engagement training.

To work this stage, take your dog to a relatively uninteresting place (your home training area is fine), and simply wait – a short leash will make the process go a bit faster.  When your dog gets bored with the environment and checks in with you then that is the time to respond with your combination of food, toys and personality at whatever level best suits your dog.  He will soon learn that the route to reinforcement is making a choice to engage the handler.

What your dog does before engaging with you is not important; sniffing and sightseeing are just fine.  No food or toys should be visible until the dog checks in. If you are standing there while your dog sniffs or lunges out at the world for an excessive period of time (maybe more than ten minutes after you’ve walked your dog around for general acclimation) then you picked too difficult of an environment.   Either increase the acclimation period or better yet, choose an easier location.

In this second stage, the route to engagement from dog to handler is through one basic behavior – eye contact and connection for about two seconds.  Now it’s time to ask for just a tiny bit more; we’re moving into Stage 3.

In the third stage, I want sustained contact before I come up with a classic motivator (food or toys).  I wait for the dog to show a desire to interact but instead of coming up with food or toys immediately, I simply engage the dog with a combination of voice, movement and personality; whatever is most useful for your dog and brings out determination and energy.  After a short period of time, I will come up with the classic motivators that the dog wants.  The goal here is to teach my dog sustained focus and engagement. If the dog checks out before I have a chance to reward, I start over again, possibly for a shorter period of time.  

In the fourth stage of engagement training, I expect some kind of formal work before offering any classic motivators.  The ideal sequence would be that the dog will briefly explore the environment, choose to engage with me, stay engaged for a period of time, and then offer to work – all without knowing what motivator they are working for.  After performing a simple behavior such as a few steps of heeling – the classic reward shows up!  

If you cannot get stage one, then either your environment is too difficult, your dog is nervous, or your dog is not interested in your motivator.  Change something.  

If at any point after Stage two your dog opts to leave you for the environment rather than engage – that’s fine.  Simply release them back to the (limited) environment and when they re-engage, start the entire process over.  Which doesn’t mean they get to explore what they are curious about; it simply means you stop the engagement process.  For example, if your dog stopped working because he wants to greet a person who just entered the training area, that’s fine. Release your dog from formal work, but prevent your dog from visiting or, if off leash, ask the person to ignore your dog.  Better yet, ask them to leave. Then try again.

If your dog still cannot succeed, you either 1) chose too difficult of an environment/distraction, 2) never had the dog’s brain in the first place (you’re begging or rushing the stage), or 3) you moved through the above stages too quickly and your dog is unsure about how to win.  Adjust accordingly or end the session altogether.

No begging.  No bribing.  A simple and respectful way to engage with a dog.

When you have worked through this entire chain, you may also choose to begin the process of work simply by saying your dog’s name or asking if they would like to work – we call that the “fifth” stage of engagement.  If you have done a good job on engagement training and if your dog is well prepared and comfortable in your current location, they’ll say yes, because working with you will have become extremely important; the highlight of their day.

While Engagement training is generally applied to sports like Obedience and Agility, it is equally applicable to the scent sports such as Nosework, Tracking and Barn hunt with a few modifications that make is amenable to the unique needs of the scent sports.

Join us Feb 13, for a Webinar with Denise Fenzi on Acclimation and Engagement for Scent Sports!  Register here:

The Importance of Training with Varying Amounts of Odor

In training the sport detection dog, we often look to professional corollaries for guidance.  One of the often overlooked aspects is strength of odor.  Instead, we debate with each other about how much oil to use in preparing our Qtips and how many swabs to use.  If we look to the professional detection world, we will quickly find out how silly these debates really are!

As a perpetual student, I am constantly studying.  In this case, I’d like to share an excerpt from a handbook I have in my library, “Problem Solving of Narcotic Detection K9’s” by Jim Hornbeck.  Chapter 17 is focused on dogs who will not alert on a large amount of drugs.

Dogs are easy to condition.  If you train on only small amounts of drugs, then that is what your dog will be conditioned to alert on, even  in the street.  Be sure to have a large amount of drugs available that you can train on occasionally so that your dog knows to search for all amounts of the drug odor.  Many times, with extremely large amounts, the dog will act very differently because he knows that he needs to alert somewhere; but because of the large amount of odor, he doesn’t know where to alert.

He continues with the following passage:

Train your dog on large amounts at times so he will be accustomed to finding them on the street.  On the same note, don’t always train your dog on large amounts, either, or he will start missing the small amounts and won’t learn how to detail very well.

It’s an insightful handbook!

Drug Amounts with K9

The same goes for HRD dogs.  They train not only on teeth but also torsos!  A little macabre perhaps but the result is a highly effective search dog.

So instead of arguing whether to use trace amounts of essential oil or 2 drops per Qtip, remember that it’s important to do BOTH!  In fact, when I teach my in person classes I often place both strong and trace odors out in the same search.  Some of my odor is faint and very old and some is very strong.  By training on both, the dogs become multi-dimensional and truly capable of working to source.

nosework collage

If we don’t train on different concentrations, we end up with a dog who believes not that he’s supposed to work to source, but rather than he is supposed to only alert on a particular concentration.  That’s a recipe for a fringe alert!  You will also train a dog who struggles with pooling odor.

And think about the skills necessary for this type of search!  Working multiple hides with multiple concentrations means that the dog learns to work to source  for EACH of the hides, regardless of the odor strength.  THAT is odor obedience!  Do this and you will successfully trial in ALL venues.  And the point  of sport detection is really to get out there and play with our dogs, right?

Happy Sniffing!!!

Crittering Woes: Is your dog sniffing everything but target odor?

Our sport is all about sniffing.  It’s the only sport where it’s encouraged!  In fact, we LOVE sniffing!  The problem is that it can be hard to tell “good sniffing” from “bad sniffing”.  In other sports, “bad sniffing” is common and understood but in the sport of competition scent detection (nosework or scent work), often times the dog is actually multi-tasking, processing a ton of information at the same time.  Because it can be hard to tell the difference, we run the risk of asking our dogs to work when they are not ready….  OR, we run the risk of pulling our dogs off of odor in a blind situation if they are really just multi-tasking! (This is commonly called “Crittering”)


I found a beautiful breakdown in Denise Fenzi’s book, “Train the Dog in Front of You” (available at:


It’s a fantastic book and I think every nosework competitor should read it!  Although it’s not targeted specifically at the nosework population, the articulation of personality, behavior and training approaches is absolutely transferable.

Essentially we can think about our dogs along two spectrums (amongst others the book!)  One of these spectrums is Secure vs. Cautious and the other is Handler vs. Environmentally focused.  When it comes to “crittering” it seems that these spectrums come most into play.

We’ve all seen it…. The dog who should be searching but who is instead extremely interested in sniffing anything BUT target odor!  This usually entails sniffing on the ground in one spot but it can really be the bane of a good nosework team!  I hear this often, “how do I get my dog to stop crittering?”  

I think in some ways, we’ve done a huge disservice by labeling this type of sniffing, “crittering” because most of the time it’s not predatory behavior as the term “crittering” would suggest!  The next question is often, “how do I know my dog isn’t in odor” (presumably because the handler doesnt want to pull them off)?  This has been nicknamed “crodering” in some circles.  An interesting term for sure although I prefer “Multi-tasking” because that’s actually more accurate.

The more important question and the one that hardly ever gets asked is Why does my dog critter?

If you can answer the Why, you can address it…. Because not all crittering is created equally.

The answer is in this book! …. specifically in Chapters 2 and 3

In Chapter 2, Denise explores Secure and Cautious dogs.  Secure dogs will work or play anywhere, and if they choose not to work it’s because of the relative value of the alternatives.  Cautious dogs on the other hand range from mildly insecure to fearful and no matter how good your cookies are “fear trumps motivation”.

This is an important point.  Denise continues to state, “Even if he’s willing to take your cookies, your dog will not be fully engaged with you.  Trying to teaching specific skills will be pointless.”

That’s pretty poignant!  When we consider dogs who are distracted, is it possible that they are being cautious and not fully engaged with us and for that matter the search?  AND, it means that increasing the motivator simply isn’t going to work.  With secure dogs, yes, increasing the motivator works, but when cautious dogs are feeling insecure, it’s an emotional issue.  

Additionally, this leads us to the next point…. when a cautious dog is crittering,  he literally can’t execute complex skills.  This is due to two things, (1) the dog is processing a ton of information about his environment  along with target odor thereby making the task even MORE complicated, and (2) the dog’s anxiety is moving right on the arousal curve which makes executing complicated skills that much more difficult!

Denise continues with, “Your goal will be to help your dog become more secure in new environments, not to train skills.”

The very cool part is that there is an answer for these dogs…. Acclimation!  Acclimation is referenced extensively on Denise’s blog at and essentially involves the dog exploring the area and settling into a new environment before being asked to engage with the handler or to work.

So what if you have a secure dog who is crittering out of a priority issue?  Well with these dogs you need to (1) up the reward value and (2) train in small increments.

This takes us to Chapter 3 where the other gem awaits!  In Chapter 3, Denise discusses Handler vs. Environmentally focused dogs.  Interestingly, we see the same in nosework!  With handler focused dogs, the dogs have a difficult time searching without checking in and they tend to be extremely aware of the handler’s body motion (including motion of the hand to the treat pouch!).  These aren’t your crittering dogs…

Dogs that critter tend to be environmentally aware.

Denise continues with asking if this environmental focus is curiosity or nervousness.  In nosework, we need a healthy dose of environmental focus however, not to the degree that teamwork degrades.

As per Denise, if a dog is generally curious, they tend to approach life in general with curiosity.  If a dog is nervous, the dog will show heightened nervousness in general in life.  The approaches to these dogs must be different in training.

With the secure, environmental dog, again, we need to up the ante in rewards and train skills in smaller pieces (meaning focus on scent puzzles as opposed to full searches).

With the cautious, environmental dog, we need to counter condition at a distance to the trigger that will not upset (ideally we are going for boredom) the dog.

secure environmental grid

So how do we manage this?

I’ve seen both crittering and stress sniffing managed the same way.  The most common technique I’ve seen is the moving your foot on the spot where the dog is crittering.

Let’s contemplate that…. With a secure dog, you haven’t upset the apple cart too terribly much.  Typically they just sniff around your shoe and this doesn’t help the behavior.  The cautious dogs moves off because of the handler pressure.  This is actually reinforcing the handler!  Oh boy.  And, you’ve now increased your dog’s stress levels to boot!

The other common thing I’ve seen is to simply let the crittering extinguish itself.  Well this has it’s challenges as well!  With the secure dog, he’s just gotten reinforcement for prioritizing the environment over target odor, thus degrading odor obedience.  With the cautious dog, the dog hasn’t been harmed and has probably acclimated.  This is GREAT in training…. Although under the pressure of the clock it’s not so great, and there are other ways to lower anxiety that are more search-friendly.

The answer is it depends on WHY your dog is crittering.  If you can answer that, then you can address it.

When I am dealing with a secure dog engaged in full fledged crittering, I will do a restart.  This happened to me in Ellicottville, NY at an Elite trial this year.  We were doing a search of a junk car area with an unknown number of hides.  There was an off leash option, which I was taking advantage of.  Judd found something interesting under one of the junk cars and had his head under the car in full out critter hunting mode.  I simply, calmly, took his harness and redirected with a search cue.  Not only did it work but he did really well in the rest of the search!  I could do that because the crittering was extreme, I was in a trial, and I was dealing with a secure at the moment dog.  

If the crittering is not terrible and you’re dealing with a secure dog you can verbally ask them to keep searching.  That’s usually good enough!  

The trouble comes when we try to use these techniques on our cautious dogs. Touching the harness of a cautious dog could be a very bad thing because that can raise the dog’s anxiety.  Even verbal encouragement can potentially be too much! For these dogs I give them a cookie.

Yup, a cookie.

What did I do there? Well, I just lowered the dog’s arousal, thus lowering anxiety.  I addressed the WHY.  Sure, it reorients the dog to the handler but in this case, that’s not a bad thing!  It’s also easier to go from handler focus to search focus than from environment focus to search focus.

I call this a Confidence Cookie.  And it works.

So in order to address crittering, you must first address the WHY and assess your dog…. Secure or cautious?  Handler or environmentally focused?  Then go from there...

And remember, our dogs may NOT be looking JUST for target odor, but at least we will know the proper way to handle it!

Happy Sniffing!!!

In Response to False Alerts and the Working K9 as written by SWGDOG

This blog is in response to the False Alert literature rebuttal by SWGDOG:

"The membership of the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal detector Guidelines (SWGDOG),, is writing to comment on the article entitled “Handler beliefs affect scent detection dog outcomes” authored by L. Lit, J.B. Schweitzer and A.M. Oberbauer. SWGDOG is a recognized group of 55 subject matter experts from local, state, federal, and international agencies including scientists, law enforcement, and practitioners. Over the last seven years, SWGDOG, has developed and published 34 consensus based best practice guidelines for detector dog teams as well as resources to assist the community including recommended research methodologies.”

My previous blog on the affect of relationship and False Alerts is in part referencing the study published by L. Lit, J.B. Schweitzer and A.M. Oberbauer. I would like to clarify my opinion based on both the literature AND the rebuttal

In the opinion of Scentsabilities Nosework…. Well, I agree!

SWGDOG states (

"In particular, the conclusion of this study cannot be extended to working detector dog teams."

In fact, in my blog my statement states specifically:

"A dog’s natural independence could actually be measured according to how much they care. And…. the more your dog cares, the more those social cues are going to be an important part of the search.  And… keep in mind that the sport of canine scent detection is mostly a pet dog sport.”

In my experience, I’ve worked with 100’s of dogs between on-line education, in person education and teaching seminars.  I’ve also reviewed 1000’s of videos of searches.  This spans all breeds, breed types and genetic makeup.

Of my own four dogs, three are pet bred.  That doesn’t mean that they are lesser bred.  My Standard Poodle was the conformation pick of his litter!  My 8 year old Lab recently competed, successfully, at the 2017 NACSW National Invitational which is arguably the pinnacle of SPORT detection events.  He held his own against 45 other dogs from across the US and came out winning one of the searches and placing second in another.  He is STILL what I consider pet bred, even though he is the top of his sport.  My third dog is a Miniature American Shepherd with confidence issues, no doubt pet bred.  My fourth dog, an 8 month old puppy named Brava, is NOT what I consider to be “pet bred” although she IS my pet.  She’s from an esteemed kennel in Maine who specializes in breeding Labradors for the Professional Sector.  Her litter includes (in training): 4 USAR FEMA dogs, 2 bomb dogs, 1 cadaver dog, 1 bed bug dog, 1 working retriever and my girl, future Sport Detection Superstar.  Her mother and her handler are out there saving lives (she’s an active FEMA dog and her handler/owner is a first responder…. God bless them both!).  Her sire's mother was deployed to the Philippines at one time as a part of FEMA service. I can tell you unequivocally that Brava is different than my other 3 in terms of her natural independence and drive (independence and drive aren’t often a breeding criteria for the average sport dog…. Drive yes, however in sports, independence is often replaced with “biddability”).  My point is that I have tremendous respect for her breeding and for professional handlers who are working with dogs bred like her.  Thank you to her breeder.  You guys ROCK!  And you save lives….  As an aside I feel humbled to have been allowed to have one of the “P-Dog” puppies from this litter (Perfect x Proxy).

(The picture above is Brava, at 6 months old, entering her first AKC Scent Work competition.  On two legs!  She won that search even though competing against NACSW Elite dogs including a Nationals dog.)

Future Life Savers (some are future FEMA dogs, at least one will sniff out bombs).  God protect them and their handlers:

future life savers

Given independence, drive and superior training, I can see why SWGDOG took rebuttal to the article written by L. Lit, J.B. Schweitzer and A.M. Oberbauer.

We have to keep in mind when we are reading literature and applying it to our sport that both sport dogs and pet dogs (probably in excess of 99.9% of the dogs competing in scent work) are not similar in working traits to the professional K9 detection dog.  We like to think that our sport dogs are the same…. They simply are not.  In all honesty that’s probably for the best!  Even though as sport homes we don’t provide the average “pet home” experience, we still have different requirements of our dogs.  What we don’t require is the hard driving, independence that comes with these working K9s.  That’s not to say that the working K9s aren’t loved.  But do you really need (or want) a dog who can easily scale a 3 story ladder (Proxy)…. For fun?  Sure Proxy’s daughter, Brava, cuddles… (I love her deeply) but only AFTER I get her off of the dining room table!  Working K9’s can be loved family members of course but their ability to transcend the study published by L. Lit, J.B. Schweitzer and A.M. Oberbauer is noted and according to Scentsabilities Nosework, agreed to.

When reading literature in support of our sport, its essential to consider our dogs for what and who they are!

At the same time, NEVER see your pet bred dog as lesser!  They truly care about what we think.  They are biddable. They can be highly driven!  They are wonderful.


(The above picture is Judds win shot from the First Annual Eukanuba Performance Games and Inaugual AKC Scent Work trial.  Pet Bred Rescue Dog!)

Happy Sniffing!!

© Stacy Barnett 2015