E222: Julie Symons - "Getting into Nosework"

Julie and I chat about some of the key questions nosework newbies need to know, and what it takes to prep for competition — plus, how and where to look for novel search environments! 


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 Julie Symons here with me to chat about getting into nosework.

Hi Julie, welcome back to the podcast!

Julie Symons: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me again.

Melissa Breau: Excited to catch up and chat a little bit. To start us out, do you want to remind listeners a little about you, a little about your dogs, and share a little on your background?

Julie Symons: Sure. I realize it's coming on three years since I left my corporate job at Xerox, and I've been teaching full-time for three years. Wow. That's basically it. It's all dog, all the time.

I have three dogs, but one is recently retired. My older dog, Savvy, is 13 now and I was just thinking I'm so lucky that last year, February, I drove ahead of a winter storm south into Maryland, which was beautiful weather, to finish her nosework championship, because then things started shutting down, and she's gotten physically older and cognitively slower, and I wonder if I would have been able to finish her. I was really happy I made that decision, because I never drove out in the winter. So she's retired, she's fully retired, which has made it a lot easier.

Now I only have two dogs that I'm doing everything with. My middle dog, Drac, a Malinois, is almost 6 years old. We recently got certified for tracking. I was previously certified, just never got to a trial. But now they're good for two years, so I really like that aspect of scentwork as well. I put all the time in as a puppy for almost five years now I've done tracking, so I want to accomplish that goal to get some titles. He's also of course doing nosework at the Nosework 3 level and I've been putting him in agility trials to finish some agility titles. We probably won't keep up much further with that.

My young dog, Moxie, who's almost 3, my baby dog, I love her. She was not expected, and I couldn't imagine life without her. She's sweet and she is so loved by all. I've never had a dog that everybody stops, even judges when I walk up to the start line, "Oh my gosh, your dog is so beautiful." "I know, thank you." She's light on her feet, she's friendly, she's talented, she's a very talented agility dog, we're just starting our career. Both her and Drac just got their first herding title this weekend, which was a big new thing for me. I've gotten herding test titles on them, but this was my very first started title, really exciting. Moxie of course is also now at the Nosework 3 level in nosework, so she's caught up with her big brother, and as it always is, I think she's my best-trained nosework dog. You get better with each dog you get, and I've done a few different things with her.

So the two dogs now are keeping me busy, and that's pretty much what I'm doing.

Melissa Breau: That's pretty much it, as if that wasn't a good enough list.

Julie Symons: I'm like don't even ask me to do barn hunt. I just can't do any more. I'm done.

Melissa Breau: It's been a while since we talked about Nosework 101 here on the podcast, so I thought we could start out by reviewing it a little bit. I'd love to chat about how the FDSA nosework team approaches nosework. Can you talk a little bit about an overview of the training method that is used in class?

Julie Symons: We all still basically start the same way, where we all start on odor. Some methods start with a lot of food hunting, but we still start with odor, which is what we call back-chaining. If you start with food, you're actually doing the hunting first, which has value, but we start at the end, as if you just found the odor, and we reward a lot at odor.

And then what I do is I — I'll get into this later — I then go to discriminate odor against something else just something cold or food later on, and then I add the hunting. Again, we back-chain those skills, and all of the skills and games build from there. Once our dogs understand odor equals reinforcement, that's the foundation, that's the basic thing that you want, and we all wholeheartedly believe that we can start dogs on odor and they can have value for odor. That fundamental approach with all of us has not changed.

Melissa Breau: For those who are new to the sport, who maybe haven't done much with nosework before, how do you handle hide prep and avoid contaminating everything in the house, or in your car, with the very scent you're trying to teach your dog has value and you want them to alert on?

Julie Symons: That also hasn't changed much when we describe odor prep and making sure all that stuff is not contaminating anything. What happens is when people start out they usually get a small kit so they don't have a lot of odor in their house. I was just talking to somebody today who lives in an apartment, and she has a hard time sometimes — where do you store that odor, where do you store all the equipment once you start getting into it.

But it's very simple. It's almost like Covid. I hate to bring that up, but you've got to wash your hands, and if you touch anything, you've got to wash your hands, and you don't want to touch other things after you've touched oil.

It seems more easily contaminated now than at the start. I'm not really sure why. I think because of AKC our odor is much stronger. I can just hold a tin that probably got a little bit of oil on the outside, and go touch something and I've contaminated it, where in the early days I never felt like I contaminated anything. So I think maybe we've gotten a little bit more sloppy, maybe we have a lot of old containers that we use, Q-Tip holders that need to be tossed, and I know I don't like to put the latex gloves on and toss them into the landfill or the trash can, so I try to use other ways, like cotton gloves that I wash. You've got to be careful.

Another thing that I'm doing is I'm putting a piece of cardboard between my hide and my surface, so if I'm putting a hide under a plastic handle, I'll buffer that with another layer, just because plastic will hold odor.

But just in general when you're traveling in the car, there's so many kits that are airtight kits. I go to a sporting store in the fishing department and I buy watertight containers that they'll bring on a boat that shouldn't get too wet if it goes underwater.

You can travel with a kit in your car, and it's okay if the dogs are going to be around odor a little bit on the road. I don't worry about that at all. I travel with odor in my car all the time. You don't want it to be sitting out where the dogs have access to it when you're around your house, so always store it away, and have it in something airtight in your car. That hasn't changed. We do get some questions about it, but whenever there's an "I don't know if I contaminated that," just assume you did.

Melissa Breau: Obviously you've been through this with multiple dogs. Can you talk a little about learning to read a particular dog, learning to see those changes of behavior at source during a search, and what that process is like and what's involved?

Julie Symons: That's a big one. It's kind of cliché is you have to learn to read your dog. You hear that a lot for teams that haven't trained indication. I actually did teach and train indication on my young dog Moxie because I wanted to do something different with each dog. It's fun to train something different, and she has a nose freeze. Some people think that because you have a nose freeze. That's not true. But I do believe there's something, too, where people do say that. I have people who want to train indication because they don't know how to read their dog, and I believe part of the problem is we do a lot of known hide places and we just can't wait to feed our dogs. It's kind of a phenomenon. It's like people can't wait, they're already reaching in their pocket, they can't wait to reward their dog, that all you're doing is waiting to reward your dog. You didn't even watch anything. You didn't look at anything the dog was doing.

Every dog is different, and all I can tell people is, number one, if you build value for odor, and I like to build a monstrous response to odor, something that a dog is like "Let me at it," you build that value for that, then you're not going to have any problems getting that.

But what happens is dogs who paw, that's the only thing they can read, so there's times when a dog gets to a source, but they don't paw it because maybe it's a little high, and then the person doesn't call it because they're not pawing it. You can't just rely on that one thing. They did everything else. They head-snapped, they stopped, they looked at you, they went back, but they didn't want to paw that day. So you have to learn that.

I do think people rely too much on a very specific physical behavior, and that makes them question it. What I tell everybody, and this has been really good advice, is you have the best seat in the house. Picture yourself on the front row seat, and you get to watch your dog from the best seat in the house, so just observe it. Don't worry, you're going to feed them, that's fine, but watch what happens right before they get to a source when you know where it is.

That's what's good about placing known hides is you know where it is, so you can be ready to watch that. Watch what they do right before they get to it. Watch what they did when they got to it. What did they do after they find it? Some dogs stay there. Some dogs look at you. What do they do after they find source?

You have to observe. It sounds so simple, just go observe your dog, but there's something in the moment, people just maybe feel rushed in class, or they just want to feed … I swear it's weird, they want to feed their dogs, but they're not observing. Once I've told students to really embrace that, they were like, "Oh." Their stress went away because they just observed their dogs. They just picture being in the front seat of a concert and that was neat.

So that's really what it is.

Being an instructor, I see so many dogs in odor. I'm a judge too. I don't judge that much, but it is a benefit that I see so many dogs run the same hides that I do become a little bit more experienced. But you can do that on your own dog. I like to set up situations in class where students can watch the other teams so they're not always blind hides for everybody. We all get to watch those hides being run and they can watch those dogs snap their heads. There's change in the dog's cadence. Their foot fall changes. They slow down. They circle.

But some dogs are subtle and you hear that from teams that have a subtle dog. I feel bad for those people when people say, "You should have seen what your dog did. Your dog turned their head when they walked by, and you know what, that's not enough." I think for dogs that are very subtle, you need to go back to some foundation gap because there's some underlying problem and we haven't taught them to be monstrous and really value that odor. They should find that odor like it's prey and they don't want it to get away, and they need to stay with it.

Some dogs are going to have that intenseness, but we can build some of that. But it's a very classic question, and I hope with time in the sport now that's gotten a little bit better.

Melissa Breau: I'd imagine that videoing your dog is really helpful when it comes to that, too. Being able to replay it.

Julie Symons: I have some friends who don't ever want to buy their trial video because they don't like to watch themselves. We know this with everything, in all the sports here at Fenzi especially, we impress upon videoing. Even in training today I taught a class and I said, "Let's make sure everybody videos. Give me your camera." Because now you can touch things more. For the last year we weren't able to touch anybody's camera and that really did affect us, because we didn't want to touch things or put gloves on.

I tell people that when I video my sessions, I just saved three more training sessions. I'm three training sessions ahead, because you are going to take three more times to go, "I finally see what I'm doing." So absolutely. And if you video, you can go back, and sometimes watching your dog, it's not like slo-mo, but fast motion, watch your dog in video just to read all that's going on, and you can learn a lot.

Melissa Breau: Before hopping on the call, we chatted a little bit and you mentioned that you've restructured your 101 class a bit over the last few terms. I'd love to have you talk about that a little more. What changes have made? What led you to update things?

Julie Symons: It's so exciting. I like it so much that I have not had a local Nosework 101 class or intro class in my own training building because I think my online class is so much better and I can cover so much more. I get people every day versus once a week, and I'm not able to have all my classes meet once a week. So now I send everybody to my online class. I know I lose some people because they don't want to go online, but it's such a great program.

Because I have changed it, I call it that I've evolved. I stayed with the same way for a long time and sometimes I fought it. I fought well it's always worked for me and now I want to change it ... "If I change this, that makes I have to change the other thing that doesn't make sense." It affects the next thing. But eventually I did start changing things. I'll share some of them because I'm excited about them.
I used to do It's Your Choice, which is classic because you have food in one hand and odor in the other hand, very classic, and that worked well. It worked well for operant dogs. But what I found is some dogs get confused with discrimination.

Now I just have the odor out there. I use a colander, or we might use a pie tin. They just have odor out and we just feed around odor. I've done this for a while. Drac was a puppy, so it was at least five years ago. When I wanted to start nosework, I just fed them. I used a pie dish because it was nice and big. I put my birch tin in the middle of the bowl and put all his kibble around it. So it was classic conditioning. I paired odor. I wasn't even training, just when you ate your meals for a week, you had birch there. I started conditioning good things happen when birch is around. I did that for a week to play around with it, and I thought it was a fun way to introduce the scent.

I also have a lot of non-odor games. What happened last year at this time with Covid, the mail was slow. People weren't getting their kits for two weeks into the class. So I added things like working on a flat with the odor, how do you handle leash handling and changing sides, because it's like other sports: you have to go down one row and turn your dog and go down the other row. So that was a fun thing.

I also did a lot of really neat things with box acclimation. So many dogs, I'm sure this is no surprise to you, you've heard the titles of classes called box smashers anonymous or whatever. What I decided to do was introduce containers so that it becomes so ho-hum. I would put containers down, I put food, first I probably used food, it reminded me of obedience articles back in the day. We still do it, I think, when your dogs are really aroused, you put a piece of food on a pile of scent articles, they eat that food, they calm down, then they can actually find the scent.

I applied that to nosework, so we do a couple of drills of them just walking along boxes and eating food, and then I have them do recalls through boxes. For dogs that are super-aroused with boxes, who are fixing it after the fact, I would tell them to live with boxes, put boxes all over their living room. It was hilarious. Of course it's always the Golden Retrievers that have that issue. And it had transferred over by the time you put odor in the box, they're like, "Oh, it's over in the box. I don't care about the box." And that was really fun.

So I had enough stuff to keep people doing something while they were waiting for their odor kits. Even now that they have their odor kits, it's such a great complement. It's almost like a pre- thing before you start nosework. That was another change.

Two other changes I made were … I'm a big marker person. I would be like right away my dog's at odor. But what I found was people aren't consistent with their marker words. They mix praise in it. Their marker word becomes a whole "You're such a good dog" marker word. So what I started doing is suggest that people don't use any marker for the first couple weeks, and then you could do a little bit of delaying. If the dog pulls up their nose, wait till their nose goes back, then reward, so you don't mix in the marker being said and everything. That's worked really well.

The other thing I've been doing is similar to It's Your Choice, but it's reverse luring. It's applying the concept of reverse luring to It's Your Choice, where I make it more like a focal point. I hold the food up high while they're sourcing low, so they're keeping their nose on source, but they're looking at the reinforcement up here, and that's built a lot of duration. It's a build on It's Your Choice, but we do it a little bit lighter. It's funny when you almost reframe it as like that bucket game or conformation baiting, when you bait a dog in conformation. It's the same thing. They have that focal point, so they stand in conformation. I want them to be nose at source, so I use reverse luring.

Those are the main changes and it's really held over. Some of them are even years ago, some are more recent, and it's really, I think, strengthened them.

Melissa Breau: In addition to the 101 class this term, you're also teaching Developing Scentsational Skills For Competition class. Is it basically a competition prep class? Do you want to talk a little bit about what's in it?

Julie Symons: It basically is a trial prep class, but it's more, because I took a lot of nuggets from different classes or sources that I felt overall were important to have early on in trialing, but to also get ready for later on. It puts it all together, so whether you're trialing or not, people got a lot out of it, even if they weren't trialing right way.

But I knew exactly what I wanted to create when I created it. I knew exactly what I wanted. This is what I wish somebody told me, like the judge may ask you "Where?" when you say "Alert." I know that, but I forget to tell my classes. So we cover things like what you might expect at a trial, what to do when your dog is distracted, here's what you're allowed to do, you can restart, you can pet your dog, you can feed your dog, you can start playing with them, you can do a ton of stuff. They don't know that. I forget that people don't realize you can touch your dog in nosework, because in all the other sports you can't touch your dog. You can feed them anytime you want. "Oh, I didn't know that."

It goes over a lot of things to do in like, "Uh-oh, this situation just happened." I have one lecture that says what to expect when they happen, I came up with twenty things like, "This just happened, what can you do." It's neat to think of it in that way. I think it's a little bit different than a trial prep. It gets into what I forgot to tell you I'm going to tell you now. I'm not going to forget to tell you this now. Things like you have to say "Finish" at certain levels. So it's a reminder to do that.

I also cover search strategies, the importance of handling, handling is very important. We cover it the first week. Handling is what falls apart. We're nervous, we start crowding our dogs, we start talking fast, we do all these weird things. I'm quiet, believe it or not, when I'm trialing, but my nerves get in the way, just because it means so much. I travel so far, we all want to get these passes. I trial in the NACSW level, where you really can't make that many mistakes, so it's like in or nothing so it's really a lot of pressure on you. But we cover a lot of that.

One thing that I looked up before we talked, to remind myself about all these lectures, because I counted, there are 37 lectures, there's almost six a week … some of them are a little bit introductory. They're not all like homework, physical homework, waiting in staging. I said nobody covers the time you have to wait in stage. They will line you up a couple of dogs before you go. You're sitting there, maybe in the heat, you have to wait, you want to keep their nose wet, you don't want them to be sniffing for twenty minutes. It's usually not that long. But I have this lecture of I want you to go in and show me a video of you sitting with your dog for three minutes. That's what I want to see. It has really helped. I've done that in other classes, like Handler's Choice, and it's really helped some dogs that would get over-aroused.

I used Suzanne Clothier's Really Real Relaxation protocol. I reference it from what I saw and gave them the link to her stuff when we had that webinar here at Fenzi. But it's just as simple as you have to practice waiting. If your dog knows when you're sitting on the couch … my dogs now are all laying down sleeping because I'm in the position that's somewhat resting, although I'm talking. But at a trial you can't be uptight. You have to show relaxation so your dogs will relax. So that's helped a lot of teams. You are so great on skills, can your dog find odor, but what about right before you go in the ring? So that's another concept that we cover in that class.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. One of the things I see pop up all the time as a question about nosework in the various Facebook groups is where you can go to train and practice away from home. I think people stress about this a lot, maybe more than they need to. Do you have any tips for those listening? Where do you go to practice away from home?

Julie Symons: It was definitely over a year ago, but parks are a big one for me. I'm running out of parks that are nearby, and I ventured out not too far, about twenty-five minutes away, met with some friends, and it was a different park, it had a different type of pavilion, and had a fireplace stone sitting area outside a lodge. But parks are big. Parks are distracting. Dogs go there, there's duck poop or geese poop, so that's a great place.

You really want to get interiors. Outside areas are easy to get to. I go to office buildings on Sundays, when they're closed, a big open area like a strip mall or some office buildings. Tractor Supply and Home Depot are great ones, but your dog needs to be really able to handle those environments, because sometimes I don't even go inside. I do talk to them, I talk to the manager, I tell them what I'm doing, and they're generally always okay with it.

One of my classes, it might be close to being self study, I had people make a little passport. It had a picture of the dog and a picture of the tins with the Q-Tips, and you can show it to them and say, "This is what it is," so that people know what you're talking about. That was really fun. I had people get out of their comfort level and they made these little passports and they would go show them. Some people would say no, but some people said yes. So that's generally what I do.

People forget you can go use your parents' house, if you live near them, or a friend's house. I had somebody say, "My neighbors are gone for the whole winter and they have me looking after their house." They asked of course can they go into this person's house, and they did and it was great. So there are places like that.

What I started to do with interiors is if your dog isn't weird with bathrooms is a lot of park bathrooms are opening now, and if the park bathrooms aren't too gross, I use park bathrooms. You've got to be a little creative, but you can find places. That's where I go.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. If listeners have been training nosework for a little while, they've been working with their dog on it, and they're starting to think about competition, do you have any tips for how to tell when their dog is ready?

Julie Symons: I do find that a lot of teams aren't ready, or maybe it's a little bit of a mixed bag. I'm surprised that people wouldn't be a nervous wreck when they enter so early. I want to be feeling prepared. For nosework you basically want to say can your dog work in a novel environment? Can they work in that park that you just took them to? Can you work in that Tractor Supply, even in a quiet corner of the building inside? If your dog can't do that, you're not going to be able to go to a trial.

The thing is, when you enter Novice, which is what everybody will be starting in, the Novice test is can your dog find a simple target odor hide in a novel location. Your dog has to be able to work with a few strangers around. It's not mobbed. It's just a couple of people in the search areas. Can they deal with that?

But you, as a handler, can you read their indication? We talked about that earlier. Can you read your dog's alerts? You have to make sure you've practiced enough blind hides that you're pretty comfortable reading your dog's indication. I think you should go to a couple of run-throughs, help a lot, or volunteer at trials. I would say months ago or a year ago I was more frustrated about people trialing early, but now that I think about it, I think maybe with the downtime that we've had over the year, people have had more time to train. I think teams are very much ready now that I'm seeing. You just have to know the skills you need, and can your dog do it, can you read a blind. That's it.

Melissa Breau: I really like the tip about volunteering, too. Not just because obviously we need volunteers to make trials happen, regardless of the sport, but because a lot of times I think nerves come from not knowing what's going to happen, and one of the two of you need to know what's going to happen. And volunteering gets you a front seat.

Julie Symons: Yeah. I judged a local AKC trial in April, and one of my students came and watched buried. They watched the whole buried and they saw what worked and what didn't with the handlers. They couldn't believe the handlers that weren't calling the hides. They learned so much because we would talk about … sometimes when you're volunteering, the judge will talk to you between dogs and you'll learn a little bit.

This student entered buried at the next local trial and did really well because she learned what was good and what was bad handling and was determined to train. She was like, "I can do this." Her dog did. Her dog knew how to do it. It was really helpful and it was nice, it was local. It was ten minutes from her house.

It's a little harder to have to travel out of town and get a hotel, but that's great. And there's more opportunities now. There's so many. There's, I think, almost too many, to be honest. AKC trials are every weekend. Sites are being overused. There's a lot of concern with lingering odor from using sites every weekend, different organizations, and it is causing a problem, because we've got be really respectful of odor. NACSW would wait every six months before reusing a site, and I think that's being really fair to the dogs.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want to talk about or share about either class?

Julie Symons: No, that's about it. I do want to put in a plug for my air scenting workshop that's going to be ending end of this month. I don't know how long it will be up into June. It just wrapped up and it was a great workshop. It's all about using air, wind, to have your dog work odor in the air. It built a lot of independence and motivation. It's the second time I offered it, and it reminds me how much I love those skills.

What's nice is for even young dogs you can start out with them. If they're already on odor even only a couple months in, you can start working on these drills. That's what I did with Moxie, and she'll find high hides better than any of my dogs and I never trained high hides. She just was able to work air and odor and find it to source. So I wanted to plug that.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To round out our chat, if we were to drill down our conversation into one key piece of information you really want nosework handlers to understand, what would that be? What would your takeaway message be?

Julie Symons: I thought, oh my gosh, I'm talking about two different classes, but to be honest, it boils down to you have to train. Nosework is not the hardest sport, but it does require training. I think people are entering buried with never training it. People are entering handler discrimination AKC scentwork, which is your scents in a box, without training it. People are not training distractors that are often in containers after the first level. You've got to train that. This sport requires that you have a strong foundation and that you maintain your skills. This isn't something you can just let go for six months and then just show up to a trial. And I have seen people doing that. It just doesn't work that way.

So again, we've all sometimes skipped stuff, cut corners, but you can't do that long-term. It truly is a skill. With my dogs, if I'm going to a trial that could be distractors in containers, I'm training distractors in containers that week. You just have to.

I think that's either they don't think they have to, but it just goes back down to of course all of our dogs remember the skills we train, but like with any sport, I'm working weave poles before my agility trial, I'm working handling on a flat before my herding trial. Of course you're going to back off right before the trial, but foundation and prepping and being prepared, you have to maintain the skills that you have. They will weaken and go away.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Julie.

Julie Symons: You're very welcome. It was fun.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, it was. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it!

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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! 


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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