Julie Symons is owner and head dog trainer at Savvy Dog Sports and she joined to break down what it's like to compete in a nose work trial, plus we talk introducing handler scent to your nose work dog.
To be released 7/06/2018, featuring Donna Hill, talking about owner-handler trained service dogs and what it takes to get a fantastic recall.
Today we have Julie Symons, owner and head dog trainer at Savvy Dog Sports, to talk about scentwork.
Welcome back to the podcast Julie!
Julie Symons: Hi Melissa. It’s great to be here again.
Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. Just to refresh everyone’s memories, can you share a little bit about who you are and the dogs that you share your life with?
Julie Symons: I’ve been training since the early to mid-1990s. Started out, I think, obedience, like most people probably did, and then agility came on the scene, and then I got my first purebred dog. What I was really drawn to from the very beginning was the versatile sports that I got into with my dog and how much I enjoyed the cross-training. I’ve stayed with the Belgian breed so far and really enjoyed that journey, and starting to look at some other breeds as well. I also incorporated my Savvy Dog Sports training, I have my own training center now, and I just very recently, haven’t really gone public with it, gave my notice at my corporate day job that I’ve been at for 30 years, and my last day is July 6, so that’s pretty exciting for me. A lot of change going on.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. Congrats. That’s so exciting.
Julie Symons: My two dogs that I have, Savvy, who I can’t believe is 10-and-a-half. She’s done everything I wanted her to do. She is a breed champion, she has her MACH 2, she has her TDX, she has her UD, and she has her Elite 1 nosework trial. Right there it shows my love of versatility, and how well dogs enjoy and that we can train across different sports. Obviously all this occurred over her lifespan up to now. I didn’t do it all in one year, obviously. But we’re focusing on nosework now and enjoying trialing her at the Elite level, and just want to see how far I can go with that before she’s just not able to trial.
And then I have my baby dog, who’s not really a baby anymore, Drac, who’s a Belgian Malinois. I got him because I thought having two different genders would work out better in the household, and it really does. They get along great. He’s 2-and-a-half, and he’s out of most of his hormonal peak. He was a late bloomer, I think, and I think with boy dogs they mature a little slower. I’m really, really seeing the days of adolescence in our past, and really see the potential in how I can get a little bit more … not that I wasn’t serious, but more serious and formal with his training coming up, so I’m really excited about that. We trialed in nosework and confirmation so far with him.
Melissa Breau: Awesome, and that’s reassuring to hear, considering I have a year-and-change puppy, a boy, still definitely maturing.
Julie Symons: I wrote a blog about that, I believe, and I saw somebody recently asking and I haven’t had time to reply, but I am experiencing the first time for myself having an intact male. The last year I’ve been busy with other stuff, I’m still training him, but I didn’t put any pressure on him or myself, and he’s really come along. For example, in agility classes I couldn’t get his nose off the ground. Now he stays in the whole class without sniffing the ground. It just was waiting that out and working with him, letting him acclimate, and not putting the pressure on either one of us.
Melissa Breau: So, I wanted to talk about trialing in nosework. I know you have this webinar coming up on achieving nosework trial day success, so I was hoping you might start us out by walking us through what a nosework trial looks like. I know it’s super-different than some of the other sports that are out there. What that looks like, how it works, and when everything goes well.
Julie Symons: Absolutely. One thing that’s interesting about it, at least in the Nosework Association, which is the main venue that most of us got involved with, is you get maybe 30 to 40 dogs, total, at a trial, and you are staying in your parking lot with the dogs inside because they usually are in locations where it’s not like a training building and you can’t crate anywhere else. So you have to get used to working out of the car, and your dog does have to get used to hanging out in the car all day long. You have to deal with, handle the different temperatures and weather concerns you may have, and when you get there, especially with the Nosework Association, they don’t want a lot of dogs hanging out and wandering around because, as many people know who do nosework, a lot of it is geared toward supportive reactive dogs.
In the AKC venue it’s just like a regular AKC trial, but most people are still very courteous of that. A little bit different situation in their locations, but for the most part you’re at a school or maybe a Boys Club of America or something that you’re just going to be waiting outside with your dog.
They have a running order, and there’s a briefing, so you meet with maybe the host, the judges, and they talk about some of the logistics and the situations of how the day is going to run. They tell you if there are back-to-back searches, are you going to run and then go back to your car, and then they take you on a walkthrough. So you go on a walkthrough — most trials you get a walkthrough, some of them you don’t, depending on the level — you get a look at your search areas, and then you come back and ask questions about the areas, if you have them. And then the judge or the certifying official, depending on what venue, will go over how many hides you have, if it’s a level of known hides, and your time limit that you have to search.
Except for AKC, where they do a lot of spectators if there’s room, you are generally in there searching, nobody else can watch. There’s a few people in the room that are timing and judging and videoing and things like that. It can be a very low-key situation. For some dogs it can be a little worrisome, when you go into this empty room with one or two people can actually be more concerning for a dog, versus having people around all the time, and then you’re just working in that environment.
Those are some of the “how a typical day goes,” and you end up sitting outside your car and you meet your parking lot neighbors, because you usually don’t know a lot of people, especially if you go out of town. Of course I know a lot more, and everybody does as you go to more and more trials, but it’s not like you go with your friend who also entered, because the odds of two people getting in, most of it’s a lottery system, is not likely, so you’re usually traveling by yourself and meeting new people. It’s a good question you asked, because it is a very different trial day compared to other sports.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there how hard it is to get into trials, and looking through some of the webinar description and some other stuff, it seems like maybe that leads people to sign up for a chance to compete even if they’re not sure they’re really entirely ready. How can a handler ensure their team is truly ready to trial? What advice do you have there?
Julie Symons: I would say luckily at least I know my students are prepared to enter. I’m always happy when some of them are even unsure if they’re ready, and I assure them that they are in most cases. They have the skills, they may be concerned about the level of difficulty or the differences, and I’m also proud of some of my students who realized, I shouldn’t move up in AKC, because you can get your novice title on the weekend and move up in the Sunday afternoon trial, but you might not have taught multiple hides or the second odor. So I really admire my students who realize, Why would I move up? I’m just going to run bumper legs and go home early because I don’t have those skills. Why would I put my dog in there?
But I do see the occasional teams, now that I can spectate in AKC, I hate to see the teams that aren’t prepared, either the handlers or the dogs, and I’m hoping it’s less of an issue. I think more of it is, as you said, getting into trials is challenging, so when you can only get into maybe two trials a year — and that’s changing, so I don’t want to scare people off with that type of cadence — but you can’t make the same mistakes in those two trials a year that you have.
Back to being ready for trialing, if you have a good foundation and you know the skills that are required at that level, I would say that you’re ready to enter. We all run into something that we haven’t expected, or just not had a good trial day, but it’s mostly just know what’s expected and make sure you have trialed in those novel situations that can prepare you, because all of the trial situations you’re going to be in are novel and new, with new people around.
Melissa Breau: I know you’ve also talked about the importance of taking inventory of training gaps and handling mistakes. How can a team do that before the actual trial, especially if, like you said, there’s maybe two trials a year that they’re going to compete in?
Julie Symons: You definitely see your training gaps. They usually surface when you’re trialing, because that’s when we’re nervous and so we’re acting a little different, or the place is novel and we just aren’t our normal selves. That’s something that we do have to, as best we can, combat that, like, develop good mental strategies and just realize that everybody’s nervous. If you go there with the idea of, depending on what your goals are, if you just go there and do your thing and not worry about passing or whatever, you actually usually do pass when you take that pressure off of yourself.
When you do trial and some of these training gaps surface, you know that by purchasing the trial video. So how you can inventory your gaps is either videoing your blind training searches, if you’re in classes or whatever, or definitely your trial video. What you can do, and this is what we did in my Shoulda Woulda class, is we had people review some trial videos that didn’t go as well. A trial I would say doesn’t go as well is if you don’t find all the hides, or if you get a no from the judge — you called an alert and the judge said no. And that’s the worst thing to hear at a nosework trial.
So you watch those videos of those experiences, and you take inventory. You say, “Oh, I was crowding my dog, I talked my dog into a hide,” or “You know, I never taught my dog to search over 4 feet, and that’s why that’s a gap I have.” By watching your trial video is where you’re going to really see those gaps, and then you literally want to write them out, list them out.
One of the neat things about that class that I didn’t really anticipate was it kind of … not forced people, but it had them go back and kind of organize their trial videos. They went back and re-watched them with a fresh set of eyes, and they said, “Wow, I sometimes don’t watch them a second time,” or “I haven’t watched all these.” It was eye-opening to them to go back and not just watch them to watch them, but to watch them with a purpose of saying, “What didn’t go well here?”
We also of course in the class go over what goes well, because we want to stay positive and be aware of how well we’re doing. But since we’re focusing on trialing better, you have to know what didn’t work when you trialed and how to not do that mistake again when you go to your next trial that you got into.
I just was reading something on Facebook that somebody said. We were like, “We always remember that one mess-up that we had, and we can’t let go of it.” And somebody said, “You know, I drove eight hours, I didn’t sleep the night before, I was busy at work, the first one in my day I just blurred an alert, and all that stress and tiredness and everything, it was over.” So we need to be in a better state, go there with the right, I guess, tools and strategies to start off the trial well.
Sometimes it’s that first search that is the most stressful, definitely, and maybe we’re going to make some mistakes. So if we just can hold it together and learn to be in that moment and having a plan, and that’s what we did in the class is people had trials coming up, it was really cool, and we said, “What are your goals? What are your goals for your next trial? What are you going to do differently? What are you going to do the same?”
These people are going to trials and passing and placing, and I’m getting goose bumps talking about it, and it was such a rewarding experience because we were looking at the trial experience not in a different way but just in a specific way to inventory and to just know it’s OK. We need to own our mistakes. Somebody actually shared with me that it was so refreshing to have this topic in the class, because every time they talked to somebody who went to a trial, they would always blame the trial site, the hide placements, the people, the dogs. Sometimes we need to own where we have training gaps and how we can improve our handling instead of blaming other things.
Melissa Breau: What were some of the common “holes,” or some examples of the holes that people discovered? Maybe if you’d just walk us through a little bit of problem-solving?
Julie Symons: Yeah — this is neat. I had a guest, a lecturer, Holly Bushard. From a judge’s perspective, she listed what she believed were the common handler mistakes. But these are my list, so if you want to know what Holly thinks, there’s definitely some overlap.
I also just had a recent judging assignment, as my first AKC judging assignment, in North Dakota. It was fun. You’re in the best seat in the house, and I was nervous because I was, like, I want my high placements to be good, and I want the dogs to be able to find them.
So this is what I saw there, as well as I see when I’m teaching. I think the number one hole that we have is not covering the search area. Just to back up a little bit, sometimes your gaps are your handling. Our handling is the problem. If you cleaned up some of your handling, then that’s going to go better. Some of the other, and I can get to those later, are actually your dog’s skills. Those are the types of gaps that we would find: our handling and our dog’s skills.
The number one hole is not covering the search area. What happens is our dog shows interest in an area, and it could be pulling odor, which means odor has blown, maybe you even found that hide, but then it also collected further down into an area. Or you say, “This would be such a great place for a hide,” and your dog maybe showed a little bit of interest, maybe it wasn’t because of picking up some odor there, and you’re sure there’s something there, so we stay there and we stay there and we stay there.
I just did a class recently, and most of the people in the class stayed about a minute and a half in one-fourth or third of the search area, having not even covered the rest of the area, and there was no hide there. I always tell people, “If there was a hide there, your dog would have found it within a minute and a half, and even if there was a hide and they didn’t, you need to leave, cover it, and you can always go back.”
So that’s the number one. I saw that at the trial, not very many, there were a few teams that got convinced that there was a hide somewhere, and every dog that left that area and walked about 8 feet found the other hide. So they just were convinced, and you just need to cover your search area. And sometimes I think people are nervous, they don’t realize the search area, sometimes you don’t get a walkthrough, or it’s covered so fast that you forget, and again, when you’re nervous, our mind’s a little fuzzy. I have actually asked during a search when I was trialing, “Remind me, is this in the search area,” so that in case I forget, to make sure that I am covering it.
The second thing that I notice a hole in training is crowding our dogs. Again, when we get nervous, I’m not sure why we do this, but we stand closer to our dog. Maybe it’s a security thing for us too, but what happens is you could be affecting the dog’s access to a hide. You could actually be blocking a hide or affecting the airflow. But what generally that says to the dog is because when we’re training and we know where the hide is — this is actually one of my topics in my current class, Nosework Coaching — is we need to be good actors when we are running known hides. When we know where the hide is, almost everybody is fishing food out of their pocket. I catch myself doing that. And so then at a trial, when you walk in, because you’re nervous, you’re crowding your dog, the dog goes, I smell odor, and my handler’s coming in really close to me, and I’m a little nervous with this environment, and the dog offers some type of an indication and you call it. So you talk your dog into a false alert by crowding your dog, because to the dog it contextually can mean, Oh, this is normally when I get fed because I find something.
The third thing which plays into that is you can talk your dog into a hide. That’s a very common mistake because you’re convinced that somewhere you’re crowding your dog, you’re nervous, and sometimes our dogs give a little bit weaker indications at a trial and we can so easily talk our dogs into a hide.
The last thing I came up with, there’s many more, but the more difficult one that I’m seeing, I see in training and when I was judging, is when to let your dog drive the search and when you need to intervene. That’s why I always say that we’re 50 percent a teammate to our dog — we both have half of a role in the job to do. Sometimes it’s better to let the dog drive, and then there’s times when you have to intervene and get the dog to a different search area, or cover an area, or refocus them if they’re distracted. We won’t always get this right, but what I generally see, I know where the hide is because I placed it, and the dog is heading right to the hide, but the handler goes, “Oh, you didn’t cover these chairs over here.” Now, that’s not necessarily a bad decision, because maybe you have a dog that doesn’t have time to search the whole area twice. You need to cover this area. But it happens more than not where that area was cold and the dog was going right to odor and you just pulled him off.
It’s not the easiest call to make in the moment, but I also did this in one of my Elite trials where Savvy was going to a hide. I pulled her off, but when I took her back to where I went, she found a hide and ended up finding all the hides in that search area. So even if you pull your dog, I’m not talking about literally some dogs, the dogs are building a sign that says, “The hide is here,” and you pull your dog off. I’m talking about your dog is working their way toward the area where the source is, because they’ve picked up odor, and then you interrupt them on their way and say, “No, come check here.” Sometimes that works in your favor, but sometimes it’s, “Oh shoot, the dog was headed right to source.”
So sometimes I feel like if the dog is actually working and moving, and you can tell, some dogs will pick up speed because they pick up odor, and again, we’re not going to always get that right, but it’s something that we need to, I think, continually improve in when to intervene and when to let the dog drive.
And again, by videoing and by reviewing that, that’s how you’re going to progress with that, and maybe getting another set of eyes to review. I have some of my colleagues review my videos, because I don’t go to a regular trainer, or a training buddy, just somebody else that can view your work and say, “Hey, did you notice you did this?” can be very helpful.
Melissa Breau: Are there other issues that usually are overlooked in training, and even when prepping, that tend to pop up just in that trial situation?
Julie Symons: I think the main thing, if you truly are prepared, you know the rules, the thing that tends to pop up is a novel situation, a surface you never got your dog on before, or a distractor that they’ve purposely put in a container, or even an unintentional distractor in the environment. That’s usually something that pops that can catch you off guard, and of course in that area you want to train in as many novel locations with as many novel distractors as possible. You’re not going to ever train for everything, but as we know, as long as you generalize, for the most part, and when the dog has confidence with the job, they do overcome these novel situations.
But I noticed with my dog Savvy, I didn’t realize one year she had no problem going across a laquered gym floor, but the following year she bellied to the ground. I think it was a visual thing, with age, maybe, I don’t know, and I’ve had to work that afterwards.
Melissa Breau: I want to shift from talking about trialing to, I guess, the other end of the spectrum — those early steps. I know we’re in the middle of … recording this, we’re in the middle of the June session right now, and you’re teaching Intro to Nosework this session, and then next session you have Intro to Handler Scent Discrimination in August. I wanted to ask you what the difference is between those two classes.
Julie Symons: They’re quite similar in the approach, I mean, a target odor is a target odor. So we teach a target odor pretty similarly. We do use the same games, very similar games, that make sense for each of the areas.
With HD there’s just some different considerations, like, is it a problem searching or training in your area where you live and spend a lot of time in it, ended up not being a problem. But what I found was that I did a lot of nosework searches in my house so that sometimes I could tell my dog was like, I’m looking for oil, and I don’t know I’m supposed to be looking for your scent. So we worked through that basically with the two different target odors. We developed different start line cues and different search strategies.
I think the biggest difference between the two is I go into handler discrimination with a different search strategy, a different start line. One of the different strategies is I’m going to probably direct my dog a little bit more, because handler scent is going to be heavier and it’s going to drop, so dogs are going to pick that up more low. Also the hide placements, they’ll go as high as the oil searches, so your dog generally doesn’t have to, depending on the dog’s size, they don’t have to search as high.
So those are the different things. And I think the biggest difference is just our brain realizing that our dogs can find our handler scent just as easily as oil, but they disperse into the area differently, and dogs have to be a lot closer to the handler scents, I found with watching many dogs run, than they do in oil searches.
Melissa Breau: Are there additional skills that the dogs need to learn specifically for handler scent discrimination? Is that an issue for it?
Julie Symons: I haven’t noticed that there was a need for a new skill as much as we need to train HD a little bit more frequently to solidify the understanding. We have to stay with it, and then if I were at a trial, I would have to refresh and remind them. Whereas oil, at the point where my dogs are, if I just did a real cursory session before a trial, they’re going to be pretty strong.
The other thing I’ve noticed with HD, though, is it sounds kind of strange, but the dog really has to be using their nose. I think with nosework, oil is so strong, and it’s so different for a dog to learn wintergreen or birch that they just notice it, like, I know there’s something about this funny-smelling birch over here, so they pick that up. But when you start doing handler scent, we start with gloves and dogs want to retrieve them, if they’re retrievers or they’ve done tracking.
So there’s, I think, with handler discrimination there’s a little bit of context overlap, but it’s doable to train across the different sports. They just have to get past the context that you normally think it is. It’s a little different, and we have some really neat games to work through those, like put the socks right in the bowl if the dog wants to retrieve them, because the dog has never seen a sock in a bowl in tracking or in obedience scent articles. So we just need to get them to use their nose, and if they want to retrieve the sock, then we actually start getting it covered inside of a container. That’s generally the difference.
I do a neat little thing that’s different is a lot of people pair a food with the odor, it’s very common with scent articles, but I’ve found the pure shaping of only the target odor, so what I do is to get dogs to actually use their nose when they have four or five socks, because in handler discrimination we use a cotton sock or glove. I rub food on the cold items, completely opposite of one of the methods, and I tell you, it works wonderful, because the item with your scent on it happens to get food crumbs and food smell on it because we’re refreshing it with our food hands and dropping crumbs on it and stuff, so what becomes unique about a hot sock is that they are cotton, they all have some food smudge on it, but only one of them has your scent, and it gets the dog using their nose. Even with scent work with oil, I find some dogs we have to kick-start them using their nose, not their eyes, not thinking the container is a pivot box or what to do with a box. But generally, and I find it more with handler discrimination, where we need to find a way to jumpstart their seeking sense over their retrieving.
Melissa Breau: Are false alerts more common when training handler scent discrimination, especially since so often we’re probably training in a “usual” training environment where maybe handler scent is all over?
Julie Symons: I thought that was the case from training at home. I did find when I went outside into the fresh air and I was doing exteriors with this little, tiny cotton ball, I was amazed at how well the dogs did. I think the airflow probably helped, and maybe being outside of where I live. But I never had my dog truly false. They would false where I had placed the hide just before it, since I’m lingering handler scent.
I think false alerts are comparable across the two, and I would say if you’re not prepared for handler discrimination, but you’re a nosework dog and you enter a trial too soon and the dog sees these boxes out, which contextually for years has meant oil, and you send your dog out there and they’re thinking, I’m looking for oil, and they just aren’t clear that it’s your handler scent, and they might false because they can’t find anything. And then there is a judge’s scent there, and I do think sometimes they false for the other handler’s scent, if that’s not thoroughly trained, because it’s sometimes hard to get access to other people scenting socks for you.
But in general I’m going to switch the other way and say in nosework oil work we do containers for the rest of the dogs’ lives, and in handler discrimination for AKC you only do containers for Novice and then you’re out of there. You get three legs in Novice, and it’s like everybody has a party because we want to get out of the boxes with our socks, and we get into interior searches and we get that scent outside of a box. Whereas in nosework oil searches, you have container searches in every level, and I do believe containers have the highest false alert rate, and because boxes become such a context of being reinforced, so dogs who are nervous or unsure, or if there are distractors, they do tend to false on containers. So I think it’s comparably they have the risk of false alerts.
Melissa Breau: I know the class discusses both UKC and AKC. I was curious what some of the differences are in the different venues.
Julie Symons: UKC only does HD in a box, so they never move to scent outside a box, and in Novice it’s only your scent. There’s no discrimination with the judges having a scent out there. Another thing that’s different with UKC, actually similar to SDDA in Canada, is you have to indicate your dog’s alert behavior. In UKC you also have to say what your search command is, how you’re going to cue your dog to search, and that might be how they start, maybe they start the timer, I’m not sure.
In the Novice class they don’t judge that part, but you still have to provide it. When you get into Advanced and Excellent, they are going to judge you on that you used the search command you said that you do, and that your dog alerted in the way in that you expect to call it.
Those other search levels, though, every box has a discrimination scent, so in Advanced, the judge puts a scented glove of theirs in eleven of the boxes and yours is the hot in the twelfth. In the Advanced level, each of the competitors that are there with you provide their scented sock, and they’re all out there when you search. So everyone else’s sock is out there, and they must group them by groups of twelve or whatever.
I haven’t trialed in UKC, there’s just none in my area. So it’s kind of neat that that’s a little different. But then that ends there. They don’t search for this outside the box.
Melissa Breau: That’s all super-interesting. I’ve got one last question, though, here for you, and it’s a little bit different. It’s a new question that I’m asking returning guests each time they’re on the podcast, because hopefully it’s a question that you can actually answer more than once and have a different answer. My question is, what’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Julie Symons: I thought about this, and because I’m now training more locally, and I have either returned to sports I used to train or I’m extending into some other areas, is that dog training is dog training, and no matter what sport you do, or if it’s a pet class or a puppy class, you have the same foundation skills. You need the same skills and concepts as your foundation. So many of them apply to other sports.
I always knew that, but since I started delivering the curriculum and talking to different groups of people that are coming in with different goals, I’m teaching the same thing. I’m teaching the same thing to them as a foundation. That was something that I very recently was reminded of — how it’s not really that different what you need across the different sports, and even for a pet dog, but it’s acclimating, it’s your mechanics, it’s building your dog’s motivators, it’s having good cue control. All of those things are common across all of the sports.
Melissa Breau: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Julie!
Julie Symons: You’re welcome. I enjoyed it.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Donna Hill to talk about owner handler trained service dogs and teaching a recall.
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