Friday, February 17, 2012

Nosework Intro

Tess has been learning a new sport - nosework.

Today we had an EXCELLENT session with just odor, and blind hinds (meaning a friend hid the odor and I didn't know where it was).

As nosework is a fairly young sport, I'm assuming that you are as unfamiliar with it as I was a few months ago.

(sorry - you have to copy and paste the addresses - it's late, it's a Friday, and it was a long day at school - THREE Pharm/tox autonomic lectures in a ROW)

Here's a few websites and resources:
and of course....the organization website:

Youtube videos:

I find it difficult to find good online instructions on how to get started, but fortunately a classmate is willing to teach me.  (I'm finding out that in vet school, if you want to do something animal related, SOMEONE in your class has probably done it and is willing to share knowledge). 

A quick introduction
It was a couple of weeks until my friend and I were able to meet for the first time, so I decided to play a modified nosework game with her with a toy.  I starting hiding a hunting bumper (one of the canvas) after playing a game of fetch with it.  I hid it in all sorts of places - high, low, buried under objects, behind the cat box and in the dryer.  On top of objects that she had to climb on other objects to get to.  Outside, inside, in a vehicle.....You get the idea.  She didn't get the treat until she had found the toy and brought it to me.  In summary, I taught her several bad habits according to the rules of competition.   I think I'm lucky that Tess has a good nose on her and seems to instinctively understand the game, even though I changed the rules once I learned the more formal nosework training.   Retrieving the toy is NOT good, and you are suppose to keep the hides easy and off of grassy areas in the beginning......oops.  Apparently you aren't suppose to constantly challenge your dog - you are suppose to train them using consistent hides that aren't too hard.  It's hard to not see whether the puppy can find the toy inside of the spare tire of the 5th wheel when she just managed to dig the toy out of the recliner hidden under 2 blankets.......And apparently handing the toy off to the boyfriend and telling him to hide it somewhere in the house and not to tell me where it is, also isn't the "approved" method or progression for this sort of thing. :)  But - it was a LOT of fun and I begin to suspect that Tess was going to be really REALLY good at this.....

 The start of formal training
*FYI - I'm not intending this as a full "how to" summary so I haven't gone into some of the detail of how we fully trained each step.  However, if this sounds like fun and you want to give it a try, check out the websites and feel free to comment!

First Tess was introduced to boxes - lots and lots of cardboard boxes - one of which had food in it.

Once Tess had the idea of "see box, look in box because something yummy might be there", we started hiding the boxes out of sight.

It's very important to get your dog out of "obedience mode" when playing this game.  The dog is the star and she should NOT be getting direction from you.  Tess, being the independent little puppy she is had NO problem with this.

After Tess was actively looking for boxes and was excited about food in boxes, we put a little metal tin (~1" in diameter) that contained cotton swabs soaked in the first official scent, "birch".  The metal tin had holes in the top of it so the odor could get out.  This is called "pairing".  When she smelled the food, she was also smelling the odor, and the food was where the odor was the strongest.  Because I knew that Tess would search on odor more efficiently than food (because of my experience with the toy prior to doing the formal nosework) I asked my friend if we could go to odor sooner rather than later.  Because "food" is such a general search criteria, in my opinion, Tess was less focused than if she had a specific object/odor that she was searching for.  My hunch was correct and Tess's focus for the search increased after being exposed to the odor (she makes a "whuffing" noise with her nose when she's searching for something, and because extremely focused and almost impossible to distract from searching). 

At first I paired odor and food in boxes and objects, and then I started mixing in some hides that weren't in boxes - I would put the odor on the floor with a pile of food next to it, so that when she ate the treat, her nose would be on the odor.

It's very important to reward AT the odor.  Meaning, their nose should be pushed against the odor container (metal tin) as they get the reward!!!!

The next step was to remove the food.   The odor is still put into a box (mostly) and the box/hide is kept at nose level or lower.  At this point, I would always do ~1 hide out of the box during a session, just to mix it up and remind Tess that while searching inside of objects is important, she needed to look at the entire picture.  Finally, the odor tin is hidden out of a box for the majority of the hides during the session. 

Finally, some blind (meaning the handler does not know where the odor is) hides were done by someone who understands how odor travels and understands where the dog is in the training process (ie - my friend).

For the last 2 weeks or so, I've been working with Tess to "stick" to the odor - meaning when she thinks she's found the source (the spot where the odor is strongest) she stays next to the odor and signals me in some way.  The formal "signal" comes later, but for now I want her feet to stay still and for her to look at me and stay next to the odor until I come to her.  I have to be careful because Tess's inclination when she thinks I don't understand that she's found it is to paw at it or grab it with her mouth to show me.  VERY NAUGHTY!!!!!  There's a limit to how long I can have her stick to the odor before I find that she's turned into a retriever.  Today, after 3 blind hides and Tess giving me fairly clear signalling behavior, my friend decided that it was time to really work on her "stickiness".  It's practically impossible to put the tin in such a way that she can't retrieve it (our hides are still nose level or lower) when I make her frustrated by waiting for her to clearly signal.  But with a cotton swab I can wedge it somewhere... I get to take the cotton swabs (soaked with the odor) out of the tin!!!!!! 

I'm not sure how much of my "pre" nose work has influenced Tess, but here's my thoughts so far.
- She has a really good search pattern, probably because she doesn't look for the obvious first based on the difficulty of hides in the beginning.  I was probably lucky in that it was difficult to make it "too hard" for her and she has a streak of persistence that I may curse for some of our other activities.....but is good for this.
- She's really adament about getting to the source of the odor - probably because of the retrieves that I required in the beginning.  If she didn't get to the toy and bring it to me, she didn't get the treat.  While that's causing me issues with her wanting to mouth the odor if I delay the reward, I think that's fixable, since I've never allowed her to retrieve odor - only the toy.  Once she learns a formal alert once she finds the odor, she won't be frustrated and tempted to try a retrieve. 
- It's possible that it wouldn't have mattered WHAT or HOW I did this.  Tess, is a Brittany with strong hunting lines in both her sire and dam.  She is bred to work a field, and find bird scent.  The difference of working an urban setting with birch scent is negligible. 
- She has an incredible work ethic and focus when doing this job - something I'm working on harnessing for our agility activities - my guess is it's a function of using her for what she was bred to do. :)

I typically do nosework 1-2x a week on my own.  Every 1-2 weeks I work with 2 friends - one of which is experienced and one that has a dog starting out just like Tess and we have a instruction session.  I find that doing a training session on any one thing more than 1-2 times a week is too often for Tess and she loses motivation so as a rule I limit the number of sessions of any particular activity, even for something that she loves.  I take boxes and odor with me and we have sessions in novel places, going back to an earlier stage or making the hides really easy if the location is really distracting.  If the location is not safe to work off leash, she works on a long line. 

Why I like Nosework

1.  This is Tess's favorite game.  It's a hands off game where she's the star and taking very little direction from me.  She's good at it, and she knows it.  I do nosework at least once a week as her reward for being a very special puppy. 

2.  It caters to her strengths - her nose, persistence, independance, and focus.  It's nice to see those traits as "strengths" in their natural element, instead of "training opportunities".  (During fall migration, I had to discontinue all outside training sessions because she was so "birdy" and focused on flying birds we couldn't get ANYTHING done - she's better now, but WHEW! Definitely tried my patience when I wanted to get a jump bump obstacle session done and she wanted to be out in the field pointing birds....)

3.  It puts her in "work mode".  Things that would normally be VERY distracting such as other dogs, mittens and socks on the floor, stuffed animals etc. are completely IGNORED because she's using her nose.  It's fascinating to watch because she completely transforms from a rather boisterous puppy to a 100% focused adult dog on a mission.

4.  It's a fun activity she can do off leash that is completely positive.

5.  It's an excellent activity to balance out agility training.

I'll post some videos of Tess doing nosework soon - as well as some of her new tricks.  Some of her tricks - such as the handstand - have to be appreciated in movement, not just as a picture!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day

Matt greeted me with a big red See's candy heart and a box of truffles.

Tess greeted me with the remains of the red velvet cupcake she snagged off the counter.

Guess which present I liked more?

So, at 5:30a I'm trying to decide whether 1/24 of a box of red velvet chocolate cake mix contains enough chocolate to poison a 35 pound dog, instead of curled up with coffee and a See's chocolate, planning my 40 minute run.

Here's some Tuesday morning math.

Box of cake mix = 18.25 oz

Tess ate 18.25/24=.76 oz

If we assume worst case scenario - the entire .76 oz was solid dark chocolate (and you and I both know that a prepackaged red velvet cake mix is a far cry from solid dark chocolate).

0.76 oz = 21.55 mg
35 pounds = 15.88 kg

Tess ate 1.36 mg/kg of cake mix, that we are calling "dark chocolate".

According to a paper I found on the internet (quality sources you know...) mild clinical signs are seen when an animal ingests 20 mg/kg of the chemical in chocolate (plus caffeine).

According to the same paper, dark chocolate contains 150 mg/oz of the "bad stuff".  (I am staying away from big words at 5am).

That means that in 0.76 oz Tess got 114 mg.

That means that Tess ate 3.26 mg/kg of bad stuff.

As that is a far cry from 20 mg/kg, I think she'll be OK.

Although, she's pretty sure she's going to die locked her in kennel in the dark bedroom.  And I don't particularly care right now.

What a failure at the "Yer Choice" game!  I'm pretty sure the synapse went "see cupcake, want cupcake", instead of the preferred - "see cupcake, want cupcake but if I wait and don't take it, she will give me something better".