E357: Aleks Woodroffe - "Using Handler Pressure As a Tool in Nosework"

Whether you realize it or not, every time you and your dog step to the line handler pressure will play a role in the search. So, how can you use it to your advantage? Aleks and I discuss exactly that in this episode of the podcast!


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 Alex Woodroffe here with me to talk about using handler pressure intentionally in nosework. Hi Alex, welcome back to the podcast!

Aleks Woodroffe: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, I'm super excited to catch up. So to start us out, can you just share, remind listeners a little bit about you and your current furry crew?

Aleks Woodroffe: Sure, sure. I am competing with two different flat coated retrievers. I've got Tana, who is eight years old and she's my summit level dog.

She's got all the things in AKC scent work Master Elite two, I think we're at now almost three, and she's a lot of fun. She's the one who really pushed me in the sport. And then I have her son, I bred her a few years ago, and so I've got her son and he's competing NW three as well as the master's level in AKC.

And he is a whole different beast, a different kind of creature out there. One that pushes me in a very different way and I am really loving the training journey that I'm getting with him.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, awesome.

Aleks Woodroffe: So that's kind of my life with those two.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, that's awesome. So I know last time we had you on, we were talking canine massage, but this time we're talking nosework. So do you wanna just share a little bit more about your background in the sport?

Aleks Woodroffe: For sure. I started nosework in about 2014. I had a reactive rescue dog. She was a dalmatian golden retriever mix. Samantha and I did a lot of work with Amy Cook with her and kind of fell into the whole Fenzi world with her.

And so I took a class with Melissa Chandler just to explore nosework. We needed something to do to build some confidence. I definitely got bit by the bug and I had my other flat coat with me at the time, Rosie, and she started picking it up very quickly compared to my reactive one, had no confidence whatsoever. So it was kind of fun to play with both of them and learned the sport in two different, very different directions.

And with that, I very quickly decided, okay, let's go figure out what the sport is about. I did an ORT in 2016 with both of them and they got theirs. And then within the same year I did my NW one with Rosie. And unfortunately here in Arizona we don't have a lot of training. We don't have a lot of, or at the time training and competitions or anything like that. So I wasn't really willing to travel with Rosie. So I ended up going to Tucson, which is not very far away from where I live for that one NW one. And then we didn't have any other trials for at least a few years.

So I wasn't able to continue with Rosie. But I had Tana at that time, my little girl, and she started learning it very quickly with everybody else and she definitely pushed me and we started traveling a lot. And so starting in 2017, I started teaching and teaching a lot of friends and they all still started wanting it. And by 2019, 2018, we did our first AKC trial here in Arizona and we just started creating a whole community.

And so it's really cooking now. We've got NACSW going, we've got AKC going and the community's growing. There's a lot more trainers out here and a lot more opportunities. So it's kind of fun to be able to be on the front end of that and pushing how we can interact with a whole bunch of different kind of handlers, different kinds of dogs and spread the sport.

So that's kind of how I started into it. I got really hooked by it. I am now an AKC judge, as well as training to be a CEO for NECSW. So I definitely got full in on it and I teach full-time. Yeah, so definitely all in when you've got multiple different judging organizations.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Oh man.

So I think nosework is kind of a delicate balance, right? You kind of need each partner to play their particular role just right in order for everything to kind of come together. Can you talk a little bit about that, about kinda the role that each half of the team needs to play for that ideal outcome?

For sure, for sure. There are so many different philosophies.

There's so many different ways of playing this game. I think that's something that listeners need to remember that if they're being told one way to do it, it doesn't mean that it's wrong because I think there's a lot of ways to have a successful dog in the sport. But personally I do think that the dog needs to be understanding their job independently. So that means going out to seek to identify odor, recognize it, communicate it back to the handler, all without the handler's help. And so if you have a dog that can understand that and have a belief they should be paid at odor, then we can start playing with what is the handler's role? Because at the beginning, the handler's role really isn't anything other than rewarding and kind of being quiet and letting the dog show off their stuff.

But as the level kind of increases, as things get a little bit more difficult, the handler's role becomes more important. And so at that point, observing is one piece of it. But well now we maybe need to respond, we might need to watch what the changes of behavior mean. And maybe that means we might pause somewhere. It might mean that we continue forward somewhere.

It's decisions that we get to make, especially when we get to the upper levels of competition. We need to know the game. Dogs don't care about boundaries, they don't know about time. That's the handler's job, right? We need to be aware of those kinds of things. And there should be enough time in the lower levels that you don't have to worry about that. Once we get to the higher levels, now that becomes something actually tested. So it's worth doing.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. So I know in most sports we kind of talk about pressure as like a negative that we need to kind of train to counteract, right? So talk to me a little bit about the role of pressure in nosework and can you maybe describe a little bit what you're talking about when you talk about handler pressure specifically for nosework?

Aleks Woodroffe: For sure. The big one is handlers can't avoid their pressure. The sport is naturally gonna create situations where what we do as handlers are going to create pressure, either positive because we push into the dog physically or negative pressure, we are creating a void between us and the dog. And to have like no pressure doesn't even really exist. So the more that the handler can realize they have an impact on the dog, no matter what they're doing at any point in time for any dog, I have very independent dogs. They will work. We had our summit trial this past weekend and Tana was working across the whole auditorium all by herself, finding hide all by herself. I wasn't feeling so well. So it worked great for my habits, right? So she knew how to do that by yourself.

But I also know that if I was there as a handler, I could apply a little bit of pressure maybe to stay somewhere because I'm not leaving that space. Or maybe I choose to turn around and face a different direction while the dog is working so that she's able to go to a different area. So we can use pressure very thoughtfully if we know we are doing it.

If we have no clue what pressure is, we have no clue how it impacts the dog, it makes it much more difficult to do anything about it and it can cause some problems down the road or immediately in some situations.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So talk to me a little bit about some of those benefits when it comes to pressure, kind of the benefit of understanding it and being able to maybe use it effectively.

Aleks Woodroffe: For sure. So if we can use handling pressure to a benefit, it's gonna be where we might have a nice smooth search. It's fluid, it's like a conversation back and forth. The dog's telling most of the story. But every once in a while as handlers we get to see, oh, you had all these changes of behavior, why are you leaving right away?

Maybe I'm just gonna stay here. So if we are aware of our pressure, we can say, okay, I'm gonna stay here. This negative pressure is gonna cause my dog to come back to me at some point. And then maybe it gives the dog an opportunity to solve a problem that otherwise we might just walk away from if we were just following them along.

It also creates a little bit more respect. I find if the handler and the dog both understand pressure and that it is there and they're respecting each other's pressure, that you end up with a dog that becomes more confident and can work a little bit more happily without feeling like they're in conflict with what odor is versus what the handler is trying to say. And it allows them to feel a little bit freer to basically tell their story without trying to interrupt, or the humans trying to interrupt them and say, but I wanna go over here. And it allows for that to be a little bit more fluid and subtle without taking over a search.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the word settle in there. So what happens if somebody overdoes it? How can they, you know, maybe tell that they're overdoing it? What does that look like? You know, either in the moment or afterwards when you're kinda reviewing that video?

Aleks Woodroffe: For sure. So normally when we're taking over, it means that we are using more than one type of handling tool and kind of take over the situation. When we're talking about pressure, it might be that we physically are pulling the dog in a direction, whether it's with a leash or just us moving and not really paying attention to how that's affecting the dog.

So it can cause dogs to leave odor. It can cause dogs to abandon areas that they might be searching or otherwise thinking, even though it's not super clear. It can also create problems like if there's pooling odor, there's odor that's collecting any sort of amount, and then the dogs are getting stuck in that information. While we as handlers, if we stay there and keep facing our dogs, that pressure is keeping our dog in that space and we might create a false alert. And so then the dogs are kind of putting pieces together and saying, well, you kind of look like this when we are at aide and there's odor here, so let's give it a shot. And so then they give us those behaviors that happen on source when there's an alert behavior.

So false alerts, you also might see stress because if we are applying pressure to keep our dog somewhere or move them along or keep them moving too quickly, we can end up where a dog will displace. They might start sniffing the ground, they might go into handler focus, start asking a lot of questions, they might spin up, I've got it.

My boy, he really likes to run fast because that's his answer for a lot of things. And so if I put pressure on him, he's like, okay, I'm just gonna run to the edge of the odor and I'll come back and see you later when you've got your head on straight. So you could see stuff like that frustration. We might see dogs that are just frustrated that they have to push against the handler all the time.

And then the worst kind of situation when it happens for a long period of time and the dogs get used to it, is the dogs can start to learn to use the handler to search instead of searching on their own because they're used to the handler just leading them around the search area. Why should they bother seeking odor or hunting for new odor when the handler's just gonna do it for them anyway?

So then they become odor conformation dogs, they go, yep, it is odor, or Nope, it's not odor. And then the teamwork kind of feels like it gets frustrated, kind of the joy starts bleeding out a little bit in that kind of situation.

Melissa Breau: So is handler pressure something, you know, kind of a tool that we can intentionally use with any dog? How do you maybe evaluate that and how, how much, and you know, kinda those bits and pieces.

Aleks Woodroffe: For sure. I find because it's unavoidable, right? There's pressure no matter what happens. The more we're aware of it, the more we can be thoughtful when that pressure moments happen, when the pressure is causing some sort of reaction in our dog and it's not consistent with our dog's changes of behavior.

Because our handling should be responsive to our dog's actions. And so when we start applying a lot of pressure, different kinds of handling choices that are in conflict of the odor and the dog's decisions of working the odor, we can end up with some problems, right? And so we need to make sure that we're being respectful of that. There are some softer dogs,

dogs that are gonna be much more sensitive to the handler, to everything that might be happening, all the pressure. So the more we're aware of that, the less we are applying that pressure maybe. And we're not aware we're doing it. If you've got a very independent dog, they're kind of resilient to a lot of this and it becomes a little bit more of a useful way to communicate without feeling you need to take over because they're physically so powerful in moving through the search area.

If we think of these powerful, big drivey dogs, but I find that it's the sheltie that loves its owner or a tiny little toy dog. Those are the dogs that if we know about pressure, we can actually be more thoughtful about applying it and have more success within the search area and know when we're starting to take over. Right? And we can kind of catch that a little bit more.

It is personal, right? Every handling system is a little bit different. Everybody comes from a different direction. And so if handler pressure in using it as a tool is within your handling system, cool, awesome. If it's not, it's not a problem either. But if you know that your pressure is there and what the impacts are, it's gonna be much more effective in allowing the dog to be able to work effectively.

So if we look at some of the handling systems that are much more dog led, right? And we just follow, follow, follow. If we're aware of our pressure, you can start becoming more aware of the moments when your dog has a tiny little change of behavior and they go, oh, what's that? If you're aware of that, you can say, oh, I'm gonna slow down a little bit. There was something that happened here and it allows your dog to then take over that search again.

Versus if we're not aware of that pressure, we might take one little extra step forward and the dog goes, okay, we're gonna leave it. We're gonna keep going. And it requires the dog to have so much more odor obedience or that strong push into our conflicting handling compared to what the odor is saying.

And so I find that the weaker the dog is at that conflict, right? They don't like to push against us, they'll just follow us no matter what. Then the more aware we are about the pressure, the easier it is to apply it.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So you've got a webinar coming up on all this stuff on May 16th at 3:00 PM Pacific time. Can you talk about that a little more? So a little on what you'll cover a little on maybe who might wanna join us?

Aleks Woodroffe: For sure. So the webinar, I've managed to convince all my students to submit a ton of videos because I find the easiest way to communicate what pressure is, is to watch it and actually see it happen in real life, basically. And so I've got all these great little examples of not necessarily like bad handling or something like that, but it's just the effect of our own handling and what it might affect in the dog. And it can be as subtle as a step or a decision to not go forward or a leash or changing our body position or a direction.

And so I've got a whole list of different videos that we'll go through and we'll look at how that affects the dog and then we'll break it down and say, okay, how might this cause some problems in the dog? So different kinds of problems like false alerts or displacement or maybe the dog missing a hide, especially when we look at the upper level competition, we've got much more difficult hides to work. How can we be thoughtful about pressure? And then going into how can we apply them as tools?

So breaking it down, what kind of situations why we might wanna do it, and then examples and watching videos of how those might be applied and how you might be able to do it with a whole bunch of different dogs.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, I like that it's, it's a lot of, you know, kind of being more thoughtful about how your choices impact the entire search.

Aleks Woodroffe: Yeah. Awareness, right? Being aware of those things.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So any final thoughts or maybe key points you wanna leave listeners with?

Aleks Woodroffe: I think the big thing is whether you take the webinar or not, to be more aware of what you're doing. And the easiest way to be able to do that, to figure out do am I applying pressure to my dog when I don't realize it is, watch some videos and recognize when is your dog doing changes of behavior, when are they actually working odor? And then what do you do in response? So if you can start seeing yourself do something that's maybe in conflict, so your dog is working back and forth trying to solve a problem, and then you take steps and walk away and your dog goes with you.

That's an example of pressure. Or we might have a situation where your dog is working pooling odor and they're thinking and they're going back and forth and trying to solve a problem and you're just facing them and standing there and continuing facing them and your dog starts looking at you.

That's an example of pressure. And so watching videos, watching yourself kind of looking at the dog first, what are the changes in behavior the dogs are showing? And then look at what you are doing in response. And typically we can start recognizing some different moments of pressure and what they might be doing for a dog. And then you can also experiment with it too. And I find that we get really worried about doing things that are maybe not traditionally like just follow your dog, but you can experiment while your dog is working something.

What if you shift your weight and open up a new direction? What does your dog do in response? Being curious about that answer will make you a better handler because it will help you learn what is your dog's response in those moments. And it will help you start to predict a little bit for odor.

You can start seeing how the odor is moving and then go, well, I think my dog might need to go to the right. So then you turn your hips open a little bit to the right, you take a tiny little step to the right and see what your dog does in response. If your dog says, Nope, I need to go to the left, then you move back and it's not a problem. It's not a bad thing. You just have had a nice little conversation that has happened.

Melissa Breau: Is that something that it makes more sense to do with known hides or is that something you know, is there, is there a difference there?

Aleks Woodroffe: For sure. I like handling with known hides because then you're able to much more easily read what the dog is doing because it's hard to know is my dog working?

Is my dog not working? Is this odor information what's going on? And so if you know where the hide is and have a rough estimate of where odor could be going, it will allow you to see and be able to kind of play around with your own handling in those moments. Now you can also do it if you have a person who's training with you or maybe a coach and they know where the hide is, so they might be able to verbalize what they're seeing for odor information. And then you can try different things based on your handling without knowing where the hide is. And that can be kind of a fun game to go back and forth with.

Melissa Breau: I like that. Well, thank you so much, Aleks, this has been fantastic!

Aleks Woodroffe: Yeah, thank you for having me on!

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks 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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