I had the pleasure to be the dog in white at Sundays NW2 trial in Spencer, MA last weekend, and then got to video every Vehicle and Exterior search. Since those searches ended before the Interior and Container searches (get used to this – the Interiors of NW3 always take the longest) I was able to watch about 1/3 of the Containers searches, as well.
A few highlights for me were being able to “run” Izzie in a trial with the Certifying Official (Ron Gaunt, co-founder of the sport) and both judges (Lindsay and Sue – one a retired military bomb dog handler, the other a retired K9 police officer) and the trial host and fellow NW3 competitor, Maria Corrigan along for each element. However, unlike a trial, there was no pressure – they didn’t give time limits and it didn’t count for anything, so that was a nice feeling. They determined the times after watching us work (aren’t you lucky Izzie isn’t a super fast dog!) and watching her work in the wind. She got the first Interior hide in 26 seconds, and the next room, she got 2 hides in 43 seconds, so actually, that was pretty fast!
My biggest take away from watching 34 dogs work, is that the dogs who were least concerned about what was going on around them (the wind, creaking building, the people watching them, their handler) were the ones who did the best. This doesn’t mean fastest, it means they were focused on finding source, and worked independently until they got there. The dogs who were frequently checking in with their handler – based on a noise they were worried about, based on the handler being close to them, or perhaps being used to taking cues from their handler – were more difficult for the handlers to read, and left the handler questioning “was that an alert?” and left the dog thinking “hmmm, we’re slowing down… should I stop here and nose touch again?” And since nose work is an instinctual thing, when both parties are thinking, it usually leads to trouble. Many dogs were in odor – near but not at source – and would glance up at their handlers like “hey – I’ve got something here!” and the handlers would call Alert. No – your dog is in odor, but not at source. Lindsay would allow the dogs to get to source so they could be rewarded at that hide – she said she never wants to walk a dog away when they are in odor. For those who false alerted not near source, it was No, I’m sorry, thank you. Again, get used to this, as this is what happens in NW3.
So how do we get our dogs to work to source? Isn’t that what we practice from day one of introducing odor – pair at source, then reward at source? So why were dogs alerting off of source? I think it could be – and I feel myself doing this – subtle handler cues when we see our dogs working odor. For example, when I’m practicing w/ Jinxx, I see her in odor and close to source. I open my treat pouch and reach in. That is a HUGE clue to her that she is about to get her reward. In practice, I know where the hide is, so I wait for her to get to source before rewarding (as I’m sure everyone does) But in a trial, if we give them that clue (reaching for our holsters – it’s actually funny watching people do it) of course they want to get paid, and will look up – Alert? No, fringe. The other thing I saw a lot of people do, and again, I feel myself doing this and have to stop myself – is not only reaching for their holster (treat bag or pocket) but moving in towards their dog. The more sensitive dogs will look up, or do the behavior chain they’ve done in practice over and over – I’m in odor – mom reaches for the cookie and steps forward – I’m about to get paid, and to get paid, I have to do that thing she likes (nose touch, sit, look, paw). The dogs who want to please, or who really want to get paid, seem more susceptible to the handlers actions than those who are independent and laser focused on the game – getting to source.
The trial I was at had an exterior hide in a picnic table. It was where the bench joined with the support, and it was the bench farthest from the start line. The dogs got to the first bench – wind was blowing odor to them – and you’d see the chain reaction start. Dog in odor “hey, I got something here”. Handler recognizing dog was in odor, and reaches for treat and/or steps in closer in anticipation. Dog glances up (Alert? No) Or, dog knows these dance steps, and knows he’s about to get paid… but to get paid, he has to do that thing mom/dad likes, and then would nose touch an area or paw. Alert? No.
Ok, so that’s the WHY dogs are alerting off source. How do we fix it? One thing I’ve been doing in my NW3 trials is to put 3 big easy to eat treats in my hand at the start line, assuming there could be 3 hides out there. Sometimes I give 2 treats out at one hide, and then have to reload, but this generally helps me from having to reach for my holster, avoiding that cue to my dog as well as shaving off some seconds. Because you never know if you’ll need those extra few seconds! Now that I’m working already loaded, I’ve eliminated that cue.
The next key to success is that I just have to remember to STAY BACK and LET MY DOG WORK when I see them in odor. It doesn’t mean stand STILL – it just means give them space to work it out. I may work in a semi-circle around them, so if they need to go around something, I’m not blocking their access to be able to do so. That picnic table was a good example – if I saw my dog working odor on the first bench we came to, I would be watching her work it – has she really jammed her nose in one corner/crack? or is she still sniffing around? Sniffing around – I would move slightly to see if she wanted to try another angle. This happened at our NW3 trial in NJ last month, where Jinxx and I were on a ramp, and she was working a chair back between a railing that was below the ramp. She was sniffing around, but not jamming her nose on any one spot. I walked to the end of the leash down the ramp, trying to get her to come with me and work it from below (after giving her lots of time to work it from above) I finally had to give a little tug to get her to come around the railing and work it from the bottom, where she did jam her nose on the chair seat, bow, and looked at me. A friend who was watching said she was dying – why didn’t I move her down earlier? It was really hard to pull her away from odor, but I could tell she was not going to get to source from up on the ramp. This is similar to the vehicle hide at the NW2 trial Sunday, where dogs were picking up odor on the left wheel well of that blue truck – the hide was on the right as you faced it from the start line. Because of the wind, yes, the dog was in odor on the left, but by moving around the back of the truck – you saw the dogs work the bumper nicely but not alert – and bringing them all the way to the right side wheel well – and then the right side of the tire – you saw the dogs get more and more excited, the closer to source they got.
So for me, NOT reaching in the treat pouch when my dog is in odor, and NOT stepping closer when my dog is in odor, helps them work it out on their own. But, I also try to know when to step in, and move them to a better position to access source when necessary.
So what about those dogs who were in odor on the picnic bench, but worked hard – wove in and out of table legs and supports – to get to source? How do you get your dog to do that? That’s what this weeks classes were about… setting up some challenges for your dogs to work through, and waiting to reward when they were AT source. So, I made GETTING to source a little challenging – I mentioned I was adding some stress to their search, but really a better word would be pressure. I wanted the dogs to work through MILD stress, and some physical pressure to get to source, where they were generously rewarded. I did this using something familiar to them – boxes – and just set it up that they had to push through some boxes, go over or around boxes to get to source. Most times they could see source – the tin or container – and that helped them want to push thru. I don’t want to make your dogs destructo dogs, and have them bash through things and break things in a trial (or your home!) but I want them to be willing to work hard, through awkward positions and places, to get to source. I don’t want to set every hide up like this, and I would adjust the hide for dogs who are really concerned w/ boxes falling on them or boxes moving around them.
As you are practicing with your dog, practice standing back, well back, with treats already to go (in your hand). NO MOVING IN when you see them in odor, but as SOON AS their nose hits source, rush in to reward. Your dog will feel / hear you coming in to reward them, and turn to look at you. WAIT for them to put their nose back on source before delivering the treat. You want THEM leading YOU to source, not them following your treat hand to source. If your dog is pawing, ignore it, and ONLY reward the nose at source. We started doing this with Calvin, and he started freezing! Yeah! It would be very cool to have another dog do the freeze at source. Jeanne’s little Gidget, who does not have her ORT yet, has also been offering a natural freeze. For dogs like Max and Billie Sue, they are so clear with their nose poke then little scratching, that I would keep that. It’s natural to them, and they only do the scratching when at source. You just call Alert as soon as they start digging, and you’re good. This is different from the pawing that Tyrah used to do – she would do a big paw swipe in the general area of source – not helpful in pinpointing, so we eliminated the pawing by ONLY rewarding nose at source. Jolie has her Sit, but you have to be careful that you see the sourcing behavior first – snuffling around an area, speeding up, becoming more animated, and then the QUICK sit, as she tends to offer a sit either when she is in odor, or when she wants to get paid and please mom. Bottom line: know your dog.
I enjoyed working the same hides my students worked, and being able to talk to them about their searches from both a competitor and spectators point of view. Everyone seemed relaxed and like they were enjoying themselves – and I think that is what keeps NW addicting. As you do more trials, they get more fun, you meet more people, and you have more friends to celebrate (or commiserate) with. Titling is never a given, the woman who got 4 Prounounced awards from the judges – that was her 7th attempt at NW2 w/ her 13 yr old dog. There were several folks who did REALLY well in Ashby at the NW1 trial who did not title this weekend. There is a big jump from NW1 to NW2, and a lot of expanding of skill sets for both dog and handler. And, sometimes there is a little luck involved – your dog gets the wind in their favor, the food distractions used are nothing your dog likes, they use a trailer in the Vehicle search just like the one you just practiced on. Most times, a title comes when everything is clicking – you’re in the zone, observing your dog, staying present – not thinking about past mistakes, not zoning out standing in one place watching your dog struggle – stepping in when your dog needs help, having the confidence to call Alert because you FEEL it, recovering if you stumble (drop a treat, your dog misses crossing the start line) not letting it get in your head but staying with your dog mentally. It’s that flow and 2-way communication that just feels RIGHT that makes me go back (and back and back) to trials. I hope you feel it, too.