When I started in this sport I thought of blank areas as demotivational for the dog. I hated the idea of training blank areas and felt that I was “setting my dog up”. In retrospect, I think my position on Blank Areas was more because I had a “finding hides” mindset instead of a “clearing areas” mindset. Fast forward, I now realize that my success at Elite and Summit was a reflection of my transition in mindset, and I have evolved so that training blank areas is a key cornerstone to my training approach. (“Blank Areas” are areas devoid of target odor.)
If we only ever knew how many hides there were, or if we could always rely on a fast dog and sufficient time to pinball around a search area in order to bounce into as many hides as possible, then I guess it wouldn’t matter, however reality tells us that if we want to move up the levels or if we want to really shine under time pressure regardless of how fast our dog is, we need to make that mind shift. Blank Areas are the key to making that mind shift.
Blank Areas are about clearing space
When we clear space, we are looking for communication from the dog. We aren’t just looking for changes of behavior that indicate hides. We are also watching to know when space is empty. Dogs have behaviors that are specific to blank areas. When I clear space or work blank areas, I am (1) looking for these behaviors, and (2) making sure that the area has been covered from a space and air flow perspective.
When we first start working blank areas with our dogs, it feels weird. It can feel kind of icky! When we start the sport, we are SO focused on learning what a Change of Behavior looks like that when we start working blank areas, we are often looking for the LACK of something. However, the dog is communicating to us every moment on the search regardless of the presence of target odor. Once we learn how to interpret this communication, blank areas become obvious and our ability to clear larger areas improves dramatically.
When we clear search areas, what we are doing is interpreting the dog and confirming our suspicions. Blank area work is essential because it transitions the handler from capably clearing small spaces to large spaces. Without blank area work, we would overwork large spaces, run out of time, and exhaust our dogs.
But IS blank area work demotivating?
No. It’s really not as long as your reinforcement is not limited to finding hides. Here’s the thing. Your dog isn’t truly motivated by that cookie in your bait pouch. Your dog is motivated because searching is FUN. If you can maintain that fun, keep your dog interested, and have a huge party after the search, your dog will not lose motivation regardless of whether or not there is target odor in the area. I know… that’s hard to envision! Our dogs love food SO much! Here’s the test though. When you are doing a multiple hide search and reward for the first hide, does your dog forsake the search because they know that there are more cookies to be had or do they start searching for the next hide? If the reward was just your cookie, wouldn’t your dog just want more cookies?
Of course not! Dogs love a puzzle. Sure, your dog likes to find hides… but they also love searching! Blank area work is ok to practice!
Interpreting blank areas help the handler to be comfortable moving on.
If you can interpret what your dog looks like in a blank area, once you get to a large search area, you will be able to easily interpret which parts of the area are unproductive. If we can’t read that communication, we end up reworking the area and can through desire of not wanting to miss a hide, manufacture a hide in our heads. We all know where that gets us!
Plus there are those new rule changes!
If you don’t know what I’m referring to, take a look at the new NACSW regulations. Blank Areas are now worth 2 hides in Elite and 10 points in Summit. That’s huge. On average, 2 hides are worth about 10 or 11 points in Elite. Summit titles are won or lost by margins much smaller than that. Personally, I saw a HUGE affect on my success rate AND my confidence as a handler after I started incorporating blank areas and large unproductive areas into my training.
Try incorporating blank areas into your training!
Try incorporating blank areas into your training! If you don’t do many, try increasing them. Remember that our dogs are constantly communicating to us. Sometimes it takes a lack of odor to really understand what they are saying.