Wednesday, October 26, 2016

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!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for these two articles. Having a search plan and making just one pass on lead through the search areas was the only way I was able to finally pass three NW3 trials to earn the NW3 Elite title. I intend to work a similar way in elite trials in spite of pressure from instructors to work off lead.

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