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Non-Nosework Skills that Enhance Performance (Previously shared on a Seminar Weekend)

Updated: Aug 13, 2018

Thank you so much for joining us for our first Facebook Seminar Weekend! I have chosen to discuss several of the non-scentwork skills that I use to enhance my dogs’ nose work performances. I believe that thoroughly training several of these behaviors has helped my dogs generalize better, think more clearly when aroused, added more search drive, and helped them experience more joy while chasing down odor.

My nose work journey started more than a decade ago when I became the handler of a narcotics detection dog. I will be eternally grateful to Jake for showing me how driven and focused a dog can be when tracking down scent. Jake trained me to expect a “perfect picture” of drive and focus. Unless Jake was dangerously over-heated or truly physically exhausted, he always brought his best effort to a search. Years later when I started training my pets for nose work, I defaulted to expecting them to work just like Jake.

Early on, I did all of the usual thing that people do to build and protect a solid foundation. I was really careful to keep my sessions short. I wanted my dogs to be left wanting more. I made sure I never trained with a dumpy dog. If my dogs weren’t bright-eyed and eager, we simply didn’t train. I used high value treats that help my dogs’ interest. I trained early in the day and in my home, where all of my dogs felt safe and comfortable or before meals when my dogs would be extra motivated. All of this seems pretty obvious, but it’s easy to lose sight of some of these things when we get busy with our lives and have to squeeze training time into our schedules. I think it’s important, especially early on, to make sure that our dogs are really eager to play and are constantly set up to succeed. Settling for less than this creates a habit of working without inspiration. That is a problem that is more difficult to repair than it is to prevent.

As we progressed to starting actual searches, I was meticulous about using contextual cues to begin our work. I would put my dogs in harness, use a set of warm up boxes, and would then use oppositional reflex responses to get my dogs to pop forward into a search. By pulling back a little on the harness and asking my dog in an excited voice if he was ready, my dogs learned to really want to pull into the search area. These contextual cues became much more valuable to me when we started competing and practicing in novel environments. Over time, I faded out all of this, but in the beginning, I was faithful to it. I think it really helped my very green dogs understand what was expected of them and helped them focus. And through it all, I never released a dog to search unless he looked eager and ready. If my dogs weren’t pulling to get going, I simply didn’t search. I never wanted to create a memory of half-hearted work.

When it was time to take my training show on the road, things got a little more complicated. Environmental factors can really derail a dog who looks great at home. This is when I really started manipulating arousal levels and focusing in on my dogs’ emotional states. When I went to new places, I didn’t pull my dogs out of the van and start searching. Instead, I would take them out of the car and just walk them around on a flexi or a long line and let them check out the new space. I never offered cookies or toys; I just let them take the scene in. After the dogs seemed settled, I would test out their comfort by working on something other than nose work. I would, for example, heel them or send them around cones or send them to their matts and call them to me only to send them back. The task didn’t really matter. However, having strong skills that I could ask for in new places was critical to assessing my dogs’ readiness to work. I believe that it’s important to have or develop these skills if you have a dog who struggles with environmental concerns. If you have strong behaviors that you can focus on during generalization instead of nose work, you can keep your searching behaviors protected from a history of distraction or half-hearted effort. Additionally, releasing your dog to scent puzzles seems like an additional reward; a game that follows work. And that’s how I want my dogs to think of scent work: a game they have earned, a privilege.

In addition to having trained “skill-type” behaviors, I also have trained play behaviors. The play behaviors are separate from the trained skills in that the trained play behaviors have a powerful way of changing a dog’s attitude. It’s nearly impossible for the dogs to successfully play when they are worried without causing their worry to melt away. If my dogs were unable to perform any trained behaviors, I knew I needed to either allow them to acclimate more or I needed to pack up and move to a less stressful environment. If my dogs were able to work beautifully, I could just go straight to warm up boxes and searching. However, if my dogs could work but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, these play games would often be enough to liven my dogs up enough for strong searching. Here is a video example of my playing with Mahto:

“How” we play isn’t really important. Every team will find their own way to interact that brings joy and increases energy. What matters is that we CAN play. It would be really difficult for a dog to play well if he was worried or had divided attention. Playing together will often bring my dogs up enough that we can shift from “a little too flat” to “just right.” Once we’re there, we can search. This ensures that my dogs always present my “perfect picture” to the best of their abilities every time we play nose work together. Over time, my dogs have just learned that that is the only way we hunt. That was excellent inertia for us to find together.

Applications for Staging/My Favorite Pre-nose work Drills

Ironically, after working on training a dog only when he was eager to hunt, my biggest challenge became over-arousal. I had to find non-nose work behaviors that I could use to help prepare my dogs for a trial search, especially when my dogs were a little too high. The rituals I use in practice are the same ones I use when I trial. Whenever possible, we should train like we trial and trial like we train. Below are some of the warm up rituals I use to settle a dog into his head and get him ready to trial. I also use them when I am testing my dog’s readiness to search in a new area. These same behaviors can be used to distract or re-orient an unfocused dog. They can also be used to allow a dog to earn snacks while waiting to search. None of these exercises are so fun that many dogs would chose them over scent work.

These are my favorite games so far:


My Gator tends to be a very high-arousal dog. In fact, it’s easy for him to get so high that he simply is not capable of functioning. While I have never figured out how to make him a calm dog, I have developed strategies that help him settle back into his thinking brain when he starts spiraling into non-productive heights. One of the games we play is the Sit/Stand/Down game. I give a verbal command and wait to see if he can perform correctly. If he can’t, I just say “Whoops!” and we move a few steps over and try again. If he’s right, he either gets a cookie or a “good boy,” followed by another command. I give cookies after every few correct responses. If a dog is well trained in this game, he will have to self-calm to correctly perform these behaviors. I work this game in the staging areas before a search to help get my dog back into his body!

Moving Chin Rest

Another game that I like to play in staging works in similar ways. I work on a challenging chin rest behavior to see if my dog can hold it and work through the challenge of finding a way to maintain the chin rest when I drop my hand or pull it away. Because my dogs perform a sustained nose touch at source, I think that this mildly mimics that behavior and gets them thinking about stopping and holding. For sure, my dogs cannot perform this exercise when they are out of their minds. Here is Mahto performing his chin rest.

Yield to Collar Pressure

My final arousal lowering game is the Yield to Leash Pressure game. I taught this when I did therapy dog work as a way of quietly communicating with my dog without drawing attention. If I pull up, the dog sits. If I pull down, the dog downs. I can pull the dog forwards, backwards, and side to side. It’s a fairly useful trick and has the side benefit of helping to create a soft-necked, non-pulling dog. Additionally, the dog must self-calm to be able to perform this task. To start out, you apply just a tiny amount of leash pressure and wait for the dog to make the slightest motion in the direction of the pressure. The exact moment that the dog yields, you release the pressure, click or mark the behavior, and feed. You don’t increase the pressure to gain compliance: you just wait. This is a great skill to teach in your living room during a commercial break. I will do this in a staging area before a search just to make sure my dog is settled enough to get to work.

ALL of my dogs would rather do nose work than play these games. This is important! For my dogs, it is an intrinsic reward to be released into nose work instead of being asked to play these control games. When they start searching, they seem to feel like they’ve already won. The cookies are just icing on the cake. This contrast and this release into the game has been vital in helping me maintain my “perfect picture.”

This all may be well and good, but what do you do when your dog is too low? For dogs who tend to stress down (my Ky and Mahto if nervous) it is critical to have energy-raising games. Ky is trained to speak on command. When she is stressed, this is a very hard behavior for her to offer. However, once she starts using her voice, she perks right up. I use “speak” as well as spins and hand touches and invitations to jump up on me and slam into me as ways to get more energy out of a dog. I train hand-touches to total fluency, meaning that I can get them anytime that I ask for them. I can almost dribble my dogs like basketballs and this gives me more and more dog to work with during a search. These little pick-me ups will likely be really helpful if your dog is just a bit low, but they will not be enough to salvage a dog who is in over their head. If your dog is chronically low or chronically distracted, there is a foundation gap or an acclimation issue that should probably be addressed before moving forward. Trying to work a dog who is not in an ideal state is going to keep you stuck in a circular pattern of less than ideal work. There is a risk that this will become your Normal.

The key to successful trial searches is built in training and generalizing. If you take your show on the road and never settle for less effort than you would expect at home, trialing should be a snap. If your dog can’t bridge the gap between training and trialing, it is very likely that you just haven’t put in enough hours taking the show on the road. The great thing about training away from home when not trialing is that you can take all the time you need to get your dog into the correct state of mind to work. Or, if that’s too hard, you can pack it up and try again in another space.

Being able to work on non-nose work training challenges as a way of acclimating your dog or testing your acclimation prevents dogs from attaching any feelings of stress to nose work. The stress attaches to the non-nose work exercises. Nose work feels like a reward for working through the acclimation process. Being able to shield nose work from any negative emotional experiences helps dogs feel secure and enthusiastic while searching. The work of nose work is a reward and a game for the dog. Keeping their love of the game protected helps dogs perform their very best.

Have your ideal picture in mind. Train the non-nose work skills that you need to support that ideal. Put in the hours acclimating your dogs. In the end, it will always be worth it.

Happy Training!


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