Trialling Tips

Trialling Tips

Last weekend, I spent Saturday shadowing two expert judges at the San Gabriel Foothills AKC trial.  This club runs really amazing trials, and I am proud that Iona earned her Masters Interior title on Sunday!  It was really neat to go behind the scenes and ask the judges all the questions (like yes zone sizes and what type of food is in the distractor boxes). 
I saw a lot of teams run the same searches and saw some phenomenal team work!  However I did note some interesting patterns in these searches that might be of interest.

BURIED:  I watched excellent and masters buried classes and it seems that most dogs were able to pick up odor from the water containers.  I am pretty sure that Iona will pick these up after practicing  a few times.  After watching several searches, it was pretty apparent that odor was only leaving the boxes along one side and if the dog did not go down that side, they missed the hide. 

EXTERIOR:  The excellent exterior search was a med sized area bounded by grass and a planter.  There were 2 accessible hides and one inaccessible in the corner under a jumbled stack of chairs.  Many dogs missed the inaccessible in the corner.  Although they caught odor, they deemed in unsourcable and and moved one.  Some handlers noted that this was their first inaccessible and that they missed the call because there dogs were not exhibiting their normal alert.  Obviously it is important to practice inaccessible (sparingly) and know what your dogs looks like as they bracket this type of hide.   I also saw dogs that just could not even find the scent cones, because the handlers held them rigidly in the search area rather than letting them stray into the grass/planter to find odor. 

CONTAINERS:  This masters search consisted of a large matrix with several different types of boxes, etc.  Most dogs found all the hides, however many handlers kept their dogs in the search area for too many passes, resulting in false alerts. 

INTERIORS:  For this masters search there were three different rooms, each with different time limits.  The rules have changed and now there is no 30 second limit.  I saw a lot of stress from the handlers as they attempted to keep track of the time.  Also, many teams missed a hide in the last room because they did not re-check the threshold over where the judge/steward were standing.  

Of course each search is different and requires a different set of skills. Hopefully these observations will help you prep for your next trial. 

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Match to Sample 1

Match to Sample

Iona is always hassling me to teach her something new.  So please follow me and my girls on a new training journey as I attempt to teach Iona a new concept:  How to match to sample!  This means that if I hold up an object, she will know to look for the same object.  I just received the brand new PORTL (Portable Operant Research and Teaching Lab) manual from the great behavior explorer website.  And was inspired to teach this to Iona (I have been wanting to do this for a while).    The manual and website lay down ground rules for how to be very clean with your training, one thing that they recommend is starting with a plan.  So here are the steps that I started with today. 

Step one:  Teach Iona how to pick up an object off the ground.  Then repeat with a variety of objects. 

I kinda cheating here as I have already done this step with Iona.  She does not have a natural retrieve so I had to teach her how to hold things in her mouth via shaping.  I also have her pick up all kinds of things off the ground and this actually comes in handy all the time now that I often have my hands full with the baby.  She now loves picking things up off the ground for me and will do it quickly and easily.  Since I did not video tape her originally learning this task, here is a video of her learning to hold a lemon in her mouth.  She is not really into this and you can see how I go about shaping her first for touching the object and then only clicking as she moves closer to the desired goal of picking it up off the ground and holding it in her mouth for me.  I will say that this took me quite a long time (maybe a month) when I first taught it to her, however it was one of the first things that I taught her via shaping.  I used a stick when I first taught her. 

Step Two:  Add a visual cue to before she picks up an object.  For the cue, I will hold up an identical object. 

One thing I learned from Portl is that you should choose your objects wisely as different objects will drive different actions.  For example, if I wanted her to nose press rather than pick up the object, I would have chosen a box.  If I wanted her to stand on the object, I would have chosen an upside down bowl.  Here she is learning the new cue for picking up a ball and a sock.  (She used to steal my socks and destroy them all the time when she was a puppy and now if I leave a sock on the ground, she will bring it over to me expecting a treat).  So she has a long reinforcement history of picking up both of these objects.

Here is the first training session.  Note that there are a few missteps here.  I think that I could have made her life easier by starting with the “pick it up” cue, however she figured out what I wanted (like always).    

Here is the second time, picking up the balls.  She gets it this time. 

Here is the same thing using socks.  Watch her thinking so hard on the very first rep! Very cool!  At this stage, it is important that I click her for understanding the concept and making the correct decision (rather than waiting for her to hold the sock in her mouth for a long time or something else).  My quick click tells her that she made the correct decision!  

Next up will be teaching her to discriminate between different objects. 

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Advanced Hide and Seek

Advanced Hide and Seek

I play hide and seek a lot with Iona because she thinks it is super fun and because it is a good way to tire her out and keep her scent work skills sharp.  However, I live in a really small place.  So I often resort to hiding in closets and bathrooms.  She will eventually find me, but it takes her quite a while.  I have started training her to check behind closed doors by keeping them open a crack and then slowly closing them more and more.  It looks something like this…

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MADONNA

MADONNA!

Madonna is a true underdog who might be small, but she is mighty.  She is a 2.5 lb Chihuahua who was rescued from a hoarding situation by my friend Julie.  They attended some of my first scent work classes to work on increasing her confidence and I remember how shy she was the first class, staying on Julie’s lap the entire class.  She took to scent work quickly and by the second class, she walked into the room like she owned the place.  Madonna and Julie have continued to progress to the point that Madonna is confident enough to trial and this little dog is fast!  Watch this video from a recent trial!  She placed first in this search.  You can see her catch odor from the start line and try to follow the scent cone directly to the hide.  Julie did a good job at muscling her through the start line, but let her pick up the scent cone again and guide the search once she was through.  What a gorgeous search.  Great teamwork on this one!

Even cooler, Madonna was recently evaluated and certified by the Assistance Dogs of America as a service dog!  Julie was born without the sense of smell and Madonna provides two invaluable services for her.  Julie taught her to tell her to alert on spoiled food using he same strategies that we use for scent work.  The cue for this search is “save me” 🙂  She also alerts Julie to any gas leaks!  Julie says, “I wasn’t sure how I was going to train this without a command and then one day, I was home alone and suddenly, she started acting funny, going into the kitchen and coming back to me and seeking eye contact.  I decide to follow her and she stood on her hind legs staring at the stove, that is when I noticed one of the burners wasn’t turned all the way off.” Of course Julie rewarded her heavily and now she will alert on gas leaks without any cues.

I love this story because it shows how BOTH Madonna and Julie took the skills that they learned in scent work class and applied them to real life.  This has deepened their relationship and now Julie doesn’t eat moldy food any more. And that is worth more than any ribbon!

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Off Leash Searching

Off Leash Searching

Iona and I had a blast with Penny and Jeff at the Big Bear Scent Work Camp.  We learned a lot.  Too much to post here.  However, one of the big takeaways for me, was how much Iona likes to work off leash.  It makes sense, she loves to run off leash and loves to search.  So we have been working on off leash searching some since returning from camp.

Iona at Big Bear

At trials, I ALWAYS run her on leash because she is consistently faster and more accurate.  However, as I have been practicing with her off leash more, I notice that she gets more tired,  and that she has gained confidence when searching independently from me.   Also, it has been really educational to see how she works odor unimpeded by me.  She usually searches really wide to round up scent cones, she ranges wider than I probably would let her.  In this video, the scents cones were fairly close to source as this was late and the temperature was cool.  But watch how she really needs space to source the 4rth hide (1:00 till 1:35)  

I have been going to places where I can let her run free (this is Elings Park, we are members here), and letting her just run around and hunt lizards for about 30 min till she is good and tired.  Then I have her wait while I place some hides and finally let her run them.  As soon as she has found them, she runs free again.  This has been working pretty well and is fun and low stress for both of us.

If you have only been searching your dog off leash in the house, I recommend taking it on the road (obviously make sure that the environment is safe).   

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99 Problems

99 Problems

“99 Problems” was the longest search in the Turner Trials and in retrospect, it was the most difficult and most fun search that Iona and I have ever had the pleasure to run!

Jeff named this search “99 Problems” because we had 9 minutes to find 9 hides in an absolutely HUGE search area. I could write this blog post about so many topics regarding this search (productive vs. unproductive areas, elevated hides, scent theory, or how to structure a large search). However, I will talk about distractors, because this was our major obstacle with this search and one that we overcame quite well.  

When we finished the search, Jeff said to me, “you get an A for reading your dog, and a C for counting hides”.  Let me talk about my C first.  I did not set my timer on my watch at the start line.  I also got a little overwhelmed and could not remember how many hides I found.  Total rookie mistake, but it worked out ok.  

He also gave me some advice on the score sheet.  He said, don’t let your speed add to your dog’s speed.  I general, I try not to run behind Iona, if I am running (not just fast walking), then I know that she is moving too fast to pick up odor efficiently.  However, you will see me do a lot of running in this video.

In the beginning of the search, I reorient her to start her towards the building.  I don’t like to start her into a wide open area because she just builds momentum and keeps going faster and faster.  I want her to hit an object and work along it and hopefully hit a hide quickly.  This worked out well for us.  

At 0:45, you see a large COB and she dashes between the railing.  Here I misread her.  She was on odor, I don’t know why I moved her on, because my plan was to work the buildings, but I did.  I think that my nerves were a little high at this moment.  

1:43, I just could not believe that there was a hide here (I think because Jeff said we did not need to go up the slide during the briefing.  Good thing Iona stuck around till 1:50.   

2:28, You can’t see it, but she found a rock with pee on it and I moved her along. 

3:25, I had to actually check the ground here to make sure, but yep, just bird poop.  However, I remember thinking that this spot was worth checking again if I had time. 

4:55 – 5:00, See that high head as she works along the edge of a bush.  Gotta be LIZARD HUNTING TIME!

5:10, This was a really cool puzzle.  You can see her show vague interest in the picnic bench, but it was clear by 5:30, that the hide was coming from somewhere else.  I think this was actually the only time that I solved a puzzle before Iona!

6:10, She wants to go L, but I take her R.  I should have let Iona lead the way on this one. 

6:56, Now this is painful, in video, she was clearly on odor (there was a hide here) and I pulled her off, assuming that she was in a scent cone that she had already found.  Watching these videos, it is painfully obvious that Iona has an extremely good memory for scent cones and if she wants to follow a scent cone, the chances are extremely high that it is attached to a hide that she has not found yet.  This is the lesson that I will learn from watching this video. 

8:05, We spooked a live rat here!  So I turned her around to keep her from chasing it and thus missed a hide back there.  This was just bad luck. 

8:25, I am just so proud of how Iona worked this hide.  You can see her panting, yet she is just working it so hard.  She knows that it is elevated and is checking all the signs. As she gets close to the pole, she runs out of odor because it is shooting over her head and so turns around and rounds up some more, this time coming in higher and SOURCES THE HIDE! what an exciting finish, what a good dog!

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Blindfold

Blindfold

Here are our last searches from the Turner Trials.  These were back to back searches that seem fairly simple at first glance. However the catch was, we did not have a walkthough nor did we know the time limit.  So it was a bit surprising when we heard “30 second warning” called after only 15 seconds of searching.  Honestly, I would not have run this search any differently if I had known the time limit.  However, it would have been nice to know just how many grains were left in my hour glass.  When Iona caught odor, I knew it was a crack hide and I knew that she just needed time to source it, while she found the hide right after “time” was called, I am still very proud of her for this search. 

The search area was a big circle.  Ramona recommended running our dogs through the middle of the search area.  However, I feel that this strategy would only work well for this particular set up (where the hide was in the middle).  I prefer to run Iona around the perimeter in a clockwise fashion as I feel it is the most efficient way to cover a search area like this. If you go down the center than you will be slicing the search area like cutting a pizza, but if you go around the edge, she can pick up any odor that is in the center and work it from there. 

Watch Iona work the scent cone from this crack hide, it is almost a perfect wedge!

The second search was another speed search where we did not know the exact time allotted (however by this time, I had an idea that it would be short).  
While Iona was phenomenal on this second search (watch her catch odor at 1:15 and alert at 1:23!), It took a bit of handling skill speed this search up so that we did not time out.  After the first hide, she immediately moves down wind and out of bounds in the second hide’s scent cone.  This is classic Iona.  She likes to explore the edges of the scent cone and we just did not have time for it here so I changed her direction at 1:31.  Luckily, she stayed in odor (even though she is running) and finds the second hide.  Watch her do the same thing AGAIN for the third hide!  In a training situation, I would let her chase that odor and take as long as she needed to figure out the puzzle, however here, I knew that we did not have time for that.  I am lucky that she was able to stay in the scent cone when I turned her around both times. 

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The most important searching game

Scent Work Basics

Scent Work should be fun for our dogs! They can learn all the skills of this game with a low pressure game using their own toys.  To play this search game, all you will need to do is play with your dog using a toy and then have them wait, and then hide the toy a short distance away.  When they get the toy, make a big fuss, play with them some more, and give them a treat.  This is Iona’s favorite game, and I have played it with her thousands of times.  It never gets old because the toys are always hidden in different locations.  It is important to understands the concepts of scent work when hiding these toys though.  Keep them accessible.  Elevated will be harder than ground level, corners more difficult than thresholds, etc.  You can actually set some very difficult puzzles for your dogs with this game.  I also feel that this was a good way to teach Iona to be more versatile for what she was searching for.  She can play this with any toy, or really any object now (such as my wallet), all I need to do is show it to her once and she will go and find it.  
Obviously, you will not use the same search cue and start line for this game that you use with scent work. 
Iona has been playing this game since she was a tiny puppy.  Here is a really cute video of a young Iona playing this game.  She was a lanky teenager in this video, wearing boys’ dinosaur underwear because she was in her first heat cycle!  Look, her nose used to be black!

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Red Rock River

Red Rock RIver

On April 27, Iona and I participated in one day of the Turner Trials.  Here is our first search of the day.  We had 3.5 minutes to find 2-5 hides.  Also, one boundary of the search area was a swimming pool. I was a bit apprehensive going into this search, because I honestly did not know how Iona would perform.  However, Iona took the lead and found 4 hides quickly and then we cleared the rest of the search area, eventually finding the last one. 

At the beginning of the video, you can see me start my watch.  Good Boy! The wind is blowing toward the camera here. 

Iona caught odor immediately off the start line (0:19) and veered toward the metal cart thingy.  When she started trying to crawl under it, I knew that the hide was innaccesible and safely called alert.  Ramona said a lot of teams got stuck here.   

She then just kept on nailing hides one after another.  I think that we had four hides before a minute was finished.  The fourth hide we found was actually pretty cool, she caught odor on the other side of the fence and we had to go around to source it.  I had to read this situation correctly and guide her through it (although Ramona was taking alerts on the other side of the fence). 

Hides like the first 4 (large scent cones, fairly low, without much convergence, without pooling) are really Iona’s jam.  Her sweet spot is racing from hide to hide at top speed.  Her strategy for searching is just to run until she she hit a scent cone so it is nice when there are big distinct scent cones.  The high wind really helped us here by creating these huge scent cones and then blowing away all the pooling odor.

The hide placement here (and throughout the trial), show how well these judges understand scent theory, they used the consistent wind to create these wonderful puzzles for our dogs to solve. 

For the last hide, we basically had to search the whole area again till we found it.  Note how I had her search down wind from the entire search area to catch a hide that may have been along the edge of the search area (which went halfway out into the grass).

I should note that Iona is scared of pools, you can see a little of this at 2:39 and 2:52.  However, when she is working, she has her superhero cape on!

Eventually we located the last hide.   You can see her COB at 3:04.  This scent cone was much smaller than the others because the hide was trapped in a neoprene sleeve and Iona really had to be in just the correct spot to hit odor.

Overall, Iona just nailed this search.  What a dog!

Enjoy the video, Stephanie and Matt Reed shot it and edited it.  You can find their website here. Incidentally, they have a handsome male French Brittany named Nero!

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Yay Prik!

Paprika and Fran High in Trial!

On Saturday, my training partner Fran Bryan went High in Trial with her girl Paprika!  I am so proud of both of them because they have worked hard to become a great scentwork team.   Fran is a phenomenal trainer and Prik is the best behaved dog that I have ever met.  She sticks close to Fran’s side no matter what because that is her nature.  So a lot of the scent work training with her has focused on confidence moving away from Fran and making the game fun and rewarding.  It all came together for them on Saturday’s AKC scentwork trial in Altadena (put on by the Scent Work Club of the San Gabriel Foothills).  Fran says, “I was super happy with her attitude!  She was whining and even doing a little bark at the starting line of each search and moved around without hesitation.  Even if she had not been fast, I would have considered it a win, because of how excited and confident her searching was”  But Prik was fast, fast enough to earn High in Trial! Here are her times and placements:
1st in Exterior: 7 seconds
3rd in Handler Discrimination:  25 seconds
3rd in Buried: 5 seconds
4rth in Container: 5 seconds
5th in Interior: 14 seconds

Prik and Fran

Here is are some fun videos of Iona, Soli, and Prik from a practice session a month or so ago. For this elevated hide, the wind was blowing straight at the hide blowing odor all over the place.  You can see that Soli and Iona get stuck in pooling odor while Prik has not problem with it at all!  It is always interesting to watch different dogs work the same hide. 

On this day, there was a huge flight of Painted Ladies (a butterfly).  Throughout the day, they were streaming by at a rate of 15-60 per minute. You can actually see them in these videos flying R to L!

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