Agility & Nose Work – Similar Skills?

Yes, there are other things besides Nose Work that I do with my dog, and my students dogs!  Last Sunday I attended Amanda Shyne’s Wicked Weaves workshop from 9-4.  Yep, 6 hours of nothing but weave pole practice!  The weave poles are what a lot of people think of when they think Agility – they picture those black and white blurs (Border Collies) serpentining around 6 or 12 weave poles at mach speed, sort of like Bode Miller or Lindsay Vonn flying through a slalom course.  It’s not a natural thing for a dog to do.  Even running around trees in the woods is not like “finding the entry” (dogs must enter on the right side of the first pole), trees aren’t spaced an equidistance apart, and for the most part, dogs avoid trees.  With the weave poles, they get so much speed going and the poles are close enough together that the dogs can’t help but touch, push, bump and bend them as they fly through.

Amanda was a great trainer and presenter.  How can you do one obstacle for 6 hours??  By breaking things down to the basics, then working your way back up to more complex exercises.  We worked indoors since it was so hot and sunny out, and all the dogs were either crated or hanging out on leash in front of their owners.  It was weird to see dogs not in crates while a dog was working!  But the dogs were for the most part, so focused on their work that they did not bother with the other dogs, and those who needed to be in a crate were.  I opted to keep Quattro crated – he is quiet in the crate, and that way I didn’t have to entertain him by keeping him busy with little tricks.  And, when I took him out, the treat was REALLY appealing and he was ready to DO something.

So why did I keep turning to Meghan Ryder saying, “this is just like Nose Work!”  “Just like in Nose Work!”?  Here are some key takeaways from the workshop, that correlate directly with Nose Work.

  • Know what motivates your dog.
  • Start easy and build confidence before you add challenges
  • Confidence builds speed
  • Once you have fluency (confidence, speed, focus) you can add a challenge.  If you see a diminish in your fluency, go back a step… your dog may not have been as fluent in that level as you thought
  • Obstacle commitment Obstacle commitment Obstacle commitment – substitute Odor obedience Odor obedience Odor obedience
  • Independence at the obstacles is the way to go
  • When people tell you at a trial, “Wow, your dog really saved you!” (meaning, “Wow, you really screwed that one up, good thing your dog ignored you!”) say, “Thank you, I trained that”.

Gosh, I wanted to give her a copy of Sergio’s handout, the messages were so similar.

Motivation – What is best for YOUR dog?  Most people used food, but one dog got much faster when a tossed toy was used as his reward.  She did two runs using food, then brought out the toy – quite a noticeable difference in the dogs demeanor – she was visibly excited and much faster.  It was very clear to see in the 3 back to back runs they did (two with food, one w/ toy).  If you are using both food and toys as a reward, don’t mix them together.  Don’t show your dog the toy, ask them to sit, give them a treat for sitting, then try to give them the toy as a reward for the obstacle.  You can switch back and forth between a food or toy reward, just not in the same run.  Find the food and/or toy that works best for your dog, to bring out the best in them.  If you have to fan the toy at your dog to try to get her attention, it’s probably not really that appealing!  If you pull the toy out, and your dog lunges for it, build even more drive by letting your dog chase it and try to catch it… keep it moving to keep your dog moving and excited.  Time the possession of your toy so that it rewards what you want from your dog.

Quattro and I had a HORRIBLE agility class the Wed before the workshop.  He was running all over the field, not listening, sniffing the grass, it looked like he was going to pee on the tunnel… it was bad.  Meghan offered me some of her treats – liverwurst and babyfood blended together.  Well, that sure got his attention!  We had a great run.  So, you can be sure I got some liverwurst and also some roast beef for the workshop.  He did great!  Very motivated, focused, and had great drive all day long.

I think this is something we certainly stress in Nose Work, especially in the very beginning.  However, I tend to move away from the uber stinky, soft treats, and use my go-to freeze-dried stuff.  They are really good treats, and my Basic Manners dogs go nuts for them, but Quattro gets them ALL THE TIME.  I love homemade chocolate chip cookies, but there’s a reason why Girl Scout cookies are so special – they only come out once a year, in flavors you can’t find in the store!  So, if you haven’t switched up your treats lately, try something new.

Start Easy and Build Confidence – I hope I do this in class, give the dogs a slice of the concept I want to work on during class, and progressively make it more challenging.  Amanda also stressed going back “down the ladder”, in other words, you’ve upped the challenge, but now be sure to go back and give your dog an easy run.  This is something I also try to do in class, but what I think is easy and what the dog finds easy, are not always the same thing!  With agility, you are dealing with an obstacle that never changes, with Nose Work, we can’t even SEE the odor – I make my best guess as to what will be “ending on an easy one”, but sometimes the odor does things I can’t predict.  By raising then lowering the challenge, you keep that motivation and drive up.  If something is constantly getting harder, it becomes less fun.  Quick success is always fun!

Confidence Builds Speed – like any activity we do, the better we get at it, the faster we get at it.  How do we get better?  Practice and experience.  If you’ve been exposed to something multiple times, by the 4th or 5th time, you’re thinking,”Ok, I’ve got this” and at some point it almost becomes automatic.  The same with our dogs – think about how much faster the NW2 and NW3 dogs are on plain white boxes – it seems so much easier than suitcases, bags and other random containers.  High hides also become easier with practice, as do those hides under chairs.  Dogs become more confident with exposure, and become faster at figuring out the odor problem – it’s familiar!  I’ve got this!  As handlers, we become faster at calling Alert, because we’ve seen our dog work similar problems over and over, and we know what they look like as they are moving closer to source.  Some of the NW3 and Elite teams I watched at trials this summer were pretty amazing – the handlers were very quick to call Alert with minimal (obvious) activity from the dog.  It was just the time spent watching their dog work and the feel they got from their dog that had them calling Alert, or not calling alert.

With Quattro’s training, I’ve tried to keep his confidence high by not over-drilling him, and not giving him too many complex problems in one session.  It can be hard for me to stop putting hides out – he’s doing so well, let’s do one more high / converging / inaccessible!  More often than not, I’ll put out a couple standard hides, nothing fancy, just to keep him in NW shape.  He gets confidence from working those similar type hides, so when he is presented with a challenge, he has the confidence of a winner – he knows he should win, he always wins this game!  Once I’ve introduced a new type of hide that he’s had to work at, I go back to a standard hide, and then start including the new type more often in our regular quick training sessions.  An example would be the flat surface hides.  I had done lots of standard hides – on a chair, under a chair, in a container of some sort, boxed in by objects, in small spaces, up on a ledge or out on a wall… but, I had not been doing a hide in a cupboard, in a drawer, behind a door – the type of hide where source was right on the other side of the crack / seam, but there was no tin for him to put his nose on, and no “thing” – just a smooth surface.  After some concentrated practice on that type of hide, I can now mix it in with our “regular” hides.

Obstacle Commitment / Odor Obedience, Independence, and the Dog That Saved You – These are all tied together.  We’ve been talking about odor obedience since we moved from paired to unpaired hides.  The more value the odor has, the more committed he will be to finding it.   Other distractions in the environment will fade away, fears the dog has, lack of motivation at the start, environmental issues and handler flubs will all be superseded by commitment to odor.  With agility, the more committed the dog is to an obstacle, the more focus you’ll see.  Crumbs on the floor, other dogs around the ring, noises, all fade away as the dog sees an obstacle and does it.  Independence – another skill we’ve been working on.  In Agility, the handler is directing the dog from obstacle to obstacle.  However, if the dog can do each obstacle independently of the handler, the handler can focus on the next obstacle on course, and how best to guide the dog.  For the handlers who don’t have obstacle independence, they do a lot more running… moving in position to baby sit their dogs across the dog walk, or lead their dogs in and out of the weave poles.  If their timing isn’t just right, or if the dog is too focused on looking at their hands, they will pull off the obstacle and get a fault.  Plus, it’s a lot more work for the handler!

As I trained Quattro in agility as a puppy, I really wanted to take that concept from NW and apply it to agility.  I had to lure him with a treat at the very very beginning stages, but I tried to manage each obstacle so that he was set up to do it on his own.  That might mean placing a treat on a target (or multiple targets) for him to drive to (sort of like pairing)  I’d  then move the target to progress along the obstacle.  I also did a lot of treat tossing.  Once he was about to finish an obstacle, rather than hand deliver the treat – which was causing him to look  up to me for the reward – I would toss it out in front of him.  This kept his focus down and forward, not sideways up on me.  I had to time it so that the treat was showing up in front of him before he turned his head up to me, so that the reward was for him looking and moving forward.  Sometimes I hung back, and let him finish the obstacle; I could toss the reward from behind him, yet he was still driving forward for it.  This allowed him to run faster, and allowed me to move away from him as he ran.  This all  just made him more confident and independent, much like in NW.

In NW, he did a lot of hunting for food-only when he was a baby puppy, then a lot of pairing.  Again, this all allowed him to be independent of me, figure things out on his own, and not look up at my hand for the reward.  I started tossing treats at the hide once he ate the one treat that it was paired with, and voila! a dog who freezes at source, without (for the most part) looking back or up at me.

This combination of independence and odor obedience (or obstacle commitment) will allow for handler error.  If I bump into something in a search, get the leash tangled, walk in front of my dog or do something otherwise clumsy, my dog has the motivation, independence and odor obedience to drive to source, regardless of my sloppy handling.  In agility, if I trip, give a sloppy hand signal, get out of position, or signal one thing and say another, with obstacle commitment, my do will continue working and keep his focus on the obstacles.  Hence, the phrase from by-standers, “Your dog saved you!” and Amanda’s suggested reply “Thanks, I trained that!”.

So let’s keep training dogs to save us!

Happy sniffing – and Happy running courses!

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