Sunday, August 19, 2012

Training the Sniffer

I recently embarked on a new activity with my dogs. Nosework. I highly recommend it to anyone with a dog. Unlike agility, it doesn't require hours and hours of training. Nor does it require lots of expensive equipment or the need to learn any fancy handling moves. In my experience so far, dogs LOVE this activity. And just about any dog can be trained to do it: young, old, big, small, even so-called special needs dogs - deaf, blind, deaf AND blind, even those in a doggy "wheel chair" - can participate. Nosework is a completely dogcentric activity where you are simply fine tuning your dog's primary sense and learning how to read his body language.

I came to nosework after it was recommended to me as a way to help Poppy build some confidence. She has a lot of issues with stress and anxiety and these are sometimes amplified in agility, particularly in a trial setting where she feels the increased tension in the general atmosphere around the ring and where her sound-sensitivities kick into a high gear. Nosework is a low-pressure and rewarding activity for her. It's also a quiet, one-dog-out-at-a-time activity. Although it is not physically demanding activity, the mental stimulation and focus required helps to burn off the over-abundance of energy contained within Poppy's body even better than agility ever did. She sleeps soundly in her crate on the drive home after every class.

Nosework is an activity completely led by the dog's sniffer

As it stands now, Poppy is the only one of my dogs that actually goes to formal nosework class, but, since it's easy to train at home, Ollie and Hokey are being home-schooled right along side of her. Ollie has been doing this since I started taking Poppy to nosework class. Here is a video I made of Poppy and Ollie doing their nosework homework roughly 3 weeks after I started taking Poppy to class.


The primary focus of our level 1 nosework class was merely to build enthusiasm for the game. Building enthusiasm for the game was NOT exactly hard to do in Poppy's case. She gets so rev'd up over it, she starts barking as soon as we pull onto the highway near the veterinary hospital where we go for class and, other than when she's actually doing the search itself, doesn't shut up until I put the vehicle in drive to head home. It's all I can do not to have her launch herself down the stairs to get to the basement where the class is currently held.

We started out using ordinary open cardboard boxes where the dogs would search for food (the object of the search is called "the hide" in nosework) and then self-reward when they found it. I would then swoop in with additional treats to throw in the location of where they found the hide to reinforce the behavior. Later searches involved adding objects other than boxes to the search field (e.g. plastic pots, buckets, toys, tunnels - just about anything that was handy) and adding elevation, but no higher than the dog's nose level (e.g. putting the hide on a chair or low shelf). The hide would not always be contained in something, but might lie next to an object. Toward the end of the 6-week session, the dogs were starting to learn to push through minor barriers such as box flaps and carpet remnants to get to the hide.

Currently we are part way through level 2 class. In this class we no longer use boxes. The hides are done in more "real world" settings, such as in various locations around a storage room - on shelves, behind objects, etc. We are varying the rooms in which we work in, gradually working in tighter spaces, which can make locating the scent a little more tricky for the dog since the scent may fill the entire enclosed space. This allows the dog to hone its skill by narrowing the possibilities down to the area of highest scent concentration. The second half of level 2 class will focus on the other extreme; we will start doing searches outside where there is wide open space for the scent to dissipate, surfaces that affect the scent differently than those found indoors, and, of course, different air currents that carry the scent away from the hide. So far Poppy is a superstar in class - she works diligently and fast - and I'm looking forward to seeing how she does when it comes to the outside searches.
Poppy stylin' in the new harness I bought her specifically to do nosework in

Right now the dogs find food rewards, which is very motivating while they are being taught to build enthusiasm for the game. However, nosework titles require dogs to be trained on specific scents. The 3 scents used are sweet birch, anise & clove. When we get to level 3 class, the first of these odors (birch) will be introduced. I will write more about that down the road as we train for it. The National Association of Canine Scent Work  sanctions both odor recognition tests where you dog can be certified in recognition for the scents listed above and nosework trials where the dog can earn titles. Local organizations/clubs may also hold mock trials for the purpose of practicing under trial-like conditions. Each trial has 4 components that a dog must pass: container search, exterior search, interior search and vehicle search. Obviously, my dogs are in the very early stages of training and scent trials are far off in our future yet. However, it's nice to have a good idea of what we're working toward.

Here are videos showing each dog doing nosework. Forgive the somewhat gravelly narration - I've been struggling with a bad case of bronchitis for the past few days.

First up is Hokey. I started her on nosework later than the other two dogs, but she is showing a lot of promise with it. Today was the first time I've ever worked her without any boxes, so she wasn't quite as fast as she can be, but she did an excellent job!

 And Ollie:

And finally, Poppy, my speed demon who needs to be challenged:

1 comment:

  1. I've heard about this somewhat, but I wasn't really sure what it entailed. I've also been looking for more training classes for our Miss M; this looks like something she would love!