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!!

Is your great relationship causing your False Alerts?

Relationship is everything.  


It’s true!  Relationship is Everything! It’s what every handler should be seeking with their dog regardless of the sport.  Relationship is the foundation of solid teamwork.  In competition scent detection this is no different.  When we are handling effectively, we are partnered with our dog.  We are moving with our dog with FLUIDITY and ELASTICITY.  Picture two wolves hunting.  Once doesn’t stand off to the side and watch!  They are both engaged, working together in perfect harmony.  When we search with our dogs, it’s the same…. and when we are doing this in step, with teamwork, it’s beautiful to behold.  The dog has the nose but the handler has responsibility as well.


Recently, I’ve found the aspect of dog behavior and response to social cues to be fascinating.  This sociological aspect of what makes a dog tick is fundamentally important to how we handle.

For instance, did you know that a dog will IGNORE olfactory cues when presented with a conflicting social cue?

Wait, what?  Yes, go back and read that sentence because it’s the most important thing that I’ve written so far this morning.

And, guess what?  Your dog cares what your think!  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.  

So your great relationship with your dog may in fact be the source of your False Alerts!

But isn’t a good relationship, IDEAL?  YES IT IS!!  It also means that when you handle, you need to be cognizant of your subconscious inclination to express your opinion.

How could you be expressing your opinion to your dog?

Your dog is a master at reading you…. and they want to please you….  because of your excellent relationship.

What cues could you be giving your dog?

- Relational Acceleration / Deceleration

- Proximity

- Preference

Acceleration / Deceleration is based on a change in your speed IN RELATION TO YOUR DOG.  You speed up or walk past your dog and you risk pulling your dog off odor.  You slow down near a cold box and you risk a false alert.  You slow down in response to your dog’s slow down (change of speed / behavior) and you risk your dog throwing a final response prematurely.

Proximity represents your distance from your dog.  Dogs have a sweet spot and it may vary depending on the dog.  Get too close and crowd your dog, you may cause either a false alert or you could push your dog off of odor (dogs respond to pressure - some breeds more than others).  Stand too far away and your dog may feel insecure and unable to communicate the hide location.  (Standing of course is an element of relative deceleration… hmmm….  see how these parts start to fit together?)

Preference!  Have you ever been in a blank room, about to call “Finish" and your dog throws a final response and you call “Alert”?  Oh boy….  the bane of many NW3 teams! How about going into a search area thinking “that’s a good place for a hide” and your dog alerts there but you get a “No”?  In both of these situations we have communicated our preferences to the dog.

The reason why dogs respond to these cues is because they are descended from animals whose very survival depends on teamwork and cooperation.  This is WHY your dog cares what you think!

False Alerts are usually the result of dogs trying to be good teammates with us.  Sure, dogs can make a mistake and fringe (meaning alert on the edge of scent cone unintentionally due to scenting conditions).  But False Alerts are usually handler induced in some way, form or fashion.  What about the optimistic dog who throws a behavior in order to earn a cookie?  Well, in all likelihood that is just trained in.

And when you started this sport, you thought the DOG did all the work….

Happy Sniffing!!

Sometimes we have to say THANKS...

Here we are, in another holiday season.  The year is wrapping up.  And in many ways it’s time to give thanks.

Tonight I want to dedicate this blog to the most incredible creature ever to grace my life.  Judd.  ARCHMX JB Windjammer BN RA ASCA TD ELT-CH SWA RATO.  Alphabet soup…. lol. It just means that Judd and I perused Rally, Obedience, Agility, Barn Hunt and Tracking before settling on the most amazing of all dog sports…. Nosework (or Scent Work depending on the venue).  Competition Scent Detection…. the most consummate of all dog sports.  Looking at that string of letters it would be easy to assume that Judd is a fancy bred dog or at least possibly started at a puppy, groomed to be a Sports Dog.  No.  That actually couldn’t be farther from the truth!  But I digress…. we will get to that!

When I went to class tonight to teach, a very close friend gave me a Christmas gift that I will always treasure… it’s a personalized ribbon hanger with the phrase “The Joy is in the Journey” transcribed on it including “Judd SWN” (SWN is AKC Scent Work Novice).  It was meant to display the ribbons that Judd earned at Eukanuba this year in order to get me to remove them off of my dining room light fixture!

So I hung the ribbons.. and then decided to hang a few more special momentos from 2017.  2017 was a special year for Judd and me.  He earned NACSW ELT-CH (Elite Champion) as the first Labrador in the country to achieve this title.  He then moved on to compete in the 1st annual Eukanuba Performance Games earning 2nd Overall out of 50 dogs after winning High in Trial on the second day.  Fast forward to November, he competed at the 2017 NACSW National Invitational earning a 1st in C-Barn and a 2nd in Stroh’s Pillars out of 46 dogs competing.

Then I got to reminiscing about what brought me to this spot.

6 years ago I put in an application with Lulu’s Rescue out of PA for a yellow Labrador named Annie.  She sounded exactly like what I wanted and I thought she might be a good match with Joey, my then 4 year old Standard Poodle.  When Jane Zeolla (the very same Jane Zeolla from the book “Little Boy Blue”) contacted me, she said, “Annie needs to go to a home with kids.  But Judd is your dog”.  My response was “Who is Judd?”

Judd as it turns out was pulled out of a high kill gassing shelter in North Carolina.  Something pulled at Jane and convinced her to believe in him and rescue him.

After meeting him (twice) I thought he might be a good fit in my home!

Here’s the day he came into my home and my heart:


We started training All The Sports and ended up at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy working with Denise Fenzi and Nancy Little in the second ever term of FDSA in the Obedience Problem Solving class.  We were working on Go Outs!

Judd stressed in competition in Rally, Obedience and Agility.  However later hinted to me that he liked using his nose earning an Tracking Dog title with ASCA after only 6 weeks of classes!


Fast forward, Judd and I tried a newer scent sport called “Nose Work” and he was smitten.  So was I!

Judd earning his NW1 at Hawley PA:


Moving on to NW2 (one month after his NW1 title) in Easton PA:


His first NW3 title (three months later!) at Milmont PA:


Then a Second NW3 title in Huntington MA:


And a Third NW3 earning him NW3 Elite only 13 months after his NW1:


Moving on to Elite Division…. ELT1 (with a score of 90.48 clinching his spot at the 2017 NACSW National Invitational:


And ELT2. The first Labrador to achieve this title!:


On to ELT3…. this time traveling all the way to Oklahoma! He was the second dog in the country to achieve this title :


And finally earning ELT-CH (Elite Champion) becoming the 1st Labrador in the country to achieve this title and one of the first dozen or so dogs in the country:


Ah…. but his story continued!

He was lucky enough to get into the 1st Annual Eukanuba Performance Games and the Inaugural AKC Scent Work trial.  He not only finished his Scent Work Novice title but he won High in Trial on the second day.  This allowed him to compete in the Championshiop Round on Sunday where he won 2nd Overall (out of 50 dogs total):


Fast forward to November this year…. we competed at the 2017 NACSW National Invitational.  He won the C-Barn search and was 2nd in Stroh’s Pillars.  More importantly we had the time of our lives and built so many memories that will last a lifetime!


Here he is alerting on a high hide in his Stroh Pillar search!

His whole Stroh Pillar search can be seen here:

What a good boy….

But you know what?  It’s not just about the ribbons…. He has affected me in ways I can barely express adequately…

This time last year I was struggling with anxiety.  My job was crushing me.  I was working in my third Fortune 100 company in a high pressure job.

I ended up having to train Judd as a Service Dog.  He would perform Deep Pressure Therapy, stopping anxiety attacks in their track.  He started going to work with me in his new job.

Eventually I was no longer able to perform in my job.  It was a sad and stressful time for me.  However, usually in life as one door closes another opens.  In this case, I was able to start teaching full-time and was really able to get Scentsabilities Nosework off the ground… (I had already been teaching at FDSA for a couple of years).  All of this is much in part (ok, mostly) due to this amazing dog.  He no longer needs to perform his SD duties… although he has retained his ability to do a generalized retrieve and hold!

Now Judd is looking forward to his next endeavors in Competition Scent Detection and is additionally helping to train the puppy, Brava, who is following in his footsteps.  Judd is a loving, patient big brother!

Going back to the ribbon hanger, inscribed with “The Joy is in the Journey”…. the memories it brings up…. they are emotional and powerful.  And in the end I truly know that I have a dog-of-a-lifetime…. one of the True Greats.

What makes a great dog if not their influence on our lives?  With Judd I am truly grateful.  And I am grateful to everyone who has been on this journey with me.

Judd honey, I love you with every bit of my soul!  You’re not a Heart Dog…. you’re a Soul Dog.  Thank you for being the very best dog and the very best of friends.

To all who are reading this, be thankful.  This is the time of year to look back and pay attention to what these amazing creatures have done for us and how they have influenced our lives.  They are truly Awesome in every meaning of the word.

Happy Sniffing!

What are You Rewarding?

What are you rewarding? It’s a simple question but not a simple answer.  Are you rewarding the Find or the Alert?

Do you find yourself saying “Show Me” to your dog?

This is a common error that a lot of handlers make, especially more novice handlers.  It’s a habit that needs to be broken, but why?  Why is it important?


First let’s explore what a behavior chain is.

Paul Chance refers to a Behavior Chain as “A series of related behaviors, the last of which produces reinforcement.”

With a behavior chain, each behavior essentially rewards the next.  This means that breaking the behavior chain to re-cue an alert actually punishes the find. So you can actually extinguish the sourcing behavior!  …and it has the added issue that it decreases the confidence that the dog has in both the handler AND his skills!

WOW, say what??

There’s an added problem.

The Alert becomes a PROMPTED BEHAVIOR.  That means that when you re-cue you start a behavior chain that begins with “Show Me” and ends with an Alert.  Which ultimately could mean false alerts.  Be careful what you reward!

So why do people do this?

(1) handlers aren’t sure of the dog’s body language enough to call Alert, and

(2) the handler is trying to develop a stronger alert.

So how else can this backfire?

Well re-cueing the search after the dog has actually found the hide will increase anxiety and decrease the confidence that the dog has in the handler.

So what if we feel the UNDYING need to say “Show Me”… what do we do?

(1) we can work known hides and get in quickly and reward,

(2) we can start rewarding the FIND rather than the ALERT, 

(3) we can increase motivation and odor obedience separately, and

(4) we can get better at reading our dog!

So what does this mean?  TRUST YOUR DOG.

A special thank you to Deborah Jones, Ph.D. for helping me think though some of the more complicated aspects of learning and behavior!

© Stacy Barnett 2015