Dream Searching

Dream Searching

I had an interesting dream last night and I am sure that it was influenced by this video of Sarah and Tucker.  Watch it and you will see that Tucker is busy sourcing a hide while Sarah tries to get him to move out of the search area.  He ignores her and finishes his job!  I fell asleep last night wondering if Iona would do the same.  

I know that blogging about dreams is a bit self indulgent, but I might have had a good idea.  So here it is:  In my dream, I was at a workshop given by Ron Gaunt.  He is the father of this sport and though I sadly did not meet him before his passing, I feel a strange affinity to him because he also had Brittanies.  In this drearm, he came up with this exercise where were supposed to search our dog in a blank area, then call finish without finding any hides.  Then we would lead them out of the blank area right past a massive scent cone.  Hopefully they would pull us to source and then get paid.  There was also all kinda weird dream stuff, ie we were searching in an area where the trees were actively being trimmed.  And there was an extreme elevated hide that was beautifully detailed to source by a Giraffe!

I am not really sure if this exercise is a great idea, as I really like it that Iona only hunts for odor when we are actively searching.  (For example, I can walk her right past warm up boxes at a trial without her pulling me over). However this exercise might help with increased independence and odor obedience when the handler is obviously wrong.  Regardless, I will give it a shot and then report back to you.  

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Detective Class


This Saturday, Iona ran in her first detective class!  Ill tell you how she did later.  First, I want to highlight some of my students that trialled this weekend in San Luis Obispo. On Saturday, Fernie and Ingrid participated in their first AKC trial had great success.  A first and three second placements!  This team is just amazing!

On Sunday Mikki and Aria earned High in Trial advanced! Aria is 12.5 years young and had cancer in 2018 with resulting surgery to remove the tumor then chemo after that. When she was on chemo meds, her nose did not work so well, but now that she is off them, she has been on a tear! It has been super rewarding to train with this team and watch them take their skills to trials! I think this is their third HIT this year!

While they were in San Luis, Iona and I were down in Moorpark trialling with Valley Hills Obedience Club at Rancho Susanna Community Center.  I like this location a lot as it is clean and there are huge playing fields nearby for Iona to sniff.  However yesterday, there was a soccer tournament happening and there were hundred and hundreds of kids, adults, and soccer balls all over.  Iona did well considering the distractors. 

Her first search was Exterior Masters, and she nailed it, earning her Exterior Title!  There were three out of a possible four hides.  One was nose height on a blank looking wall, the other was about 3 feet up on a lock on a container, and the last about 4 feet up in the hinge of a dumpster. She placed first for this search and she might have been the only dog to place.  

Next she ran her Excellent Buried search and she got all three!  The training on water boxes payed off.  She actually hit the water box easier than the sand box!  See my last few blog posts if you are interested in how I trained her for this class. 

Then she ran Containers.  She hit two correctly but then falsed on the last hide.  I think that the bag was in a wet spot and odor was pooling in the bag.  I should have waited a bit longer.  

Next, I volunteered for a few hours and helped keep soccer balls out of the search areas.  

Finally we ran our first Detective Class after lunch.  It was pretty intimidating.  The search area consisted of a very large room and a medium sized patio.  There were 5-10 hides and we were given 13 minutes.  My strategy was to split the two areas and work them separately.  I planned on letting Iona lead first and then sweep up the areas that she missed afterwards and it worked pretty well.  Overall, I stuck to the plan, I timed myself well, kept track of the areas we covered, and also counted the hides we found accurately. 

After our search we got a nice map of the search area.  Here is the interior search.

The first room was really large.  The rectangles are tables and the circles are chairs.  We entered from door by the orange arrow and left through the blue arrow.  Iona rushed through the room and bounced around for a while and I began to question my strategy of letting her have the wheel.  However, she quickly found a converging odor puzzle in the back corner (anise/cypress).  This was tricky and the judge said that it tripped up several teams.  There was a somewhat elevated hide under a table and then another somewhat elevated/inaccessible hide on top of a stack of flat tables.  There were large stacks of chairs and odor was sticking to them.  Looking at this map, it seems that there used to be four hides.  Interestingly, I thought that Iona caught odor over near where there used to a birch hide. (pay no attention to the clove hide at the top of the map, it is from the exterior map which was on the same page). 

The patio had a few picnic tables, a large planter with a tree and some trash cans.  The perimeter of the patio was made of large metal pipes with a hedge on the other side.  On the patio, the hides came fast and furious.  We first caught a hide under a picnic table (Birch), then a clove along the perimeter.  Iona was showing behavior which made me think that there was an inaccessible elevated hide up in the planter.  I had her jump up and she sourced it quickly.  Next, she found a hide in a downspout and then a crack hide.  As we checked the perimeter on the way back, she caught another hide and actually had to leave the search area and go into the bushes to source it.  Finally, we made one last pass through the large room and after I pushed her into all the deep corners and had her recheck every chair and table, she looked at me with eyes that said, “There is nothing here”.  Our time was 7 min and 23 seconds and we placed first.

It is always thrilling to search with Iona, particularly with well designed elite/detective searches.   It is so awesome to train for tough puzzles (converging/ elevated/inaccessibles/crack hides/large blank areas) and then see Iona rock them in a trial!

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Water Hides Part 3

Water Hides Part 3

These blog posts detailed how I taught Iona the concept of water hides starting easy and slowly increasing the difficulty.  It is important for me to remember that if she shows confusion with a new skill, it is probably because I skipped or rushed a step in training it.  

I lost the video for one of the searches in this progression.  Basically, after the last bunch of searches, I practiced the shell game with the screens on top of the containers.  This was a pretty important step because with the screens, the hide is very inaccessible.  

After she succesfully searched through three boxes (one hot and two cold).  I added one more hot box and another cold box and then switched them up with each run.  It looked something like this. 

Make sure to check out how I feed her on the very last hide.  She is still not completely solid with these boxes.  Until she is fluent with this task, I feel that it is important to pop the top off the screen to allow her to get close to source.  This gives her clear feedback that her choice was indeed correct. You can see that even though I feed her right over the water, she still gets some in in her mouth before we leave!

The progression after is pretty straight forward.  I will add in some hot and cold sand boxes and then practice in a variety of settings to get her ready for the trial.  


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Water Hides Part 2

Water Hides Part 2

A few days ago I started Iona on water hides and she had a hard time and alerted using her eyes and not her nose.  So I taught her these hides from scratch (see the last post).  Yesterday, I continued to progress the training and it went well with an unexpected twist.  I think that using fresh AKC strength q-tips really made a big difference.  I hypothesize that with the fresh q-tips, the oil actually makes it into the water.  

So Iona’s first run was pretty easy.  Just the shell game using the full sized water boxes (with no water).  You can see the paw coming out on the last search.  When I started training her with buried hides, I marked the paw once and now she almost always scratches for hides on the ground.

So next a filled the boxes with just a little bit of water.  You have to watch Iona’s reaction! I mark the first pass early so she doesn’t paw it.  Then she gets two paws in and doesn’t know what to do.  Finally, she drinks the water!  At the time, I thought it was because she was thirsty, but I think that she was just trying to get to source I am sure that she got odor in her mouth. 

Next, I put about two inches of water in each box.  You can see that I try to mark her early again, but…. Yep, she licks up the water on the very first run 🙂 and then on several after. She even gets a hot foot on the last run!

At the time, I was concerned about her getting into the water and contaminating the search area.  However, I think that the process of her getting into the water and drinking the odor water was really important for her learning process.  I think that drinking the water really helped her understand the CONCEPT that a hide can be under the water in a container.  Next post, I will show her runs with the screens on top.  She rocks them..

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Water Hides Part 1

Water Hides Part 1

When AKC started scent work,  they made some changes to the familiar NACSW format.  Notably, they swapped a buried search for the vehicle search.  For Iona to get her Scent Work Masters title, she needs a masters title in Interior, Containers, Exteriors, and Buried.  She already has all her masters titles except one. We have a long way to go in Buried… 

Novice and Advanced buried searches consisted of boxes filled with sand with a hide at the bottom.  Excellent and Masters classes had the hide in the ground.  We got our advanced title, but we did not train or compete in those because of concern for soil born pathogens and because we just didn’t have a place to practice.  

AKC recently changed the rules so that now the classes have hides buried in sand and water, so we are back in the game, training on water boxes.  The good thing is that these searches are highly regulated so you can pretty much train to the test.  

I didn’t think that this search would be that difficult so I ran Iona on some friends boxes that were set up like a trial.  These are large rectangular plastic boxes with a tin in the bottom, 4 in of water on top and a screen over the whole container. I was surprised that instead of finding the hot box, she would look at the tin in the box, alert, then wait and see if she got paid, then move on to the next box until she finally hit the correct box.  This had never happened before, so I figured that we needed to train for this test from scratch. 

In a trial, the water boxes all have aquarium tubing in the bottom, so first I practiced some shell game with accessible aquarium tube hides. 

Then I put the aquarium tubing inside a container.  It was interesting to note that she had a hard time picking up odor here. 

And finally, I added just a little water to each container.  I made up some AKC strength Q-Tips for the next time we practice this.  I think that it will help her with the new concept. 

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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 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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