Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Question: "Where do we start?"

The Start Line ….

 It is where you start or is it? While teaching a class a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a pattern. Which on a normal day wouldn’t necessarily get me thinking. However always looking for opportunities to analyze large data sets to distill unrecognizable patterns through the use of statistics sometimes makes me wonder about what we miss. Or how simple things are lost in the flow of a class that might need more thought.
First the start line is an arbitrary line created for the purposes of starting the stopwatch to measure the time it takes the team to complete the search. It’s only really required for competition. I rarely, if ever place cones or tape in class to signify the place where a team is to start. Ironically it’s probably out of not taking enough time to setup the search area, or maybe its just I don’t see the value in telling each team where to start. The question that I always think about is did the dog know where the start line was, or did the handler cue them to start at the line by saying “find-it”?

Many teams have a well defined ritual; stop just before the start line, adjust equipment, tell dog to sit, wait, say “find-it”, or some other cue. Some of these rituals come from years of competing in other dog sports. Others make equipment changes or other adjustments some distance from the line and then pause or walk right over that line with out much significance at all. Is there a preferred method? I think some dogs start when the handler takes them out of the crate, I believe this because it takes the handler a great deal of energy to travel that short distance to the search area holding the dog back. Although not recommended, I think if they just opened the crate door many dogs would end up running into the training room in full search mode. Of course this would leave the handler running after them, hoping not to miss all the action. Although we love the drive we all get frustrated being pulled to the search area.

For this exercise I decided on a particular highly scientific test. It was inspired by another instructor’s diabolical torture of their class. Ok, it wasn’t that mean, depending on if you where one of the handlers. I adapted for this exercise for this class but I expect the effect was the same. Here is what prompted my silly exercise. Not all, but enough handlers would say find-it when entering the training room regardless of a small search area in the corner of the room. I deciding it was a good time to discuss the purpose of the start line since several trial questions had come up in this class.

In watching the teams, I wondered how could I drive home the point to everyone how focused we are on our rituals. If they didn’t say anything or do any of the ritual tasks, does the dog still start to search? Sort of like testing if your dog pays more attention to the verbal cue (sit, down) or your body language one (hand cue, etc). So if you don’t say anything but just walk into the search areas doesn’t the dog begin to search just with the presence of odor.

The rules of this handler torture; if the handler said “find-it” or any other cue prior to the dogs nose crossing the start line the penalty would be for the handler to put their dog up. Since everyone followed directions we will never know if I would have required them to put their dog up, but the looks received were very memorable. Each dog went to work, no surprise. But that wasn’t really in question, right? I’ve noticed sometimes that us humans coop patterns from watching others. Take class long enough with a group of people, and the handlers start to mimic each other. Maybe it’s easier for us human to read the body language of each other better than watching the dog’s body language. I know this happens on occasion, just run a threshold drill in class where every search has a threshold source and watch everyone start to stop at that imaginary start line. Not on purpose, but maybe some positive peer pressure, it works for that team so maybe I should stop at the start line and have my dog sit. Many dogs however do not conform in this way. They adapt to the handler, sometimes we perceive their lack of adapting as rebellion, but maybe it’s just the desire to get to work, to drive forward and succeed.
Atlas trying to drag me. Our first Trial, Colorado 2012.
Luckily he is only 30 lbs. and not 60.

I’ve stopped at the start line, I know there are rituals that I go through, however I try to not let those override the dog choosing where to start. This is not to say there is “one” correct way but sometimes understanding why we do certain rituals its good to reevaluate, step back and analyze if that is still needed. We may have created those rituals to introduce our dogs to the game but what if we could work with our dog and become faster, efficient, more focused and a better team by looking at what we do to contribute.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

An incredible Journey and it continues!

It’s been 2 years since the first trip, a short 16 hour drive to Colorado for an ORT (Odor Recognition Test) to begin competing in the sport of K9 Nose Work®, with my dogs. It has taken almost 1.5 years and many competitions, camps, and seminars to develop a comfortable trial day routine, learning to focus on what I’m doing during competition and learning to stay out of the way of my dog’s nose. That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. The highlights are discovering training gaps that have been enlightened by the day’s competition. There are disappointments, but its really just being to hard on myself for things I have no control over, when having fun is really the point. In general the more challenging the day the far more I learn. I compete with my dogs because I have fun, and the game of K9 Nose Work® has been a great outlet for the mental energy my dog wields. Imagine, a high energy dog, hitting adolescence and using that cunning mental dexterity to make your home, well not so nice. Finding a game that harnesses a dog’s energy mental and physical through complex problem solving, has been an extraordinary gift to the relationship I have with my dogs. It’s not magic but a great deal or learning about our dogs and their incredible scenting abilities that with us can be harnessed into a detector dog. My dogs detect Birch, Anise and Clove. The scents not explosive, but it is incredible see so many dogs become detector dogs.
Lebanon, NJ - December 16, 2013, was our 9th trial together. This day was the first try competing at NW3 for Atlas and I, so I’ve had some people ask about my experience, please remember that Atlas and I have our way of working that may not translate to others. 20 degrees at 8am with a little sun, I started about 10am after check in and the walk through.  The plan was patience and to not let any of my expectations get in the way of his nose. We were 2nd in the order, running interiors first, 3 rooms, with holding rooms before each search area. Get acclimated from the cold before the first room was nice. We spend about 5 minutes waiting outside for the first dog to finish. Only things running through my head were “there CAN be 3 hides” and “if he goes back to a hide more than twice, you WILL call finish”.

Interiors, first room was a bunkroom, ran on leash stepped inside the door and paused, let out some leash and he went directly to the threshold hide in a drawer of a bookcase. After rewarding let out the rest of the leash and moved with him around the room, he went directly to the next hide, called alert and rewarded. We walked back to the end of the room where the judge was standing, judge moved and he checked a drawer at floor level, sniffed hard but didn’t stick so we moved on and he went back to the other hide, so I called finish. Second room had 3 open doors, with a ping pong table and 2 vending machines, he bolted right in and moved to the end of the room and headed toward one open doors. He checked the table and vending machine, then headed back for another door. I moved back to the beginning of the room, and he investigated the table again before he sniffed one of the vending machines, and went under the table. It felt like an eternity but he showed no interest so called clear. Third room was a bathroom with 2 vanities and 3 closed toilet stalls. Again on leash held at the threshold for a moment then went in, Atlas went directly to one of the vanities checking the bottom, found the hide at the corner and looked at me, called alert. Then checked the other vanity, but he pulled back to the hide. I opened the middle stall door, but Atlas wouldn’t go into the stall, instead pulling back to the hide, so I called finish. The judge said, “Ookaay” sort of drawn out, which really messed with my head. I figured I missed a hide because we didn’t go into the other stalls. I was happy to stick to my plan, if he continued to return to a hide it’s because there is nothing else there, but the inflection in the judges ok had me convinced we missed a hide. Left interiors, with no “NO” calls from the judge and Atlas poop right after leaving interiors, a totally successful day. J We have had a problem traveling and he holds it for days, so getting it out of the way for the day is always a big milestone early.

There was a long break before the vehicle and exterior searches back to back. While waiting outside in the staging area before vehicles, there were several gun shots in the distance, Atlas immediately was on full alert and got concerned. It was several quick shots so he recovered quickly with a little encouragement. Not any warmer with the wind was picking up. The vehicle search was 2 cars and 1 utility tractor. He went directly to the utility vehicle which was down wind to the right of both cars, checked the front grill area and then moved down the side before going to the middle car. Hit on the front wheel well area and alerted, one hide found. Moved to the second car and started bracketing over a larger area to narrow down what seemed like a more inaccessible hide (behind the tire), stuck his head into the wheel well above the tire. Alerted, second hide found. Then moved around the front of the vehicle, he showed some interest at the front but kept moving. We went down the other sides of the vehicles and then worked back to the car on the left where he had shown interest at the front. On the second or third time around he checked but when going back around the vehicle he pulled me to the first hide so I called finish.

Exterior was a large triangle shaped search area in between to cabins. One side was up against a building the other 2 sides open. All covered with about 8 inches of snow. One pathway of snow was scooped through that area of about 6 feet wide down to the grass. Flags marked the outer boundaries sides and ran through a picnic table, making part of the table out of play. Entered the search area with the wind blowing off the corner of the building through the area, he went down the building side quickly and then directly to the picnic table, worked from seat up to under the table and alerted/rewarded. Left and worked into the center area to a large stone fire pit, working the outer edge before Atlas jumping into the pit and working to a specific rock/crack in the fire pit wall and alerted.

Then tried to cover the area, he went back to the picnic table and jump onto the top. At this time the gun shots in the distance happened again, Atlas turned a stiffened toward the direction of the shots, I told him good boy and he went back to work, located the first hide from above at the end of the picnic table, called alert again, it was more reflex to call alert. Covered the triangle point area of the search area, he paused at a spot in the snow but I moved him on since it looked like pee sniffin. Covered the wall of the building because there was a trash can lid and step areas, when he showed no interest so I called finish as he start to move towards the first hide.

I was feeling great that he found some hides and worked well, with no false alerts. I felt like if we could get through the day with no false alerts it was an extremely successful day. I still figured we had missed a hide in interiors but at this point it was less on my mind. Container search was last. One of our toughest elements, not because it is harder but because it is the element that Atlas has false alerted on most often. The false alerts in the past are not from distractors, but instead he might have trouble with a particular hide placement and his default frustration response is going to the nearest box and sit down. We have spent a lot of training time working with containers after having these experiences at trial. Even though his alert is a look at me the sitting has thrown me off in the past, and it has been so convincing in the moment. The containers this day was 19 total containers, including 10 white type ORT boxes, several flat bags, a couple smaller bags and several taller containers. Needless to say I was not as confident at that time. Plus when containers are the last search of the day, his energy is greatly dimensioned. I feed him after the exterior search about 1/3 of his daily meal to help with his energy.

Containers, I remember the least, hit the first container a tall drink cooler, but left and went to a bag nearby, then returned to the cooler and called alert/rewarded. Then covered most of the parameter containers, by Atlas’s choice. He hit on a corner bag, called alert and rewarded. Next I tried to cover the rest of the containers in the middle, holding firm on the leash when he pulled towards the odor containers. He sniffed the rest of the boxes, tried to bite at one, obvious, “let me eat what is in there”. (later learned it was cheese, one of his favorite treats)  There was one small bag in the middle that he wouldn’t check, and since he had problems with very small containers in a trial before I walked by that bag at least 3 times, no interest so I called finish. Was very excited to get out with no false alerts, and for that reason alone I was not only satisfied with the day, but just so happy beyond words at how well Atlas worked.

It was great day from Atlas where the communication was clear, he was “ON” his game, and we had a blast! It was still very cold out and windy, I would say the conditions were difficult to stay focused, and very hard to stand outside before interiors and vehicles or several minutes. The mind game part with not knowing the number of hides was challenging but was happy to stick with my gut, when he returned to a hide more 2 times, it was time to call finish. I know that this if I had missed a hide I would be reevaluating my plan, however I would rather miss a hide than false. After 8 previous trials with Atlas 4- NW1s and 4 – NW2s, I think the false alerts are harder to reconcile with training than timing out, eating grass, getting distracted, or stopping to work because he needing to poop or being distracted by peoples movements. I learned a great deal and started reviewing in my mind as soon as I was done, not to determine if a title was possible but instead to evaluate how my plans and experience would get me ready for the next trial. What would I be planning for my next training to work the areas that I thought could be a problem; 20 degrees and 8” of snow is hard to find near me in central Texas but maybe a trip north. The time limits on the searches were not a factor this particular day, but that doesn’t mean that would be a factor later. After thinking we missed a hide in the interiors, I remember having plenty of time and I could have covered any areas I missed. I also had decided to work on leash for interiors; previously I’ve almost always worked off leash. A great day!
Some of the highlights for learning were made afterward in the judges debrief and comments by the Certifying Official. I now reward when Atlas goes back to containers and re-reward to reinforce that odor is the most important, hoping to override any interest in distractors. I learned in the next NW3 that we work best when I let him lead, I held him from going back to a hide and was convinced there was a second hide, had I let him go back I would have called finish. In one of our previous trials firecrackers had spooked him so badly so the biggest smile was being so proud of Atlas that he was able to recover and work through the gun shots near by. A day where "No, No's" come from the judge, doesn't mean we get a title, but feeling confident in all situations to call "Alert" means we are working together as a team and that is the best feeling of all.