(Note: I have added to this blog since it was originally posted, with some information that I forgot about the first time around. The new material is mainly after the paragraphs about finding lost frisbees. It’s referred to in some of the discussion following as well.)
I have written before about how I decided to stop doing nose work with Mellie. As I’ve moved on to working successfully with Big Barley (NW 1 under his belt, now trying to get into a NW 2 trial) and even starting Jad, I’ve had more time to process the long history of events in Mellie’s life which led to quitting. This makes a good cautionary tale, and I thought I’d share it because it might help other nose work handlers with dogs having “out of the box” difficulties (*snork*). It might help anyone having difficulties in any dog training process, because some of the take-home lessons generalize pretty big.
Mellie came out of the womb loving to tug. That’s one reason I chose her. She would, and still will, tug anything I tell her is a toy: a sock, a wristwatch strap, a wallet, a stick, a yogurt lid, a fork. And she likes to shred things that are easily shredded. To this day, she will shred open any plastic baggie that she finds, both because it might contain food (but honestly, I think she knows the empty ones are hopeless) and because they’re fun to dissect. Early on, we liked to play “101 Things to Do With A Box.” Our version involved some shaping games, and one thing she learned was to bring me a large box, climb inside it, and close the flaps, ready to be mailed somewhere. She always loved to shred cardboard, as did Cedi, and I allowed it. It was a great outlet for Cedi (first title: Shredder Dog Excellent) and I had no problem with Mellie engaging in it too. The stuff was still recyclable, after all. Over time, she sometimes would seek out cardboard to shred – with vigor and abandon. She’d hold down the box and rip it madly with her teeth, having a grand time.
When Mellie was six months old, a friend and I joked about whose dog was smarter. Farli was a very, very smart and well-trained adult dog with numerous performance titles and other achievements, so I was probably tempting fate with my humorous boasting. However, in the moment, I started teaching her to find my keys. She already had a cued retrieve of any object, so I had her retrieve my keys from a few feet away. Then I put them further away in the same room; she brought them back and we played tug to reward her. (I have a little strap on my keys, which she could grip easily.) Then I hid them in the same room, told her to find them and bring them; she did this; more tug. Then I had my friend restrain her while I hid them in another room, inside a dog crate. She’d seen where I went, and when we released her to go find, she was back in about 15 seconds. It was her first scent find, and her reward was to tug with me, using the keys. We performed this parlor trick many times over the years, almost always ending up with a rousing game of tug-the-key-strap.
“Find it!” –> nose search –> retrieve source –> play tug!
Mellie came out of the womb loving frisbees. Her breeder founded the Canadian Disc Dog Association and many of her relatives are disc champions of various types. She loved them from the start and was an adept catcher and fetcher within a few weeks as a roly-poly puppy. I bought a number of bite-resistant competition discs to use with her, as they lasted forever. They’re spendy, however, so I was careful not to let them get lost in the field by my house. This field was mown 2-3 times per summer, so the grass got deep between cuttings. The park dropped down a steep wooded bank to a creek, and Mellie would regularly run down there when she was thirsty for a drink. Because she has never concentrated urine well, she needed to drink often, and this meant that her Jawz discs ended up along the creek banks, functionally beyond my reach down the steep bank. So, I’d send her back. “Go find it. Frisbee, go find it!” And she did; we lost very few of those precious discs over the years. But at times, she didn’t want to run all the way back down into that ravine to find the disc. I don’t blame her; it wasn’t as fun as catching and fetching. She’d get frustrated, and her displacement behavior was to start pulling grass. She’d put her head down and grab it and bite it and pull it. If I pressured her more, she’d pull more grass. I eventually worked out a way to finesse the situation, but meanwhile, I set her into a pattern, and the pattern was this:
“Find it!” —> frustration! —> displacement behavior of pulling grass frantically.
Somewhere around this time, some brilliant trainers elsewhere were in the process of inventing Canine Nose Work. Of course, people and dogs have worked together with the power of the dog nose for probably millennia, but the nose work revolution has consisted of making it accessible for ordinary pet owners, outside of the competitive, purebred-focused rigors of obedience, tracking, or IPO. Eventually, inevitably, I got sucked in and I was sure that my brilliant, athletic, confident dog would love it.
And she did. The problem was the damned boxes. She would try to find the treats, and then the odor when we introduced it, and she would. But there were boxes. Some boxes could be retrieved, and she automatically tried to retrieve those for a game of tug. Also, boxes were fun to shred. I’d try to get her to refocus, not to retrieve, not to shred. She would stop searching for odor, and she’d go into a frenzy of box destruction. It was often funny, and often frustrating for me.
OK, a lot of dogs have this issue. A lot of dogs play with boxes, or stomp boxes, or at least just accidentally walk on the boxes which might annoy a judge or CO. And a lot of people saw my dog with boxes and decided she had one of these problems and wanted to help me fix it.
What they didn’t know, and I hadn’t fully realized, was that this wasn’t a problem of lack of odor obedience. Her odor obedience is great, always has been. I remember her searching odor at a flyball tournament and moving right past things like plastic bags containing food, the trash bag at our setup, treats loose in someone’s chair’s cupholder… only stopping when she found the birch. She could easily finish Elite level searches in mock trials. Her problem wasn’t odor obedience, or my body language, attitude, or handling skills (all can use work — none were the problem here).
It was that long ago, she’d learned that if I said “find it,” she could expect to play tug with that object. And then she learned that when she couldn’t immediately find it, it helped her to start pulling grass frantically out of the ground. And if there wasn’t grass, but there was a box… well, she had lots of practice pulling on boxes, in exactly the same way. One paw to hold it down so she could get a really good mouthful and shred. Oh my girl. I did this to you, and I saw it so late. Even now, my eyes fill with tears when I write it down. Because of her huge heart, and her huge brain, she could stay on track if there was no obvious target for her frustration. But when there were boxes, that old pattern kicked in. And then she would be off and running with the glorious release of pulling and flinging and barking and biting! And yes, that did eclipse her odor obedience.
Understanding, finally, what happened, I’m taking her back to some occasional nose work classes, just for fun. I’ll just avoid containers. I have a dog to compete with. Barley’s a much easier dog to handle (though a much harder dog to work in public, as he’s sensitive to strangers, dogs, and new places). It takes the pressure off Mellie, and she can enjoy just searching, doing something with me. She did two searches at the end of Jad’s class tonight and even that has helped her settle for a snooze on the sofa.
I’ve needed to apologize to every one of my dogs for something, usually more than one something, and this is near the top of the list of things I have to apologize to my beloved Mellie for.
If you’re looking for take-home lessons…
- For the love of dog, don’t recycle cues you’ve used previously. I should have known better, but it just didn’t occur to me that this one had baggage. (Now that it is all written out, yes, I feel really, really stupid.) For nose work in general, if you use a day-to-day “find it” for picking up food off the kitchen floor, or even for fun find-mom games at home, I recommend that you use a brand-new cue when you start formal nose work training. It’s just safer. You can always combine them later if you’re sure it will work out. The same is probably true of recycling cues when starting any new sport. I’d err on the side of adding a new, precise, purposeful cue instead.
- Box problems in nose work are not always about boxes being fun. Always give some thought to whether you’re seeing a frustration/displacement behavior. Shredding stuff when frustrated is a time-honored, species-typical displacement behavior. If that’s what you’re getting, video a bunch and ask a good behavior person (not a nose work person) what they see.
- Even if your dog is a genius, you may still be making it too hard for them. I know I did this to Mellie at times during her life and I hope to spend the rest of her life with me making up to her for it.
She’s still a genius, though.