Puppy Nose Work!

I’m so happy this class came together!  We had a NW1 class that disbanded for several reasons, leaving just Michelle and Snickers.  At the same time, several experienced nose work competitors recently lost their dogs to cancer and degenerative myelopothy, and a few others acquired a puppy to add to their families.  I thought, how fun would that be to have all these new puppies in NW class together?  I can give Snickers some more challenging searches with odor, while building up the next generation of NW superstars. Linda and her new shepherd, Libby, have been working on nose work, and are on odor paired with food, and agility transfer Ian and Muddy (technically a puppy, at 11 months old) joined, as well.  So now we have a full class!

This class is different than the typical Intro to NW class I’ve taught, since other than Ian, every other puppy owner has worked a dog up to the NW3 level (or at least has a dog with their Odor Recognition Test).  But, I have to remember that Ian is brand new to this, so you’ll hear me narrate or explain things that some of you may already know.  And for most part, the experienced handlers all started off like Ian, not really knowing the big picture or how far they’d take this class where their dog is finding food in boxes.  Unlike Ian and Muddy, everyone else started with adult dogs, who had experience and history of obedience and manners, and checking in and looking to their handler for information.  We had to work on getting the dogs more independent of the handler, and encourage them to move forward with confidence without their owners directing them, or giving them permission, or telling them what to do and where to go.  Because if you continue in nose work, you will eventually do an Odor Recognition Test (ORT) where you, the handler, will not know where the hide is, and you will be relying on your dog (not the other way around!)  Independence, desire to seek and the enthusiasm for hunting are all key to nose work success.  If you start off directing the dog, leading the search, you take away some of the desire and enthusiasm, and create a dog who is reliant on you for the answers.  Well, in a blind search, you won’t have the answers, and leading your dog around a large search area telling him where to sniff won’t get you far fast!  WE don’t know what the odor is doing, but our dogs sure do.

With these little puppies, that background and history of handler focus and polite manners isn’t there, so they have little inhibition to finding food in boxes, crashing thru, climbing on, pushing their way to get to the food.  Which is what we want in a good nose work dog!  Drive and determination to get to source (the food, at this point), and that independent focus on the hunt will pay off when the searches are blind to the handler.  Your puppy-dog will not be looking to you for help, direction or assistance.  Because they don’t have the history of manners / obedience built up like the 5 or 7 or 9 year old adult dog, building up their confidence and pushiness should be easier and come naturally.  Puppies have recently left the whelping box, when not too long ago, their sight and hearing had not yet developed.  They relied solely on their noses to find mom and the milk.  So I think it is especially natural for puppies to use their noses.  With our adult dogs, how many times have you dropped a potato chip on the floor, called your dog over, and pointed / tapped the floor with your foot?  WE are telling THEM where to go.  So lots of repetitions of helping our dogs is a little harder to undo than starting with a blank slate – a puppy!

Something we do need to be aware of, however, with little puppies, is the fear periods they will undoubtedly go through.  As they are maturing from babies to adolescents to adults, they become more aware of their environment.  Things they didn’t even seem to notice up until now will all of a sudden become scary… people, dogs, plastic bags, noises – all become things to be wary of.  It is a natural sign of maturation, where living in the wild, as they prepare to go out on their own and leave the safety of the den and mom, they need to be wary of things that may be a threat.  So barking, backing away, little growls – all are natural.  We just want to use classical conditioning and patience to help them work thru it.  Pairing a treat with the scary thing/person/dog will help the dog associate positive feelings with that scary thing/person/dog.  When it comes to NW, we just have to go slow, maybe go back up a step or two, and keep their confidence high.  While these baby puppies seem to have no fear of climbing in, on, over and thru the boxes, we want to watch out for signs of timidity around box flaps moving, boxes falling, small spaces, etc.

So, how long should we keep them finding food by itself, and when can we transition to odor?  I’d like to see the puppies be able to do nose work in a variety of places and environments, confidently and with enthusiasm, in all kinds of conditions, before adding odor into the mix.  That means, building up their understanding of the game, their understanding of the ritual of “now we’re searching” (vs “now we’re walking around so you can pee”), and working indoors, outdoors, in the sun, in the cold, in the wind, in the rain, on pavement, on grass, around large objects, out in the open, overhead hides, low to the ground hides, etc etc etc!  The better understanding they have of when the game is ON, the easier the transition to odor will be.  We will be building up to more challenging hides – by varying the placement of the food, as well as using different surfaces, areas of the building, open areas, tight crowded areas, etc.  I think Muddy was the only dog who had never searched for food in a box… the other handlers, knowing what the end picture is, have done at least a couple box searches with their puppies.  Muddy was the classic case of the first timer – he had no idea what he was there to do (and why would he?).  He saw me put some food in a box, came over and ate it, wandered around a bit, went to socialize w/ the audience, came back to the search area when called, but really had no idea what we expected him to do.  He managed to find the other 2 hides (I SOOOOO wish I had videos of his runs!  I meant to, and just got too busy setting the hides and forgot).  Then his second time in the room, he did a little better, a little more focused on the boxes before doing a victory lap and visiting w/ his admirers, then came back to find some more.  When he ate the treats, Christina commented that he was glancing up at Ian, like, “are you SURE I’m ok to be eating this food left out here in a box?”  The THIRD time in the building, he was all business.  Moving from box to box like a pro!  It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the dogs figure out the game.

For Snickers and Libby, who are working on odor and paired odor, I used the same set up.  There was lots of food and dog slobber already in the boxes I used (I used the same 3 boxes the whole class)  For Snickers, I had made the boxes a little more challenging for her to access, closing the flaps a bit, placing the box further under the chair, angling the box away from the open part of the search area.  In another class, I may not put the odor in a box at all for Snickers, forcing her to look outside the boxes and really use her nose.  She’ll have to ignore all the dog slobber from the other dogs and all the food smells around the boxes used for the puppies, and realize that only odor pays.  For Libby, we’ll slowly stop pairing, and may only pair when the hides are different than what she’s experienced so far – like an extra high hide, one under a table, deep in a corner.  We’ll keep the easy access hides unpaired.

Here is a snippet of video that Ian kindly offered to take and text to me, before he had to get Muddy for his run.  Again, I apologize for not videoing! I will try to get it set up for this week and post.

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I hope you are all enjoying working your 2nd (or 3rd) dog!  Just be careful not to make comparisons, or assumptions, or have your expectations set too high.  There is a lot of learning thru experience these puppies have to do, and that is something you can’t rush. Try not to compare your puppy or new dog to your NW3 dog!  I’m still making adjustments to my training with Coach (my 4th nose work dog) based on challenges or holes in my training that I see with Quattro (my 3rd nose work dog, who is pretty darn good, but there is always room for improvement!)

Happy sniffing!

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