Handling Check-In: Composed Excitement
A common goal when training Scent Work is maintaining a level of excitement on the part of the dog. Afterall, they are the ones with the nose! Without them, we cannot play the game at all. This means we need our dogs to be super excited to play the sniffing game!
But what happens when that excitement starts to tip over into, well, insanity?
There is optimal amount of excitement we want our dog to operate in. Too low and their performance will be lackluster. Too high and they can very well miss hides from buzzing around the search area too much or completely exhausting themselves from all the added effort!
How can you obtain this optimal excitement level?
Unfortunately, there is no magic approach that works for all dogs. It all depends on who your dog is and where they land on the scale of excitement normally speaking, outside the realm of Scent Work. These factors will dictate what you may do or try.
For those dogs who are more reserved or less excitable, we want to increase their excitement level. An exercise you can try is where you have an assistant jog out into the search area, noticeably place a single hide out and pair it, almost teasing the dog. All the while, you will be holding your dog back with your hands in front of their chest. Have the assistant jog out of the search area and wait a few seconds until the dog is focused on the search area, even pushing a bit against your hand. Then release them to search. When they successfully find the hide, jackpot them with 3-5 small treats, one right after another, as close to the hide as possible as you are giving them copious amounts of verbal praise (you MUST customize this so it is appropriate for your dog and they find it rewarding). If they are toy-motivated, whip out a special toy that they LOVE and jog out of the search area as they are tugging with you. You can do this same set-up several times.
Essentially, we want to make all elements of the process fun and exciting:
- Focusing on the search area and getting ready to search
- Doing the search itself
- Finding the hide
- Celebrating with the handler after a successful search
If you find that this works for your dog, see which elements you can carry over to your other Scent Work practice sessions or when you can use this "jazz them up exercise" to inject some needed excitement back into the game.
Keep an eye on how you are designing your practice sessions. Offer opportunities for the dog to discover they can indeed work out a problem themselves and then heavily reward them for being correct. Learning they are that capable can ignite an amazing amount of excitement and joy in most dogs.
For those dogs who are overly excitable, you will want to do exact opposite. Instead of getting them MORE excited, we want to reward them for being more focused. This means walking them under control up to the search area. Watch your own breathing. If you are tense and holding your breath, that will further amp your dog. Take a deep breath instead and do small, calm circles with them if necessary until they can walk calmly to the start line. Once there, hold them calmly by their collar or harness and wait until they are focused on the search area without jittering. Remember to breathe during this time! Keep your shoulders away from your ears. Once they are focused, release them to search with your cue word (e.g. "SEARCH") but allow them to go out ahead of you on a long line for a few feet. Using containers in your search area, especially in the beginning, can really help to keep them focused and avoid having them ping pong around. As you progress, you can manipulate the containers to help them be more focused with threshold hides or working a perimeter in a certain direction (e.g. clockwise or counterclockwise) without directing them with your handling.
When these dogs find their hides, watch the tone of your voice and delivery of your treats when you are rewarding them. Keep it calmer but still rewarding. We are looking for calm, not dull. Drawing out your "GGGGOOOOODDDDD DDDDOOOGGGGG" can help. Using jackpots is still a good idea, but waiting a 1/4 of a second in between each treat can help keep them more focused and prevent them from flying off. Again, we want them to be thinking, not frantic.
At the end of your search, using a treat magnet (a treat held in your hand so the dog can nibble at it) to get out of the search area can be super helpful. Once out, invite the dog to do some of their favorite trick behaviors (e.g. spin, high nose touch, etc.). What about toys?! Well, toys increase drive and excitement which can be counterproductive for what we are looking for. You can experiment with it, but if your dog is slipping back into a fully pupil dilated maniac, the toy is probably not a good idea.
With super excitable dogs, the handlers play a big role as does the design of the search area. These dogs can tend to get frustrated easily and further stress up as they cannot work out the problem. This doesn't mean you should shy away from challenging them with odor puzzles, but you will want to be mindful on how you do so.
So, how can you help your dog maintain their ideal level of composed excitement?