The Trainer’s Role

At first, your dog will learn to search for food in a food bowl. The cues to searching are the lab setup and the handler bangs the bowl on the floor.

Your trainer will:

  • Start the session with a taste test to find the treats your dog wants most today
  • Tease your dog on the start line with food, while you restrain your dog at the start line
  • Bang the food bowl on the floor to cue the dog to start searching (you release your dog when you hear the bang and let him pull ahead)
  • Mark with “yes”/click the instant the dog is correct (his nose is at the food bowl or hole in the box where target odor is strongest)
  • Deliver several rewards at source
  • Repeat this process for 3-15 searches
  • Tell you stop while dog is having fun and wants more.

The trainer sets up searches that are suitable for the level of the dog’s confidence and skill. Later she’ll add odor to the bottom of the food bowl: this is called “odor paired with food”. Next you’ll progress to the stage where sometimes there is food and sometimes there isn’t. When the food is removed altogether, your dog is “on odor” i.e. finding the target odor by itself, no longer using the lure of food.

Important Note: When we introduce scent detection for the first time, we are forming a positive association and high value food is what creates the drive for the work. Someday, food will be a distraction. (Yes, in advanced levels, the judge intentionally puts distraction food and toys in the search area and your dog must ignore them to find the target odor.)

If the dog is distracted by the environment, either the dog is not comfortable in the environment/situation and/or the dog is not obedient to odor. (This gives rise to the saying that “distraction is a drive problem”. If your dog loves searching, he is unlikely to stop searching to interact with a distraction. But this level of training is a series of steps we’ll systematically move towards. For now, there will be no intentional distractions, food is the motivator and reward, and we’ll practice many short successful searches so you and the dog are confident and know exactly what to do, and do it well.

SEARCHING AND FINDING Your dog must practice many times in the lab to learn how to search and “find it”. At the beginning you should only work on short easy searches where you know where the hide is.

Every dog learns at his own rate. You need to go at your dog’s speed and patience will pay off. If you follow the plan outlined in our foundation training in the lab, you and your dog will be successful.

The Final Goal

Many searches in the future, when the dog is great at finding the target odor in any environment with any distraction, we’ll shape an “indication”. The dog will learn to perform a specific behavior only when he’s located the highest concentration of target odor, within 2-6 inches. This trained indication behavior is reliable and repeated. It shows you the exact location of the source.

My favored indication is when the dog freezes like a statue staring at source with focussed attention (as shown in the photo).

Note that this freeze indication looks slightly different depending on the height of the target odor. If the odor is low, the dog may lie down while getting as close to source and freeze there. If the odor is high, the dog may put his feet up on a wall or support to stretch up with his nose and then freeze there.

Other trainers may prefer to train different indications such as sit, down or bark. But not matter what indication is chosen, the indication Behaviour should be “passive” so it doesn’t disturb the search area. (The underlying reason has its roots in the idea that bomb detection dogs should never dig or chew the bomb or it would explode). Therefore we need to train in a way that avoids “aggressive indications” such as digging or chewing/biting, which result in disqualification in nosework competition. We’ll train your dog to freeze his nose to source over and over again in the lab to earn rewards, until this indication behavior is like auto-pilot because automatic muscle memory is in place and strong.

With this goal in mind, here’s a few tips you can put into practice now:

  • Neither handler nor trainer should ever show a dog where the target odor is! That’s not helpful. Your dog needs to find target odor without your help, NOT when the going gets tough, he can quit and you’ll take over.
  • The dog must never know how many rewards he’ll get at source. If the dog knows he’ll only get 1 reward, then he may anticipate and leave source quickly. Dogs who sniff and go are confusing to their handlers when the handler doesn’t know the location of the hide. If you give several rewards at source, the dog will tend to stay focussed at source waiting for more rewards.
  • The trainer always rewards “AT SOURCE”. Her hand should touch the source, not just reward in the air close to source. We are aiming for pinpointing the location of target odor within 2-6 inches.

We want dogs to learn to find the source i.e. the highest concentration of odor. Imagine walking into a mall with cinnamon buns. You may smell the odor 30 feet away from the buns. But finding the source would mean the exact location of the bun within 2-6 inches. Therefore, reward placement is hugely important!

You get what you reward. If you reward close to source, your dog will stay close to source, not AT SOURCE. You will not be able to say within 2 inches where the source is.

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