"When I had to go, you know, I went" Tom Hanks-Forrest Gump
Today at nose work class we were all presented with an exterior area designed to teach about our dogs pottying during a search. I believe the objective was to develop some strategies when faced with this issue, to expose us to the possibility of our dogs pottying, to provide tips on how to manage and hopefully avoid it. I have seen this before in training, a search area known for containing enticing pee smells. Winnie and I have had successes and failures on the subject. In trials, I have heard competitors groan when the exterior area is on grass. This is not just a problem for male dogs or intact dogs, it is universal. Just like the dogs naturally follow target odor in a search area, they can easily get hijacked by interesting dog and critter smells, naturally following it possibly leading to the dreaded accident.
As we learn to read our dogs, we can tell the subtle differences in body language. First picture is Winnie looking for cat poo. Picture two is zeroing in on another dog's pee. Sniffing a blade of grass like in the forth picture is definitely not sourcing target odor. I can often tell as we go for our walk-abouts when Winnie is canine sniffing, critter sniffing or about to zero in on something she thinks is edible. It has a lot to do with what Winnie does leading up to the point where she finds what she wants. Sometimes the behavior is distinctly different. Most of the time I can catch Winnie and prevent ingestion just before she hones in on a tasty kitty turd or something rotten to make her sick. But this is not an exact science and we handlers are only human. There is also the variable unpredictability when during a search and without any signs leading up to it there can be the dreaded squat. Quick as a flash of lightening, a leg lifts. This blog is not meant to be a training session, I am not a trainer. Nor am I giving advice but rather telling our story.
The first time Winnie peed in a search in practice, I was so shocked and unprepared I did nothing. The trainer said to stop the search, put Winnie back in the car and bring her out after all the dogs in class have finished their turns. So I did. This felt very punitive for me, I felt like a toddler who did something bad and I was mortified, embarrassed. The worst part is the trainer gave no follow up advice. No explanation on the purpose for ending the search and what that accomplishes, no words on how to respond next time, and I don't think Winnie made any connection at all to her behavior in the search area and being sent to the car. I knew we were put on time-out. Did Winnie realize it? At the time I wondered if there was something I should have done immediately at the time of the peeing. If so, why wouldn’t someone say so. Was this scenario just so butt-clenchingly disastrous it was too much to bear discussing? Like Beetlejuice. To say peeing in the search area three times will bring mischief. No one would talk about that which shall remain unspoken for fear of bringing it onto themselves.
In the two years since Winnie and I have been training and trialing I can count on one hand and remember distinctly each of the times she has eliminated during a search, never in a trial search (thank goodness) and never #2. With different trainers offering their advice, not once have I been coached to react in a specific way at the time she is peeing. This along with today’s lesson prompted me to contemplate the issue.
When we initially potty train, we monitor the pups a lot. We offer them more opportunity than is physically needed to eliminate in suitable areas and we praise them during elimination. We consistently offer them to potty after meals, after naps, before play time. Getting them to a suitable potty area in time and catching them during the act gives optimum advantage to timing for instilling the behavior positively. This begins the pattern of the desired behavior, our’s and their’s. We reinforce their behavior by avoiding opportunity to fail and rewarding success. When an accident occurs in a non-potty area, we quickly change from praise to alarm, we interrupt them and get them to the desired potty area and then go into the pattern offering the prompts we use when asking them to eliminate. Based on puppy potty training methods, it seems reasonable to apply this same training concept to behavior we expect in the search area. We offer them ample time to do their business before it is our turn to search. Now with the rituals established during puppy potty training already in place, training to not pee during a search should be built in. To me it makes sense to treat the potty behavior in a search area as we do if/when they had an accident when they were puppies.
Our lesson today in class was designed to tempt the dog’s behavior, an exterior search in an area along a business complex building with a mix of concrete and grass, a raised planter of shrubs and trees with benches around the perimeter and a double door entry way. At the end of a quiet road lined with condos, this business complex is a great place to walk dogs. The grassy area is guaranteed to have doggy potty from all the pups living in the neighborhood. Winnie began the search. After covering the right side of the area quickly, she went across the center and into the grass and was delighted to find all kinds of dog/critter smells. As she zeroed her interest in and became focused, she peed. I gave a sharp “NO” and pulled the leash trying to interrupt. She looked at me with confusion. I took her out of the search area and back to the start line. We restarted and Winnie searched enthusiastically working the left side this time, and when she became interested in the bench along the raised planter I blurted “Alert” even though she did not indicate odor. Flustered after the potty event, I had lost my mind and all ability to even remember why we were here! After two years since we began this sport and many opportunities training in areas heavy with potty smells, I still didn’t know what to do when it happens! With understanding the instructor released me from the agony and called for us to stop the search. It was then she informed me the area was blank, and we stepped aside for some further coaching.
In conclusion, I realize the anxiety of eliminating in a search area is far more dramatic for the handler and like most things NoseWork related, only as big a deal to the dog as we make it to be. So what is the answer, what is the correct way to train for this? How can we actually train for this? My research has uncovered many Blogs and articles on the subject giving management advice but very little on how we should respond at the time. I could include link after link to sites addressing the issue offering that it is not ok but nothing about what to do when it happens. Absent any official input, I believe it is less important to have a certain method, but rather to not leave it to chance. Challenge the dog at practice in a controlled environment and with a clear plan. Know what you are going to do before and implement your plan. Remember what you did and be consistent the next time. As in potty training the puppy, success comes with a solid, effective plan that can be delivered consistently and always with the comfort of the dog in mind. Some may feel worried that including an alarmed interruptive response from the handler during a search could result in establishing a negative precedent leading to fear in the dog thereafter when searching. I heard and read many trainers advice about saying “no” or exposing the dog to any kind of negativity during a search. It can be very demotivating to dogs. I think the response can be calibrated to fit the sensitivity of each individual dog. Maybe the very nature of a shy dog makes them less likely to pee anyway.
Today’s lesson was the first time I tried my “response at the time of peeing” idea. It did get her attention and there seemed to be no obvious unintended consequences. Winnie went on with her usual vim and verve after the potty event to do a successful exterior search, a 5 vehicle search and a dynamic Elite level area search in a novel to us underground parking structure. The training we had gotten so far is teaching me to read Winnie’s body language, I am still a remedial reader but getting better every day. I am hopeful my hypothesis is right, and I have found an effective method for training Winnie not to eliminate during searches. Fingers crossed and time will tell. I can’t say I’m looking forward to testing my theory but test it I will. When it is least expected the opportunity will present itself and I must be prepared and be consistent. Our dogs are so smart, I believe they can learn anything. Learning we don't pee in the search area should be elementary.
In this exterior search, there are less tempting potty enticing opportunities, but in watching this back I can study Winnie's body language when she is searching for something to find (not in odor) and searching for a source (in odor). When she is moving along in the beginning and not in odor but suddenly stops, chances are it is something interesting but might not be a source of target odor. She looks very different when she is moving through the tables from the far side to source the target odor on the table at the other end of the area. It is highly recommended to video as much as you can and watch it back. This is the best way for us to learn to read our dogs.