Play With Me

In my last ramblings on choosing a mentor and who you look up to, I talked about a trainer who told me to go home and play with my dog.  Play, it is something that seems so simple, but is sometimes so hard to incorporate into your daily life.

The first dog I did any serious, competitive training with was Skylar.  When we started doing agility training, I was told that my dog must tug in order to be successful in agility.  Skylar never liked to tug, and in those days, I understood playing with your dog meant tugging with your dog, and so I believed Skylar didn’t play.  Anyone who knows anything about irish setters and knew Skylar, knows that for an irish setter that life is one big joke. Skylar most definitely liked to play, he just didn’t like to tug.

It took some time for me to wrap my brain around the fact that playing with my dog could look very different depending on the dog.  I have friends and family who love board games. I don’t!! Do you see the exclamation marks?  For me, board games create all sorts of bad feelings and forcing me to “enjoy” them is not going to change that.  Does that mean that I can’t enjoy playing?  Nope, it just means that for me, board games are the opposite of play.  The same goes for dogs.  A dog that does not like the game we choose, does not mean the dog doesn’t like to play. It just means that the dog doesn’t like that way of play.  Are some methods of play easier to work with when training your dog?  Absolutely. However, you can still incorporate play into any dog’s training sessions.

As adults, playing with our dogs out in public can feel awkward and embarrassing.  Someone important might see me.  The human side of the equation needs to practice this.  That someone important, might go home, and then play with their own dog.  Once you get past the awkwardness and embarrassment, you will find that you too will have endorphins released, and it will become easier to play in public.

I am finding more and more that my training sessions are becoming only 10% “work” and 90% play.  I am having way more fun, and thus find myself training more often. 

Getting to race around with “the best toy in the world” (a plastic bag for this moment) is a great way to play. It’s even better if the handler agrees that it is the best game ever with the best toy ever. Camo will readily come back to work after this as play and fun are the best part of training time.

So what does play look like in my house?  I have 3 different dogs and 3 different styles of play.  Rey, the pittie mix, loves rough and tumble.  Getting down on the ground at her level is what she likes best.  Target, my irish setter, loves slow stalking.  Playing creeping games with him followed by some sort of “prey” to get is his favorite.  Camo, who is the first dog that I have purposely brought up to play is the most versatile.  He absolutely loves to play with his flirt pole, but tug, ball, and anything to do with water are also great play things.  Our play is still not perfect, but we are having fun along the way.

One of the things I have become mindful of is that asking for play and engagement is a 2 way street.  If I believe that Camo truly is a working partner with search work, I need to give him some respect when he asks to play with me.  If I were to ignore him every time he brought me “the greatest toy in the world” (which is actually whatever toy he happens to have at the moment and could actually be a stick or a rock or a leaf), he would learn that he has no say in our relationship.  Instead, I am thankful that he thinks I am the best playmate out there and get fascinated with that awesome and amazing toy he brought me.  We get to have a relationship where we both are in a position to ask for engagement. 

So what is your dog’s favorite way to play?

Choosing a Mentor

We live in a day and age when we are inundated with information from around the world 24 hours a day.  We have access to experts in every field at the click of a button.  It is an exciting moment in time but, it can be overwhelming at times. 

Dog training is no different.  You can look at 3 different trainers and get three different solutions to a training or behaviour problem.  While I love all dog training canine scent activities is where my special interest lies.  We know a lot about how dogs work, but are only starting to scratch the surface of understanding of scent work with dogs.

Traditionally, most scent training with dogs was done by traditional hunters, military, police, search and rescue, etc.  In short, most of those backgrounds are full of “tradition” that the human factor is proud of.  The way we do things is the way it has always been done.  It works, so why change things?  Why challenge the system?  The dogs used by these traditional backgrounds also conformed to a small fraction of the dog population.  The dogs generally could not adapt to household.  While they had an excellent “on button”, switching them off often meant kenneling them outside the house whenever they were not working. 

With new interest in scent sports for the family pet, and newer uses for dogs in a professional capacity, things are changing.  Newer studies in animal learning and how it pertains to scent detection in dogs are emerging regularly, and studies are being done on how formalizing scent work can help the family dog or shelter dog cope with life challenges.  I love seeing the new shared information coming out.

While developing myself as a trainer who has an interest in scent sports and training Camo for bedbug detection, finding mentors to look up to and share information has been an exciting, but daunting experience.

Here is a tale of how a training hole with Camo was handled by 2 different trainers.  Before I share it, both trainers have an extensive resume of producing working detection dogs and I was able to learn from both trainers. There is a clear winner on who I want to consider a mentor as a trainer.  Camo is young, male, and intact.  Butterflies, leaves, and birds, can all grab his interest.  When Camo was a pup, I was very mindful of taking him to a variety of places to play with him and keep engagement as a priority. Life got in the way for a period of time and my priorities had to be on my classes (and thus paying the bills), and some household attention, as well as the arrival of winter.  We did continue training indoors, and since as a working bedbug dog, I wasn’t too worried about how he performed outdoors.  Our training hit a time where we needed an objective evaluation of where we were as a team and there was no one nearby to evaluate.  We traveled to trainer A and the first evaluation on bedbugs was outdoors (hey, wait, I stopped training outdoors because we would only be working indoors) after a few issues with travel and Camo not feeling well.  Camo’s performance was not what I had hoped in that situation.  Trainer A told me that I should lock Camo up, not feed him for the night and for the morning before our next training session.  Essentially, he wanted me to use isolation and hunger to create a dog who would not be distracted.  He also wanted leash corrections for any distraction or missed indications. (Please note, that this is not how I train my dog, and that advice went in one ear and out the other).

6 weeks later, I had the opportunity to work with trainer B.  Camo was getting better working outdoors, but was definitely still distracted.  We were working at a training spot that Camo associated with nothing but fun, so guess what, distraction was still an issue.  I knew what I wanted to work on while the trainer was here and asked for advice.  After a full day of work, the advice was not to go home and lock my dog up.  The advice was to go back and play some more with my dog, and find some further play motivators.  The trainer helped with some training mechanics with toys that Camo already loved (FLIRT POLE!!!!) and how to create even further drive for those toys.  A funny thing started to happen.  We spent 3 days playing outdoors in a distracting environment.  All we did was work on play and 1 second indications.  Some people would have thought I was nuts doing “scent detection” with a great trainer and all I did was work on play.  The magic happened after hours at the hotel and when I returned home.  The more I play with Camo outdoors in distracting areas and had clear criteria with play, the faster and more intense Camo’s indications on bugs was getting inside in real work scenarios.

Which trainer do you think I chose as a mentor?  Again, both of these trainers have a vast resume of training detection dogs on the global level, but there was a clear winner on who I want to learn from and have critique my training skills.

In today’s age, we can learn from people globally, and there are experts everywhere. When looking for someone who you want to learn from on a day to day basis, look to see not only what they have produced, but how they get there.  Does it make sense to how you train?  I have people I consider to be mentors in a variety of dog activities and in everyday life.  I also have people who I believe that even if I don’t consider them a mentor, I can learn something from them and will continue to be engaged with what they do.  There is a very small factor that I don’t think at this point in my professional and private life that there is anything I can learn from, but I am sure that there are those who can learn from them.

Drop me a note and tell me who your mentors are and what you look for in a mentor.  I’d love to see how they compare to my list and see if there is someone else I need to find out more about (someone recently recommended a UK scent trainer to me and I finally had a chance to look up his work and I’m thankful she pointed me in his direction).

That (Un)Comfortable Feeling in Training

Learning is stressful. To learn, you need to be outside your comfort zone. It goes for us, and it goes for our dogs. If the motivation and expectations are always the same, learning will be minimal at best.

So how does that affect us when we are training our dogs? I don’t want to push my dog to the point that he gives up and doesn’t want to try. I also don’t want a dog that can’t progress in the skills that he already has. If I set the exercises up so that they are always identical and never challenge the dog, and the dog always gets paid the same, the dog will never progress. If I push the dog to a point that it can’t function then no learning will happen either.

Last year, some of the way I train was challenged when I attended a seminar taught by one of the brilliant trainers at the Scandinavian Working Dog Institute . I discovered Progression Planning (of which I love but still struggle to get it right) which has helped me push Camo in his learning, but not so much that he cannot accept it.

So what does a training session look like for Camo when I push him outside his comfort zone?

The goal of my last session was to have Camo do a search independently (no leash) and indicate on live bed bugs where he would have search past his reward (a ball). Camo LOVES balls…If he doesn’t have a ball in his mouth, there is usually one nearby. The only thing he likes better at this point is his flirt pole. Working past, without interacting with his reward is a huge big deal. It definitely would put him outside his comfort zone to work with his ball accessible.

Here is a modified version of our progression for today.

  • Camo searches and indicates (normal search no ball in sight) on bed bug vial. Camo is rewarded with ball toss (this was successful, no problem)
  • Camo is revved up with ball (yes he knew it was available and fun), and ball is placed in sight of Camo. I then sent Camo to search. Guess what, he headed straight towards the fun ball (who wouldn’t?). I was faster than Camo and the ball was removed from the ground (he didn’t do what he was asked, so he didn’t get to play). I also gave him a moment to reset in his crate for about 10 seconds.
  • I then revved Camo up with the ball again and set it down in front of him. As I knew the last rep was a little too far outside his comfort zone, I then asked Camo for a simple sit for control. I then sent him to search. He went past his ball, searched, and indicated on the bed bugs. The ball was immediately (I did not require a long indication as I was working on a separate skill), tossed for a reward with a huge game of fetch. Our training session ended there.

Was Camo outside his comfort zone in this exercise? I great big affirmative. Did he learn and accomplish the training goal that I had set for the session? That is an affirmative too. I was not afraid the remove the reward opportunity and not afraid of a moment to reset my dog. Learning is stressful. Learning in uncomfortable. If I had of done this exercise in a busy building with lots of chaos and smells, and added the criteria of having to search past his reward and expect a long indication, I would have set my dog up to fail. That would have been way too much stress and no learning would have happened. If I would have continued with simple searches with no change of expectation, no learning would have happened either.

So today’s lesson – a little discomfort and stress is not a bad thing. I challenge you to push both your limits and your dog’s limits. Let me know how it goes.

Training with pseudoscents

Pseudoscents are a controversial topic amongst professional detection trainers.  Some will never use them, some will always use them, and some flip back and forth. So what am I doing with Camo?

Without a realistic dedicated training facility and a steady pool of live bed bugs, training a bed bug dog can sometimes be a logistical pain in the rear end.  A trained bed bug dog has to alert on live bed bugs only ( alerting on dead bugs, feces, and casings are not acceptable for a professional bed bug dog).  Training bugs need to be contained and kept alive for training purposes.  While there are vials specifically designed for training detection dogs, the vials do not necessarily fit in all the places that bed bugs can fit.

bed bug detection dog training vial
Vial of bed bugs for training a bed bug detection dog

Dogs do not generalize very well so need to be worked in unfamiliar places.  Live bed bugs are not normally welcomed at other people’s property, and this is where a solution can be found using bed bug pheromone spray.

bed bug pheromone spray
Bed bug pheromone spray ready for use

Some may ask, “why not do all my training on pseudo pheromone scent, and then I don’t have to worry about keeping live bed bugs?”

In short, I worry about the scent profile that the spray has as it is within a carrier alcohol.  If the dog is imprinted on the pseudo, I worry that the dog will look for a scent profile that includes the carrier alcohol.  

My solution with Camo was to initially imprint on live bed bugs and then introduce the pheromone spray to see if it was a seamless transition.  The following pictures will show where the hide was, and Camo finding it.  I did not introduce the pheromone spray by itself.  Rather, I just sent him to search and he was searching for bed bugs.

Pseudoscent hide location
The gauze with the pheromone scent was placed under the baseboard heater, behind the dustpan

Camo finds pseudoscent hide
Camo seamlessly found the bed bug pheromone spray hide

I will continue switching Camo’s training back and forth between live bed bugs and pheromone spray so that I am able to fulfill a well rounded scent detection training program with him until we are ready to test for certification.

Stay tuned for future inside looks of Camo’s bed bug detection training journey….

The Importance of Intelligent Disobedience in Task Focused Activities

If you ask trainers what dog and handler teams make the best teams in sport/scent activities (scent detection, nose work, gun dog work), it is often not the high scoring obedience teams, the dogs who never take their eyes off their handler, or the dogs that look to their handlers for direction.  Are these teams successful, most definitely.  Are there other teams that seem to pick it up faster?  The most usual answer is yes.  You see dogs that have a long history of not looking to their handlers for inspiration (I’m avoiding saying a long history of disobeying their handlers), are not afraid to think for themselves, and are not afraid to use their nose despite what their handler tells them.

 

Here’s the next thing to remember, handlers and trainers are human sometimes make mistakes, and in gun dog work, birds don’t always follow the training plan.  I have forgotten where I have planted a hide and on more than one occasion, a dog has found it in a different location than I thought it was planted.  I have seen birds planted that got up and moved, or buried themselves so deep that they would not flush.  If the dog was afraid to disobey me, there is a big risk that I would end up with a false alert or point, or worse a “blink” (dog avoids the area completely and pretends it doesn’t exist).

My best advice is this, your dog has the expert nose, not you.  If a dog false alerts, or does not follow your search pattern the way you want it, let your dog lead, and do not punish it.  There is only one thing that will pay and that is scent (or a bird).  In a blind search (or hunt), you are dependant entirely on your dog telling you where scent is.  If your dog is so focused on pleasing you and is afraid to make a mistake, they will give you the alert you want, but it might not be correct.  Let your dog disobey you and obey their nose. Celebrate when your dog does not follow your direction and makes a choice for themselves.  If they get it wrong, they just don’t get paid, but they did learn something (even if it is that their handler’s body language is not to be trusted.