A group of us met this morning to do some K9NW training at a local Fairground that had a number of open animal sheds with stalls and wood chip flooring. I and another person offered to put out the hides so some of us could work blind areas. The search areas looked like so much fun that we really went to town in setting up the problems – we put 4 hides in the first open shed, 6 in the second open shed, 8 in the next one and 3 in the last building. And some were hidden in piles of leaves, one on a clothesline about 8 feet up, some 10 feet up steel girders, some odors converging, many were channeling, and others deep in corners with the wind blowing the scent outside the building’s wall. Fun!
We all were really looking forward to working these problems, especially as we all had been cooped up all winter. And that’s when the largest problem reared its head. Earlier problems for me started with my taking my puppy, Saoirse, with me when I first went out to scope out the search areas. Saoirse LOVED racing around dragging her 50 foot parachute cord….which promptly twisted around all our feet, almost dumping me. And then she starting spinning as she was racing – she was that excited – and I could not control her with that thin knife-like-in-your hand parachute cord (and, since it was so warm, I did not have gloves on). And, finally, there was the ICE all over the parking lot, and all over the uneven LONG path leading from the parking lot to where our search areas were. It was so bad for me that I had to drive all the way home to pick up my YakTrax for my boots because my boots were so old that they had no tread.
After I got back with my YakTrax, I was in a better mood than when I left and I eagerly went up to the first search area to see how it was going. Well, it quickly came clear that things were not going well. While we all were aware that all but one of the search areas were COMPLETELY contaminated with chicken poop, rabbit poop, cow and horse poop and god knows what else, we did not foresee the impact all those powerful smells would have on our dogs. I mean, most of the dogs there were pretty strong dogs and very odor obedient – at least, that’s what we thought!! But, that’s not what happened. Rather, when our dogs came into the search areas, and they got hit in the snout with all those delicious (to them) smells….well, not only were they not hunting for odor, they ranged around cataloguing all the intriguing odors and then each marked at least once in a search area. What????
Well, we couldn’t let THAT continue! So, we went to PLAN B – Obviously, none of our dogs had trained under such heavy distractions and they clearly lost focus if the odor was not immediately available. We therefore modified each hide and made them all easier, lowered all the high ones and sometimes even had the hide right out in the open. And then, we started each dog 3 feet or less downwind from each hide. With odor blowing right into their nose, the dogs did respond and followed the odor each time right into source. Whew, finally, focus and odor obedience!!!! 🙂
The moral of this story is twofold: (1) Handlers need to vary the locations where they train so the dog learns to work through different scent conditions and environments; and (2) If a handler is working for the first time in a challenging environment like our Fairground, start with easy, easy, easy, quick hides. Once the dog is punching it in the environment at close distances, you can have the dog start further back from the hide. But, until the hunting behavior is more durable under the difficult search conditions, keep it easy and quick.
In closing, we all know all this…..but sometimes we underestimate the complexity of a particular search environment on our dogs and overestimate the strength of our dogs in such areas. Not again for me!!!