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Observations and Reflections: the Andrew Ramsey Method of Training Nose Work

Author: Dawn Archer Pizzoferrato, ABCDT

nosedreamstime_11906739I recently had the opportunity to attend an Andrew Ramsey Nose Work seminar.  Andrew Ramsey is a dog trainer who is one of the primary developers of the UKC Nose Work program.  I audited the first day of a two-day seminar in the Detroit area. With the growing popularity of the Nose Work sport, the United Kennel Club has jumped on board in developing a program of their own and who could blame them. Since the UKC is headquartered in Kalamazoo, Michigan, we are seeing many of their Nose Work programs popping up all over the state.  So I took this opportunity to find out what it was all about.  I came away from the seminar with quite a few opinions of this program, some good, some not so good.

First of all, I would like to tell you what I found out about Andrew Ramsey.  Andrew is young (33-years-old) and I found him to be engaging, funny, and quirky (and I like quirky!).  Most of Andrew’s training experience is with the US military where he started in the detection dog puppy-breeding program and moved on to actually training detection dogs. The breed of dog he grew up with and still owns today is the Dachshund. He also owns a Belgian Malinois, and thus has a lot of personal and professional experience with high-drive working dogs. In addition to offering group classes in the San Francisco area, he now travels around the country giving Nose Work seminars and working with UKC to develop their Nose Work program.  There are already some significant differences between the NACSW and the UKC title trials, including the addition of two more odors, Vetiver and Myrrh along with 5 title levels.

Box searching in my K9 Nose Work class

Box searching in my K9 Nose Work class

Now, on to more specifics of the seminar! As I mentioned earlier, while I only audited the class, I was also able to observe several working teams.  Most of the dogs in these teams were high drive working dog breeds. There were several shepherds (Dutch, Belgian, German and Australian), a Rottweiler, a Toller, a Jack Russell and even a Beauceron.  And many of the handlers were professional trainers or highly experienced sport dog handlers.  There were maybe a couple of casual pet owner-handlers.

The room was set-up with a line of various container type objects.  These were of three types, plastic “office organization” dresser drawers, cardboard boxes (all the same size and shape) standing on end with a round hole, and plastic bins with lids. These containers were in a line, up against a wall alternating between the three types. Andrew explained to us that he doesn’t use boxes because they elicit too much play and pawing behavior from the dogs. And he doesn’t introduce box searches until the dog is on odor and giving a trained final response.

There was a screen in place, which blocked the view of the container line from the dog waiting to search.  Andrew used a treat tube to put the dog’s primary reward in, which he shook to get the dog’s attention. Andrew immediately started with a pattern search. He placed the primary reward on a plate/shallow bowl inside the bottom drawer of the first dresser. The drawer was left open.  This was the only open drawer in the line.  The dog and handler come out from behind the screen and waited a short distance from the open drawer. Andrew asks the handler to “hold” there as he shakes the tube containing the treats. This peaks the dogs attention and they try to move towards Andrew.  The dog is held there on a taut line as Andrew pretends to drop the treat tube in the drawer (he really places it under his arm) and taps the drawer with his hand. This tap is the signal to the handler to allow the dog to move forward, investigate the drawer, and reap the reward.  The dog is then pulled off the drawer, brought behind the screen and this hide is repeated.

The third hide is then placed in the second plastic dresser drawer, which is right beside the first. The first drawer is left open.  When the dog is in place, Andrew again shakes the treat tube, pretends to drop it in the first drawer, and then taps the drawer.  The handler then releases the dog, allowing it to investigate the first drawer. When no treat is found, it immediately checks out the drawer next door and finds the treat there.  This is repeated all along down the row of boxes and bins and dresser drawers.  Also, as the dog leaves each empty drawer and moves on to the next, Andrew walks along with it, never moving in front of the dog.

Working an elevated hide in my K9 Nose Work class.

Working an elevated hide in my K9 Nose Work class.

All the dogs did very nicely finding the hides during these searches. They all followed the pattern, each one sticking his head into each new open drawer until eventually finding the food, except one dog. This was the dog I knew had already had NACSW Nose Work training. When the hide had been place down the row a little ways, this particular dog bypassed many of the open drawers and went right for that drawer where the food was hidden.  In contrast, there was a handler (a very experienced handler), who, when his dog bypassed a drawer, would bring his dog all the way back to the beginning to search all the drawers again, each one in order.

In the afternoon, searching for odor began.  The searches were with paired odor and went pretty much the same as the morning searches, except about half way through, Andrew started closing the drawers where the paired odor was hidden just as the dog reached it and he brought out the clicker. Being a clicker trainer in the obedience world, I was especially curious on how he would use the clicker in this venue. When the dogs found the drawer where the pair odor was located, Andrew took hold of the lead making it taut. When the dog stopped sniffing and just focused on the crack of opening in the drawer, he clicked and opened the drawer, letting the dog eat. There didn’t seemed to be any ill effects from having the drawer closed on the noses of these very high drive dogs. But if any of the dogs pawed at a drawer the next hide was elevated in an attempt to stop any pawing. Eventually, as the afternoon progressed the drawers started out closed and the dog was clicked for the behavior of focus at the crack in the drawer. Andrew said he required both behavior and position from the dog to earn a click and an open drawer.

Andrew finished with a short lecture explaining why he opposes boxes, waiting to introduce odor, a lengthy process of pairing hides, and why he trains final responses so soon.  His support for his opposition to all of these practices was essentially that if it’s something that you need eventually, why not train it from the start? He spoke a short while about “pet” dogs, saying that they are typically too well fed to have much drive for Nose Work and they may take more time and work.

Working the room with lots of distractions!

Working the room in my K9 Nose Work class with lots of distractions!

As I indicated earlier, I came away liking some things, so let me start with those.  I liked Andrew. Like I said, he is quirky. His nerdy intelligence was fun to watch.  I also like the little treat tube he used and will try to find one for my own clicker training use.  In my view, the plastic drawers could be quite useful in “inaccessible hide” exercises.  And, I like the suet cages he used. He placed odor in plastic cups then placed them in the suet cages. This way, the dogs were able to get a great whiff of odor, without being able to actually come in contact with the q-tip.  That was really it. That’s all I liked.

Now I can let you in on what I didn’t care for. I did not like pattern searches.  Isn’t the goal of Nose Work to find the odor?  Of course it is.  So why care about how the dog gets to it? I understand that eventually in the training process, the handler is going have be aware of areas that may not have been covered, and “clear the room,” but in the beginning, it should be about the hunting game.

This brings me to my primary disagreement with this training technique. This training method is very focused on the dog alerting on the odor, not the dog “seeking” the hide.  In the book Animals Make Us Human, Dr. Temple Grandin writes about “seeking” in animals.  In “The Blue-Ribbon Emotions” chapter, Dr. Grandin quotes Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University. Dr. Panksepp calls SEEKING “the basic impulse to search, investigate, and make sense of the environment.”  Dr. Grandin goes on to say, “SEEKING is a very pleasurable emotion.”  And the pleasure felt when SEEKING is the pleasure of “looking forward” to something good, not the pleasure of “having” something good. Think about the beagle who has gotten lost while on a really hot rabbit track … but who never catches the rabbit.  Does that Beagle have any less fun during the hunt than the Beagle that actually catches its quarry? I think not.  Obviously “finding” food after hunting is a huge reward for the search. But, in my view, the love of the “hunt” is not diminished with the lack of a “kill.” Obviously hunger will build drive. After all, when it comes to dogs, their work ethic, as well as their entire relationship with humans, it is and always has been about the food.  It’s what brought us together in the first place and it’s what keeps us together.  But something other than hunger drives dogs to hunt. Pleasure.

WATCH Chip learn to hunt, build drive, and trust his nose in just a few short sessions of his K9 Nose Work® Class!

So when a Nose Work training method reduces the “seeking” portion of the hunt, only to concentrate on the end result (final response), I have to wonder if really about the dogs, or is this method more about the handlers?

I started to wonder about this as I thought about WHO was attending this particular seminar, mostly very experienced dog sport handlers and trainers, with already high drive working dogs.  These are exactly the types of students I’ve had in my classes who were the most difficult to get to sit back and let the dog work.  They constantly wanted to interject themselves into the searches in one way or the other.  During this seminar, this type of handler LOVED it when Andrew closed the drawers on their dog’s heads, held their dogs back until they gave a focused stare at the drawer and forced the dogs into a trained final response within a few searches. I’m sure many of these dogs will go on to get quite a few Nose Work titles. But I wonder how the “pet” dogs who are trained under this method will react? How are all those over-fed Poodles and Shit Tzus we see in our classes every week going to like this training? And, what about reactive dogs? Will this type of training increase a dog’s stress instead of reduce stress as we have found with NACSW-style Nose Work? With this method so focused on the “final response,” I wonder how many of these dogs will start alerting on things other than odor. When the search becomes about behavior instead of searching, this is a big, and unfortunate, possibility.

I found this UKC training method is more about “getting” a dog to search and find odor instead of “letting” or “allowing” a dog search and find odor.  This is where I believe the NASCW K9 Nose Work® training method is superior to the UKC/Ramsey method.  From start to finish, the NACSW method is more about the dog than the handler.  From where I, my dogs, and my student’s dogs stand, that’s just fine. Because in the end, I think we will not only have happier dogs, but also more successful dogs. Only time will tell.

Learn more about Dawn and let her help you get  your dog on target!

Dawn is an Animal Behavior College Certified Dog Trainer, an experienced Nose Work Instructor, an AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluator, a certified Therapy Dog International® Evaluator, and the owner of Arrow Dog Training.  Dawn is AnnaBelle’s resident clicker training specialist and she can help you Get Your Dog on Target!

Dawn uses scientifically proven “clicker training” and “free shaping” to teach your dog all the basics plus other fun, useful behaviors. She uses operant conditioning and positive reinforcement, without correction, to help you and your dog build a bond of trust and respect.

In addition to presenting Doggie Do Good clicker classes, Dawn also offers Nose Work and TDI® classes. Dawn’s group classes are taught at AnnaBelle’s on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. Click here to see her complete class schedule!

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One Response to “Observations and Reflections: the Andrew Ramsey Method of Training Nose Work”

  1. sharon says:

    I liked this article. It was informative and very well presented. It expressed an opinion that I thought was well thought out. I believe you gave equal balance to both sides of the issue. I agree with you. Since I don’t have a ‘high drive’ dog or an extremely competitive nature, I probably will not be enrolling in Mr. Ramsey’s class. Shouldn’t this be fun? Maybe we should have a class where we could practice what we’ve learned or we could attend mock ORT’s for the fun of it. I, personally, don’t need any added stress.

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