Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Find your PACE

Find your PACE


Each time I trial, observe others trialing or practicing for that matter I have been struck lately about how many times we are out of sink, out of step, or just plan not on the same page with our dogs during a search. Under trial pressure we are excited and moving quickly, pushed by the time of the search clock only in our own minds anyway. I’m not immune I routinely find myself moving to quickly or I feel like my dog is pulling me more often than not during in a particular search. Many questions come to mind; do you run with your dog?, are you pulling or trying to moving them along?, did you call it to quickly?, could you have called it sooner?. These are all “PACE” issues to me and they are big; Patience, Attitude, Communication and Experience.

For many, the first time we trial, our Patience is the key to our trial success. Giving our dogs enough time to completely work out a problem or rather – not calling “Alert” at the first change of behavior we see in our dogs. Sometimes this means not even at the first point at which the dogs “decided” to make a decision. For example our dogs encounters odor and gives a; “look”, “starts to sit”, “paws” or some other communication response in the presence of odor. With patience our dogs then drive into the source of odor and we can clearly see that they have found a find. Even if out dogs have been clear early in their trial career, later they may need more time to work out more complex odor problems. This is an ongoing challenge every time we trial, it falls along a continuum, what happened early on doesn’t stay constant later when we encounter multiple hides or even at the Elite level when there can know be 5,6,7+ hides in multiple searches.

Our Attitude when our dog's pattern changes, be it; speed, consistency and our perceptions of how they worked that problem can sink a search very quickly. If you are trialing at Elite and get a “no” for the first time and become flustered, caught off guard as to if you continue working that problem or move on to another area can be very challenging. Since I heard “no” some many times at NW3 it was less about the attitude and more about my/my dog’s ability to adapt in the moment that made the clear difference. In one case, my dog clearly said no I want “THIS” hide and I’m not leaving until I get paid for solving the problem. Finding 1 hide out of 4 in the 2:30 minute in which many of the teams found 3-4 hides was a particular challenge to our attitude and adaptability. It can challenge a team on either end, if the dog looses drive to complete the problem after hearing a “no” then how can you motivate them to work – it becomes about your attitude. It is the same problem for all levels, whether you are going into the next search after hearing a “no” or working at the Elite level and still have several minutes to work an area.

Communication is required from our dogs, for us to be able to call “Alert”. Maybe it’s very clear, or very subtle, if you expect the communication from your dog to be clear and you find yourself in a search and the communication has become very subtle, our ability to over come that is difficult. Remember back when your dog was working NW1 and they came into the search and ran directly to the container and slapped it with their paw. If you had never seen that before, you would have been tormented by the thought of calling it having not gone to any other boxes. “My dog has never done that before” is an ongoing theme after we trial, and we may not understand the dog’s communication in these situations. In some cases it was odor, in some cases it was the dog’s frustration that caused them to sit at that box. Then throw into the mix how much we are communicating to them with “clues” developed in our practice – even if we didn’t realize we were communicating to them, we are.

Experience solves all of these problems right? I hope so, I’ll let you know when I have enough experience were I can say that. It is a dynamic model where our dog’s and our experience are changing each time we practice and compete. I had a problem with a high hide, so I worked some high hides with another instructor and my dog worked them well and didn’t seem to have a problem at all. Then I worked with another instructor and my dog obsessed about a phantom high hide in a search were it wasn’t that high. Not all experience is created equal, leaving a hide behind in a trial search might have compounded effect us or our dogs. We think we have found a gap in our training and then proceed to work (over work) that type of problem only to give our dogs the impression that this is the expectation for the next search. If we concentrate too much on one experience it can teach things we didn’t intend to give so much weight.

When I have an off day, it often seem like I was out of step with my dog, I called it quickly or imagine the NW3 first search of the day and you hear “NO” on the first hide you called (done more that once by the way). Being able to recognize that you need to alter your PACE to build some successes for the next trial or search is important. That is one extreme, but it can just be the morning versus the afternoon, recognizing that your dog is not the same as they were for those morning searches, adjusting your expectations for the afternoon(or each successive search can be a significant trial challenge. In some respects this is even more possible for Elite trials where a short time limit search with a range of hides can be juxtaposed with another search where you have 5+ minutes and an unknown number of hides. Try to concentrate less on the things you missed and concentrate on how to achieve the best understanding of how each dog works. I'm not suggesting you practice a "type" of problem that you missed, but remember that the more you focus on that one problem we might be pushing our practice to an far end of the pendulum. Have we learned to adjust our pace in all those other trials; element specialty, nw1, nw2, nw3. Where we can use our experience in reading the dogs communication and have a good attitude and patience in each search, and achieve a consistently changing pace!.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Find your "Tell"

My dogs know me better than I know myself. Each one of my dogs is student of me, they study me and everything I do. Recently read another blog - by Roger Abrantes - PhD in Evolutionary Biology and a great speaker, trainer of people and animals. Here is the quote from Roger, "If you ask me today, I'll answer you without hesitation that the most powerful tool you have when working with animals is yourself. If you control yourself, your body language, your facial expressions and the little you say, you'll achieve what you pretend and more." http://ethology.eu/the-most-powerful-training-tool/

I can imagine playing poker with my dogs, I would loose every time. Why? Because they have the advantage (they are cheating), they read our expressions, movements, body language. It sometimes looks like they read our thoughts being so good at reading the slight deviations we make in our movements. How do they do that when the are not looking at us? Don't forget they have what nears 250 degrees of vision among such a keen senses to read our body language that we might as well have shown them our cards before we even started playing a hand.

So where do this leave us with nose work. Ha, we are doomed, just kidding, but do you know your tell? - Because, I bet your dog has. So here is the test, attached is a video from a trial I did last fall in Oregon, our first Elite trial. I've split it up into 3 parts so you can see my body language for 3 separate hides. Can you read my tell? https://youtu.be/5R5cGSEUNkc

It doesn't matter the level you are at, your dog is learning how you work they are studying your every movement and learning all they can. Are you doing the same about their movements? They also have a head start because they are using the language they are fluent in. So you better step up you game. So I'm suggesting you change try to eliminate your tell, maybe. Humans fall into routines, we get comfortable in our patterns, just ask yourself if you could change anything in your life that is routine.

My current hypothesis, our dogs are so good at reading us that our body language, that it's better than any conditioned reinforcer we might use while working with our dogs in nose work, the facial expression of "excitement" when we see our dog complete a scent puzzle is virtually instantaneous. Or the leash adjustments we make in preparation of calling "alert", if you found my "tell" you might imagine the my dog already knew he had solved the problem. In all 3 segments of the video I drop my arm off the leash in anticipation of switching the leash or in order to get the treats out of my back pocket. I now understand why I am a terrible poker player. Find your "tell" and see where it leads you.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Dynamics of the Trial Search

Each search only happens once. You step to the start line maybe with a slight pause and then proceed into the search area with your dog leading the way. The search you have just entered will never be repeated again, you and your dog will gain some bit of learning from that search and if you ran it again and again, it would be different – conditions, pace, knowledge, etc. This is what makes each search a dynamic process. The dynamics are captured in video and it is very exciting to view the video that has started to be taken at trials for purchase by competitors. Most of us don’t have photographic or eidetic memory, and even for those who can remember much of what they do during a search it is unlikely that you would remember everything.

Did you start reaching for a treat before you called alert?

Did you move in such a way to restrict your dog’s path to odor?

Did you allow your dog access to every container?

Did you have a pattern, or did you look like you had a pattern in covering the search area?

In the analysis of each search I often think of what I could change, and the one thing I keep coming back to is that I can only change “me”, well the choices I make the next time. It is not easy, either, replaying the search and thinking about what area I didn’t cover for example is not always a simple question. The video is the best challenge to this hindsight analysis within our minds. It gives us a series of imagines that go far beyond an eidetic memory. What video can’t show is what we are thinking in each moment, but that is probably less important that observing what we are doing in each moment.

Before we get to the deconstruction of the video lets describe a successful search. For NW3 one factor is missing, we are not told the number of hides ahead of time – I would pose that a successful search is any search that we work with our dogs and find 1-3 odors and call finish (or call finish after finding no odor if it is a clear room). Note; I’m not sure it makes the search any more successful if we find all the odor there is to find, that only matters for the possibility of a title at the end of the day for NW3. I’m twisting it a bit but most of us would agree that if we called a “false” then we would immediately feel that would not have been a successful search. Why because we no longer have the opportunity to get a title? It’s only when we are given the knowledge of how many hides were present in each search area at the end of the day that we can determine with 100% confidence that we miss something or found everything. So I would say that if we complete each search, where the handler/dog team find and call correctly as many hides as possible in a given time limit and call finish – we have successfully completed that search. Now don’t get me wrong, come the end of the day if we missed a hide – I might reevaluate the success of that search – but that is in hindsight after being given all the information. Some days we(handler and dog) will be at our best and find all the hides and title and some days we will be not at our best and miss, false and not title or maybe just by chance or maybe our dog carried us that day and we will title anyway.

Your immediate evaluation of the search directly after can be a tough place on the day of trial, if you are doing back to back searches then if you replaying the prior search you might lose focus in the next one. That is something that you might need to change. Working to get ourselves refocused before every search can be important for the outcome we are seeking.

So after about 50 trials with all my dogs I have started to get the trial video on a consistent basis. With just a few videos of Atlas(2 Elite trials) and the first few videos of Bailey and I working(2 NW3s and now our first Elite), I can know start some objective criticisms of the choices I’m making in trials. I’m struck by the snap shot of the video, it’s a narrow focus but not quite as narrow as the trial photos. In the past I would spend time after trial photos were posted looking through all the dogs and wondering if the handler positioned them selves out of choice, pattern or something else in each photo. I would look at how the dogs communicated each hide and sometimes review photos from trials I haven’t even attended to see if I could read when the dog was working odor versus not working odor. Here is the one search (NW3 from February) – if you don’t know the outcome watch and see if you can decide if it is successful, both by your definition and by mine.  Did we find all the hides? https://youtu.be/7euIsTZWEVo

Normally I might ask myself if I covered all the containers although I don't think that is always necessary, or if I pulled my dog off any containers? If you get the chance to get trial video of your runs, I think it can be a very valuable tool as part of our training. Could I have called finish sooner? Did it look like from reading my body language that I knew where the hide was that I didn't call the first time? I have a whole set of questions that I have started to compile for each video I watch. Now the most difficult assessment is not to be to hard on myself of the choices I made in the moment of the trial search. This process is also not meant to distract me from the next trial, but instead to find the success and see if there are opportunities to improve, to see the dynamics of each search and to learn for my choices. In the end the only chance to run that search again is when I press play on the video.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Learning is Fun! - CNCA / NACSW symposium

Building enthusiasm for training is always a fun result of an experience. I had the pleasure of attending two days of lectures at a symposium create jointly with the NACSW – National Association of Canine Scent Work and CNCA – California Narcotics Canine Association, which brought together the two organizations for the inaugural Civilian K9 Conference featuring key presenters from the professional detection and K9 Nose Work® communities.

Reflecting on the lectures and thinking about what information I could share with the teams I coach that would help them in their training. It has been occupied my mind as I traveled home. First the entire symposium was invigorating for me and my own thoughts about training, not only did I get hear some great speakers. I had the opportunity to talk with many of my fellow K9 Nose Work trainers – with about 100 in attendance. Many of the speakers were limitedly familiar with our sport and incredibly open with sharing information; everything from talking about how they look at; nutrition, tracking, selecting dogs for detection(narcotics and explosives), patrol, suspect apprehension or detection for other disciplines (finding endangered species). One might get the impression that much of the information wouldn’t be relevant, but that was not the case, it was a giant jigsaw puzzle of information to fit into what I teach in K9NW or in other areas in the desire to expand general knowledge about dogs and professional occupations related to dogs. In an effort to share some information, I will try to paraphrase some the highlights in the hope that it will help the teams I coach.

“Pay the hunt” – This was a running theme, if planned or not, most of the speakers touched on it, some describe practical applications or how they accomplish it with dogs starting out. For class purposes we cover reward timing a lot. We can only perceive through our observations of the dogs what works the best for each of our dogs. Through repeated “hunting” for odor we reward our dogs for desire to hunt; to build more drive, to build stamina, to build problem solving, to build communication. One of the speakers talked about rewarding his “green” dog for just a “change of behavior”- just the recognition of the track he had provided. We many times categorize our reward as early or late but we are still rewarding the hunt of our dogs. The reward timing is a function of what we see and our response to the perceived communication from our dogs when they have recognized odor, acquired an edge, tracking odor, chasing odor away or towards source, and narrowing in on source. We make mistakes in our timing; in fact several videos in the presentations pointed that out. A trainer saying “the timing sucked”, or “can you see the mistake made”. It seems like a small thing to point out but for me it was the biggest compliment to what we are all working towards, better timing, pace, and coordination with what our dog needs from us to learn what we desire from them. We have companion dogs but we are still paying the hunt, building it to overcome environmental distraction, etc. I don’t think I heard one speaker said they were paying the find, in their videos of the professional dogs the payment was for the process leading up to, and sometimes before the dog acquired the source of odor. Or in the case of having to tell the handlers about an odor away from source because of the job requirements, the dog’s desire and tenacity to hunt was very clear and handler/trainer skill in working with the dogs was great to see on video.

“The dog’s job” – Leave it to Amy Herot - co-founder of the NACSW to make some powerful connections about what we are training in K9 Nose Work® and how that relates to the other professional trainers and presenters. I’m paraphrasing again, “what was your dog selected to do?” That was the question set on the table – personally I didn’t choose my dog to do nosework. I was looking for a pet and companion, a dog to hike with and enjoy the outdoors, to be a running buddy. As Amy pointed out most of the dogs doing K9NW were not “selected” to become a detecting dogs, they were selected to be companions, do agility or other sports, or sit on the coach. Well that doesn’t mean you don’t have a dog that has been trained to do a “job” detection of odor-birch, anise or clove. The first presenter spent several hours going through how he selects the dogs, a series of 3 days test that he designed to measure the dogs natural and trained abilities to accomplish all the tasks he believes are needed from him to produce the best working dogs, based on his years of experience. So what he doesn’t have is the luxury of time, in fact many of the speakers did highlight this point. They noted that we as nosework trainers have made an enormous investment in time to produce great hunting dogs. We have accomplished our goals through time and perseverance. I listened to that first lecture, to the list of tested tasks and thought about when I started nosework in 2011. I don’t think anything described in the test would have been accomplished by my dog, but we were still able to make a great deal of progress in nose work. Many of the nose work judges have expressed the surprise, respect and appreciation for all the different types of dogs doing their “job” on trial days. So think about what your dog was able to do the first day you tried nosework and where they are now. That is now another “job” your dog has, but they are still have job 1 – companion, and they are even better at that even when they are counter surfing. J

“Dog gets to choose the best reward” – A quote from one of the lectures that the dog should be choosing that is the best reward. Now start thinking are you paying your nosework dog with their “best reward”? I hear it already – “no I would need to put squirrels in the boxes”. We are talking toys and food – but the same process should be happening, what would my dog choose? You may have done this at the beginning put different toys or various treats while your dogs were starting to learn the game. Has that reward changed, have you varied the reward as you gained experience, did you let each dog choose, or use the same treats for all your dogs. I’m not alone in forgetting to vary the reward or over time make sure I’m paying with the best reward for my dog. Think about creatively, it might change over time or given the conditions of the search. It was such a simple idea and the extensive description about how to get the dog to choose and various professional agencies use different processes in the selection of the dog. Unfortunately I don’t have lecture to play again, but I found the simplest concepts to be the most powerful and relatable to what nosework is about. One of my dogs was ill for several weeks, feeding tube, etc. She pulled through which I was very happy about but didn’t seem very interested in hunting for odor just after the illness. She will do anything for her ball and so it was search time for the ball, search time with the odor and ball together. The dog is very motivated to search and likes food – she is a Labrador, but because I’ve used food with the other dogs it was more convenient to use food. I had used the ball but it was not my primary choice, so bringing it back to “dog gets to choose the best reward” are you listening to what your dog is telling you?
There was a great deal of information shared and that was the best part of the conference. The willingness and openness of the speakers was wonderful and to share their personal and professional experience with an enthusiastic group of civilians that just so happen to be fanatics about training their K9NW detection dogs. I’m looking forward to the next time even more. You could see the excitement of everyone involved in the desire to learn more. Thanks to all involved from the CNCA and NACSW for creating such a worthwhile educational opportunity.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Scent dimension – not seen by the handler

We don’t have glasses that can see the scent our dogs are hunting for, and that means our primary sense – vision puts us at a handicap for the analysis of the decisions our dogs make while working odor. I’ve heard several analogies used to describe how the dogs work, trying to relate it to our visual world. Ron Gaunt once (paraphrasing) articulated it as a room where all objects are mirrors, (fun house style). So imagine each chair, table, wall, and door is made out of mirrors reflecting the visual spectrum back as us. How many of use would run into things, as we observe our dogs doing as they work odor. We have all seen it, where out of the blue the dog turns quickly and “smack” into the bottom of a chair or table leg. The dog seeking odor is in an unseen dimension of sorts, and not always the same for each dog. Where one dog runs into objects another leaves the threshold and goes directly to source, without any delay. Each dog is similar and yet different based on that dog, their experience and changes in the environment.

Imagine we could design a scent Rorschach (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rorschach_test) test to give to our dogs.

One dog would see one image and another dog might see the same or the negative image in the test. Sometimes when watching a dog work I see the dog searching all the negative space, the void in-between objects. Yes they encounter corners, edges, stumble over containers and even run into objects, but not always. It’s beautiful to watch the dog moves in this negative dimension from what we can’t see or different from what we initially see. It can be frustrating to the handler when the dog appears to not making progress, i.e. the source is not in the negative space of that image. In fact just this past weekend I watch several handlers call alert and then say were the source was located. It was like they watched the voids and objects the dog evaluated and where able to see what was coming next – the dog would have turned and sourced and therefore knew where the source was.

There was a test as a kid I took once at the optometrist, that tested for dyslexia. It was cube of sorts with several layers of letters, you looked into it and there was a paragraph to read out load. Not sure if I can fully describe its design but if the patient moved then the letters would shift. The optometrist said at the end, that most adults performing the test would give up because it doesn’t make sense what they are reading. But as a kid with dyslexia I just read to the end squirming in my seat and making absolutely no darn sense. What if every time the dog moves while working, that negative space/image of scent they are encountering is altered, either by the handler, dog or some other environmental factors? Imagine the intense work and focus the dog must be under in the moment with so many computations to make.

The Rorschach image or ink blots have a unique property, called reflection symmetry or mirror-image symmetry which happens in nature, and can be described in mathematical terms. I often suggest in my classes with the possibility that the dogs are really doing differential calculus problems to solve a scent problem. Each term of the equation as it is solved by the dog reduces the remaining information or terms required to complete the scent problem and source.

Back to Ron; he encourages us to watch the dog work, to do our best not to interfere, move/not move but use them as our guide in the world of scent because the dog is the expert. It appears to be “magic” sometimes but in a way we are lucky when we see something that can not be seen it can only be observed in how our dogs work the scent problem in that particular environment and search. It can not be repeated later, it only happens once. Or if we observe carefully it happens similarly enough with another dog that is gives us a glimpse into their world of scent. We also encounter experienced handlers, judges, trainers with new observations about the dog’s patterns that we may not have fully understood what we were seeing at the time. Do all of these apply to every dog, maybe not, but it’s these observations that help us understand the vast unseen capabilities of dogs.

My dogs do calculus and I do addition and subtraction, I think the problems they are solving are beautiful to watch.