Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Where? The Question in K9 Nose Work® With an Answer That's Right on the Tip of Your Dog's Nose

A Nose Work dog bounces around a vehicle, sweeps nose over arc of wheel well, checks rear bumper, sniffs tire, looks at handler, checks wheel well again, then sniffs around hubcap, holds his nose on a spot for a moment, exhales, drags his nose up the wheel to the top of the wheel well and looks at handler.

Handler: Alert?!
Judge: Where?
Handler: {flabbergasted, flustered, sweeping hand gesture encompassing the entire horizon} There at the top of the wheel well. 
Judge: No. Sorry.

What just happened? A dog found source odor and a handler panicked and responded to a judge asking where the dog had alerted, resulting in the handler identifying the wrong spot. For many handlers, the dreaded "where" question is one they hope to never hear, and for many judges, they'd hope not to have to put a good team on the spot. While answering the question of "where" is never easy, being well-prepared and having an answer to give based on observing your dog can save your team and prove that both handler and dog are in sync and on their game.

Why Do Judges Ask "Where"? - Here is the official wording from the NACSW rule book:

In the event the judge asks “WHERE?” the handler should identify the location of the source by 
pointing to the location without touching the location. (‘top drawer of the file cabinet,’ ‘right desk 
drawer,’ ‘kitchen sink,’ etc’) If correctly identified FULL POINTS AND TIME WILL BE AWARDED. 
This scenario is most likely with a dog that has a subtle final response that is not as easily 
identifiable or if the judge wants confirmation that the handler knows the location based on the 
dogs change of behavior. NOTE: Once you say “Alert”, if the judge asks “Where”, you must 
respond promptly. This is not an opportunity to re-cue your dog to continue searching to clarify 
the hide location. 

Here are just a few reasons why a judge may ask the "where" question upon your call of alert. Most often, the judge observes your dog clearly working the hide to source, but observes you looking less than confident about what your dog is telling you - maybe your dog has to keep going back to source to tell you three or four times during the search. Sometimes, a dog may have an unconventional way of working the odor and may not be as easy to read; maybe he goes to odor, gives a very subtle final response and moves away from the source before the handler calls alert. The judge might ask where because the dog found the source, moved off the source, and the handler called the alert after the dog left source. When hides are less sourceable, or are inaccessible, the judge may ask the "where" question if she sees all of the right behavior from the dog, say, the dog showing he wants to work a hide on the back of a wall-mounted sink blocked by some objects by bracketing the area and sniffing past objects in a way that shows the objects and the front of the sink aren't the source of odor, but the dog doesn't come to a clear final response. Occasionally, if the handler blocks the judge's view seconds before calling alert, the judge may have to ask the handler where the call is being made because of obstructed line of sight. 

What Is a Good Answer to the "Where" Question? - The best answer to the "where" question is to identify the area where your dog gave his final response! If he worked and worked on a desk and chair, then paused with his nose under the edge of the chair seat and exhaled loudly, you should be prepared to say, "it's under the chair".

If he works from one side of a shelving unit to the other and sniffs high up both sides and across the front, stretching his body, he may be working a hide that is not sourceable. Based on his behavior, you'd probably say you think it's high up on the shelf. If your dog shows that same behavior, but sniffs the shelf surface he can reach, and maybe sniffs a box on the shelf, you need to be able to quickly evaluate what he's communicating - is his behavior showing the presence of source odor on that shelf, or is he just sniffing the closest available scent after working hard to get to the hide that he cannot source? If you practice both types of hides, you should be able to see some key differences and say alert confidently, and answer the question of "Where?"

How Do You Prepare to Make the Right Calls if the "Where" Question Pops Up? - Practice observing your dog.

Watch your dog's change(s) of behavior as he begins to work the odor. Typically, your dog will catch scent, look for a way to follow scent to source, and then become very detailed as he closes in on source. Many dogs quicken sniffing and exhale loudly when at source, some dogs pause at the source for a moment before looking at the handler or sitting/downing. Almost every dog will try to get that nose as close to source as possible. Some do this very quickly and subtly, but they still do it.

Know what your dog looks like in a variety of search scenarios. There's not much to worry about when the hide is in a bucket and your dog sticks his whole head in there to find the odor. But, what about when it's under a table top in a metal channel running the length of the table? Will your dog catch scent moving along the channel and show a final response (even if his changes of behavior don't fully support it)? Sometimes patience is key and watching for your dog's tell-tale signs is the only way for you to know when he's done searching and found the source. What happens if your dog is partially out of your line of sight? Looks like you'll need to practice watching more than just his nose and head! A dog's rear half can give pretty clear signals as to when he's found the source. Maybe your dog's tail freezes when he's on source, maybe it wags really fast! The signs are all there for you to observe and become confident in trusting.

What Will Trial Day Be Like? - So, let's say you've logged some time observing your dog and you are confident in your ability to read him, what will your searches be like on trial day? The searches will probably be very much like you've been practicing for, but you and your dog may both be lacking a bit in confidence because of the unfamiliar location and/or anxiousness on your part because a title and ribbons are on the line. Your dog might not seem as strong or clear at source, and you most definitely will be cautious with your alert calls - or pull a 180 and blurt them out - and you might even be a bit "in your head", trying to size up the search areas and make guesses as to what the challenges might be.

If this is what your trial day might look like, remember your time spent in practice observing your dog. Don't get too focused on what your dog is checking out in the search environment, stay focused on your dog. He may check various objects in his quest for source - and the hide may indeed be in an object, but it could also just be pooling odor that's closer to him than the hide is. You'll only know this if you know your dog well in these scenarios. Look for the signs that he's working something he can reach (often the dog will close in on an area pretty quickly and sniffing will become faster, more intense, and more detailed). An inaccessible hide usually has the dog looking for ways to get closer, to get past items, and he'll usually spend a larger chunk of search time on looking for access to the source. Sometimes, this dog will show a sudden interest in a very accessible object in the area he's been working. This is usually the dog giving in to a handler who has been waiting for some clear indication of source as the dog worked and worked to show the presence of an inaccessible hide. If you recognize that your dog has been working in the area of that very accessible object for a while without showing interest in it, you don't have to call alert on the response you know is questionable, you can observe him working one more time before you make the call. Also, you don't have to wait for your dog to give a final response if all of his behavior is clearly spelling out the location of source odor. Whatever decisions you make, make them confidently.

What if Your "There" is not the Right Answer to Their "Where?" - So you watch your dog work a trash can in a corner and the hide is high on the back side where the dog can't reach it. The dog works up and down the can and spends a little more time on the bottom half so you call alert, get the "where" question, and say the bottom of the can. The judge tells you no. This is an invaluable training opportunity. At your next practice, try to set up similar challenges and observe your dog and look for the behavior you might have missed, or start thinking about how you help your dog to learn how to solve this kind of odor problem so it's more clearly observable for you. Maybe you start by making the hide a bit more accessible, or maybe it's not as high to start. Whatever you choose to do, your goals should be for your dog to learn how to get closer to source and for you to learn how to observe him better so you can make more accurate and confident calls.

As you practice to reach a level of teamwork where the question of "where" is just another opportunity to show how well you and your dog work as team, remember that the question does not get asked if you and your dog are not already a pretty darn good team. In the moments between "Where" and a yes or no from the judge, trust your teamwork, rely on your observations, and make the best of whatever comes next.

Happy Sniffing & Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. Thanks for the great post, Jeff! I love reading your stuff :)

  2. Another great post with reams of excellent tips.

  3. Thanks Laura & Nick! Looking at the date on these comments, the blog has clearly taken a winter holiday!

    Happy Sniffing!