Keep it simple. Make sure your dog is successful. Build up gradually. Great catch phrases, but what does it mean to how you train your dog?
In the last few weeks, I’ve done some “simple” exercises, that I hope are building blocks to more complex problems for the dogs to solve. These back to basics, simpler exercises should ultimately lead them to working complex problems and make it look easy in the process.
Big dog little dog, elevated hides can be tricky. Odor rarely falls straight down like a waterfall, more often than not, it moves out like a sprinkler, hits a surface, and drops a distance from the actual hide. The dog has to figure out how to work pooling odor, find a tendril, and work it back to source.
In Saco, we did 3 rooms in a row, that all had floor-level hides. The dogs did each room one after the other. For their second pass, the hides were raised to about nose height, or 12″-17″ above the floor, and again, the dogs worked the 3 rooms back to back. For the last pass of the night, the hides were raised to almost 4 ft. Handlers knew where the hides were, so they could learn from their dogs. How the dogs worked pooling odor across the room from an actual hide, when the dogs realized it was elevated (as noted by their air scenting and casting their noses up in the air) These exercises showed yet again how much space your dogs need to work in order to be successful; if you crowd them, you will be preventing them from finding that pooling odor, and they are not necessarily going to find odor close to the hide.
In York, we did the same exercise, but used the big garage door. 3 hides were run back to back to back, each hide was floor level. An unforeseen challenge, was the draft coming in the door! So the floor level hides were almost the most difficult for this group, although they all nailed the threshold floor level hide in seconds 🙂 Their next hides were about 18″ off the floor, one on the side of the door frame, the others on hinges. And the last run, the hides were on the upper level hinges, about 4ft up. It was really cool to see the dogs go back and forth between 2 hinges 18″ high, then finally realize the hide was on a higher hinge BETWEEN the 18″ high hinges. The following week, we used the same area, but gave them more room, and added some metal chairs. This time, hides were not just on the door/wall, some were on chairs, and some were on the door/wall. The dogs were MUCH quicker at figuring out the high hides, as well as the low hides that were near the draft. You could see them work the seams of 2 rugs or the edge of the mats, following that channeling odor to source. This, to me, exemplified the “building blocks to success”. The dogs learned week over week in a progressive way, and the handlers also learned what to look for in their dogs, and to stand back and watch them work. There was one hide deep in the search area, that a few handlers had to walk in a bit to get their dogs to go all the way in. A good reminder that yes, the dog may be the nose of the team, but the handler is the brains, keeping track of where the dog has been, or may need to get to. For the upper level dogs in York, we did a low, medium high line, where the hides were zigzagged up and down the wall. The last pass had only 2 hides, one 8″ off the floor, the other, about 4ft up directly above the first hide. It was really fun to see the dogs recognize that there were 2 separate hides, and try to figure out which one to alert to first!
In all classes, I wanted to strip down and simplify the container searches. Let’s bring things back to basics, and clarify the mission for the dogs. We started with 3 boxes, one had odor, 2 were blank. 3 passes where I moved the boxes in various positions. For the second pass, I added in a food or toy distraction. Something mild to start, progressing to more interesting things. I kept it at 3 boxes, one w/ odor, one blank, and one distraction. I changed out the distractions, sometimes it was an empty dog treat bag, a chunk of cheese, peanut sauce, dog toys, and in Saco, ground beef and pheasant feathers. Handlers always knew where the hot box was (unless I forgot where I put it – thank you Isaac, for setting me straight!) I then added more blanks and more distractions, until the dogs had 15 or so boxes to check. The dogs did awesome ignoring the distractions! The parmesan cheese was the one that caught the most interest. Because the handlers knew where the hot box was, simply ignoring any interest in the distractions made it clear to the dogs that they were not going to get paid. When the dogs showed a nice head snap, double back, or nosed, pushed, pawed or froze at the hot box, those behaviors all got paid. It gave the dogs lots of chances to be right, lots of opportunities to get paid at source, and moved from very few choices (3 boxes, one with odor) to more complex odor problems and decision making. Because we started out so simple and gave the dogs multiple chances for reinforcement at source, adding the distractions and multiple boxes didn’t seem like any big challenge. Both the dogs and handlers gained confidence, it was a beautiful thing!
These are exercises I should be doing with Quattro, but it seems to be much easier to randomly slap out some tins and have him search. But that does not allow for step by step, progressive learning. So I’m glad to give your dogs that experience and growth path, it was very rewarding to see them get better week over week. Thank you for inspiring me to do the same with Quattro!