E218: Stacy Barnett - Capabilities of a Successful Nosework Dog

Stacy recently designed a new working model to visually represent the various capabilities successful nosework dogs need — and on today's podcast we chat about the pieces, and how they help you get trial ready.


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 I have Stacy Barnett here with me to chat about the key capabilities of a successful nosework dog and getting ready to trial.

Hi Stacy, welcome back to the podcast!

Stacy Barnett: Hi, I'm so glad to be here.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to dive into this stuff with you. To start us out, do you want to remind listeners a little bit about who you are, who your dogs are, and maybe a little bit on your background?

Stacy Barnett: Sure. Believe it or not — I can't believe this — I've been teaching for Fenzi Dog Sports Academy for six years now. It's been since 2015. I really don't know where time has gone. It's been an amazing six years. I was a student with the school since term number two, so I've known Denise since then. I've been a student and then became an instructor and all that good stuff. Nosework is my jam. I love anything doing with scenting and that kind of thing.

My background: I've got a chemical engineering degree, which helps with understanding odor. I do seminars, I do webinars, I do all kinds of good stuff.

I have five dogs ranging in ages from 8 months to 13-and-a-half. It's crazy at my house because I have three young field Labs. I have an 8-month-old, Prize. She's a baby, but she's searching really well so far. I have a 2-year-old, she just turned 2, Powder. She has her NW3 title. I have a 4-year-old, Brava. Brava is also 0a Labrador, and she almost has her Elite 2 title. I have a 13-and-a-half-year-old Standard Poodle, Joey, who has an NW3 title, and a 10-year-old Miniature American Shepherd, Why, who has an NW2 title. And my heart dog, who is still with me in spirit, is Judd. He had three Summit level titles. He was an amazing dog. I tragically lost him about a year-and-a-half ago and I still cry about him.

Those are my dogs. I'm very blessed to have a whole house full of crazy, sniffing, shenanigan creatures.

Melissa Breau: Speaking of sniffing, during your recent FDSA webinar, you debuted this new model for thinking about the key capabilities of a nosework dog. First, why the model? What led you to create a new visual representation of what skills nosework dogs need?

Stacy Barnett: A little bit about my background that I didn't talk about: I spent years in corporate as a management consultant — visuals and PowerPoints and everything. It's how we communicate.

As far as a model goes, I find that it's so hard for people to understand what are we trying to do. It's more than just the dog encounters a hide and finds a hide. There's so much more to developing a really solid nosework dog. What I try to do is organize that in such a way that people can start to understand how the pieces come together so they can see what they need to focus on, aside from the dog just finding the hide.

That's why I put together the model, because I thought it was maybe a good way to organize the information so people can have an understanding of the softer stuff that's more than just encountering odor and finding a hide. This is the type of stuff that helps your dog be a phenomenal dog, versus "Here's a hide. Can I have my cookie?" It's how do you create that really strong nosework dog.

Melissa Breau: It breaks it down into five main areas. Do you want to talk us through them?

Stacy Barnett: Sure. I have this radial diagram in my webinar, I had animations, I got my geek on.

Anyway, we start with independence. This is the dog that can go out, that can seek, that doesn't need the handler to say, "Sniff here, sniff here." It's also the dog that will go out and seek when there's no target odor around. If they're not smelling target odor when they get into the room, they'll still search, and they're able to work without the help of a handler. If they start to work a problem, dogs with independence will continue to work that problem until they complete it, where a dog without independence will start to look to the handler and go, "I don't know where this is. Where do you think it is?"

In nosework, obviously you don't know where the hide is, as a handler in trialing, so a dog that refers to us and says, "I don't know; what do you think?" it's going to be very challenging in order to try to complete that search successfully. So that's independence.

Then you have the desire to search. With a desire to search, this is a dog that has focus. This is where focus comes into play. This is where having the right level of focus, the right type of focus — you want the dog focused on the search. You don't want the dog focused on the environment, critters, dog pee, or their handler. It's focused on the search. You also want them focused on the search and not on distractions.

I don't just mean distractions in terms of the crackers that are in the container. I mean the environmental distractions. We're searching in all manners of environments. A lot of trials are at campgrounds, at fairgrounds, and let me tell you, some of those fairgrounds are not the cleanest places in the world. I've got stories. The thing is, we have to take our dog to the line, they've never seen the search area, and they have to search at the drop of a hat. The stopwatch starts and you don't have a lot of time to find those hides, so you need a dog that is impervious to those distractions.

Then you have the dog that has to be hunting-oriented. This is a dog that from a hunting orientation also has to understand it's not always on an object. If we always set hides on objects, our dogs will always search objects. We need a dog that's going to encounter the odor and keep working that odor until they get to source, regardless of where that hide is located. This is going to require a lot of different scenting pictures, a lot of different ways that the odor works, and a lot of variety in the dog's training.

Then we get to something that I think hardly anybody talks about, and this is resilience to frustration, because if we're going out and we're always setting easy hides and the dog honestly never makes a mistake, when they get into a situation where all of a sudden it's harder — because every time we go out, it's a different search, every single time you search. So if the dog goes out and encounters something that is unexpectedly challenging, or maybe they're not getting an odor quick enough, they're going to experience a lot of anxiety. So you need to start to develop the dog's resilience to frustration, so that they can be optimistic in the face of that challenge. A lot of that has to do with positive searching history and allowing them a little bit of trial and error in a supportive way, so that they can understand that it's okay to work a little bit harder.

The last piece is being methodical. I don't mean slow. Usually if we say the dog is methodical, we're trying to be nice and trying to say the dog is really slow. A lot of problem solving has to do with arousal regulation. Can the dog search in a thorough manner, in drive, and in an appropriate level of being methodical. They have to be logical about it. There's a logical approach to searching.

A lot of these pieces start to come together, and these are the qualities of what you're trying to look at. How you train is all about these qualities and how they tie together. That was a really long answer to a short question.

Melissa Breau: That's all right. It was intentionally a question that would get a long answer. With five things, are any of them more important than others? Is it about a handler evaluating their own dog's strengths and weaknesses to determine which pieces their particular dog needs the most work on? Can you dive into that piece?

Stacy Barnett: That's a super question because there's two dimensions to that question. First of all, from the qualities, is there a hierarchy, and there is. If you want to think about this hierarchy, first of all, before you even get into this model, you have to have a dog with some basic confidence and some basic motivation. If you take that and you say, "We've got that, thumbs up" — we've got confidence, we've got motivation — now we start to say, "In this model what do we need to start to focus on first?"

The first thing we need to focus on is independence, because if we don't have independence, we don't have anything. You have squat. If your dog isn't independent, you're not finding anything, so you have to work on that first. We start to get into independence, we start to build on that hunting orientation and the desire to search. That's the next layer. What happens is you get a lot of things that you're working on. You're working on focus, you're working on sourcing, you're working on odor obedience. All of that is tied in there.

From there, we start to think resilience. We need a dog that wants to go out, they want to search, they have this desire, they have this focus, they understand how to get to source. Now we have to layer in that resilience to frustration. Now that we have that, we're making it incredible. We're helping the dog to search in a more logical manner, we're giving the dog the tools to regulate their own arousal, to be fluent even when their arousal regulates unexpectedly. All of those pieces come together. That's one dimension.

The second dimension is they do have to self-evaluate. You're going to find that your dog may be strong in some areas and may be weaker in others, and that's the art of training. It's not just about a recipe of "Do this, do this, do this." A lot of it has to do with now that your dog finds a hide, where is your dog weak? I try to look at things in terms of that hierarchy. I start with confidence and motivation, check, check.

What about independence? If my dog isn't independent, I need to work there. I've got a class on sourcing that I'm teaching right now. For sourcing, which gets into your hunting orientation and your desire to search, we do a whole lot with independence as laying that groundwork. You have to layer in that stuff so that you build on those foundational pieces. Once you have those foundational pieces, you can start to layer in all that really cool stuff. What you're going to find is when you start to build all these qualities, then it's just a matter of increasing the skill level, and that part's the easy part. This is where the magic is. It's the cool stuff.

Melissa Breau: When we were talking about this a little bit before the podcast, you mentioned about sometimes handlers, as soon as the dog can find the hide at home, they sign up for that first trial. How strong does a dog need to be in each of these areas before it's reasonable to start thinking about that trial? How does it tie into trialing and the first trial piece?

Stacy Barnett: That's a tough question because it is going to depend on the dog. But I think what we need to do is we need to realize that every time the dog goes out and they trial, it's going to be a new environment, it's going to be a new scenting picture, so you've got to be able to give your dog such a variety of hides and scenting pictures and start to work on. The dog, first of all, should be independent. He should have confidence and motivation in the bank before you start trialing. The dog should be independent. That needs to be in the bank.

Then you want to have a little bit of that hunting orientation. The dog needs to have the desire and enough focus that they can easily and enthusiastically get through the search without losing focus and without having to be re-cued. If you're finding yourself saying, "Fido, search" — I hear a lot of people "Search here, search here" — if you're finding that you're doing that, you're not ready yet, because the dog has to have that inner desire and that understanding and that fluency of no matter where you are, when you release that dog, that dog starts to search.

A lot of that has to do with your routine and how you set up, but the dog has to know, as you walk up to the start line, based on your behaviors as a handler, your dog has to know "I'm searching," whether or not there's target odor in the area. Even my puppy, 8 months old, I walk up, I hold her collar a certain way because I do a collar release on the start line, and I just release it and she's like, "I'm searching." You need to have that level of fluency.

Do you have to have a methodical dog when you start to search? No, you don't. Do you have to have some resilience to frustration? Maybe a little bit, because you don't want the dog to experience anxiety when you're already in a trial environment. The last thing you want is a bad experience or even a neutral experience at a trial.

You want your trial experiences to be super-positive, so if you're thinking, "We'll just wing it," you're at risk of a neutral experience, or even worse, a negative experience, because again, the dog has never seen the search area. Just because you know it's the pavilion around the corner, your dog doesn't know that. Your dog doesn't even know this is a timed event. Or the little flags — your dog has no idea what those are either. We haven't explained the rules of the game to the dog, so we've got to make sure that we're supporting them, and you will know by the dog's level of enthusiasm and their emotions that they bring to the trial, to the search.

Melissa Breau: I broke this into two parts. Are there other things that people should be considering, other than those five aspects that are specific to trialing?

Stacy Barnett: A lot of it has to do with variety. It's really getting the dog out into a lot of different environments. It's like a broken record.

Melissa Breau: The hardest part of all training, I'm telling you.

Stacy Barnett: I have to tell you, there's an opportunity that a lot of people miss, and it happens all the time. Right now it's springtime, so let me tell you, it's happening a lot, although if you're "down under," I guess it's not spring. Tangent. Anyway, it's still happening. Weather: the weather changes, so when it rains, let's say it's raining, you go, "Oh, cool. This is time to search."

Get out there in all kinds of weather. Don't be afraid of rain, don't be afraid of snow, don't be afraid of wind — wind is your friend, by the way — don't be afraid of any of these types of weather. You want to get out there. Think of that as an opportunity to say, "I get to learn how to search in the rain today." Use that as an opportunity.

The other thing that you can do, the cool thing about nosework is that we don't need a training building to search. We don't need a training building to train. You don't even need a park. Just drive around, like, "That empty storefront looks cool. Let me pull over there and set a hide." Or "Somebody left their front-loader in the parking lot. That looks cool to me." Home Depot rental equipment, all kinds of good stuff. Get in your car, drive, look at places, and you're going to find really cool places to search. If you do that, and you get your dog out in all kinds of weather and you expose your dog and you make it fun, bring out the emotions in your rewarding, all these things are going to help you get ready to trial.

Melissa Breau: What aspects of the process do you think people overlook when they're starting to prep for trialing?

Stacy Barnett: I think a lot of times people start … I don't know if you remember; we had this conversation as training versus trialing. I think people, when they make a mistake, they make the mistake of training to trial. They're picturing what the test looks like: "The test looks like ten boxes" —I'm thinking AKC Novice — "so therefore I'm going to set up ten boxes. I'm going to drill these boxes, and goshdarnit, my dog's going to find the right container," rather than thinking about "How do I train my dog?"

Training is training, and trialing is testing. Especially with nosework, I think people start to get so wrapped up into "I need to train this skill, I need to train that skill, I need to destroy these containers," because you really do destroy them when you drill them over and over. They set highs that are very trial-like, like under the chair. They're always under the chair. It's always under the seat of the chair, it's always on the wheel of the bucket, it's always on the garbage can.

We neglect the fact that we're trying to teach our dog to source odor. We need to start building. Can the dog build that drive to source? Can you set up a search that challenges the dog and pushes the dog so they have to work hard and solve a problem? Because if you can create a problem-solving dog, I guarantee you can find that chair hide easy-peasy.

Melissa Breau: It's not a matter of teaching to the test. It's a matter of teaching the skill.

Stacy Barnett: Right. It's teaching the capability, rather than thinking about "What is my novice buried test going to look like?" or "When I have to find two hides." It's all about can you find that hide when the hide is in the sun? Can you find that hide when you've got wind? Can you find that hide when there's a whole lot of clutter, or you're on the grass, or there's some distractions in the area? Or maybe a dog peed in that area the day before. That's what you need to work on — getting some depth into that hide. Can they drive into source.

Melissa Breau: Making sure that the dog really knows how to do above and beyond, instead of necessarily just the skills being tested.

Stacy Barnett: Exactly. It's fluency.

Melissa Breau: Can you drill down and talk a little bit more about what foundation skills dogs need in nosework, starting with the piece people usually think of — the following the odor to source piece? I know it's a big question.

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, a lot of stuff that we've been talking about. But I think if you can get your dog really focused on target odor, only target odor, increasing the motivation for that target odor by making it a lot of fun — I like to make it a reward event so that my dog gets excited.

I'm just going to pick and choose a couple of pieces. Something that I've noticed that people neglect a lot is they don't put a clear start and stop on a hide. You get a lot of people, they're so focused on getting the dog to be sticky at that hide. They go and find the hide, the dog becomes so sticky, the dog doesn't know how to disengage and find another hide. They get sticky and the handler doesn't know how to transition into a new hide. You can get capped then at that point at one hide — that effective one hide, anyway.

So you need to give the dog the capability and a stop-and-start understanding of "This hide is done," because when you start to build that in as a foundation, you're going to be able to get a dog so that they can start to be able to look for another hide and say, "All right, this one is done." I think that's a foundation that a lot of times we don't necessarily think about. The foundations are huge, but I figured I'd pick one thing that I've noticed.

Melissa Breau: To round things out with one last question, if you were to drill down the stuff that we've been talking about into one key takeaway for nosework handlers, the thing that you really wish they all understood, what would that be?

Stacy Barnett: It's kind of related and kind of not. What I want people to think about that I think sometimes we forget as humans, because as humans we see with our eyes, and let me tell you, my nose is useless, and my guess is most of your noses are pretty useless, so I can't smell the way my dogs can smell. What I can say is that the world of odor is very different than the visual world that we live in, and we have to be aware of that.

For instance, if the hide looks easy to you, it doesn't mean it is easy. It could mean that it's completely complicated, because we're talking airflow. So you want to think about airflow contributes to complexity, it contributes to the dog's future search behaviors. But if you find that your dog can't find a hide, blame the hide first. Don't blame the dog. Blame the hide first, because if your dog can't find the hide and your dog knows odor, you might have a bum hide.

I think a lot of times handlers get into this dynamic of trying to help their dog because they assume that the hide has got to be easy. They get so emotionally invested in finding that hide that they can cause some issues in their training. It's okay to leave a hide behind or to say, "This hide is not acting the way I thought it was going to act, and it's okay not to find it."

Melissa Breau: All right, that rounds us out. Did you want to quickly mention the classes that you have coming up? Do you know them off the top of your head?

Stacy Barnett: I've got some cool classes coming up. In June, I am teaching NW130, which is our third core class and it's advanced nosework skills. That gets into your inaccessibles, your elevated hides, your distractions, that next level up. It's a skills class.

I'm also teaching NW175, which is actually taking a lot of what we talked about tonight and building that out. It's really getting that foundational piece to help you get ready to start thinking about trialing. It's a super follow-on to NW120, where you start to understand how to do your basic searching, so it takes your basic searching and it makes it excellent.

And then I have a third class, which is all about hide setups. It's six weeks of hide setups. You don't have to feel like, "Oh my gosh, I'm falling behind, I can't do everything." It's something that you can actually pick and choose, and if you have limited time, it's cool because you can say, "Today I'll do this exercise." It's different types of challenges, and you can pick and choose for your dog.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you very much, Stacy, for making the time at the last minute, and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it! If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


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! 


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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