Cleaning out my basement on a rainy Monday, I was staring at a wall of shelves filled with bags, back packs, duffles, and carrying cases of all types. Back when I was first doing NW2 and NW3 trials with my first nose work dogs, those were the types of containers you could see in a trial, along with wheeled suitcases, flat computer bags, boxes and Tupperware style containers. It was a lot to practice, never mind find room to store! The thrift store that was near my house pre-COVID was a place I frequented regularly, as was Goodwill.
The NACSW found that since most trial hosts (who were responsible for providing the containers for trials) were doing the same (collecting bags from thrift stores and the like), they came with ALL SORTS of distracting smells. Who knew if that bag was used every day for a year, carrying someones lunch to work with them? Who knew if that suitcase was left in a closet, where cat decided to sleep on it? THEN the Certifying Official (CO) would add a food or toy distraction, AND the bags all had various levels of permeability AND the bags might collapse / fold in on itself, either creating a crater for odor to collect on a blank bag, or making it more difficult for the odor to escape… SO, the NACSW changed the containers used for NW2 and NW3. They now use white ORT boxes, black tool boxes, paint cans, cookie tins or tupperware containers. The metal cans have small holes in the lids, the others have enough room for odor to escape. There can still be food and toy distractions, but at least the odor escapes in a consistent manner.
Since I hate to waste anything, I couldn’t part with all those bags just yet. Plus, you could still run into that style container at Elite trials, Performance Scent Dog (PSD) or other venues. I think it is still good practice for dogs to understand how to search a floppy, lumpy bag. Of course, in a Container search, the whole bag is ‘hot’, the dog does not have to pinpoint. But since it’s training, I do like to wait them out a bit to see if they will pinpoint where the source is, if I clearly know where the tin/source is.
We started with the tin in an outside mesh pocket of a duffle bag. It was interesting to see the dogs do a quick sniff of each container and move on. They didn’t really SERACH each container. Now, this could be because they knew they were blank, but it could also show that they didn’t really expect that odor COULD be anywhere in the bag. Many times, the odor is only escaping from a zipper or bottom or end of the bag, and the dog really needs to cover the entire thing to realize there is odor there. By changing the placement of the hot duffle bag, so that the outside pocket w/ the tin was facing away from the start, facing the corner of the room, facing another bag, facing out to the edge away from the other bags – they really had to SEARCH each bag to find source. They figured this out after their first run, and it was interesting to see them check each bag. None of them said, after 2 runs, Oh! It’s in the blue duffle bag! They checked each bag.
Of course, for my more experienced dogs, this was pretty simple, and I couldn’t do run after run of quick easy searches, there had to be SOME challenge added in there. I had a black cotton duffle bag that I tossed some dehydrated Instinct treats into, and man, that sure upped the challenge! The mildest reaction, were the dogs who paused and gave it a good sniff before moving on, the most extreme were the dogs who sniffed, chewed, dug at it, picked it up, dug and bit it some more… Now, some trainers don’t like the dog exhibiting that behavior, and would have you call them off, or even say Leave it! Me, I like dogs who make the decision on their own, and when the decision matches what I want for an outcome, I am quick to reward. That means, waiting them out, letting them realize I am not going to unzip the bag for them, they are not going to be able to get into the bag (make sure of that before you try this!), and AS SOON AS they start to move away, I go with them, and AS SOON AS they dip their heads to the ‘hot’ bag, I REWARD GENEROUSLY along with lots of praise. The dog learns that a food reward does not come from them biting their way thru a bag, it comes from me, and I only give the food reward when they are at source / the hot bag. At first, I am not looking for any fancy behavior, like a freeze, look back, nudge, whatever they normally display at source. I want to quickly reward the sniff at odor. It reinforces the fact that odor pays, and that it pays to leave a food distraction to get to odor.
Well, after my first class, I saw Tracy throwing out some garlic chicken she had used for her Beginner class. I went dumpster diving, and we used a REALLY high value treat for the 6:30p class. This I put in a little lunch box from Target that had a graphic of Barbie and a chihuahua on it. This was zippered shut, but obviously leaks a lot of odor! Several dogs tried to take Barbie home with them and forget about class! Again, as painful as it is to watch your dog try to chew thru a container, by waiting them out, they eventually realize they are not going to get into the bag, they might just pause and look up, and that is the perfect time to re-cue them (‘Search!’, ‘Find it!’ Etc) They got better at this as we moved the odor and distraction containers around and they did several reps. The intensity of trying to break into the bag lessened, and they moved to odor quicker.
For this past week, I used the same containers (plus a few new ones – suede flasks) and the same hot blue duffle bag. Except this time, instead of being in the outside mesh pocket, the tin (I used both Clove and Anise, double the odor) was inside the empty duffle bag. This presented a different scent picture to most of the dogs. Here we had been working on pinpointing the last few weeks in classes, and now, the tin was inaccessible… meaning, odor was available, but they could not nose-touch the source. Another situation where I want to reward quickly and not wait for anything fancy, at least to start. The more experienced dogs had little issue with this, but for the greener dogs, used to being able to pinpoint, this was more of a challenge. It was so fascinating to see them check the hot bag, leave it for a nearby bag, go back to the hot bag, leave it for a different nearby bag, go back to the hot bag, try ANOTHER nearby bag – basically trying to determine that yes, this bag has the strongest scent, and ruling out nearby bags that have no odor or really weak pooling odor.
Once everyone had a few runs with this new odor puzzle (weaker odor, source not available), I brought back in the food distractions. This week, the black duffle bag had Smartfood popcorn in it (no real interest from the dogs) and Barbie had bacon grease w/ some scallop drippings wrapped in tin foil in it. Now THAT was a winner! Lots of interest from many dogs in the bacon grease.
After Tuesday evenings classes, Tracy let me know there was LOTS of left over pizza in the conference room, along with several empty pizza boxes. So, I added 3 pizza boxes to the mix for Wednesdays classes. Come to find out, one box had lots of cheese still in it… mmmm! The papillon was the most aggressive about trying to get into that box!
I also had everyone do some different handling this week. This week, I had you walk past your dog at source (Sacrilege! I know)… I asked you to pretend you were in a trial, and didn’t believe your dog (not that THAT’S ever happened!) If your dog dug in and stayed at source, go back quickly and reward! A little pressure on the leash and still your dog stayed at the hot bag? Go back and reward! Your dog walked off the hot bag to come along with you? Ok, well now we know they are more obedient to you than the odor, which, in the big picture, isn’t a BAD thing, its just good to know. They might move on, but as soon as they went back to the hot bag, quick reward.
Then, when I brought the food distraction bags out, if they spent time investigating the food, you were to walk in closer to them. Yup, that’s right, as if you were coming in to reward them. Because that’s what we do in a trial / blind search. We see our dog display some sort of interest, and we think it could be a hide, so we move in closer, and start to reach for our treats… Sometimes the dog looks up, like, What are you doing? I was just sniffing! Sheesh. (Levi comes to mind) Other times, stepping in provokes a true alert behavior – a firmer look, a paw, or even an excited spin! (I’m talking to you, Ziggy!). That happened to Quattro and I at the Halloween search we did, where there were witches and ghosts hanging from the ceiling… I saw Quattro trying to hunt down source (he’d already found a nearby hanging hide) and I moved in, and started talking to him – Is that it? Really? And that combination of me moving in and talking to him, provoked a full on freeze – and false alert. Something he rarely does, hopefully because I rarely do something like that!
Back to class… Once you moved in while your dog was investigating a distraction bag, and they either looked up at you or did a full on alert, you just stood there and did nothing. This had them realize the gig was up… “Oh, yeah, haha, just kidding, let me go to source”. My goal for both the walk past your dog at source and move in closer to your dog on a distraction, was to have your dogs realize that you are not tipping them off to anything. We want them focused on source and only vaguely aware of what you are doing. My favorite example of this, was the time I was doing practice in the rain. Quattro had found one hide in the backyard, and I knew I had more farther away at the other side of the yard. So once he found the first, I moved towards where I knew the next hide was (bad trainer! I was even ahead of my dog!) I was watching him over my shoulder, and I see him start to sniff the lawn… was he going for an acorn or animal dropping? No, wait, he’s in a freeze, his alert! But there was no hide there? He was so convincing, I walked over to him and looked… and lo and behold, a tin had fallen out of my pocket! That was a great example of odor obedience, and him not being concerned that I was moving off without him.
Enough talking, let’s see some video! I did not video each class, but I have to say, I was really impressed with my greener noontime class and the food distractions. I did not present the food to them last week, I felt the bags were enough of a challenge, but this week, they showed they quickly solved the inaccessible odor problem, so I added a low-ish value food distraction, then another high value distraction. They did awesome! The other thing I did for some of the classes, was that for the last run, I placed the tin back in the outside mesh pocket of the hot bag. This way, the dogs had something to source, and they got excited to source the tin! It was also great to see that they seemed to know the hide was now available to them, and you could see them work from the top of the bag, down the end to the tin. All those sourcing exercises paid off!
*I apologize for some of the naming on these videos… I list Avery as Henry in the first video (oops, sorry Avery) and then Sandy and Winry I list twice as run #5, but they are actually 2 separate videos. I can’t figure out how to rename the videos! Anyway, this was fun class and you can really see the improvement!
I’m sorry I did not video our second session of Containers in the Tues or Wednesday morning classes, because there was a HUGE improvement over the food distractions. But, here is the video of the 12:15p class on their second week of container searching, which includes food distractions. Really nice work!