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.