Where You Lead, I Will Follow

Jessica supports her dog, Trix in a warehouse search.

Jessica supports her dog, Trix in a warehouse search.

Think of a beautiful ballroom dance—there is someone who takes the lead and someone who responds to that dancer’s movements or cues. Many activities and sports we participate in with our dogs work the same way. One part of the team leads—or gives cues—and the other part of the team responds and follows through in reaction to those cues. In competition obedience, a dog must master many skills including heel, sit, stay, and take specific jumps. In agility, a dog must take direction from the human handler in order to run through a complex sequence of obstacles. Behaviors must be performed quickly and accurately. In freestyle, dogs must be able to move in many different directions with and without their human partner. Behaviors must be executed accurately and may be relatively simple or lengthy chained behaviors. In all of these those sports, the handler is the leader or initiator, and the dog is the follower or responder. Regardless of their roles, both members of the team are equally and vitally important.

In nose work, the roles change a bit—but nonetheless, both members of the team remain important to a successful outcome. The dog leads the search and the handler supports the dog. This doesn’t mean the handler is invisible or ineffective. What it means is that a handler must be able to read the dog’s behavior, understand wind currents, how odor works, and how dogs solve problems that are presented by a particular hide. On top of that, the handler needs to ensure that search areas are completely covered and all hides (or no hides at all) are found.

A dog participating in nose work isn’t ignoring the handler. It’s quite the opposite. The dog is constantly communicating to the handler and the handler is making certain decisions according to that information. In fact, the handler is so much in the dog’s thoughts that we, as handlers, need to make extra sure that our body language doesn’t give the dog unintended information. Just as in agility, an arm waved in the wrong direction may send a dog off course. In nose work that same wave could convince a dog to search in an unproductive area—or, worse, to give a false alert.

A good nose work team—just as any good agility, obedience, or freestyle team—is a joy to watch. It’s a give-and-take relationship: each part of the team responds to the other. Both sides know their respective roles and best of all each team member truly respects the other.

When a dog thoroughly understands the role he plays in nose work, he understands when the game is on. Just as dog doesn’t usually initiate heeling patterns or freestyle routines around the house, a dog understands when he is supposed to be searching. There are many contextual cues as well as verbal ones that dogs understand signal the beginning of a specific activity. The harnesses, collars (or lack of those things) as well as the special equipment used in a sport all let the dog know when an activity is taking place.

It is true that dogs use their noses every day regardless of what they are doing, but searching for specific odors is an activity that dogs play when they understand that it is time to do just that. And that information, as with all dog sports, comes from the dog’s handler.

Leading and following are not roles that are set in stone. A good leader knows when it’s time to follow. If anything were to be said about the journey you take with your dog in nose work, it’s that perhaps you are working with your dog on a very primal, wordless level. You and your dog are working together in a constant flow of communication, a lovely give and take. It’s a relationship that builds trust and tightens bonds. Whether you are coming to nose work as your first dog sport or your third, nose work will strengthen the bond you have with your dog—and that’s something that will be beneficial to both of you no matter what you choose to enjoy doing with your dog.

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Alert: True or False?

A recent discussion on a Yahoo group has brought to light something I’ve been struggling with for a while. If you have ever trained for Nose Work or gone to a Nose Work class, ORT, or trial, you have probably heard the phrase, false alert. Handlers say things like, “He lied!” or “He wanted the food distractor” or “But he looked at me.” There are no two ways about it, saying a dog “falsed” puts the blame squarely on the dog’s shoulders.

So what actually makes a dog indicate odor if there isn’t odor there? Or more to the point, what was the human half of the team doing when the dog false alerted?

Sometimes a handler stands stock still—or stands too close—as the dog works. When this happens, a sensitive dog may react to the handler’s stillness and closeness and interprets that body pressure as a cue for a certain behavior; and in response to this physical pressure, the dog may offer a behavior (a nose touch, a paw, a look) thinking that is what is being asked. The handler sees the dog performing the alert behavior and makes the call.

Sometimes handlers just get in their dog’s way. Many of our companion dogs are polite and won’t push past a handler to get to the other side of the room, and so then perhaps feeling a little stuck or confused, a dog might offer a behavior (a nose touch, a paw, a look) to see if that’s what’s being asked. “You won’t let me go where I want to, so maybe you want me to do this?”

Sometimes, a handler who isn’t sure that a dog is at source will ask the dog to, “show me.” This can be an inadvertent cue to perform an alert behavior. Or worse, this can dissolve a dog’s confidence and create doubt that maybe he wasn’t right the first time he told you. You can see how this can lead to a downward spiral that decreases confidence for both members of the Nose Work team. Perhaps a more apt name for a false alert is a forced alert.

So what is it that we look for when the dog is at odor? Are we rewarding a behavior at source or are we awarding being at source?

Students ask how it will be possible to know if their dog is at odor if the dog doesn’t sit, paw, down, look back, or do anything else specific, they say they won’t know. And the concern is that then in a trial they will miss the signals–or won’t be able to answer a judge if asked where the location of the hide is.

Nobody knows your dog better than you do. How often during a regular day at home, do you see your dog do something and understand exactly what’s being communicated to you, even though you have never trained that communication? As Amy Herot said in a recent seminar in New York, if there was a cooked Thanksgiving turkey on the top of your refrigerator, would your dog know? Would you know that your dog knows about that turkey? You haven’t trained your dog to do anything to alert you to the presence of a cooked turkey on your fridge, but your dog tells you about it just the same and you understand.

Pay attention to what your dog is doing. If you are worrying in practice about what might happen at a trial, you aren’t fully present with your dog at the moment your dog is at source. You are somewhere in the future worrying about something that might happen.

There are a million ways in which your dog is telling you loud and clear that he is at odor. Reward that and reward it fast. Reward the clear signals your dog gives you automatically. Reinforce what your dog is doing, and soon those signals will be unmistakable to you.

Here’s why:

If you reward your dog at odor before your dog does anything specifically not only are you reinforcing your dog in the best possible way—you are training your eye to see what it looks looks like when your dog reaches source. In fact, not only are you reinforcing your dog, you are reinforcing your observing skills (Yes!! I saw him turn his head when he was under the chair! He’s at source!) It’s a win-win. Your dog’s confidence gets bolstered (Yeah! I did it!! I found that tricky hide under the chair in the corner. I can do this thing!) and your confidence gets bolstered (Yeah! I did it!! I saw my dog find that tricky hide under the chair in the corner! I saw it as soon as he got there!)

If you wait until your dog paws at source to reward, what is your dog learning? That he gets to source and then he paws and gets a reward. Maybe this will work for you. Maybe your dog will understand that it’s the combination of odor+paw in that order that gets the reward. But what if the reward is high or inaccessible? How can your dog paw then? And what if your dog gets confused and feels the stress of his handler at a trial, and then paws something random—because in the past pawing has paid off? Or paws because you are right on top of him and he can’t move to do anything else.

Wouldn’t you rather just feel confident that you genuinely know your dog—and can offer support in a thoughtful way? Wouldn’t you like your dog to be able to rely on you to understand him? Asking for behaviors or repeat finds (show me!) only muddies the message you want your dog to receive: You get rewarded for being at source. Celebrate that moment of the find together. Enjoy being a true team where each member respects the other’s natural abilities.