Stacy Barnett is an active competitor in Nosework, Tracking, Obedience, Rally, Agility and Barn Hunt, but Scent Sports are her primary focus and her first love. She is an AKC Judge and contractor, as well as an instructor at FDSA.
She hosts the Scentsabilities podcast and blogs regularly on nosework topics at www.scentsabilitiesnw.com.
To be released 10/12/2018, an interview with Nancy Gagliardi Little on agility startlines and obedience.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we’ll be talking to Stacy Barnett.
Stacy is an active competitor in Nosework, Tracking, Obedience, Rally, Agility and Barn Hunt, but Scent Sports are her primary focus and her first love. She is an AKC Judge and contractor, as well as an instructor at FDSA. She hosts the Scentsabilities podcast and blogs regularly on nosework topics at www.scentsabilitiesnw.com — nw is for nosework. I’ll be sure to include a link in the show notes for anybody who is interested.
Hi Stacy, welcome back to the podcast.
Stacy Barnett: Hi Melissa. How are you?
Melissa Breau: Good. I’m excited to chat. It’s morning for us now, so good morning.
Stacy Barnett: Oh, I don’t even know what time it is. I flew in from Reno last night, and I was in Sweden right before that, so my body’s very confused. So if you tell me it’s morning, I’ll just believe you. I’ve got a little bit of jetlag going on.
Melissa Breau: All different sorts of time zones.
Stacy Barnett: Yes.
Melissa Breau: To get us started, do you want to just remind listeners a little bit about who the dogs are that you share your life with?
Stacy Barnett: Sure, sure. I’ve got four hooligans that live in my house and that I love and that I work with. Joey is my senior poodle. He is turning 11, I think this week. He’s at the NW 3 level, which is the third level. Then I have a 7-year-old miniature American Shepherd, or mini Aussie. He’s at the NW 2 level. Then I have two Labradors. They’re my primary nosework competition dogs. I have Judd. Judd is my 9-year-old. He is a Summit title holder, which puts him at the top of his sport. It’s really, really exciting. That happened recently. And an 18-month-old Labrador female named Brava. She’s full of vinegar. Really, really a fun dog, high, high drive, and she’s really teaching me a lot about arousal.
Melissa Breau: I want to do a deep dive on nosework today — starting with some of the science-y stuff. What is it about a dog, biologically, that really allows them to excel when it comes to identifying a scent and then tracking it to the source?
Stacy Barnett: I love the science behind this. This is probably one of the reasons why I love nosework so much is I’m a little bit of a geek and I have a scientific background. But what I love about this is that there’s a lot of history here.
Dogs evolved from wolves. Wolves, if you think about it, have to travel long distances in order to find their prey. They go over miles and miles and miles and miles to find that large prey, and to do that, they have to use their noses, and they have to be able to track, and they have to be able to hunt.
Dogs have inherited that ability, and if you look at them from a biological perspective, they all have that ability. Twelve-and-a-half percent of their brain is dedicated to olfaction, so the olfactory lobe is 12-and-a-half percent, it’s one-eighth of their brain.
The other part of it is that the nose itself. They have the ability to scent directionally. You and I have the ability to hear directionally, so if I’m standing in front of you, you know I’m standing in front of you, because we have space between our ears, and this space is what allows us to hear in stereo. Dogs can smell in stereo because they have space between their nostrils. It has to do with what they call aerodynamic reach. The difference between the space in the nostrils and aerodynamic reach, it’s kind of technical, but it’s one of the reasons why they can scent directionally. Every breed can do this. Every breed, from a Chihuahua up to a Great Dane, it doesn’t matter how big or small their nose is, they still have that space between their nostrils.
So there’s that, and they also have the ability, when they sniff in and they blow out, they have these slits on the side of their nose, so the air blows out of the side of their nose, and it doesn’t disturb the scent that’s being pulled in in the next sniff. It’s fascinating.
Melissa Breau: It is pretty neat, especially thinking about the directional piece of it. I imagine it plays such a big role when you’re doing something like scentwork.
Stacy Barnett: Oh, totally. Totally.
Melissa Breau: Obviously, our noses can’t even come close … so when we’re teaching a dog nosework, once a team is past the basics, what factors influence the difficulty of that search?
Stacy Barnett: There’s so many factors. Airflow is a big part of it. From an airflow perspective, airflow is caused by air pressure differentials, which means that there’s differences in air pressure. Air will move from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area, so that causes air to flow.
Air also moves because of temperature differentials. We all know hot air rises and cool air falls, so if you get an area that’s more in the sun, the air is going to rise and it’s going to fall in a shady area. So there’s that.
You also have the aspect of how long the hides have been in the area. We call that aging. That is basically, because of the process of diffusion, the longer the hide is aged, the larger the scent cone is going to be. What you’re going to find is that it also depends on how many hides you have and what proximity those hides are to each other, and if you have high hides, if you have low hides, and how the hides interact, because it becomes exponentially more difficult when you have more than one hide out.
The other thing is if you have a change in slope, so if you’re scenting and you’re on a slope, that can make a big difference. Standing water, moisture, rain, really the possibilities are endless, and it’s one of the coolest things about this sport, because every time you go to do a search, it’s different. You can never duplicate the same search. It’s always different, it’s always cool, it’s always fresh. It’s always fun.
Melissa Breau: I want to talk about some of that terminology for a minute — can you just talk us through that? I know you mentioned airflow and aging and scent cones. Can you define what some of those things are, if people are new to this?
Stacy Barnett: Think about a scent cone. We call it a scent cone. People often think in their head, they think of an ice cream cone, but it’s really not that accurate. The scent cone is the plume of odor that we can’t see, but it’s out there because the odor has diffused, or the molecules have left the source, and it becomes like a plume in the air that the dog is following.
A scent cone looks like, if you look at a smokestack, and with a smokestack you can kind of see the plume and it goes in the direction that the air is flowing. So if the wind is going from north to south, your plume is going to go from north to south. That’s going to be more what a scent cone actually looks like.
If you think about it, when you have less airflow, it’s not quite as windy, your scent cone is going to be a little bit wider, and when you get a windy condition, you get a narrow scent cone, which is more like if you had a water hose and you were to put it on high pressure. So that scent cone is going to go farther and it’s going to be narrower, so where the dog intersects is going to be different.
Aging has to do with … we call it aging, and it’s essentially how long the hide has been out and sitting out, because it changes how the dog has to work the hide.
Then we have things like pooling odor. Pooling odor is, if you think about a pool of water, that’s exactly what happens. That odor pools in an area and it collects in an area. That’s a lot of fun too.
Melissa Breau: Since we can’t “see” scent, and obviously we don’t smell it, how do we really know all this about the way that scents travel? How do we know what we know?
Stacy Barnett: We call it scent theory, and we call it scent theory for a reason: because it’s theory. My own background is I have a chemical engineering degree. I pull from my understanding of fluid flow dynamics in order to really understand odor.
Air is just another fluid. It’s a gas, but gas is just a fluid in a different state. It all follows fluid flow mechanics. But I think the easiest way to think about it is to think about water. If you think about how water flows, like water in a stream, you can understand turbulence, there’s eddies, all these things happen with air. You get turbulence, you get eddies, because when water hits a rock in a stream, you get the turbulence before and after the rock. The same thing happens with air. So if we can understand how air flows, we know how the odor is carried on that air.
Again, it’s theory, but I think we have a pretty good grasp of it. I like to think about that, or think about a smokestack or something like that, to give a visual, because if we can understand a visual, we can start to figure out what it’s actually doing. We can’t smell it the way that the dogs can smell it, but if we can have a visual, I think it helps us.
Melissa Breau: Thinking through that for a minute, if there are multiple hides in a room, and you get multiple scent cones, and some of those maybe even overlap … how do you begin to teach the dog this idea that there are multiple hides, and OK, they found one, they need to go find another one. I feel like that’s a complex concept, and maybe they even have to return to where they started in order to trace it to source.
Stacy Barnett: That is all about converging odor. That’s what we call it, where you have different scent cones and the scent cones overlap. It’s very complicated for the dog to find it, but they’re absolutely capable of doing this.
What I usually do is I start with the hides fairly far apart, and then I start to set a situation up where the scent cones start to overlap. But what’s hard is that the dog has to … oh, and when they go from one hide and to help them move to another, you can actually help move with your body. And I cue them with a word. I say, “Find another.” “Find another” means “That hide is done, it’s finished, let’s go find another hide.” And the body motion helps to move the dog into a new area, because they’re going to follow your body motion. So that really helps.
You also have to start realizing dogs are hardwired for “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” So they’re going to be hardwired to ignore another hide for the hide that they’re already at, so you have to start to figure out your reward schedules and whether or not you’re going to re-feed at that hide if they come back to it.
What’s easy in the beginning is to work the dog on leash, so that you can use the leash to help them stay, to not return to the original hide. From a re-feeding perspective, I do always re-feed the hide if the dog has confidence or motivation issues or if the dog is very green. Once I know the dog is confident and motivated and the dog is not as green, I start not re-feeding the hide because I want them to know that that hide is finished and they have to find the next one.
Melissa Breau: I think it’s an interesting process where you don’t want to erode your confidence, so sometimes you do want to reward them for finding it, but it definitely depends on the dog and the experience level. That makes sense.
Stacy Barnett: And sometimes the dog actually has to go back to that hide in order to find the next hide because of the way that the scent cones overlap. They can get information at that hide, and we call it anchoring. So they can go back to that hide and they can say, “Oh wow, there’s another scent cone,” and they can go from that hide to the next hide by getting the information for the second hide at the first hide.
Melissa Breau: When there is something pooling odor, or the scent cones intersect, how are you building those things gradually? I know you mentioned usually you start with two hides far apart and you move them closer together. What are some of the other things you do to build those skills gradually and set the dog up for success?
Stacy Barnett: It’s all about hide placement, because if you have two hides, and you have two difficult hides, that’s going to be a lot harder than if you have two easy hides. So I like to do things systematically, especially when I teach converging odor.
And pooling odor, if you add pooling odor with converging odor, that’s really challenging. So I try to avoid the pooling odor aspect when I’m introducing converging odor, and when I’m doing converging odor I try to be very systematic so that the dog understands how to solve these problems.
I want to keep it simple in the beginning and not make it terribly complex, so I make sure that the dog understands and learns how to source different permutations of accessible hides, inaccessible hides, elevated hides, low hides, two hides, three hides. I try to get very systematic about it.
Melissa Breau: I know confidence is a really big piece of what you do and what you train for, so I’d love to talk about that in trialing a little bit. When trialing and you have a dog who isn’t super confident, how can you tell when it’s just that they’re working something that’s more complex versus when they are struggling because of stress or because of a lack of confidence?
Stacy Barnett: You really need to pay attention to your dog. You have to look for the dog’s enthusiasm level, and you have to really look for the stress signals that they’re giving you.
If you look at the enthusiasm level, if the enthusiasm stays up, then they’re not stressed out and they can continue to work. But if you start seeing waning enthusiasm, or the dog is starting to check out, or the dog starts getting distracted, or the dog starts sniffing the ground, or the dog scratches or shakes off, these can be different indications that maybe the dog is a little frustrated or a little confused, and both frustration and confusion can help to lower confidence, which is not what we want.
We want to try to work the dog in a state where they’re not confused and they’re not frustrated, so that they can build up their own self-confidence and their own skill set, and ultimately they’ll be more successful and you’ll be able to keep their focus a little bit more.
Melissa Breau: If you have a dog that isn’t super confident and you’re in that competition environment, what can you do to make sure you’re supporting them or helping them, and set them up for success even at a trial or in that kind of a situation?
Stacy Barnett: I think you also need to know your dog. Nosework really is a confidence-building skill. However, it’s a confidence-building activity. It doesn’t mean that trialing is confidence-building. So in preparation for that trial, you need to get the dog into a situation that you know they’re prepared going into it.
It’s just like any other sport. We certainly wouldn’t want to take a dog who has just learned how to heel, and all of a sudden take them into an obedience trial, or take a dog that has never run a course before and take them into an agility trial.
Training is really necessary in this sport, and I think sometimes we forget that because the dog has an innate ability to sniff. So generalization is really the key. But if you’re in the moment and your dog is starting to stress a little bit, you have to figure out is it salvageable? Is it a little bit of light stress or is it heavy stress?
If it’s just a little bit of light stress and the dog’s got a little distracted, maybe, I give the dog a cookie. I call it a confidence cookie. What that does is it lowers the arousal of the dog, and then that way the dog’s lowered arousal state allows him to relax a little bit, and then they can usually be successful. And you can feed really at any time during your search.
The other thing, though, if the stress gets to be too high, call it quits. There’s no point in going for the cue. I’ve been in this situation before with Why, my mini Aussie. He’s a very, very stress-y dog. I had a trial just a couple of months ago where I thought he was too stressed and I said to the judge, “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to excuse myself,” and she completely agreed with my thoughts on that. You want to look at the long-term game. It’s not just a short-term cue. That’s the biggest advice I can give on that.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned innate skills in there, and I’m curious: When it comes to something like covering an entire search area and doing it efficiently and quickly, how much of that is innate, how much of that is training, how much is handling? Can you talk us through that piece?
Stacy Barnett: It’s probably balanced in-between innate skills, training, and handling. I think all three are really important.
If you’re talking a really large search area, there is a degree of talent that comes into play, and that has to do with a dog’s natural hunt drive. If you have a dog with a certain degree of hunt drive, they’re going to want to go out there and find that odor.
If you have a dog that doesn’t have that strong of a hunt drive, you have to try to build that a little bit. You can build that through different activities and different motivation games and that sort of thing. So there is definitely an aspect of training.
The other thing is training actually helps the dog to become efficient. It really helps them to connect the dots, although I always try to say our dogs do come to us with a Harvard education in olfaction, but with training they become rocket scientists. They learn how to connect those dots.
The other thing, I also think about it in terms of you know when you learned how to read and you had to sound out your words? You had to sound them out and it was challenging. Your brain is hardwired to be able to read language, but you still had to learn how to do it. And now when you read, you don’t even actually look at the whole word. The brain doesn’t look at the whole word. The brain may look at the beginning and the end and connects the dots and you know exactly what you’re reading. So it’s kind of the same thing with sniffing. So all these different things really come into play.
Handling is a big piece of it because you can help or hinder. You can also help your dog get through a search area. This really becomes super important, especially when your search areas get really big, like at the Elite or Summit level. Handling is huge there. So training, talent, handling — it’s all part of the puzzle.
Melissa Breau: The other piece that I wanted to talk about a little bit was startline routines. I know that that’s something that you talk about a lot, but what are some of the different types of routines or some of the options that people have? How can a handler begin to parse those things and decide which routine they need for their dog?
Stacy Barnett: The key to this is arousal. Arousal is like the secret sauce of nosework. If you can have a good startline, it’s going to predict how good your search is, and if you have the right arousal state, that will predict how good your startline is. So you need to have the right arousal state coming in, and some dogs tend to be on the low arousal side of it and some dogs tend to be on the high arousal.
With Judd, who was slightly to the left of the curve — and we’re talking the Yerkes-Dodson Law — he’s not always in drive. He comes in at a slightly low arousal, or at least he used to, and I conditioned it. But with a slightly low arousal I might use a little opposition reflex on the harness and rev him up a little bit, like “ready, ready, ready, ready.” I might do something like that to help him get into a higher state of arousal.
If you have a dog that is a little on the anxious side, or just your high arousal dog, like Brava, she comes into the search area on her hind legs. She really does. It’s kind of funny, she sashays, it’s cute, and she’s still effective, which is amazing.
So if you have a high arousal dog, you need to lower that arousal. Things like food actually lower arousal. With dogs like that, if you feed on the startline, if they’re not handler-focused, it can get them right where they need to be. There’s different tips and techniques that you can do, but it all comes down to arousal states, so whatever you can do to modify that arousal state to get the dog in drive, that is going to be the key to the success of your search.
Melissa Breau: So I know a lot of this is covered in a lot more detail by some of the nosework classes that are on the schedule at FDSA this term. Do you want to share what you have on the October calendar and what’s covered in which class?
Stacy Barnett: Sure, sure. I’m teaching three classes. I have NW 120, which is Introduction to Nosework Elements. That is a class … it’s a follow on from our Introduction to Odor. We teach the dogs how to search interiors, exteriors, vehicles, containers, although we start containers and interiors in NW 101. We also introduce buried, which is an AKC element. So we introduce that. Then I’m teaching NW 241, which is Nosework Challenges Series 2. That is actually a whole class, soup to nuts, on converging odor. We take converging odor and we start with the preliminary skills and we systematically help the dog learn how to work through converging odor puzzles so that they get from the very, very beginning of converging odor to the elements that are necessary to them to be able to be really effective at solving converging odor.
The last class, which is NW 250, which is NW 3 prep, I’ve actually folded the Path to Elite class, which I was going to teach that in December, I took all that information and I pulled that into NW 250. So NW 250 covers both NW 3 and Elite, and it’s all about how do you prepare for these levels and how to be successful at them. So it’s covering a whole lot this term. I’m really, really excited about it.
Melissa Breau: Lots of different levels. Lots of different students.
Stacy Barnett: Yeah. Yeah.
Melissa Breau: Alright, so my last question — what’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Stacy Barnett: Trust. I wrote a blog on this recently, and I think one of the instructor quotes that came out, my instructor quote was, “Yes, but does your dog trust you?” We always talk about “Trust your dog” in nosework, and I like the term, but in a lot of ways I don’t because it’s so one-sided. It’s so important for the dog to trust the handler. Trust is mutual, and the dog has to be able to trust the handler in order to be able to be self-confident in what they’re doing and in order to have teamwork. Teamwork happens when you have trust between the dog, when it’s not just you trusting the dog, but it’s the dog trusting you.
Melissa Breau: I think that’s a great note to round things out on. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Stacy!
Stacy Barnett: Oh, I’m thrilled to be here. This was a lot of fun. This was a lot of fun, and I’m going to try to still figure out what time it is... This was a blast. Thank you so much Melissa. I really enjoyed it.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week, this time with Nancy Gagliardi Little to talk about the other two big topics in the dog sports world: agility and obedience.
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