Friday, June 30, 2017

It's All Greek to Me!

On a 100+ degree evening in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I was sitting on a bench outside a restaurant with a male colleague waiting for our ride back to the U.S. Embassy Compound. I was appropriately covered head to toe in a black abaya complete with a head scarf to cover my hair. An elderly Saudi woman walked up to us and started yelling in Arabic and waving her finger at us in a scolding manner. Although I didn't understand a word, her message was pretty clear...women are not supposed to sit next men on a bench in public...or at least that's what I figured she was trying to communicate.

Let's face it. We all speak to our dogs and assume they understand or should understand our every word. Should they? Do they? In fact, they are more likely learning to understand us by responding to our tone, movement, intent, mood, and body language than the words we speak ~ just as I was essentially understanding the Saudi woman who was yelling at me. Certainly, if I had understood her, she would not have had to continue her rant toward me. Also, her attitude did not make me feel particularly warm or friendly toward her. When we bring a new dog into our home, they are in very much the same position of understanding as I was on that bench in Riyadh.

How many times have you heard someone say, "Sit. Sit. Come on now. I said sit. Sit for Mommy. Be a good little boy. Sit. Sit. Sit!" This scenario also usually includes increased frustration and impatience on the part of the human, elevated verbal tone and volume, and physical cuing and/or touch to get the desired response. In situations like this, the dog is usually either completely ignoring their person, avoiding them, or giving them a blank and confused stare. Of course, this scenario is somewhat exaggerated to get the point across but I think everyone has seen something similar at one time or another. So often, our dogs are probably hearing our words like the droning, murmuring, unintelligible voices of the adults portrayed in Charlie Brown cartoons. Worse yet, they may also be perceiving us as increasingly volatile angry beings to be avoided.

Another source of confusing communication with our dogs is when we use one word to mean several things. For example "down." Often times people use "down" to get the dog to lay in the down position, to get the dog off of a counter top, AND to get the dog to not jump on someone. Using one word for three different situations and desired behaviors does not give your dog a clear picture of the meaning of "down." In this situation, using "down" for the down position, "off" to get your dog off of a counter top, and "no jump" to get your dog off of people is a clearer option.

In reality, learning the meaning of each and every word/command that we use with our dogs takes repetition, time, patience, and consistency in the use of our words. When first teaching our dogs what our words and commands mean, it is best to speak single words rather than sentences and reward the dog when it responds correctly to each individual word or command. Once the dog knows each command individually and can generalize that command across location, position, distance, and context, we can start to chain several commands together such as "come, front, sit, and finish" before rewarding. 

I also like to teach what I refer to as "hard commands" and "soft commands." When giving a "hard command," I train for, expect, and will reinforce a fast and precise response. A recall "here" command (actually "hier" in German/Dutch for me) is an example of a "hard command." I want the response to be fast and direct. "Soft commands" on the other hand, are looser and considered more of a suggestion, something like "this way" or "over here." Because of my background with working K9s, my "hard commands" are most often used when working and given in a foreign language such as German or Dutch. I use the foreign commands in large part to keep myself from speaking in sentences and because the foreign language words stand out from the every day language my dogs hear. 

So, here is a list of some of the everyday words (in no particular order) with their meanings that I like to use to communicate with my dogs. Where possible, for the purpose of this list, I've used the English translation rather than the German/Dutch words that I use when working in the field:
  • Yes! - Perfect/Reward is imminent (a positive precisely timed marker)
  • Dog's Name - Respond with some attention
  • Good - Great job. Keep doing what you are doing (used to add duration)
  • Ready? - Preparatory word to acknowledge attention
  • Sit - Sit
  • Down - Go into a down position with butt and elbows on the ground
  • Stand - Stand up on all 4
  • Pick a hip - Go into a relaxed down position with weight on one hip
  • All the way - Lay on your side for health examination
  • Stay - Stay until I come back to release you...it may be a while
  • Wait - Hold your position, I will release you soon (used at doorways, into/out of car)
  • Release - Free dog! Can leave bed/car/door/whatever
  • Look - Give me eye contact and hold it
  • Leave it - Don't touch
  • Be nice - Behave nicely with other dogs when greeting/don't get too rough
  • Say hi - Greet a person politely/they are okay
  • Uh Uh or Nope - Not what I want                                                                                                 (a negative marker used as information not scolding or punishment)
  • Inside - Go into the house/building
  • Outside - Go out of the house/building
  • Under - Crawl under something
  • Spring - Jump over something
  • Hup - Jump onto something
  • Through - Go through a tunnel
  • Mark - Focus attention in the direction I point (hand open palm next to face)
  • Run Out - Run fast and straight in the direction of the Mark
  • Over - Move in the direction of my arm movement to left or right in a straight line
  • Tuck in - Tuck under a table or airline seat
  • Speak - Bark
  • Quiet - Stop barking
  • Treat - Expect a treat just because
  • Let's go for a walk - Head to door and wait for leash
  • Kennel - Go into the large outdoor kennel
  • Load up - Head to car and hop up into car crate
  • Crate - Go into the crate
  • On your bed - Go lie down on your bed (chained response of Bed + Down)
  • Place - Lie down between my legs (chain of the between the my legs position + Down)
  • With me - Change of direction when loose leash walking
  • Walk nicely - Maintain loose leash casual walking
  • Heel - Precision attention heel (combination position of dog's shoulder to my knee + Look)
  • Push - Push your nose into my hand while walking next to me
  • Swing - Flip around to my right side and heel while walking backwards
  • Finish - Go from Front position to Heel position sit
  • Here - Come immediately and fast
  • This way - A suggestion to follow generally when off leash hiking
  • Off - Get off of furniture/counters
  • No jump - Don't jump on people
  • Easy - Take toys/treats softly
  • Kisses only - Lick/no teeth
  • Back - Back up
  • Out - Leave the area
  • Look out - Get out of the way of a moving mower/wheel barrow/other
  • Car - A car is coming so go to the side of the road out of the way
  • No cat! - Leave the kitty alone
  • Potty/Take a break - Do #1
  • Big potty - Do #2
  • Let me help you - Relax so I can give first aid/meds
  • Settle - Quit running around and relax
  • Thank you - To stop barking at the window, I've got it covered
  • Hey/Enough -To break fixation/rough play
  • Whistle (Fox 40) - Drop everything and haul asap back to me
  • Whistle (human) - Used to get attention/change of direction/follow when I am in the field
  • Find it - Hunt out target odor
  • Another - Search again for more target odor
  • Show me - Take me to the find and point to it with your nose
  • Closer - Get closer with nose to target odor (used if the dog is fringing)
  • Slow - Slow down to hunt deeply in tighter grid for smaller sources
  • Careful - Slow down and pay attention when moving through dangerous area
  • Suche - German for Search - Follow the trail or track
  • Bring - Retrieve an object to me
  • Hold it - Hold the object in your mouth steady without chewing
  • Touch - Put your feet on a designated touch pad or object 
  • Drink - Drink on command from dish or stream (important when out working)
  • Swim - Enter the water and cool off (also important when out working)
  • Attack - Go bite the decoy
  • Pass Auf - Watch the decoy
  • Guard - Stay with the decoy, watch, and re-attack if he runs.
  • Out - Give/Release the object to me
  • No - Don't do what you are doing (usually followed by a direction to do something else.)
  • Uh oh - When I find something ripped up like a bed or other mess.
  • It's okay - When they need some comfort, not feeling well, or getting picked on
  • Where's your toy? - Find a toy/ball that we have been playing with
  • Head down - From down position, hold head down on paws.
  • Spin - Do a 360 degree spin in front of me
  • Let's feed the horses - Act like an idiot and charge out to the barn
  • Breakfast - After feeding the horses, run back to the house for breakfast
  • Suppertime - After feeding the horses, run back to the house for supper
  • Best dog in the world!!! - This one comes with tons of praise!!
  • My perfect boy - used as much as possible when snuggling on the couch
As you can see, without even realizing it, we ask our dogs to understand many words. If we start chaining those words together too soon and asking for finished behaviors, it stands to reason our dogs will get confused. The more consistent and clear we can be with the words we use, the less conflicted and more likely our dogs will be to respond quickly and correctly to our commands.

But, you ask, "How do I teach each word and behavior clearly?" I'll leave that topic for another blog. 

TEACH ~ TRAIN ~ MANAGE ~ TRUST!!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

More Nosework Tips: Cocktail Anyone?

Before anyone gets too excited at the thought of a hot toddy by the fireplace on a cold winter night, that's not the kind of cocktail I am writing about. Sorry to disappoint. This article is about odor cocktails.

When training detector dogs, some people train one odor at a time. For example, a narcotics dog would first be trained on marijuana (at least in states where marijuana is still illegal.) Once the dog shows firm odor recognition and response on marijuana, other narcotics odors (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, MDMA, PCP) would be added one at a time to the dog's "library" of target odors. The odors are added by either pairing each additional odor with the prior odor, pairing each odor individually with the reward, or rewarding the dog when it shows interest in the newer/novel odor thus adding it to the dog's "library" of target odors.

Another method is to put all of the desired odors to be trained together into a "cocktail." In the case of UKC Nosework, this means the dog is imprinted on all five odors (birch, anise, clove, myrrh, vetiver) at the same time. The rationale being that a dog processes and catalogs each of the odors individually even when they are presented together.

The best way to describe this capability is with the "stew" analogy. When a human walks into a kitchen with stew on the stove, we usually identify the odor as just "stew" or maybe "beef stew." When a dog walks (or runs as the case may be) into the same kitchen, he logs into his brain each and every individual ingredient in the stew: beef, carrots, pepper, salt, celery, bay leaves, and so on. By imprinting the dog using a "cocktail" the dog is presented with the full library of odors he will be asked to detect.

Once the dog has odor recognition of the "cocktail," each of the odors can be separated out and worked one at a time. Initially, when separating out the odors, the dog will show change of behavior and odor recognition but may not know to generalize or accept only the single odor as his target odor. Therefore, it is recommended to assist and reward the dog when he first shows odor recognition at the single odor. Once rewarded, the dog will quickly learn that any single odor or combination of odors from the original "cocktail" is his target odor.

Because so many people participating in Nosework train obedience and other disciplines using operant conditioning and shaping, their dogs have learned to offer behaviors to gain rewards. These dogs are often times more likely to offer trained indications at novel odors if initially trained one odor at a time rather than imprinting all of the odors together in a cocktail.

Training with a "cocktail" provides the complete odor "library" to the dog right away, leaving no ambiguity re target odor. It is a very efficient way to train multiple odors and is less likely to produce a dog that responds with false indications to novel odors. So, happy sniffing and bottoms up!


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

More Nosework Handler Tips: Handler Influence and Pressure

One of the best things about judging a Nosework trial or funmatch is the opportunity to watch a whole bunch of dogs and their handlers working the same problem back to back. Aside from observing and learning how the scent conditions change over time with the angle of the sun, wind, and temperature changes, there is the chance to see how handlers influence their dogs either by helping or unintentionally hindering them. 

During a recent funmatch here in Utah, I judged the vehicle element. As the day progressed, with the sun hitting the front of the SUV and a light breeze pushing across and into the grill, the odor lofted up the black bumper guard pooling at the edge of the hood and also along the bottom, pooling on the opposite bumper rail (see image below.) 


Because this was a funmatch with lots of inexperienced and beginner teams, the fail rate on this element was quite high. What was expected to be a straight forward hide, became quite tricky as the sun came out warming the black bumper guard causing the odor to travel upward to the hood and the breeze picked up pushing the odor across to pool on the opposite bumper guard. Generally, the dogs showed good changes of behavior in odor and most were able to locate the hide but many handlers called "alert" on the fringe pools either to the left of the hide or up above at the hood. What stood out most to me, however, was the effect of unintentional handler pressure on the dogs. In nearly all of the "fail" runs, it went something like this: dog sniffs along bumper, dog shows good change of behavior, seeing interest the handler crowds in and stands over the dog (unknowingly directly opposite the hide location,) dog continues to work through the odor pool to source but is now crowded/blocked/or experiencing what I like to call a "squeeze effect," handler adds additional pressure by repeatedly saying "find it" "show me" "where is it" while reaching toward their treat bag. Inevitably, the dog gives eye contact to the handler with every command while also squeezing quickly through the tight space between the hide location and the handler. Ultimately, the dogs in this situation either extinguished, frustrated out, or went to the fringed odor pools where they were not so crowded by their handlers. In many ways this is to be expected. So many of the dogs participating in Nosework compete in other disciplines such as Agility, Obedience, and Herding where focus on their handler's movements and body position is desired and trained. 


Ideally, when working detection however, dogs learn to work independently and without being so sensitive to their handlers, in essence teaching the dogs to prioritize odor response while desensitizing them to their handler's movements.  That said, Nosework and the professional discipline of K9 Detection still requires a team effort. It is the handler's job to get the dog into a productive area of odor and then the dog's job to work all the way to source. 

Allowing dogs to work fun, high energy, motivational searches off leash can build their confidence, independent hunt, and indication without being subjected to handler cues as they are learning. It also allows the handlers to observe their dog's natural search pace, search style, and changes of behavior when in productive odor and as they work all the way to source odor. At some point, however, as the search areas get larger and more complex, the handler needs to be involved to ensure the dog is getting into all the nooks and crannies of a search area. It may not seem like it, but even as a dog is zipping around off leash in a seemingly erratic pattern, the dog is very often feeding off of their handler's body position, hand position, posture, and direction of travel. When we then attach a leash, the dog's sensitivity and response to their handler's movements and position often magnifies. 


So, when working our dogs on leash we need to learn to guide while following, support while staying out of the way, direct without putting pressure, and fade away as the dog works to and indicates source odor. This sounds simple enough but, depending on the sensitivity of the dog and that dog's prior training, can be a delicate balancing act. As handlers this means we need to be aware of not only our presentation and unintended cueing behaviors when we see our dogs in odor, but also our proximity to them. If we lock up every time the dog shows change of behavior, our behavior becomes part of the dog's indication sequence. The direction our bodies face can either push the dog back or encourage him to follow or move forward. If we turn away from them and march off when they get into odor, the dog will likely pull off. When we lock in place when the dog is working in a pool but not finding source, he will often get stuck there. Simply moving along can be enough to get the dog "unstuck" and searching again. If we choke up on the leash, we will likely illicit an opposition reflex and induce or crush an indication. If we hover over the dog and badger, he will likely focus on us rather than the hunt and odor, offer behaviors, or shut down. If we are too close to the dog when he starts to bracket in an odor cone, we make it difficult for him to change directions and work his way to source. By having awareness of how our behavior, movement, and body position influences our dogs, we can minimize unintentional cueing thus building a more secure and independent response to odor. 

Ultimately, on leash detection work can be a dance in which we flow with our dogs, working in concert and rhythm with them to cover a search area thoroughly and completely. It is a skill worth learning. 

Nosework Training and Trialing Tips

On June 25, 2016, I had the pleasure of judging a Non Licensed UKC Nosework Match in Taylorsville, Utah. The match was the last step necessary before becoming a licensed UKC Nosework Club. The match, the second hosted by the newly-formed Utah Nosework Club, had three elements: Containers, Vehicles, and Exterior searches. While judging the Exterior element, I made a mental list of observations, feedback, and training tips for sharing to help people move forward with their Nosework training. So, here it goes:

Attitude: What became obvious from the start was everyone’s love and affection for their dogs. It was so refreshing to see the encouraging pats and kisses given to the dogs both before entering and after exiting the search area even when the result was an NQ. This positive attitude carried over from competitor to competitor in the form of cooperation, flexibility, and a unity of purpose to have fun and share in a great activity with and for their dogs.  



Inclusion: The breeds at the trial ranged from French Bulldog to English Mastiff and everything in between. I know there was at least one dog that was under one-year-old up to a 12-year-old Weimaraner that rocked the course with the fastest time of the day. Each team worked with their own style and at their own pace. Many of the handlers were first time dog sport competitors or were folks competing with dogs that were too sensitive or reactive to participate successfully in other dog sports. What all the dogs shared, however, was love for their people and a new found confidence in themselves. 
The area: The exterior area was marked off with folding gates. A large rock monument dominated the center of the area and a few folding chairs, a small cooler, and a scooter were scattered around. Despite a relatively steady, light breeze, the large rock monument in the center caused some swirling of the odor and also presented a visual and physical obstacle for people to work around. In addition, a canopy of trees over the area resulted in sections of sun and shade, impacting odor behavior with lofting odor in the sun.

Pattern: When working the area, most handlers chose to follow their dogs without any sort of pattern or plan. In this particular search area, the dogs generally came straight into the area along the right edge and turned left when they got to the end barrier. Some of the dogs that were allowed to free search on a scan quickly got to source odor. Most, however, did not find odor during their initial scan. Several teams then found themselves searching the same area over and over again while missing other areas altogether. After completing the initial scan of the area, it can be more effective and efficient to start a patterned search around the perimeter, allowing the dog to pull into the center when/if they hit odor. My preference is to move in a clockwise pattern around the outside perimeter of the search area with the dog on my left. When there is a large obstacle in the middle of an area, I then work the dog around the center obstacle in a counter clockwise direction while still keeping the dog on my left. If the dog does not show any odor change of behavior (COB), I reverse direction affording the dog the opportunity of a different approach to the odor. By working a pattern, the handler can keep track of where the dog has searched, be certain of full coverage of an area, be certain they are not blocking the dog’s access to odor, and be better able to work as a fluid team with the dog. No matter what element you are training (interior, vehicle, exterior, or container,) it is the handler’s job to get their dog’s nose into a productive area of odor and then the dog’s job to work into odor and indicate as closely to source as possible. One of the best ways to train a pattern is using hide placement during training. For example, for a vehicle search, the systematic training progression of hide placements would be:
  1. Passenger side front bumper           
  2. Passenger side headlight
  3. Center front license plate
  4. Driver’s headlight
  5. Driver’s side front bumper and so on.
The hides would then be worked in a sequence such as 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 2, 3, 4, 1, 3, 4, or similar. In training this way, the placement of the hides builds an expectation for the dog that the find is imminent. Building this expectation in the dog will result in a dog that works with purpose and remains focused throughout the search. Note: when working vehicles, I prefer to start with a counterclockwise search pattern, again, keeping the dog on my left side.


Help or hinder: The sport of Nosework requires essentially only three things: hunt, odor recognition, and odor response. For some dogs, the intrinsic value of the hunt is natural and motivating. For many others, however, the dog needs to first gain confidence and enthusiasm for the hunt as they build on the game and begin to understand that odor means reward. One of the toughest things for new teams is knowing when to support the dog versus when to back off. It is a delicate balance. Try to think of it this way. If you are sitting and someone keeps telling you to “sit” “sit” “sit”, wouldn’t you likely start to think you should be doing something other than what you are doing or perhaps sit somewhere else? So, when working Nosework, if a handler repeatedly tells his/her dog to “search” “search” “search” when the dog is already actively searching, the repeated commands will serve only to confuse the dog and take the dog’s attention away from his task.
Some of the best “rules” I can share regarding the above are as follows:


  1. If your dog is hunting, stay out of his way, stay quiet, and support his effort by moving along with him.
  2. If your dog is stuck or looking back at you, avoid eye contact, look toward where you want your dog to search, and move with a little impulsion as if you are hunting too. This will often give the dog just enough “umpff” to get him searching again. In most cases, it is best to not speak as that will reinforce the dog looking back for support and draw attention away from the search. Said another way, support with movement rather than voice.
  3. If your dog is being “doggy” or “distracted,” redirect to get him back into the game with an energetic and happy command to get back to work (or whatever your search command is).
  4. If your dog shows odor COB, try to stay out of the way, fade from your dog’s interest, all while not pulling or guiding the dog off of odor. Give the dog some time and space to work to source on his own. Try to avoid repeatedly asking “is that it?” “Show me” “Have you got it?”
  5. If your dog shows odor COB but can’t seem to source the odor, move him away to get him out of odor so he can clear his head, shake it off, and then allow him to try to reacquire odor by coming in from another direction.
  6. If you dog’s COB is fleeting or subtle when in odor, take heart. In training, provide high motivation and positive association with the odor to build your dog’s confidence and security in the game. Once the dog is locked on, you can shape a stronger odor response such that your dog will ultimately demand that you acknowledge his COB and trained indication with a reward.    


Read your dog: During the trial, several of the dogs timed out during the search. 

In most cases, these dogs did show COB at or near odor source, yet the handler did not recognize the COB and pulled them off to search elsewhere. Conversely, some dogs showed “doggy” sniffing behavior spending a lot of time investigating objects where target odor was not present. The handlers then mistakenly called an alert thinking that the dog was indicating. One way for a handler to learn how to better read their dog is by having a friend video the team and closely observing the dog’s behavior in a search area that has numerous distraction odors but no target odor. Watching for the changes in ear set, tail behavior, sniffing behavior, and mouth/lips when in the odor of other dogs, critters, trash and/or food versus the COB when in target odor will help the handler to recognize and work through these distractions. When being “doggy,” dogs often have loose frothy lips, increased salivation, lowered ears and stilled or stiff tail. When in critter odor, dogs often have a pronounced arch in their neck with pricked ears and rapid high tail wagging. When in target odor, some things to look for include closed mouth, increased sniffing with sucking and short exhale bursts, quick changes of direction (bracketing), increased or stiff or circling helicopter tail behavior, changes in pace, changes in ear set, increased excitement, and pulling and/or body contortion to get into or near tight or difficult areas.

Accuracy vs. speed: Titling in Nosework requires that the dog is accurate and can source odor within a reasonable amount of time. “Winning” a competition, however, requires that a dog is accurate, fast, and without faults. Handlers who wish to become very competitive in the sport of Nosework are often faced with the dilemma of perhaps jumping the gun calling an indication early and incorrectly versus taking the time to be certain that their dog has correctly sourced odor. For novice dog teams, my suggestion is to focus on accuracy. In the words of Wyatt Earp, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” As the dog learns the game, works more independently, and responds more strongly to odor, the trained indication can be shaped and perfected and the speed will come.Cueing: One of the most frequent handler errors I’ve observed both in training and in the trial setting is handlers who stop moving and reach into their pockets for rewards the second they see their dogs show interest in anything. This causes the dog to look up to the handler which is then often followed by “Is that it? Do you have it? Show me” and ultimately an incorrect call by the handler “Alert!” We’ve all been there, and it is admittedly a hard habit to break. As a handler, it is difficult to relinquish control and trust to our dogs when we want to help them to succeed. When training, it is very important to build the dog’s independent hunt and independent response to odor. Where safe, it can be very helpful to allow the dog to search off leash in training to develop the dog’s independence and ability to work away from us. It also allows the handler to stand back and more easily observe and take note of the dog’s natural pace and COB when working freely and when in odor. Also, rewarding the dog when the dog is focused on odor versus looking back at us will more clearly communicate to the dog that the game is about the odor. Using a marker (clicker or verbal) or throwing a toy right over the dog’s head when the dog is focused on odor allows us to reinforce the dog’s response from a distance.



Getting the trained indication: Let’s just say there are many ways to get there. Some separate out the indication behavior as a trained exercise before even introducing odor. Others shape it in over time. With a highly motivated dog, the trained indication can be introduced with odor in the very first training session. There are pros and cons with any method. That said, my suggestion is to build the dog’s drive and desire for the game, odor, and reward. Handlers and trainers simply need to convey to the dog the formula S = R = R (Stimulus/Odor = Response/Trained indication = Reward.) Making a strong connection between odor and reward increases the dog’s drive for the game. Once drive is high, the indication can be pretty easily shaped using hide placement and good timing. For example, if a dog is pawing, place the hides such that they cannot become interactive and self-rewarding and/or self-reinforcing and be sure to mark/reward before the dog starts to paw. If you want to shape a down at source, place the hide such that the dog has to reach under something with his nose to induce a down position. Once the dog starts giving the correct response, duration can be shaped into the equation.


Video: The dog in the video below learned to search in a pattern along the side of this truck based on the systematic progression of hide placements as described above. The down indication was shaped by placing the hide where the dog must reach her nose up in such a way that it induces her into a down. The reward is delivered after a verbal marker “yes” which occurs when the dog is focused on odor and also in a down position. Once she is stronger in her commitment to odor and indication, the duration of her stare and down will be required before she is rewarded. The video also shows some great COB when the dog gets into odor.



After more than 20 years of working detection with professionals, volunteers, and sport enthusiasts, I continue to observe, hone techniques, and learn. There is so much more information that can be shared but, at the risk of writing a mini novel, I will leave it at this. I hope somewhere in these observations and training tips, you can find something to help you and your dog move forward in the journey that is Nosework!