In the sport of nosework (or scent detection) dogs search for a target odor that has been secretly placed in each of the four ‘elements’. Dogs must learn to search containers (like boxes or suitcases), interior spaces, exterior spaces and vehicles. In a nosework trial dogs can be asked to search any kind of vehicle. My dog Mabel has had to search horse trailers, SUVs, and tractors, besides just regular old sedans, and there can be 3-5 vehicles, with anywhere from one to three ‘hides’ placed for the dog to find.
My young dog Billie is just learning how to do a vehicle search. My older dog Mabel needs some confidence boosting, and to rediscover her love of vehicle searching. So with both dogs, I’ve been working a fun exercise called “Running Bunny”.
What exactly is a “Running Bunny”?
Running Bunny is a technique for moving the target odor around a car. When dogs realize that the ‘bunny’ is moving around the car, they become very focused on the vehicle and begin to search as if glued to it.
There are a number of ways to do Running Bunny. The method you choose should be based on the experience of your dog. Each method has pros and cons.
This method requires only one tin of odor, but two people. Your assistant will be placing the tin on the car, moving it in increments around the vehicle while you re-set your dog for searching. At each find, reinforce your dog generously and then encourage your dog back to the start line again. As you are doing that, your assistant should move the tin to the next position on the car. Typically, when you direct your dog to search he will head for the first spot he found the “bunny”. When he realizes it’s not there, he’ll move around the car using his nose to hunt for it and pinpoint its location.
• This is my preferred method with a dog new to nosework – very simple, single hides and with someone else moving the tin around the whole exercise just flows.
• Your assistant doesn’t have to be very knowledgeable about nosework – they just need to follow your instructions about moving the tin.
• If you keep things moving smoothly, there is a high rate of reinforcement.
• You need an assistant. So if you’re like me and decide to train on the spur of the moment this can become difficult.
Method 1.0 (version 2 – going solo)
This method requires only one tin of odor and one person (you!). This is the same as version 1 – you’ll just be leaving your dog in a sit stay and re-setting the tin yourself.
• You don’t need to ask anyone for help.
• You lose some of the flow as you have to move the tin yourself.
• Your dog must have some kind of wait or stay.
This is a multiple tin set-up. You’ll need 6 tins and 1 person. Place the tins evenly around the car – on the front bumper, the back bumper, and two on each side.
Work your dog starting close to one of the bumpers. Reinforce your dog generously at each find and then set your dog up as if for a new search. If your dog misses a hide, just keep moving. As long as your dog is sticking to the car and moving along, then the method is working.
• You can set it all up yourself – no help needed, and then you can work the exercise without assistance.
• Keeps a high rate of reinforcement for the dog. There are no long stretches with nothing to find, which is what normally happens in vehicle searches.
• This is not the best method for a very green dog, as the multiple hides (and the converging odors) can be confusing. I rarely work multiple hides, even with an experienced dog. But you can get away with multiple hides in this exercise because it ends up being a series of short directed searches.
Where can Bunnies Hide?
Placement of the odor tin is important and depends on the level of training of your dog. With a green dog (young and/or inexperienced like Billie), or with a dog relearning vehicle searches (like Mabel) the tins should be at about nose height. As your dog’s confidence in searching grows, you can vary the height of the hides.
Start with just one car. Once your dog is sticking to the vehicle and moving around it without being easily distracted, add another car with no odor on it. Now your dog has some serious scent puzzles to work out.
For most of my training I also make the hides ‘accessible’ – that means the dog can put their nose right on the source of the odor. On a vehicle, accessible generally means a wheel well, behind the license plate or tucked in the crack of a door. Once that’s easy then you can increase the challenge with inaccessible hides – that means that the hide is not easily reached by the dog (usually behind a wheel, or slightly under the chassis).
In my “Find it!” Intro to the Elements classes, dogs learn to search vehicles (as well as the other 3 elements) and Running Bunny is the first car search they do. Watch this video to see Method 2.0 in action as Mabel works her ‘vehicle rehab’.