Does it really matter HOW you start your dog in Nosework?

Well, it depends.

I’m the first one to always say that all methods work as long as you are respecting the dog and his emotions and needs. I truly believe that. Do I have my preferences? Sure! Don’t we all? Are all methods equal? That’s really hard to say because I think it’s important to train the dog as an individual.

Today, I want to talk about training the shy or the sensitive dog. These are dogs who desperately need this activity. This activity is highly therapeutic and it a huge builder of confidence. (Note I said “activity”, not “sport”…. The activity is beneficial for ALL dogs… the decision to compete should be separate from the decision to start Nosework.)

The shy or sensitive dog needs a lot more than just understanding how to find target odor. Many dogs do very well being imprinted, then learning how to search, then taking it on the road. For the shy or sensitive dog, we need to cultivate qualities that are much more basic.

When we train the shy or the sensitive dog, we need to do two major things:

(1) We need to remove any and all pressure, regardless of how small or seemingly insignificant until they can come out of their shell.

(2) We need to gradually teach the dog to be comfortable in new environments separately from Nosework training.

For a lot of dogs, we can put the dog directly on odor. This is an excellent approach for dogs who are comfortable with the process of learning and who are generally confident. Imprinting odor is a skill, and as we know, we need to care for Confidence and Motivation before Skills! That means, before I introduce odor, I want to work with a dog who is already bringing confidence and an interest in learning to the table. This just basically means that I want to work with an engaged learner. This is pretty natural with many dogs but what about the dogs who just aren’t ready for that?

For dogs who are more shy or sensitive, it can be helpful to use games involving finding food rewards prior to introducing odor. Using this approach, the dog can learn how to express himself and start to act independently. For many low confidence dogs, this development is hugely empowering if done in a safe space. In fact, even if you never plan on doing Nosework or even putting your dog on odor, if you have a shy or sensitive dog, you should be playing these games. It’s just good for them!

Do I think all dogs need to be started by searching for food? Nope. Do I think sensitive and very low confidence dogs should be? Yep.

Keep in mind that the act of searching using the nose, triggers the Seeking System in the dog. It feels GOOD and it relieves stress! Yes! Nosework is actually GOOD for your dog!

So by hunting for food, we remove all pressure, and we allow the dog to start to come out of his shell. When he starts to feel empowered, his confidence will raise! At the same time, the handler can start to establish critical aspects of routine. If competition is in the dog’s future, these essential components of a routine can be put together in a trial situation. And routine reduces anxiety! This routine can include everything from start line development to just the routine of getting in and out of the car (and everything in between!)

In this exercise, we can start to establish the routine of a Start Line. The Start Line is major cue to the dog to search independently. Establishing a Start Line routine early on can minimize stress and anxiety later!

While the dog develops confidence searching in a safe place (the home is perfect for this!), the handler can start to work on building the dog’s ability to acclimate to a new area. I tend to suggest that this work be done in parallel to searching for food at home. Acclimating can be done in small, novel locations and is usually accomplished in just a small handful of minutes a session.

Then, as the dog learns the routine of settling into a novel area, we start to slowly introduce searching for food in a previously acclimatized area. The result is a dog who is searching, without pressure, in a novel environment.

Odor comes later. It’s super easy to introduce odor to dogs who are receptive and confident. Once a dog has developed confidence, I would proceed as normal!

What if my dog is already on odor? Can these games help?

Sure! Honestly, I play food hiding games for my dogs all of the time and they are all excellent search dogs! They love nothing more than to play “Cheeseball Toss”… If you have a dog that is already on odor and lacks confidence, this is a super way to help the dog to establish helpful emotions.

What about distractions in the future?

This really should be a non-issue. Once you get to the point where you are competing with intentional distractions, your dog will have a substantial reinforcement history and obedience to odor. When an odor obedient dog encounters odor, distractions are simply ignored!

What could happen if I didn’t choose this approach?

Honestly, this is a case of Pay Now or Pay Later. A dog who isn’t ready to search target odor in new places will have a fairly low confidence in searching. Searches may be slow and alerts may be very subtle. The way to fix that is to work on acclimation and removal of pressure of searching in novel environments or pressure for a stronger alert. So basically, you do the work now or you do it later!

You teach at FDSA… Does this go against FDSA methods?

At FDSA, we are committed to training happy dogs. The emotional state of the dog is a top priority for us. So no. This is not inconsistent with our methods. I do have a class that address this approach (starts June 1), and we encourage students to move into NW101 Introduction to Odor, the following term.

Interested in learning more?

I have a class that covers introducing food searches in a way that minimizes interaction with boxes (I don’t introduce boxes until the dog understands how to indicate on odor – minimizes smashing later on!) and that works on building the foundations necessary for a confident nosework dog. We also cover acclimation to new areas, handling, reading the dog and a bit of scent theory! If interested, please consider joining me in NW170 Building Blocks of Nosework – Before Odor starting June 1.