Watching dogs search is fun and when we practice, we usually set up hides and watch our dogs hunt. We try to figure out why they are doing what they are doing, why they didn’t do it the way (or the speed) we thought they would / should, wonder when and if we should step in to help, and then try to come up with another hide, problem, search area. Which is all good, but sometimes stepping back and doing some skill building exercises can make a difference in your overall searches.
For example, during some searching the other week, I noticed a lot of dragging leashes, leashes being tangled in, under and around dogs legs, leashes getting hooked up on things in the search area, leashes dragging through grass and dirt and dragging things in the search area. While the dogs all found hides, and did a nice job of searching, I felt that if we took away the small annoyances for both dog (why is that box following me? this stupid leash is annoying me and impeding my forward motion) and handler (oops, I got the leash tangled in my dog/on that chair/behind that box), things would have been smoother.
In another class, we had a few dogs who would find source, then turn and walk several steps to their handlers. Which is ok, so long as you never take your eyes off your dog and don’t miss the moment they make contact with source, otherwise, you risk missing “where” the hide is, and having to re-cue your dog to find it again, or “show me!” This may make the dog think he was wrong, or that you want him to do something else, like nose touch a nearby object rather than go back to source. If he had stayed with source longer, rather than turning and coming to you in the first place, that confusion on both dog and handlers part would be avoided.
Lastly, another thing I hear from trainers and judges, is to “give your dog space”, “don’t crowd your dog” “let your dog work”. Meaning, if you are using a 10-12-15ft leash, give them the line! Don’t keep it coiled up, giving them only 6ft of it, and follow them around the search area getting in their way. Sometimes this is not possible – your dog changes direction and turns into you, for example, or the space is small or you have to keep up with your dog in order to see him, but in general, standing well back from your dog not only allows them to work the scent cone, but allows you to see the whole picture of your dog.
SO, to work on all of these things in class, we did a skill building exercise to address all 3 challenging areas. I had large boxes (and containers such as suitcases for the NW2 class) set up along the wall. There were cones set up in a line about 12 feet from the wall, and handlers had to stay behind the cones. Once the dog found the hides (there were 3 hides in large boxes / suitcases along the wall) handlers had to stay behind the cones and toss treats into the boxes. Even if the treats bounced near the box, off the dog, or off the wall, the dogs would chase down the treat, go back to source, and another treat would come at them. At this point in their NW careers, the dogs all know to go to source to get the reward, so being sloppy with the “reward at source” rule is ok to do every so often. The key is to only send the reward when the dog is at source. So you don’t want to toss the treat when they are looking up at you, you need to toss quickly as they are at source.
The first passes were off leash, and then done on leash. The last runs were done with some of the boxes / containers and a few chairs pulled out from the wall, close to the cones and handlers. Being on leash, and forced to stay behind the cones, really forced handlers to manage the leash. Up and over boxes (so the leash didn’t drag boxes behind the dogs) and up and over the chairs, if their dogs went behind the chairs to get to source. Some of the hides were close to the cones, some were back at the wall, so handlers had to practice gathering in the leash, then feeding it out when the dog moved away.
These classes were so fun, to watch the progress of the dogs and handlers as we achieved our 3 goals. We got the dogs staying at source – they were waiting for the next treat to come at them, and started offering a nice freezing behavior! They seemed to perk up when they chased down the treat – dogs love chasing moving objects, especially prey such as cheese 🙂 and they knew they would get more when they went back to source and stayed there for a beat or two, waiting for the next treat to arrive. I think the handlers had fun (well, maybe not FUN, but at least got a good laugh) at the carnival game aspect of tossing treats from a 12ft distance – there were some nice shots! And I honestly don’t think the dogs minded the misses… it kept them at source longer when the treat landed in their fur and they didn’t realize it, or if a soft treat landed a distance from them and they didn’t hear it fall. They just kept waiting for their reward to come, without coming to the handler for the reward. We got everyone working at a nice distance from their dogs, and you got to see your whole dogs body. You weren’t in the way when they had to double back, or come out to the cones to pick up odor before heading to the wall. And I have not done a good job of giving feedback on leash handling, so in these classes that was one of my focuses: reminding folks to pick the slack up off the floor, or let the leash feed out as the dog moved away. The on leash searches looked so much better – there were no leashes between the feet, no dogs stepping on their leashes and getting that leash correction, and no boxes dragging behind the dogs. We got the dogs staying at source longer and not coming back to the handler.
The following week, we did something a little more traditional, where the boxes (for NW1) and containers (NW2/3) were in rows in the middle of the room. There was a ring of cones around the edge, and I had the handlers stand outside the cones. The hides were not too far into the center, so the handlers could easily let the leash feed out, the dog would get to source, and the handler could toss a treat or two as they made their way to their dog and reward at source. Next, I moved the cones close to the boxes and had the handlers walk the line of cones and/or follow their dog at close range. There was a hide one row in, and it was interesting to see how some of the dogs were either influenced by or annoyed by the handlers proximity. BoomBoom gave Holly a ‘look’ at a box adjacent to the hot box, which could have been read as an alert (false), while Sam kept giving Cynthia ‘looks’ of annoyance – why are you following me? why are you in my way? excuse me? Sakara and Cindy did the dance and spin, moves that we saw 9 months ago or so, when Sakara was not as independent a hunter as she’s become in the last year. Some dogs, like Zeke and Sophie, moved away from their handlers if the handlers got too close – they really didn’t give the handlers a chance to get close! Lastly, we worked a random scramble of containers. Handlers could work it how they wanted, and most opted to work at a distance from their dogs. Sam did a beautiful job of moving smoothly through the search area, hunting each box, then hooking around suddenly and freezing at a box. It was beautiful! One thing we talked about was a loose leash, and just because it is loose and in a J, doesn’t mean you are far enough from your dog. You don’t want the dog feeling pressure from the leash (so yes, keep it loose) but at the same time, if it is in a big J, it means the leash is loose with you right next to your dog. I can be guilty of this with Izzie – she’s not the quickest dog, and I am a fast walker, so I tend to come up on her too fast. Yes, the leash is loose, but if I’m walking alongside her, it’s easy for her to stop/pause at a container, feel me next to her, and freeze (false alert). If I was not even in the picture, i.e., behind her, I think she stays on task better and forgets about me.
I really enjoyed seeing how the skill building from one week carried over to last week, and in a more realistic container set up. We will do more of this – working at a distance, on and off leash searches, and keeping the dog at source. Because setting up hides and watching the dog search is fun, but taking the time to sharpen and hone some skills will make the searching that much more smooth and clear.