Stairstepping Your Way to Generalization

We all know that we have to search in “novel” locations…  we have to generalize.  So how do we know we are doing it “right”?    Our approach to generalization has a direct impact on our ability to prepare for a trial.  If we do it well, our dogs will emerge confident and ready to trial.  If we are less than successful we may experience frustration and may never find ourselves at a trial.  So what’s the secret?  What if we have an “environmental” dog?

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There are a few ways that people will typically work on generalization:

  1. Attend a “travel class” where the instructor sets the hides.  In this case, if you’re lucky, your instructor knows a bit about dog behavior and will be able to modify the exercise for your dog or have enough students that you can be put into a class with dogs of similar temperaments.  This approach is generally successful although these classes can be difficult to find.
  2. You can take private lessons.  This is generally the most expensive option although it can be highly effective because the hides will be set to challenge YOU and ONLY YOU.  This option frequently produces fast results regardless of the temperament of the dog as long as the instructor has experience with dog behavior.
  3. You can team up with a training buddy.  This is great fun if you have someone you can train with.  The challenge is that at least one of you needs to experience in hide placement.
  4. You can work on your own without guidance.  This can work if you are already experienced and are not training your first Nosework dog.

So what do you do if you don’t fall into any of these categories?  Are you doomed to failure?  Should you quit while you’re ahead?  Go home and cut your losses??  ABSOLUTELY NOT.

The answer is in careful planning and “stairstepping”.  The concept of stairstepping is simply going from Point A to Point B, one step at a time.  Going up a flight of stairs, what is easier, taking one step at a time or skipping steps and taking two or three?  Stairstepping is based on the concept of changing just one element at a time and load balancing the difficulty of the rest of the elements.

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Successful Stairstepping follows this equation:

SUCCESS = Drive and Motivation + Skill - Environmental Distractors - Hide Difficulty

Your dog comes with a certain amount of drive and motivation…  there are times when this is intense enough to override environmental stress.  Other dogs may have less drive and motivation but their sensitivity to the environment may be less.  As you can see, success is heavily dependent on the dog himself, how distracting the environment is and the hide difficulty.

The crux of it is in Hide Difficulty…  Hide Difficulty is a product of hide placement and scent dynamics.  If you are lacking in Hide Skills and Scent Theory, don’t panic!!  You can still place successful hides for your dog.

First of all, list out the skills that you need for your level….  and rate yourself and your dog!  A few examples from NW1 might include:

  • Sticking to the vehicle during a search
  • Threshold hides
  • Corner hides
  • Elevated hides
  • lots more!!

Pick ONE thing to focus on…  let’s say you’d like to focus on threshold hides….

Now, set your dog up for success!  Is your dog environmental or easily distracted?  Look a the equation and figure out what type of environment you should be searching.  If you have an easily distracted dog, pick a small area with low distractions such as an area with pavement, away from people and other dogs…  something where the likelihood of extra interesting odors, or novel odors, will be less abundant.

Place a start line with a pair of cones.  This is especially important if you are working on threshold hides!  Setting a start line and defining the search boundaries is good practice anyway because it gives you a sense for whether you are making the search area too big or too small.

You might want to start with the start line downwind of the hide, meaning that the wind is blowing across the hide and towards the start line.

Now try to picture the air flow…  is it complex or is it simple?  Complex air flow makes for a difficult hide

The next most important step is to AGE YOUR HIDE.  By aging the hide, you are allowing a scent cone to develop.  Your dog needs a scent cone in order to find the hide without having to resort to luck.  Too much practice with non-aged hides produces nook and cranny dogs…  dogs that look in nooks and crannies for odor rather than sampling for a scent cone and then working the scent cone to source.  If you can, age your hide about a half hour but NEVER less than fifteen minutes.

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Congratulations!  You’ve just set your dog up for a successful search!

Now, start to stairstep.  Pick ONE thing to change….  be it hide difficulty, location difficulty, search area size, etc.  But ONLY pick one thing.   If you change too many parameters at one time your success equation might fail.

Also remember to sometimes take a step down!  Taking a step down the stairs can mean putting out motivating hides and increasing your rate of reinforcement.  It’s essential in your dog’s training to occasionally give him an easy payday.

As your dog gets more and more experienced with novel locations and difficult scent puzzles, you will actually become challenged to create a challenging situation for the dog.  But to get to that point takes time.  If you stairstep, you WILL get there.

© Stacy Barnett 2015