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Proximity of Influence

Early on in our Nosework careers, most of us will get judges comments about crowding the dog or we are encouraged to work our dog off leash when possible.  Why is that?  The answer is Proximity of Influence.  Simply put, the closer we are to our dog, the more influence we exert on his behavior.

Let’s face it.  In Nosework, the dog is the star.  He’s the Team Captain and we play a supporting role.  We are at best a navigator although our main role is as interpreter.  What this means is that we want the dog working as independently as possible.  We simply dance along, following and making sure we check our corners and thresholds.  The glamour and stardom is ALL DOG.

And yet, dogs want to please.  Their whole lives are devoted to us.  They are truly Man’s Best Friend.  He’s there for us through thick and thin and would gladly sacrifice everything for us.  In most sports, the dog follows our lead.  We tell them where to move, where to run, where to jump, what to retrieve.  In this sport we pass the baton and allow our dogs to do something that we can barely comprehend and really don’t understand.  It’s beautiful really.  Through this sport our dogs transform and use their primal sense of smell with powers developed over tens of thousands of years of evolution.

And yet, dogs want to please.  That desire to please can overwhelm even their desire to find Source.  The result…  potential False Alerts due to exerting too much presence through proximity.  Have you ever tried to work with someone whether it be a teacher or a boss looking over your shoulder?  It becomes hard to concentrate and perform.  We strive hard to “do it right” and we make mistakes.  When we hover over our dogs during the search, we are doing the same thing.  When we are too close, our influence becomes too great.  The dog tries to involve us and may seek to have us provide information.  The trouble is, we can’t smell Birch, Anise, Clove, or anything else unless the odor is strong and right beneath our noses.  

The other issue is disturbance to the scent cone.  Our bodies create eddies in scent cone.  Picture a stream….  what does a rock do?  It creates an eddy and turbulence in the water.  Our bodies do the same thing to scent.

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Now picture these ripples in the Proximity of Influence…  the farther away you are from the dog, the less likely you will cause ripples in the air flow.  Our dogs use concentration of scent particles to locate source.  Standing too close to the dog makes it physically more difficult for the dog to do his job.

One thing I always tell my students is to take a step back as soon as the dog is in odor.  This is a general rule of thumb. The result is that it helps to remove our influence on the dog’s behavior and on the scent particles.  Here’s a video example of me working my dog at a NW3 trial.  Note how as soon as I step back he is able to quickly source the hide.  (I step into him initially to encourage him into the corner).  As soon as I see he’s in odor, I take a step back.

The other advantage of giving your canine partner space is that it cuts the umbilical cord.  Dogs that are timid or environmental actually become MORE SO the closer you are.  You will notice that as soon as you lengthen your leash and give the dog room, he will start to search rather than pay his attention to you.

Next time you are searching…  step back when in odor and think about your Proximity of Influence.

Happy Sniffing!!


Taking the Leap to Alert on an Inaccessible Hide

One of the scariest things about moving up the levels is calling Alert on an inaccessible hide.   Is the dog at source?  Is it close enough?  At levels 2 and 3 you have to have the guts to make the call and to make it with conviction.  I get questions all the time about whether a call was made at the right moment or whether the call was made in the right spot.

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When judges make a “yes” or “no” determination it’s based on air flow and hide characteristics.  Think of a bullseye…  the judge has picked a bullseye and will accept calls within the boundaries.  The more inaccessible the hide, the broader the boundaries will be.  The drawing below depicts an example potential acceptable call region for a recessed hide on the undercarriage of a car.

car with acceptable area

So in a trial situation how do we know that we are in the boundaries of the “call zone”?  We don’t.

There is an element of risk every time we say “Alert”, especially when the hide is inaccessible.  The real question is how do we minimize this risk.

1.) Practice inaccessible hides

We are told in our training to train 80% accessible…  that means that we need to train 20% inaccessible.  Although it’s necessary for our dogs to believe that they can always get to source we need them to also understand the concept of an inaccessible hide.  This is especially important for a dog with a Trained Final Response such as a Sit or other obedience behavior.  For dogs with a natural alert, practicing inaccessible hides reduces the frustration that a dog might feel for not getting to source.

In professional scent detection (as opposed to competitive scent detection), some dogs are trained to have an aggressive alert.  This means that the dog has developed a true belief that he can always get to source and will try to dismantle an object to get at source.  This results in digging and biting.  In competitive scent detection we prefer a passive alert such as a nose oriented towards source.  In the case of an inaccessible hide, source can be a broad distinction.  The only way we and our dogs can be comfortable with these hides is to practice. 

2.) Know your dog’s indication

Depending on the type of inaccessible hide you might get variations of your typical alert.

“Bracketing” is the behavior that a dog shows going back and forth over and area trying to find the ultimate source of the odor.  (Think of bracketing as putting parentheses around the source of odor.)

Here’s an example of bracketing:

In the case of an inaccessible that is out of reach you might get a neck stretch.  Here’s an example of source that is out of reach:

These are just examples of one dog’s inaccessible indications…  you will need to build a history with your dog learning your dog’s specific indications.

3.) Consider the object and air flow

The target zone that will be acceptable will depend on the object and the air flow around it.  The target zone for a filing cabinet will be different than a recessed hide under a jacked up truck.  Your dog will alert where odor is available as the source of odor is not available in the case of an inaccessible hide.

On an object like a filing cabinet, consider that odor can escape all along the edges of a drawer.  An alert anywhere along the seams of the drawer would likely be acceptable.  Don’t try to wait for your dog to pinpoint source because there is nothing to pinpoint.

Here’s an example of a dog alerting on a hide under the gas flap of a truck.  The truck is rusted out and the concentration of odor is actually coming through in the wheel well.  Given the air flow considerations of this vehicle, this alert would likely be acceptable.


4.) Make sure its not an accessible hide

Some accessibles masquerade as inaccessibles!  Take a desk for instance.  A hide on the back hide of the desk may actually be accessible.  However the odor will travel to the front side of the desk making the hide LOOK inaccessible.  The best thing to do when confronted with an inaccessible seeming hide on an object that you can go around, is to check the other side!

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5.) Say it with conviction!

Have faith in your dog!  Say ALERT with conviction  If youve trained inaccessibles and you understand what your dog is telling you, call it.

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Happy Sniffing!!

Managing Returning to Source

Green dogs will often return to source when started on multi-hide searches.  This is completely normal.  In fact, it is demonstrating that budding fundamental of odor obedience.  For ORT's and NW1 this is wonderful...  we are building that beautiful, strong desire to find source and to stay at source.

Here's a video of a green dog showing the very start of odor obedience.  This is Joey and he's just starting Nosework.  Joey is on odor only and is not pairing.  Watch his insistence and desire to return to source even though I'm cueing him to search some more.  In an experienced dog, I prefer that the dog not return to source, but for a green dog, I'm thrilled with his desire for odor. 

As we start to introduce the concept of multiple hides, the rules start to change.  Now we want our dogs to start to find the first hide and then understand the previous hides are no longer in play.  This is part of every dog's learning journey.  Overall, it's possible to progress through NW2 and NW3 with a dog that returns to source but it cuts into our time in a trial.  If you have a slower dog to begin with, this can be catastrophic and can even result in timing out in serious cases.  Or we can get frustrated and start to pull our dogs away from odor...  and possibly away from another source of odor in a converging odor puzzle.  So how do we start to communicate the change in rules to our dogs?  How do we balance odor obedience and the game of multiple hides? 

Let's first talk about the ideal picture.  Ideally, the dog works independently to find the first hide.  Once found, the dog sticks to the hide until rewarded.  Then on verbal cue, the dog leaves the hide with the knowledge that the first hide is no longer in play.  The dog leaves and finds the next hide with the same fervor and sticks to that hide until rewarded.  Upon finding all of the hides, the dog communicates to the handler that there are no more hides to be found.  What is the result of this best case?  The result tends to be fast, accurate searches that consistenly win element placements and pronoucements. 

So how do we develop this? 

This behavior is a series of behavior chains: 

(1) The dog must stick to source and wait to be rewarded at source.  Rewarding at source is critical.  If the dog is rewarded away from source it becomes very easy for the dog to boomerang back to the hide once cued to search again. 

(2) The dog leaves the hide on command to search for the next hide 

(3) The dog sticks to source at the next hide and waits to be rewarded at source 

(4) Once all hides are found, the dog looks to the handler with a "what next" expression or communicates to the handler in another fashion (e.g., disinterest) that there is nothing left to find. 

Once a dog has this behavior chain, large and small areas can be worked successfully off leash and on verbal control.  Areas can be perused and successfully covered so that the handlers job is minor adjustments in the search pattern so that corners and thresholds are covered (this can be managed through body movement of the handler or through limited directed searching). 

The result of this training is beautiful, fast teamwork between dog and handler...  the perfect balance between independence and handling while maintaining motivation and odor obedience.  This will also result in the "Three P's"...  Pronounced, Passes and Placements. 

So how do we train this? 

First we need to have the basics...  Odor Obedience.  Odor Obedience is beyond the scope of this discussion but it can be achieved by adhering to the sequence: Understanding --> Confidence --> Drive --> Proofing. 

Once we have odor obedience we can start to train the dog that the hide, once found is now out of play.  Lisa Pattison taught me this technique and once I used it, my dog quickly learned the tools of the game.  Thank you Lisa!  In training, once your dog has found the hide, reward AT SOURCE.  Then step between the hide and your dog while touching the harness to ask your dog to turn away from source.  Wait for your dog to catch the odor of the next hide and release with your search cue.  Using this approach in converging odor puzzles is especially effective. 

Here's a video of me using this approach with Judd in a basic vehicle search where the hides are mirrored images in the wheel wells of opposite vehicles.  Notice that because the second hide is available, he changes his focus away from the first hide. 

I take this training to the next step.  I have added a new verbal cue to finding the next hide.  I use "Find Another" rather than "Search".  To introduce this cue I use "Find Another, Search" and then fade "Search".  This cue develops the meaning that the first hide is done, now the second hide is in play.  On this cue after my dog's reward, he will leave the first hide and not return.  On the rare occasion that he DOES return, he is verbally praised and with "Yes, You Found that One, Find Another".  In this way, I am acknowleding the information that he has given me but I have communicated to him the reminder that the first hide is no longer in play.  It's rare for him to return to the hide again. 

Here’s a video of a dog nearly ready for NW1.  Why is learning how to move to subsequent hides.  In this case, I am still blocking access to the first hide.

Heres another video of a team learning this approach.  Watch how Ginny steps in front of the hide as Sheila starts to investigate the found the hide.  The result is beautiful communication between the two that the first hide is no longer in play.  Ginny and Sheila are an Elite team and are working a complex converging odor puzzle in this video.

Heres Judd who has finished this training.  Im able to work him off leash in a converging odor puzzle with just my voice.  Ive been able to fade stepping in front of the hide and he works solely on “Find Another”.  His search is fast and accurate.

So how do I know when Judd is finished?  He stops searching because at that point he is only searching unproductive areas.  He may give a cursory sniff to something I asked him to search and then look me.   (Looking at me is not his alert.  His alert is nose at source).  For your dog, this may look different. 

Is this training foolproof?  Certainly not.  I have my fair share of NW3 Misses but what I can say is that the Misses were nearly entirely handler error (I'm just as guilty as the next handler of "stupid mistakes") and when we did Pass, we have been HIT and Second Overall.  Even when we don't pass, Judd never comes away without at least one element placement and we usually have a couple of P's on our sheets.  Our times are fast and our comments are usually "Good motivation.  Good odor obedience".  What I can tell you is that this approach works.   

Happy Sniffing!


© Stacy Barnett 2015