The Confidence Building Value of Clarity

Learning to read your dog is CRITICAL.

Yes.  We all know that…  we all know that learning to read our dog gives us the tools to call “Alert” and hopefully earn a “YES”.  However, there is so much more to it than that.  It’s a critical component to building the dog’s confidence.  Intertwined into this is the dog’s communication to the handler that he has arrived at Source.  The indication isn’t innate…  it has to be developed.  It’s developed over time through a dance between the handler and dog where the handler reads the dog and the dog learns what behaviors result in reinforcement.

Confidence?  Yes of course.  It’s highly stressful to a dog to not know HOW to win the game.  He’s found the bunny but unless he can convey his find to the handler, reward is not going to be forthcoming.  Nothing is more demotivational to a dog than finding a hide and being ignored by the handler.  The handler MUST learn to read the dog.

Does this mean we need a trained final response?  No.  In fact, a trained final response is the very first thing to fall apart under stress.  Searching is a behavior chain.  It starts with a cue to search and ends with an indication and reward for the find.

All too often I find handlers reliant on a final response.  I hear “he has to look at me before his reward” but all too often, so much of the dog’s body has already conveyed where source is located.

So let’s take a step back and think about what happens BEFORE the final response.  (A final response is the action that a dog takes to convey finding the hide.  This can be either trained or encouraged.  Common final responses might include sit or down or can include a look back.)  Before a final response, you might see behaviors like head snaps, heavy interest sniffing, wagging of a tail, stiffening of body posture and most importantly nose orienting to source.

In a situation where a dog is stressed, such as at a trial or in the case of environmental dogs, just being a new location, will dampen ALL behaviors.  All of the indication that the dog is at source will lessen and it’s quite possible that the final response will not be given.  In the case of a handler that relies on that final response, it’s very possible that the dog will go unrewarded at source!

So what can we do?

We can do several things…  (1) we can ensure that we reward for nose on source, (2) we can lower the stimulus of the environment while increasing the reward and (3) we can get better at reading our dog’s natural language.

Let’s talk about each in turn.

We can ensure that we reward for nose on source…

What does this mean?  This means that we ALWAYS reward at source.  We are rewarding in position.  In this way we are encouraging our dogs to be PRECISE.  Nose at source, whether you have a look back, a sit, a down, or just a freeze….  it rewards for precision at source.  Building that reinforcement history is critical.  This puts the dog into a very natural and easy indication to the handler that he is at source.  No stress, no bother.  Don’t worry about that final indication, READ your dog and reward at source!  It also becomes VERY clear to the dog that reinforcement is forthcoming.  The final response is great to have, but if you don’t get it, your dog will stress even more.  Nose touch to source (or as near as possible) is a natural phenomenon that occurs as soon as the dog gets to source, regardless of the final indication.  If you reward at or as near as possible to source you will reinforce this.

We can lower the stimulus of the environment while increasing the reward…

This is pretty easy…  when in a new environment, make the hide EASIER.  It can be as easy as slapping a hide on a wall and shrinking the search area to TINY for the environmental dog.  Set the dog up for SUCCESS.  Success breeds confidence.  

For this, go to a series of locations and literally place an easy to find hide.  Keep the rate of reinforcement HIGH.  I like to use school exteriors for this and use every little alcove and bend as a new search area.  The dog acclimates to one location (the school) but has the opportunity to do 5 or 6 searches in quick succession, building confidence with each one.

We can get better at reading our dog’s natural body language…

This takes some time and effort.  One really helpful technique is to video your search then watch the search in slow motion.  I have one student who has a very environmental dog who videoed a ton of searches and broke down her body language into into individual pieces.  We noticed that a rotation of her body and a specific wag of the tail indicated source.  Some of this could only be seen in slow motion.  (If you upload to YouTube, you can watch your video at any speed.)  What you will find is that there are probably four or five behaviors that your dog exhibits before indicating source.  This is all about reading the Change of Behavior.  A Change of Behavior DOES indicate a certain point in time but it also indicates a chain of events that leads to source.  It’s that chain of events that you need to watch and learn.

The overall essence is that we need to become better partners for our dogs.  Those of us on second, third or more Nosework dogs realize how much easier training is.  It’s not because we are being gifted with better partners…  it’s because we are better at being THEIR partner.  We are better at reading and we are better at training.  We are better at being clear that reward comes with nose goes to source.  Clarity reduces stress and helps to build confidence.  Reward at source.  Build your dog’s success rate and learn to read your dog.  These tools will create a confident team with clear criteria for reward

Nosework: Instinct or Trained Sport?

I profess…  I’m an evangelist for the sport.  I espouse Nosework any time I get the chance.  I talk about the benefits and the sheer excitement of the search.  There are some that I feel that I don’t reach.  Perhaps I never will…  the retort is that Nosework is an “Instinct Sport”.  Well, is it?


I suppose to some extent hunting IS innate to all dogs…  finding the bunny… seeking out a scent and following it to source IS instinctual…  but is our sport an “Instinct Sport”?

Let’s talk about what an “Instinct Sport” would entail…  first of all, the sport would require little training…  after all the dog would be acting on instinct right?  Secondly, the sport would require little influence from the handler.  Thirdly, the sport would rely entirely on the inner drives of the dog.

So let’s test this against the sport of Nosework…  First of all, the dog is not born seeking out the scent of Birch.  That must be trained.  The dog associates finding Birch (and Anise and Clove) with reward.  Does the dog use it’s inherent skills to do so?  Absolutely!  Especially at the lower levels….  Once the dog achieves NW1, specialized training is necessary to build on the dog’s base capabilities to elevate the skill level.  Once the dog reaches the Elite level, an intense amount of training is necessary to translate puzzles into finds.  So in this case, the sport of Nosework fails the first test of what would constitute an “Instinct Sport”.

Now let’s talk about the Handler…  in Nosework, it’s very true that the sport is heavily weighted towards the dog.  In our sport the dog is the Star of the Show.  You can’t enter this sport with an ego because you are FORCED to take a backseat to the dog.  If you don’t, you won’t get very far!  I like to think about Nosework as 70% dog/ 30% handler.  In the very early stages we take the handler out of the equation almost entirely.  Why?  Because we are TEACHING our dogs to be independent.  Once the dog learns to be independent, we can re-enter the equation and become a handler. In our job as handler, we are clean up batter and interpreter.  Has our dog found a hide?  Has our dog cleared an area?   In the upper levels of the sport the handler is CRITICAL.  So in this case the sport fails the second test of what would constitute an “Instinct Sport”.

What about the inner drives?  Our dogs tap into Hunt Drive to search.  That much is very true.  Dogs have in fact learned to so value the hunt that the actual find can be under-rated.  It’s not prey drive.  It’s not toy drive.  It’s hunt drive.  So I suppose yes, in this case the sport passes the third test of what would constitute an “Instinct Sport”.

But mostly, classifying this sport as an “Instinct Sport” insults the intense training put into these dogs.  Nosework training mirrors drug detection training…  would we call what drug dogs do as “an instinct”?  Unlikely.  In Nosework, we see dogs blossom and become more than what they were.  Let’s take pride in that…  we as trainers contributed to that.  Our dogs may have been born with a Harvard education in olfaction but through careful training and development with scent puzzles and other scenarios we turn our dog’s into Nobel Prize Winners…  our dogs are born with a certain olfactory capability…  we mold that that and enhance that ability.

I suggest that there is northing so beautiful as a dog searching for scent…  doing something that we can’t even fathom and doing it with sheer JOY!

I also suggest that this sport is no more “instinctual” than running and jumping…  be proud of your training and your handling….  you are among a select group of dog sport enthusiasts who can check your ego at the door and let your dog be The Star.  There is no room for ego in our sport.  The feeling of conquering a search with an unknown number of hides carries a high like no other.

Rejoice In Your Dog.

© Stacy Barnett 2015