Back from my trip to San Diego and the California Narcotics Canine Association / CNWI Symposium, I have some new ideas for training, as well as the confidence that what we’ve been doing, is working. While our pet dogs have a very different upbringing and breeding than the professional K9s, dogs noses all process odor the same way, positive training and dog behavior all works the same way, and even the pros have an achilles heel (the video of a German Shepherd who was afraid of stairs, and the video of a Malinois who ran away from water, were both good examples!). We may have some more work to do, getting and keeping our pets motivated to do something they’d rather not (going into a tight space, being brave enough to ignore the moving box flaps) but we have the luxury of time to work on these challenges. The professional dogs are under a lot more pressure to overcome any fear issues, but training through fear issues was what we would do. The dog who was afraid of stairs? Start with just a few steps, have the dog be successful, and slowly increase the number of steps the dog will do. Keep the dog motivated and energized, and keep the dog successful.
One way to keep dogs motivated, confident, and keep them wanting more, is to keep trainings short, sweet, simple and successful. Especially in an environmentally challenging area. So this week, with the “warm” temperatures and lack of snow and ice (remember last year at this time?? we were trying to prep for a NW3 trial in March, and had to work 10ft snow banks in the dark to get Exterior practice in) I decided to do some Exterior searches in the new run. So lots of dog smells, along with the normal exterior distractions.
Monday evening was windy, with a steady breeze/wind from the golf course, bringing lots of good scents to the dogs. Tuesday was cooler, but without the wind. To keep things short, sweet and simple, there were 3 5-gallon buckets right outside the door, and 2 had odor. I paired each hide for the Monday night classes (I wish I had done the same for the Tuesday classes). This really helped clarify what we wanted the dogs to be doing, and kept them focused. We kept the dogs on leash, to control the environment. I didn’t want the dogs running around to the back of the building, getting lost in dog smells, and running around marking. The buckets were big visual cues for the dogs to come check out, one “hot” bucket was to the right of the door way (upwind) and the other was to the left (down wind) The dogs could pick up odor from the doorway, and most went right to it, although Monday night’s NW1 class, the dogs followed the odor downwind to the fence, before coming back into the wind. This was good practice in pooling odor – no one false alerted, but they showed lots of interest in the back fence/gate, where the odor was blowing into. And, if you are ever at a trial when it’s windy, you can feel confident that you and your dog have worked in windy conditions and did just fine.
The dogs found the 2 hides fairly quickly, then were put back in the car. Very short search times, 2 finds, allowing us to meet our “short, sweet, simple and successful” goals for the night. The first 2 runs had hides on the buckets – the elevated hide proved the most challenging for some dogs – and the next pass had odor under a little stone cairn (pile of rocks) and one along the building, directly to the dogs right. They seemed to all really love the cairn hide! All enjoyed digging a bit to get to source, and were super clear when they were there. The hide along the building was more challenging, but it didn’t take much for them to get it. It was fun to watch them pretty quickly rule out the buckets – yes, lingering odor, but not enough to alert on. They all seemed disappointed when they were told there were only 2 hides, and it was time to head back to the car already!
The other thing we worked on in these searches, was watching the dogs pick up odor well before releasing them. Handlers stayed about 8 ft back from the threshold to outside, held the leash so their dogs were ahead of them at the threshold, and released the dog when they felt they had odor. This might be dipping their head (for most dogs) or picking a direction, right or left. Even if you couldn’t see their mouths or expressions, that head dip was a pretty consistent behavior. I need to try to be better at watching my dog BEFORE the line – I tend to look at the judges’ steward as they speak, rather than watch my dog. Your dog can give you a lot of information before you say “Search”, and your dog can really pick up a lot of information about a search area well before you say “Search”. I think we found that you didn’t even really have to say anything, as soon as your dog picked up odor, releasing them was the cue. Early on in training, we had a start line routine, and in some cases, you may still want to do that. For example, if your dog is hesitant about a search area, you are practicing in a new location, or you think your dog will be distracted by the environment, using a start line routine can really help focus them to the task at hand. Seeing that your dogs all know what they are supposed to be doing on Monday and Tuesday nights, I didn’t think ditching their start line routine would be an issue!
The next exercise we did, was to work inside, on leash. I wanted to keep the searching short and simple again, and feel like we’ve had lots of long (6 minutes!) searches in large spaces the past few weeks. The leash again was used to control the environment, not control the dog. I told handlers the hide would be in the picnic table corner of the room, and had the start be the edge of the black mats. I saw Reo begin to work odor way back on one of the posts, then the edge of the mats, and the wall, well away from the table / bench where the hide was. Seeing that, I changed the rules for you, so if you felt your dog was working odor, just walk forward with them. These 3 hides were really fun, because the dogs worked odor from quite a distance, chose a direction (moved to the right when it was under the bench, to the left when it was on the generator) and none were worried about going in the small space between the generator and wall. For the NW2/3 classes, I had one hide up under an outlet, and THAT was fun to watch, too. Most dogs drew a rainbow arc on the wall with their nose, as they picked up odor between the hide and the picnic table. Others worked the post opposite the hide, clearly working up the post or working up on the wall before getting to source. I loved Koda’s lunge and jump up at source! Who says short dogs have trouble with high hides? Again, just one hide then back to the start area.
Short, quick searches. Confidence building. Multiple successes. Keeping them hungry for more, that’s what I call a good class 🙂