Many dogs love to retrieve, but in canine nosework, mouthing, biting and retrieving are problematic. Nosework is inspired by bomb detection training, where biting and retrieving are unsafe ways for a dog to indicate the presence of explosives. Accordingly, in nosework, “aggressive” behaviors such as biting, chewing, and digging are undesirable and may be faulted. Retrieving is not the best way for a dog to show the location of the target odor, especially when it’s in an inaccessible location such as 4 feet up on a light post, or inside a cabinet.
WHY DOGS MOUTH HIDES
Your dog is more likely to retrieve nosework hides if (s)he has a history of rewards for retrieving, such as:
- Fetching balls or Frisbees
- Retrieving objects or game birds
- Playing tug
- Mouthing toys
- Playing with boxes
- Competing in formal obedience with dumbbell retrieves, and/or
- Retrieving gloves and articles during tracking.
It’s critically important to note that mouthing and licking odor are natural components of a dog’s experience of olfaction. Even dogs unfamiliar with retrieving, of all breeds and sizes, will tend to put their mouth at the target odor, licking, tasting and mouthing the odor to take it all in. Dr. Randy Kidd, DVM, PhD noted how “Search and rescue dog handlers notice that many of their dogs lick the air, as if to give additional input into their “scents-ability”1.
Taste and smell are integral components of mammals’ chemosensation system, which gives us information about chemicals in our environment. Have you ever noticed how food doesn’t taste as good when you have a cold? According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, “much of what you taste is really caused by smell…. If you hold your nose while eating chocolate, for example, you will have trouble identifying the chocolate flavor, even though you can distinguish the foods sweetness or bitterness. This is because the familiar flavor of chocolate is sensed largely by odor. So is the well-known flavor of coffee”2.
REHEARSING UNDESIRABLE BEHAVIORS STRENGTHENS BAD HABITS
Since taste and smell are interdependent, don’t be frustrated if your dog occasionally mouths odor during scent detection. Nonetheless retrieving is undesirable in nosework, so you do not want this to become a habit. Mouthing can become a tricky issue to deal with, especially if you want the dog to continue to retrieve outside nosework.
If your dog is consistently mouthing, biting or retrieving hides, stop practising! You need to figure out how to change your practices to set the dog up for success. Some ideas follow.
- CHANGE THE CONTAINER
Rather than correcting the dog in any way for putting his mouth on the target odor, a strategy that generally helps prevent mouthing, while maintaining enthusiasm, is to package and position the target odor in a way that discourages retrieving. For example, avoid hiding odor in soft objects such as socks, cloth bags, pipes and cylinders, balls, and soft toys, and look for ways to hide odor such that it makes retrieving unappealing and less likely. The left photo shows my go-to green metal suet container purchased from a home improvement store in the garden section for approximately $5.00. When you place the odor inside the suet container, very few dogs want to retrieve the hide.
One of my favourite ways to encourage a nose touch rather than a retrieve, is to place the target odor inside a double walled cardboard box with a round hole (approx. 2.5 inches’ diameter), as shown in the centre photo. Dogs will tend to sniff near the hole where odor is strongest, without trying to retrieve the box. Another option is to place the target odor inside a Rubbermaid plastic container. If necessary, you can put a weight (such as discs used for weightlifting or a brick) inside the box and/or tape the container closed, so the dog can’t move it around as much. Also, if your dog finds a hide in a container and is moving it around, you can step on the container to keep it still so they dog can more easily keep his nose passively at source.
2. FIRMLY SECURE THE HIDE TO THE UNDERLYING SURFACE
When you place target odor in a small tin (see right photo), many dogs tend to retrieve the tin. You can decrease retrieving if you adhere the tin very strongly to a surface. For example, I commonly use 3 rare earth magnets in a tin, attached to a metal surface and/or high tack glue dots. Glue dots are used to attach pieces of paper to a new credit card. They are available in rolls from Uline (http://www.uline.com/BL_7550/Glue-Dots-Dispenser-Box) in both the USA and Canada. Judges love using glue dots in exterior and vehicle searches, when they don’t want the target odor to fall off the surface onto the ground, despite repeated enthusiastic bumping by dogs. The only caveat is that the glue dots stick so well, they are time-consuming to remove and can leave a gummy residue or even damage a delicate surface. Strong magnets are an alternative, but they only work with magnetic surfaces, and you must always be careful to prevent dogs from ingesting magnets which could cause illness or even death.
3. NO RETRIEVING
While you’re teaching a dog to indicate odor without retrieving, you are more likely to succeed quickly if you abstain from asking the dog to retrieve any other object for a while. Once you’ve trained the indication behavior you want in nosework, then retrieving can be reintroduced.
4. CHANGE THE HEIGHT OF THE HIDES
When you position the target odor closest to the ground, some large dogs are less likely to try to retrieve it than if it was placed around nose level where it is easily accessible. (Having said that, lower hides may encourage touching with paws, and digging is undesirable too.) As always, notice the behavior your dog is offering during practices and decide if you want to continue to strengthen that behavior, or change things up to encourage a different behavior.
5A. AVOID BLIND SEARCHES
Seeking a miracle cure? The truth is that rewarding quickly is the most important thing a handler can do to prevent mouthing. If you deliver timely rewards for the first few formative sessions, your dog will have a much clearer idea about what you want. If you are uncertain what you want, then you will delay rewards and your session will be less rewarding and more unclear.
While you’re working on preventing mouthing, use hides where you know the location, and click or say yes the instant the dog touches his nose to the target odor. Follow up by delivering the reward at source, ideally within 2 seconds. The later you are, the more frustration behaviors your dog will offer, including mouthing, biting, chewing, pawing, digging, barking, etc.
Many people want progress quickly to blind searches. While blind searches are fun, they may perpetuate problem behaviors when introduced too early, when the dog lacks a solid indication. It is critically important to remember that blind searches work on the handler’s skills, while known searches work on the dog’s skills. You can’t work on both at the same time! When the handler does not know the location of the hide, there is inevitably a delay while the person recognises that the dog is at source, and/or shows “where is it”. The dog may find the target odor several times, be pulled away from source, called off, or just ignored, further delaying their reward. In comparison, by practising short, easy searches where you know the location of the hide, you can focus on timely rewards at source and improve your dog’s skills.
5B. FOCUS ON IMMEDIATE REWARD DELIVERY
Instead of worrying about how long it takes your dog to complete searches, or the duration of your dog’s indication, most teams benefit from decreasing the delay between finding the hide and delivery of the reward at source. Timely rewards increase clarity, understanding and motivation.
If you have a hard time rewarding quickly, try some or all of these suggestions:
- Your reward must be ready to deliver as soon as the dog finds the hide. You don’t have time to search for rewards or open clunky containers. If you take too long to reward, your dog may leave source and you missed a golden opportunity. For dogs who are distracted when you hold food in your hand, hide the hand holding the food in your pocket. Many trainers find it helpful to wear a nosework vest, where they can store the rewards in accessible pockets and help avoid dropping food as well as making it easier to deliver the reward.
- If your physicality means that you cannot move quickly to source, then consider throwing the reward at source. Of course, throwing rewards only works with small, light items that won’t hurt or scare the dog. First ensure that the dog is not scared by having the object thrown at or near him, away from the nosework environment. Try making a game out of throwing and catching the reward to verify whether it is rewarding for your dog in that particular environment. For dogs that are not motivated by toys, you can avoid having distracting food strewn about the floor by placing food rewards inside a fabric bait bag or plastic yogurt container.
- Try a shorter leash e.g. 4-6 feet, so your dog is closer to you, so you can get to source more quickly.
- Use a clicker to mark the instant your dog finds the target odor. This marks finding the source, and buys you a few seconds time to deliver the reward at source. Clickers are very helpful for dogs beginning nosework. First ensure that the dog is not scared by the audible click, away from the nosework environment. If you don’t have a clicker or the dog is scared of clickers, try saying “yes” to verbally mark the instant the dog reaches source.
- Some dogs may be motivated by finding the same hide twice. You can set up on the left side of the room to quickly search a few boxes and reward ASAP. When you’re done rewarding, lure the dog away from source to the right side of the room. Spin around and search the same set of boxes once again.
- Find a training partner and challenge yourselves to improve your reward delivery. One handler holds the leash and follows behind the dog’s butt, while the other partner clicks when the dog finds source, and delivers the reward at source ASAP. Dividing the responsibility allows each person to focus on doing fewer tasks, more effectively. You can also try switching roles.
- Practice rewarding without your dog(s) so you can get the mechanics of managing a leash, clicker and food efficiently.
- What’s measured gets managed. Try videotaping your training sessions, especially if you’re training by yourself, so you can measure how long it takes you to deliver rewards and keep track of your progress.
6. PAIR WISELY
Some dogs are motivated by pairing odor with food so they can self reward. For example, you can put a hide inside an open box, then put a food reward on top of it. As soon as the dog finds the hide, he can grab his reward immediately, even if your timing is terrible. Paradoxically, other dogs don’t respond well to pairing odor with food, or the presence of food distractions. They may exhibit mouthing, digging, and frantic activity when food is present. In such cases, once the dog is on odor and truly understands his job, you may be better off avoiding pairing and food distractions in order to decrease mouthing and aggressive responses.
As always, when your training isn’t working, stop training and figure out what you need to change to set your dog up for success! The more repetitions your dog performs of finding odor and indicating by a nose touch, or any other behaviour different from retrieving, the stronger the desired indication becomes. When you introduce challenging scenarios later as he gains experience, the dog will be less likely to mouth or retrieve, even when odor is hidden in tempting clothing or on a plush toy.
Hopefully these tips help avoid undesirable mouthing of hides in canine nosework, and shape a more ideal indication behaviour. Questions and comments are always welcome.