Sunday, February 13, 2011

Graduation Day...

What an exciting truffle hunting lesson!  ALL THREE pups got to go to today's scent lesson.  This batch of truffles would be our last for the season so we had a lot on the agenda.  We needed to progress the dogs to the next level before we lost access to fresh truffles and we wanted to test out some truffle oil during an extensive search session to determine if it would be an appropriate training tool.  Ideally we will train with actual truffles, but the oil would give us something to use for maintaining skills when we don't have access to the real thing.  We wanted to see how Da Vinci would handle moving away from scent boxes and continue to develop Cash's indicating skills.  We also really wanted to get Callie some practical experience before the season came to a close too...the challenge there being that she still has to be on leash and her activity carefully monitored.  She continues to rehab and is making very nice progress, but her environment must be controlled and activity limited.

We started by placing the truffles in two fields.  One larger field would be for Cash to search with several truffles tossed into the grass.  The smaller field had buried truffles as well as a cotton ball with truffle oil on it...this would be for Callie to search, allowing us to keep her search area small and introduce the challenge of uncovering the truffle.  And it would also show us if the oil was an effective training tool.  It was going to be a challenging day because of the wind, but the pups were up for it!

First we got Callie out.  This was her first time searching outside of the house/ yard...NO PROBLEM!  She was amazing!  She searched with such focus and intensity (not that any of us were surprised).  She would catch a scent and her head would whip around ("change of behavior") and lead us right to the truffle.  Then she would proceed to dig it up and toss it at me.  Excellent!  She dug up the oil coated cotton ball too!  I can't wait to see how she does off leash eventually...that will certainly be easier on me too!  She did so well, our instructor decided we would take her to a nearby park to "clear an area" of truffles or find any that might actually be growing.  That felt really good to hear :D

Next it was Cash's turn.  We went to the big field and sent him to work.  He is a softer dog, not as confident or driven, but he is very smart.  What that means is that we need to show him all of the behaviors he is responsible for when we hunt for truffles.  He needs to learn his responsibilities in smaller steps.  Find the truffle, tell me he found it and then show me where it is.  Each of these components has to be taught so he understands the activity as a whole.  Today's search was going to be a bit more challenging than past sessions because he would need to negotiate barriers like fences between him and the truffle and figure out how to work in the wind...problem solving!  At our last session he learned to bark at me and then re-find the truffle to "show me" where it was.  Today, our instructor wanted him to take the initiative to bark and get my attention...demanding that I look where he wants.  So off we went and slowly faded the guidance from me to alert when he found the truffle.  He got it.  We then took him to the smaller field with the buried truffles and cotton ball.  The wind was much higher here and he was overwhelmed with scent.  Silly boy was a barking fool!  "They are here!  They are here!  They are everywhere!"  He had to work really hard to locate the source with all that truffle scent swirling about, but he did it!  Bark bark bark..."show me"...and he would proceed to run to the truffle and lay down on it.  I'd dig it up and give him his treat.  Good boy!

It was Da Vinci's turn but the wind was going to make it too hard for him at this point.  So our instructor decided to head to the park nearby.  Callie would "clear" the area of truffles and find one that we placed at the end of the search area.  Then, once cleared, Da Vinci would get to work the area to find truffles we had placed.  Callie went straight to work and did great.  She worked the terrain for about 10 minutes before we allowed her access the area where we had placed a find.  Woohooo!  Way to go Sweet Callie.  Our instructor even said...and I quote..."I feel confident that if there were truffles out here, she would have found them."  Music to my ears (especially coming from her)!!!!

Da Vinci's turn!  We placed 3 truffles out in the open.  This would be his first time searching for them without scent boxes.  Challenging because as he is learning the scent, he also learns to target the boxes and find the one with a truffle in it.  Now, he had to rely only on his nose.  We had no doubt he could do it, but figuring out the change would be hard.  Even harder with all the distractions of a new location.  When we first got him out, he was wild from being crated for quite some time.  "TrovarloDa Vinci's attention and send him to search, we saw that he had found himself a powder covered doughnut.  He raced off with it but was a very good boy when I called him to me and traded him for a treat.  Then we sent him to search for the truffle...PERFECT!  He ran up the hill, caught the scent and honed in on it.  This time his nose went straight to the truffle!!!!  Yes!  Good puppy!  Lots of praise and a yummy yummy reward.

Success!  Now they are all wiped out and happy.  I think Callie might be in some sort of coma from sensory overload.  That was the most stimulating environment she has been in since her injury in November.  Happy dogs.  Good dogs!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Truffle Puppy...

We received a new shipment of truffles yesterday and I got Da Vinci working the scent right away. He has been off for about a week so I gave him a couple easy ones to remind his puppy brain of the game. Then it was time for some challenge. This time I set the scent box in a not-so-obvious place. He tried to be lazy and walk from box to box waiting for me to mark and reward...when that didn’t work, he decided he might want to use his talented little Terv. nose. Got it! For the next few, he was much quicker to put that sniffer to work! Good Da Vinci!

I'll repeat this exercise again tonight and tomorrow try a larger search area.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Confidence Sighting...

Last Sunday, we had another scent lesson working on truffles.  And it was fantastic!  I only took Cash to this lesson.  Callie is continuing rehab for her knee injury and Da Vinci is working scent boxes.  We were going truffle hunting at a local high school!  I arrived and walked with our instructor into the football stadium.  She had me toss 3 truffles outside of the perimeter fencing into the adjacent fields.  Three more were placed within the fencing at various locations...including one very tough one at the edge of some brush.  We went to get Cash and sent him to work...down wind from the first truffle.  I gave him his cue and off he went into his joyful gallop waiting for a waft of truffle scent to hit him and change his behavior into a scent seeking hound.  This was his first working environment with distractions...a dog at a neighboring house and a runner on the track.  I knew it would be hard for him.  Fearful Sheltie + strange dog + runner would usually lead to barking, defense mode and lack of focus.  However, I have seen glimmers of true confidence in him during two activities...herding and scent work.  Every so often, I see it...his face relaxes, the worry just drains from his body and he does what he instinctively knows how to do.  Those moments are few and far between and the most obvious times are when he is working the sheep.  But...when he is working a scent, I see moments of it...he calls off of distractions easier...and he seems to find that continuing to work the search is more rewarding than perusing that runner or barking dog near by.  We walked in a pattern on the fields waiting for him to find the first truffle.  He caught it's scent and zeroed in on it.  Good boy.  Time to teach him an alert/ indicator.  We asked him to "speak" and then sent him off to find another truffle.  He was on it right away.  This time he stood still over the truffle...we asked him to "speak"...he came to us and barked and then I asked him to "show me".  He took me right to it, poking his nose at the ground until I found it, placed it in my pocket and rewarded him.  I believe she called this a "recall re-find".  On to the next truffle...he barked, showed met the truffle and got his reward.  That particular truffle may have gone bad because it's the only one Cash had difficulty finding.  We leashed him up and went into the stadium.  Truffle it!  Truffle #2...Rockstar!!!  Truffle #3 at the edge of the brush...he worked at that one for longer, trying to figure out how to get to it...but he stayed on task and got it in the end.  This time he would bark at me and bark at the truffle...even getting impatient with me when I couldn't locate it!  He nudged it my way so I would pick it up and give him his reward.  Excellent!!!!  We gave him praise for a job well done and he walked next to us back to the car with a calm confidence that oozed with "I did it.  And I did it good!"

I've got more truffles on the way thanks to Oregon Truffle Oil ( and am hoping the season will last long enough for Callie to get out and do some off leash hunting in a couple weeks.  Da Vinci will continue to work on the scent boxes until he really understands the scent he is to hit on.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Buried Treasures...

It is fascinating to see how quickly dogs learn!  Since our last lesson, all three dogs have been continuing to work on the truffle scent.  I've had to modify training for Callie temporarily while she goes through stem cell treatment and rehab for her knee...she has a pretty short leash right now, but still working the scent successfully.  Hopefully in a month or so, we can go to some off leash or at least long line hunting.  In the meantime, I hide the truffle for her inside or in a designated area outside but make it harder for her to pin point the source. 

The day after our last lesson, I tried taking the older two to a nearby field to hunt for a truffle I had placed.  Poor decision on my part!  One...they weren't ready for that large of an area.'s the same field we take them to to play ball or frisbee so it's already "charged" with excitement for the game we always play there.  Three...WAY too many distracting smells from the snowman making fun the previous day.  Four...Callie can't have that much freedom yet if we are to get her healthy.  Ooops.  My mistake!  We somehow managed to be successful, but only with a lot of luck!  So, I had to remind myself that I need to make smart decisions when planning out their training sessions and decided to raise criteria in a different way...

With Cash, I stopped using a box or bag to put the truffle in and started hiding a single truffle outside and, after he found it, asking him to "show me" where it was...encouraging him to be specific and then giving him his reward at the source.  He did fantastic so the next step was to remove any sort of track I might be laying that would lead him to the truffle.  Next time, I walked out on the deck, tossed the truffle into the yard (while he was inside so he couldn't peek).  I Brought him outside and he knew what game we were going to play before I even said it..."trovarlo" ("find it" in Italian).  Winner!  Great find, Cash!

Da Vinci has been working the scent boxes, but I started to find that the leash may be giving him mixed signals.  He IS a puppy working on leash manners so I can't be upset that he was paying more attention to me than the boxes.  So, I gave it a try without the leash and he definitely used his nose more.  Made sense after I thought about why he wouldn't sniff the boxes...he was offering me good leash walking and waiting for a reward for THAT behavior, not the searching.  After taking the leash off, the game was a bit more disorganized, but the end result was what I wanted...he used his nose, stayed engaged in the game and worked to find the scent box that would earn his reward.  I think he started to "get it" that day!!!!!  Good puppy!  Not bad for a boy just shy of 5 months!

My goal for Callie this week was to remove her ball reward from the actual truffle site so that it came from me after she found the truffle AND showed me where it was.  Piece of cake.  She figured that out quick.  She even picked up the truffle and tossed it at me!!  Funny girl.

Today we raised criteria for Cash and Callie!  Today, I buried the truffle under a light layer of dirt.  ROCKSTARS!  Both dogs found the truffle and Callie even uncovered it with her nose.  Nicely done!

I'm fascinating at how quickly they learn if I take the time to think about the progression, raise criteria appropriately and take a step back when I've over-faced them.  They really don't train on the truffles a lot....maybe 2-3 hunts (less than 5 minutes).  I honestly spend more time thinking about my next training plan.  And when they get it right, I know I planned well.  I'm learning to be more thoughtful about training, rather than going for repetitions.  I'm so proud of all 3 of them!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mock Truffle Hunting...

Today marks day 5 since the dogs were introduced to the truffle scent. I've been having them work on the scent source 2-3 times each day and they are all progressing nicely. I spent a couple days working on identifying the scent and pairing their reward with it. Callie is moving along the fastest, but that is to be expected because she is so high drive and ball motivated. Cash seemed to have an "ah-ha" moment yesterday and he all of a sudden was confident that he knew what he was looking for. Da Vinci is still working on identifying the scent and will probably take some time to really make the association between his reward and the truffles. His older brother and sister have played many "find it" games so they are familiar with this game already. Yesterday was the first day I actually hid the truffles for Cash and Callie without using the scent boxes and that seemed to clear up any remaining confusion they had ("ahhh, it's that smell you are looking for...not a scent box!!!! I get it!").

We met with our instructor for a second lesson. This time, they would be searching outside and greater area. This was their first outside hunt. Cash and Da Vinci went to the lesson. Poor Callie is not quite recovered enough to be off leash in such an open area with uneven terrain. Cash worked for most of the lesson and he did REALLY well! He showed us all that he knows the scent source, and by his third hunt, he was totally on task and focused. Way to go, Little Buddy!!!! Da Vinci came out for a shorter session and we worked with the scent boxes. Let's just say he has not quite figured out the game...but, hey, he's 4 months old and never played a "find it" game before. Big brother and sis have an advantage. He's going to catch up in no time! We came home and hid the truffles in the backyard for Callie to work. For the first one, I walked on the outside of the fence, reached through and placed the truffles with her ball under a couple logs...that way I wouldn't lay any tracks inside the yard that she could follow. Wow! did she do great. She was on it from the release and no one had set foot in that side of the yard since last night! Two more hunts for her and she did great.

What a fun day...and the snow just made it even better :D

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Beginnings...

The grand adventure officially began today!!!!  Our first training truffles arrived, just 30 minutes before our first scent detection lesson...perfect timing!

The lesson went great...after the olfactory assault of opening the box!  The aroma of these gems is intense, offensive, enchanting, euphoric and addicting...and gives me a headache!  I took Cash and Da Vinci to the lesson.  Callie is still on restricted activity and would be TOO excited to focus so she had to stay home.  Cash worked during the lesson and I learned how to introduce each of the dogs to our "scent source", accommodating for their motivational differences.  All three dogs begin with scent boxes...learning to associate their reward with the box containing the truffles.  For Cash, it was a click and hot dog reward for "hitting" on the correct box.  For Callie, the truffles get paired with her squeaky ball.  Da Vinci will start with the clicker & food reward and possibly transition to a toy later.  In these beginning stages, the goal is to get them familiar with the scent, associating the pungent truffles with a reward, learning a verbal cue and possibly finding an "indicator" behavior.  By the end of the session, Cash offered a down, looked back to me or pawed at the box...we will see which he chooses.  After our lesson, we made the 35 minute drive home...which felt much longer being trapped in the car with the foul, yet intoxicating fumes.  I introduced Callie and Da Vinci to the truffle scent at home and they did their first scent box exercise.  Callie initially thought I wanted her to POUNCE on all containers she came across, but eventually realized that they did not all produce praise and her squeaky ball...then started to use her nose.  She is a smart, motivated girl who finds great satisfaction in working.  Her face said it all when we were finished!  We will see how she does tomorrow!  Da Vinci was very thoughtful and a bit too focused on me so the clicks and rewards probably seemed a bit random to him...but I have a suspicion the game will look much different with him tomorrow.  He is a thinker and may show a whole different understanding once he has time to process this new game.  On his last exercise, he really put his nose to work...was it an ah-ha moment or a random coincidence?

While we have the truffles (7-12 days before they deteriorate), we will train hard.  Another lesson is set for Sunday.  Before then, I hope to establish a verbal cue and clear understanding of the scent they are searching for.  Until then, we will celebrate the launch of our grand adventure with a very appropriate selection of wine.