Foundation training: Giving your dog the strongest start

Foundation is a term that appears many different places in nose work. You will hear it from your instructor when you start training; it will appear in groups and online forums talking about troubleshooting; and, if you are competing, you’ll hear from certifying officials and judges. Typically it is used in reference to your dog’s foundation training, although there are foundation skills for handlers, too–we’ll talk about those another time.

What is foundation training? You can think of a foundation in nose work much like the foundation of a house: the essential building blocks upon which the structure is going to rest. In nose work, the “structure” we are trying to build is a strong and productive search dog. If we try and put a roof and siding on a house before there is a solid framework and foundation to hold it, we run the risk of the whole thing falling in around our ears. Similarly, without a strong foundation in our nose work dogs, we are likely to encounter major problems later on in training.

So, what are our nose work foundations?

  1. The drive to hunt.
    Our early lessons focus on building your dog’s desire to hunt above all else. Hunting is an intrinsically rewarding activity for dogs; the action of sniffing and searching actually releases feel-good chemicals in their brain (called endorphins) that complement the reward they are given for the “find” itself. Starting our training with a primary target (food or toy) that your dog LOVES seals the connection between your dog’s natural hunting drive and the nose work game, making nose work the best thing since sliced bread to your dog.
  2. Independent searching
    The lives of our companion dogs revolve around their humans. They are uniquely attuned to your movements, reactions, and desires. When we say “Jump,” many ask “How high?” which is an asset in obedience-related activities, like rally or agility. However, in nose work, our nose is so inferior that we don’t have enough information to give our dogs detailed instructions. With their much more powerful nose, they can solve problems we can’t even begin to comprehend! Success in nose work relies on the dog leading the search and dog and handler being equal members of a team. So, it is essential that we take your dog out of “handler-focused obedience” mode to allow his or her natural hunting, scenting, and problem solving behaviors to come to the fore.

If we focus on building this foundational framework, the dog will soak up future nose work lessons like a sponge because he or she loves the game.

“Great! We did all these things in our basic classes,” a handler asks, “Why do I need to think about foundations in my NW2/NW3/Elite search dog?” While a good foundation is strong, it also needs maintenance over time. No matter how strong a dog’s foundation was to start, if we don’t keep the activity fun and rewarding, the dog’s enthusiasm will wane. Reinforcing foundation skills keeps things fun for the dogs and will make for a much stronger team in the long run. For example, occasionally pairing hides with a primary reward, even in dogs working at advanced levels, excites their natural hunt drive and reinforces their independence.

It is so important to remember that advanced problem solving in nose work–even when a dog makes it look easy–is hard work, and doing too much of it runs the risk of burnout, in both you and your dog. In contrast, ensuring that foundation-building activities have a place in your regular practice routine keeps things fun for everyone.

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