E116: Stacy Barnett - The Building Blocks of Nosework

 What skills does it take to compete in nosework other than identifying odor? Whether looking to start a puppy or build confidence in an older dog, there are skills your dog needs beyond finding odor... and Stacy and I talk about exactly that in this episode. 


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.

Hi Stacy, welcome to the podcast.

Stacy Barnett: Hey Melissa. I'm really glad to be here.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just remind listeners who the dogs are that you share your life with?

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, absolutely. I have four dogs. I have two Labradors. I have a 9-and-a-half-year-old Lab, Judd; Judd's kind of my heart and soul. And then I have a 2-year-old Lab, that's Brava, an 11-and-a-half-year-old Standard Poodle, and an 8-year-old miniature American Shepherd. And there is a 4-week-old puppy with my name on it, so it looks like I'm going to five. That name hasn't been announced yet, but I'm really excited. Really, really excited.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited for you. That's a big deal.

Stacy Barnett: Oh my god, yes. Oh my god.

Melissa Breau: We decided to chat today because I saw your blog post on nosework for the sensitive dog and it caught my interest. I think the post was inspired by your new class, Building Blocks of Nosework. If I understand the premise right, the idea of the class is to introduce the skills and concepts needed for nosework outside of training odor itself. Is that right?

Stacy Barnett: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. There's really so much in nosework that goes beyond odor. The concept — we go into scent theory, we go into reading your dog, we go into handling, we go into managing arousal, building startlines, setting up routines for your dog, getting them acclimated to new environments. We cover all of that.

Melissa Breau: Is that what you mean by skills and concepts? Those other pieces that are involved in trialing?

Stacy Barnett: Kind of, yeah. Those are more like the large pieces, but what we're really talking about from a nosework perspective is the dog has to feel comfortable searching. They have to put themselves out there a little bit.

So the class itself — we use hunting for food in this class. We don't actually put the dogs on odor. What we're trying to do is take the pressure off of the dog by just letting them hunt for the food, and what that's doing is it's building confidence, because that confidence is going to be necessary when or if the dog ever actually goes into competition. Because in competition the dog has to be able to get to the startline and then search an area that they've never actually seen. So a lot of these concepts we're building a lot of foundations that have absolutely nothing to do with the odor itself, and just making sure that the dog is comfortable in new environments, making sure that the dog is starting to build that hunt drive and really feel comfortable putting themselves out there.

I go a lot into routine. Routine is incredibly important for a lot of dogs, especially very sensitive dogs, because routine reduces anxiety. It establishes something common and constant for the dogs to be able to rely upon. So when they have that routine, and if you can establish that routine very early on, you're going to reduce stress later on, which is major when you're talking trialing a more sensitive dog.

The act of actually putting a dog on odor is a little bit of a smaller part and it's not all that complicated. It's a lot of fun. When we put the dog on odor, we want to have an engaged learner. What I mean by that is we need a dog that feels comfortable in the environment and comfortable doing the work and comfortable making choices. Sometimes dogs just don't have that level of comfort, and this class is very much targeted at developing that degree of comfort, so that at the end of class the dog hopefully is in a position where we can then put them on odor and start the skills aspect of it.

So that's really what we're covering. We do a lot of acclimation, and we have an acclimation approach. Part of the class is literally going to new places and acclimating in a very smart, structured way. There's that in addition to searching for food.

Melissa Breau: I know there's a bit of controversy around starting dogs by having them find food versus starting them by imprinting directly on scent. You mentioned that in the class you're having them search for food. Can you talk about that? Why and how does it carry over to the approach FDSA uses for teaching nosework?

Stacy Barnett: Absolutely. The thing is that at FDSA, you know, we're all about making sure that we have a happy and engaged dog when we train them. We're really about how do we get the dog to that point. And we're all about making sure that our dogs are confident and motivated and engaged. Really, this is no different. Honestly, these are just games, and this is just getting the dog out and getting comfortable seeking out something. It engages a seeking system in the brain, and it soothes the dog, which is really fantastic.

It works very well with our program, because once the dogs come out of this, and once the dogs and the handlers come out of class, the handlers have an idea of what their dog looks like when they're in odor, the handler has an idea how to handle a little bit, the handler also can understand what arousal state the dog needs to be in.

Basically they're primed for being able to go into the next class, which is our NW101 class, which is where we go when we start to layer in the skills. It works very, very well together. I taught this class back in December and we had excellent feedback. People really loved it, and dogs do beautifully moving from one class into the next, and it was rather seamless.

Melissa Breau: My understanding of what it sounds like you've talked through so far is that you're establishing a game that you can use to teach the skills surrounding nosework before your dog really knows the actual nosework game — stuff like working in a new environment, creating a startline procedure. Am I understanding it right?

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, you are, because we're really getting the dog out there and seeking something that it wants. If we take, for instance, a sensitive dog or a nervous dog, and let's say we put them on odor, and that dog is still sensitive and nervous, and we ask the dog to search, what happens is the dog gets to odor and then there's almost like a performance expectation where the dog has to communicate the presence of odor in order to get the cookie. Sometimes, for some of these dogs, that's a whole lot of pressure.

What we're doing is we're using these games to basically the dog doesn't have any of that pressure. The dog is just out there to get that cookie. So all of that pressure is reduced, and then we're able to build the dog's confidence and motivation prior to actually putting them on odor. This is absolutely important for some of the soft and sensitive dogs because odor itself is so core to the emotions of the dog that it can really get these dogs who are a little bit more insecure. We can help them using these games so that they can be that confident dog going forward, they can be that engaged learner going forward.

These are games I play even with my own dogs. All my own dogs are all seasoned nosework dogs and I'll sometimes play with them. I use cheese balls. I love cheese balls. Dogs love them, I love them, and I'll take a handful of cheese balls and I'll just toss them out there and let them search for the cheese balls. And honestly, it's just fun. It's just a fun thing. So they're just games to help the dog and to really help the dog emotionally. That's what it's all about. It's just really helping the emotions of the dog.

Melissa Breau: It sounds like it's about almost building a CER — conditioned emotional response — for the pieces of nosework that aren't necessarily odor-related.

Stacy Barnett: Exactly. Exactly. That's it exactly, because there's so much to it that it's not all about the birch, anise, or clove. It's really getting the dog out there seeking, and seeking out something that it wants, and if we can establish a good feeling about doing that, then we can get the dog comfortable in new environments. Once we introduce the odor, introducing the odor is the easy part, and then at that point the dog is able to leverage a lot of those good feelings that it already feels in other ways.

The thing is, not all dogs need to do this. That's the other thing I want to mention. We were talking about searching with food and everything. This is all about building that confidence and that motivation, and some dogs just don't come to the table naturally with that.

Brava, my puppy — well, puppy … she's 2 years old — she came with confidence and motivation out the ears. She just exudes confidence and motivation. So honestly, it was so easy — you just put her on odor, and boom, you have a nosework dog. Well, it was not that easy. There was a little bit of training in there.

A lot of times you have dogs that just don't come ready, like, "Hey, just give me odor, I'm going to go out and seek it." A lot of times, dogs have to develop that. And then you have some dogs that might have confidence issues, like insecure dogs. You also can have dogs that maybe don't have a lot of natural hunt drive, and that's natural too. These dogs are domesticated. It doesn't mean they have a natural hunt drive to go out there and look for something. By doing these searching-for-food games — and again, this is separate from nosework in some ways; well, very separate from searching for target odor, anyway, because you can play these games with any dog — it stimulates that hunt drive that's deep down inside the dog, and bringing that out in the dog, which is very pleasurable for the dogs.

This is actually a very fun thing for these dogs to do, and whether or not you even want to put your dog on odor, this is good for any dog. It's great, because I'm saying, "Go into nosework after this," but you don't have to. You can just play the games and they're confidence-building for any dog you have, whether you have a new dog, you have a puppy, you have an older dog, you have a dog that's maybe sitting on the couch and not doing anything and may be kind of bored, and you just want to do something that's fun, and it's not going to cost you any money other than entering a class, just go out there and it's enrichment. That's really what this is about.

But we give — in this class at least — we give the student a lot more tools than just going out and hunting for food. It's not just about, "Oh, we're going to have you look for food." It's all about establishing all those other pieces that if you want to move on into competition, you're going to need these pieces, and it's especially important for these sensitive dogs.

Why, my miniature American Shepherd, he's an extraordinarily sensitive dog, and it's taken quite a few years, he just now recently got his NW2. When I started with nosework with him, and I trained him a lot at home, he was doing beautifully. He was doing all kinds of converging odor and stuff in the house, and he was amazing. I'd take him outside and he couldn't even search three boxes away from home, so we had to move from that to the point where he got his NW2 just recently — in which he was overall pronounced, I have to say that, I'm really proud of him — we had to get through that. And a lot of through that journey, there's a whole lot there that he's taught me in terms of handling a low-confidence dog, and I think honestly there's a whole lot that can be done even before you put the dog on odor, just to help the dog develop some of these … even the routine.

Routine is so important. I can't even stress that enough. When Why goes to a trial, everything is routine, from when I pull into the trial site, to what I do getting him out of the car, all the way to how I bring him back to the van, when I do my party with him. Everything is routine.

These are some of the things I want to be able to talk about in this class, just to give people the tools they need so they can take a dog who may not have a natural level of confidence or motivation and be able to turn that dog into a successful nosework dog, if that's what they want to do, and go out there and enjoy this tremendous sport with the dog. I promise you what you will find is that your dog will blossom. I have never seen Why so happy as when he's done with the search and he knows he's found all the hides and he's so excited. He gets these happy ears on; they turn backwards and they're like these really happy ears, it's really cute. And then we go back into the van and he has his party and it's just amazing.

I guess that's what I want to do. I want to share that with people who might have … there's a lot of insecure dogs out there, there's a lot of dogs that are sensitive, a lot of dogs that are shy. I want to share the sport with them, and I want people to see why the sport is so amazing and why the sport is growing so rapidly. It really is an amazing thing for dogs.

I know we've gone off script a little bit, but I felt like I had to say that. I'm just so passionate about this and I want to help those dogs. There's so much that we can do for the dogs even before we put them on odor. There are so many different ways for getting a dog in nosework, and they all work, but I think what's important is that you decide what your dog is about and you follow the path that you need to for your dog, for your individual dog, and what they need. What this class actually does is it provides an option for students who have those dogs that need a little bit more confidence-building and really need a little bit more care in setting them up for success, and that's what this class is about.

Melissa Breau: This class just makes so much sense with all of the other things that I know that you teach and are passionate about, because I know you talk a lot about being in the right arousal state, and all of those pieces when it comes to competing, and it seems like it pulls out that piece of the competition and takes, "Yes, you can teach your dog how to identify odor in a known environment," but it takes and pulls that out and generalizes all the other things around it so that the dog has an easier time doing that piece and finding the odor because then they're in the right brain space, they understand the expectations, they know their startline routine, they have all those other pieces in place.

Stacy Barnett: Yes. Yes. Big yes. Yeah, that's it exactly. That's it exactly. And that's why I'm so excited about this. Yes.

Melissa Breau: Big yes. Nosework, I feel, is reaching that point where it's no longer up-and-coming, it's there, but for a long time it was an up-and-coming sport, and in the past I think a lot of people probably got into nosework with a dog they had originally gotten for a different sport, or a retired dog, or a dog who didn't have the confidence to do obedience, or what have you. That dog at least had some training experience under their belt, they maybe even had some trialing experience under their belt, so maybe those other pieces, they knew that, but it seems more and more people are getting dogs with nosework in mind as their first sport or only sport or primary sport. Do you think these skills are more important today than when the sport was just getting started because people are doing that, their dogs don't have those other skills from those other sports?

Stacy Barnett: I don't know, because honestly I think people come to nosework from two different directions. You do have a huge amount of people coming in from other sports, and coming in because maybe they have the older agility dog, or their dog can't jump anymore, or they're looking for something else for their dog, or maybe in some cases their dog is injured and either they can't do the sport that they want to anymore, or they need something to do during the layup period. And then they get hooked, and then they start putting all their other dogs into nosework because they find out how fun this is.

Then you have a whole other set of people that come in and nosework is their gateway sport. It's their first sport that they do with dog sports. There's a huge amount of people that come in also from that side. They're people who maybe have never done dog sports before, so they might not necessarily know what goes into what's necessary to prepare a dog to trial.

There's so much more to that than just finding a hide. I talk to people a lot about actually finding the hide is the least important part of a nosework trial, which sounds really funny. If you get all these other things in place, and you bring your dog, who's engaged and focused, to the line, you're going to find the hide. You don't have to worry about finding the hide. The finding the hide should be the least of your worries. It's all the other stuff.

I don't know if that's actually changed over time, or honestly I think the nosework folks have become a lot more sophisticated recently. You're seeing a lot more cutting-edge — I don't know if it's cutting-edge — or more progressive types of thoughts coming into training and everything. I don't know if the skills are more important now or if we're just focusing on them more. Maybe it's just becoming more obvious to us. Maybe it's more that than whether or not it's more important. But we do see there's a huge growth, it's going through a huge growth.

I'm actually in Europe right now and I'm teaching over here for about four weeks out in Scandinavia. Nosework is a lot newer here, so it's really cool to see people going through the same process that we did in the U.S. But at the same time you're still seeing the same type of evolution. In the U.S. it's growing rapidly with the addition of AKC scentwork. We have a lot more people coming into the sport that may not have gotten into the sport to begin with, and there's a lot more opportunities for trialing. It's just exploding, different organizations. You can trial every weekend, if you want, just going to different organizations. We used to be limited by the amount of trials that were available, and waitlists, and everything. There's still waitlists and everything for some venues, but we're not currently limited to that anymore, and the sport is exploding. So I don't know if you're seeing a difference in demographics or if you're just seeing the fact that there's just more people out there.

And so this class speaks to a lot of the dog folks that may … especially the people coming in, maybe this is their gateway sport. Maybe they had a dog that didn't need as much preparation for trialing in terms of getting the dog confident and motivated, helping understanding arousal, understanding routine, understanding startlines, understanding all of that stuff, because it's so much more than what harness the dog is wearing. Sometimes people think, Oh, if I put on my nosework harness, my dog knows exactly what they're doing. Well, sort of. They're like, OK, they get the idea, but it's more the physical routine that you go through, and the setting them up on the startline, and your body position, and your voice — everything. All of this comes together into a total contextual cue for the dog to start to get into the mindset for searching. And that's what we're talking about, and that part is cool. I actually love working on that part of it with people.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned competing in different venues different weekends. Are the rules between the different venues, not as nosework, as a person who doesn't do nosework, are they similar enough that you can have taught your dog the sport and then go compete in all the different things?

Stacy Barnett: Basically. What you're going to find is some of the venues have different games, like the smaller venues might have different games that are really fun to play. You just have to learn the rules. But most of the venues, at least in the U.S., use the same odors, at least in the beginning, and honestly, even if they don't use the same odors … for instance, I go to Canada and I compete in Canada and it's a lot of fun. Their rules are a little bit different, but honestly, nosework is nosework, so all I have to do is get my dogs on different odors, which honestly is very easy. So I have the opportunity, I go to Canada, I go all over the U.S., I compete. I've had to limit my venues that I compete in just because I don't have time to compete in all of them.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough.

Stacy Barnett: So I usually do SDTA in Canada and I do NACSW and AKC and that's where I limit myself only out of time, but if I had unlimited time, I mean for trialing and all that kind of stuff, if I had unlimited time and funds, you could do it every weekend, if you wanted to, which is new. We didn't always have that opportunity in nosework.

But yeah, if your dog knows how to search, you need to get him on odor and you can go to all these different venues. Just be sure you read the rules, because the rules may be a little bit different. I'm serious — there are some substantive rules, rule differences, but the basic act of searching is the same, and most of the odors are actually the same, so it's no big deal.

Melissa Breau: To shift gears a little bit and go back to talking about the class for a minute, you mentioned sensitive dogs, but we didn't talk a whole lot about puppies specifically, so is everything in the class safe or appropriate even for a puppy or a really young dog?

Stacy Barnett: Absolutely, absolutely. And honestly this class is super-geared for puppies. Some puppies … Brava, my 2-year-old, came out of the womb confident and motivated. She was ready to do nosework from the time I brought her home. But a lot of puppies may be a little bit more tentative, and this is a great class to get puppies out exploring and seeking out their environment. It's a wonderful enrichment for them.

It's very safe and we use our food and we're not exposing them to anything that's scary, which is very important, especially if you have a young dog who might be going through some fear periods or something like that. It's perfectly appropriate for that. As a matter of fact, if your dog is already on odor and your dog goes into a fear period, you might switch off of odor and go to searching for food for a little while, and go back on odor after the fear period is over. Just a thought. It's definitely perfect for puppies and young adults.

Melissa Breau: The blog post I mentioned in the beginning — and I know we've talked a little about sensitive dogs throughout — I want to go back to that for a minute. I know you're a huge believer in nosework in general to build confidence in dogs. We've talked a little bit already about how this class helps with that, but can you get into that a little more? How do the games in this class really build confidence and why is it such a good fit for a more sensitive dog?

Stacy Barnett: One of the great things about it is you get to do it at home because it's an online class, and your dog is most comfortable at home. Your dog doesn't have to go into a new classroom environment, have to deal with other dogs, have to deal with dogs barking, or anything like that, which is really nice. So you're able to get the dog engaged in their seeking system, which is the part of the brain … it's very soothing for the dog. It actually lowers the dog's anxiety.

The games get the dog … in the home they can start looking for food. Like I said, I use cheese balls a lot. I like them because partially they're visible, so they get the dog understanding what's out there, and they're kind of smelly, so you can hide them in places. They can seek those out and everything. But the dog starts to engage with their environment, which is perfect.

At the same time, we teach the handlers, especially if they have those insecure or less-confident dogs, how to take their dog into a new environment, because it's not about just taking them out there and trying to set a hide or asking them to search. A lot of times I do a lot of acclimation with folks, and this class has a lot of acclimation in it where we have the person go to the environment. They're not searching. They're just doing acclimation in a very systematic way so that the dog can understand that the environment is OK. We do it in very small pieces, so we're not taking the dog out for a long walk or something like that. We're literally just letting the dog get used to the environment.

And then, when the dog is getting into the point where that becomes a little bit more routine, then we start to introduce searching for food in those environments after the acclimation has happened. By doing that, we are separating out the acclimation from the search, which is really important, because a lot of times I see new teams who might not have done a lot of the trial preparation that you need come to the search, and instead of the dog leaving the startline and searching out odor immediately, they're sniffing the ground and wandering around, and what they're doing is actually acclimating to the area. They're not searching yet, because sniffing doesn't necessarily mean searching. Sniffing is sniffing, searching is searching; they're two different things. So the dog comes in and they acclimate and potentially they get into searching and they may or may not find the hide.

So by doing this approach that we're talking about, and doing the acclimation ahead of time, we're separating the acclimation from the search. What happens is the dog learns how to acclimate, and the dog gets into a habit of once you get on a startline — we get into startlines soon — once you get on a startline, you go immediately into searching. That way we get into the habit of going immediately into searching, rather than the habit of acclimating in the area after they leave the startline.

Melissa Breau: If we have somebody who is listening and who is interested, but they're maybe feeling a little impatient and June 1 is still a few days off … actually this will go up on Friday, so June 1 will be the next day or so, so they won't have very long to wait, but can you talk us through a game or an example of a skill they can practice right after hearing this, while they're waiting for class to start?

Stacy Barnett: Totally, totally. What you can do is … I use bowls, by the way. I don't use cardboard boxes. I know a lot of people use cardboard boxes with food, but I use plastic bowls — I was talking to somebody today who uses plastic baskets — because I don't want the dog to start to interact with cardboard in a negative … not a negative manner, but I'm talking, like, an active manner, because later on we don't want to worry about box smashing. So you can use a plastic bowl or something. Just make sure it's not glass. Plastic is best, like a Tupperware.

What you do is you can put a treat in the bowl and put that bowl out ahead so your dog sees it. Your dog is going to visually lock on that and start to realize, and if you release your dog from a position — you can call it the startline; it's not really a startline yet — but if you release your dog, they're going to go to the bowl and eat the cookie. Then what you can do is you can start moving that bowl around so that they start looking for the bowl. That's one game that you can start.

We have a number of games and they kind of go in order, but that's one you can start so that they're starting to look for that bowl and that bowl is going to be the contextual cue that there's going to be a cookie in there. You can move that bowl around the room a little bit, maybe put it behind a chair, or put it behind a box, something like that, or behind the coffee table or something. Just try not to make it too terribly difficult, especially in the beginning.

You're going to find that the dog is going to start to use their nose to start. They're also going to use their eyes, by the way, because dogs search with their nose and their eyes, dogs do. It's not just their noses. So they're going to use their eyes initially, but at that point we also start to wean them off of the bowl, where they're just looking for the cookie. But this is a good way to just get them started out and looking for the food.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. So I've got one last question here, and it's the question I've taken to asking everyone at the end of the podcast. What's a lesson that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Stacy Barnett: You know, I really think there's so many lessons, and I think the biggest one recently that I've been noticing — and again, I've been working with a lot of teams just recently — the emotions of the dog. It is so critical, and training for the emotions of the dog, and thinking about what you're training and what the dog is emotionally capable of giving you. I think that is absolutely huge because you need a dog that is capable of giving you what you're looking for. I think sometimes we have a criteria that we're trying to get to, and maybe the dog's not emotionally ready to give that to us.

So watching the dog. You don't want a dog that's frustrated, you don't want a dog that's feeling anxiety, so just paying attention to your dog's emotional needs and modifying your training plan according to those emotional needs is really, really important.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Stacy!

Stacy Barnett: Thank you so much. I've really enjoyed this, and I'm so glad that we got to do this, and I hope everybody enjoyed the podcast, so thank you so much.

Melissa Breau: I'm glad we got to work it out, too. With you being over there, the time difference is pretty severe.

Stacy Barnett: It's quarter of midnight right now.

Melissa Breau: Dedication, lady.

Stacy Barnett: I'm telling ya! It's OK, I've got another day of coaching tomorrow, and then I'm off to Norway, so it's pretty exciting. It's pretty cool. I love this stuff.

Melissa Breau: Well, thanks again, and safe travels.

Stacy Barnett: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week, this time with Loretta Mueller to talk about how to improve your timing in training. [Editor's Note: It'll actually be Denise next week!]

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Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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