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”)

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I found a beautiful breakdown in Denise Fenzi’s book, “Train the Dog in Front of You” (available at: https://www.thedogathlete.com/collections/books/products/train-the-dog-in-front-of-you)

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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 www.denisefenzi.com 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.

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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!!!

© Stacy Barnett 2015