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. 

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