This video shows the first step in training a rock solid indication: https://youtu.be/EeDguH0ZJ8o
The goal of this session is for the puppy to form a positive association with one hot indication box. He should confidently rush to the box, put his muzzle deep in the hole and lie down. You should use up a handful of rewards in a 3 minute training session. When the food is gone, it’s time to stop the session.
Prerequisites – This course will be easier if your puppy is operant, understands a clicker, targets objects independently at a distance, and comfortable lying down. Ideally, your dog should be proficient at searching for target odor, as learned in our scent detection lab.
Make or Choose Your Indication Box
You’ll need at least one indication box, and can work up to 12 similar looking boxes to set up a UKC Pre-Trial.
For easiest training, build a 12 x 12” square, wooden box with 2 holes, each approx. 4.5” diameter. There should be a centre partition with ventilation holes to separate the front side with the holes from the rear side with an opening where you can insert your hide. Watch this video for details and dimensions: https://youtu.be/maHYdNHcyjE.
Or, use what you have. For example, cut 2 holes in an empty case of 24 beer, a Rubbermaid container, or the white cardboard boxes we sell.
SAFETY NOTE: When using wood or metal boxes, it is critically important that the size of the hole is NOT similar to the dog’s head size. If the hole is about the size of the dog’s head, the dog’s head can get stuck in the box. Rigid materials mean you’ll need to cut the box open to release the dog, resulting in a negative experience. If the hole is much larger or much smaller than the dog’s head, then the head can’t get stuck. If you have any concerns, stay safe and use a cardboard box instead. If a dog’s head gets stuck in a cardboard box, you can rip the box open with your hands to quickly release him.
Wooden boxes are more durable and easier to train, but also heavier. Cardboard boxes are easy to purchase and cheaper, but they will tend to fall apart with repeated use
The front hole of your box needs to be close to the ground. The height depends on the height of your dog. The dog needs to be able to lie down (with his elbows touching the ground) at the same time as his muzzle is pressed deep into the hole. If your hole is too high off the ground, it will be impossible for the puppy to put his muzzle inside the hole while lying down. In our classes, we have 2 boxes available for use:
- Small/puppy version – bottom of the hole is 2 inches off the ground
- Tall/adult version – bottom of the hole is 5 inches off the ground
Regardless of which box type you choose, you can make it more stable (so it moves less) by inserting a brick or weight inside. Also, set your box up against a wall, to make it less likely to move.
What You’ll Need
- One hot indication box (see above)
- One metal tin or hide containing target odor, placed inside the indication box
- One hungry dog
- Irresistible food rewards e.g. our litters of pups love elk meat baked and cut into pea sized pieces. Your hungry dog should be salivating and trying his best to get at treats he loves. Alternatively, you can feed your dog all his dinner, a piece at a time, from the nosework box. Other options for treats include: turkey wieners, boiled hamburger, rotisserie chicken, rollover, homemade non-crumbling nosework treats, moist canned food for picky eaters, baked canned gastro food, or whatever your dog loves. You’ll need a few handfuls of treats to last throughout a 3-minute session, where you reward frequently.
- Ideally, use a clicker as a moment marker. Or say “yes” the instant the dog is successful. In our courses, we use these terms interchangeably: click, mark, or say yes, since they all tell the dog the instant he was successful.
- One hot box with a tin containing target odor inside. Put the box against a wall, fence or other stable structure to ensure it moves as little as possible
- Distraction free environment inside your home where your dog can work off leash – Ideally the exercise should be performed off leash so that performance is independent of any leash handling. There should be no food or toys on the floor and no other dogs. (If a puppy feels insecure in the presence of other dogs, he may be afraid to lie down.) Avoid areas where dogs have eliminated since that makes it more likely your dog will eliminate during training.
If your puppy tries to leave the area, you can tap the box with your hand inside to get his attention back on the box. If he tries to leave again, then you can attach a leash to his collar and just let him drag it on the ground. When he tries to leave, grab the leash or step on it so it prevents him from leaving. Choose a leash without a large clasp that may bang the puppy in the head and startle him. Choose a light leash that is gentle on your hands, but isn’t a noticeable weight that impedes his work. You can use a Comfortflex or tracking harness if your puppy is accustomed to one, as a cue to let the puppy know he’s doing nosework, but it is not necessary at this stage. Don’t put a harness on your puppy for the first time and introduce him to nosework then, as your puppy may not like the harness and not be ready to work, or form a negative association with odor.
- Optional: vest with pockets to contain treats or bait bag.
- Optional: brick or weight to make the box more stable.
- Optional: A matt under the box may make it more attractive for the dog to lie down at the box. When you introduce the box, you’ll be sitting or kneeling at the box for a few minutes at a time, so you will find a matt more pleasant too. Or, if your dog is keen to work in your back yard, you can place the box on grass next to your fence.
- For upcoming nosework practices, you’ll need an approximately 10 foot leash, biothane or leather preferred (since they don’t hurt your hands). Although they are cheaper, I strongly dislike nylon leashes since they burn when slipping through your hands, and if they wrap around a leg they may leave a permanent scar.
Test the strength of your target odor. If you can’t smell it, make a fresh hide. We don’t want to test odor concentration threshold when teaching the indication. Secure the target odor to the back of the box e.g. tape the tin there. You never want your dog to rehearse grabbing, retrieving or biting the hide. It’s the handler’s job to prevent these undesirable behaviors from happening by carefully structuring your training sessions.
Reward placement is important!
- When rewarding, offer a piece of food high up and deep inside the box, at a level higher than the hole. The height encourages the dog’s nose to move up to get it, and his butt will tend to lie down. If your hand with the treats is on the bottom of the box, the puppy can just lean over and grab it off the flow, without lying down.Delivering the reward deep inside the box encourages the dog to push his muzzle deep inside the hole, and he’ll likely be smelling the target odor when he receives rewards.
- If you drop food inside the box, you must pick it up as soon as possible. Otherwise, the dog may offer undesirable responses and still eat the reward. For example, the dog may stick a paw in to try to pull the reward back, and then unwanted behaviors are becoming a habit.
- When the box and puppy are on your left, if your hand tends to be closer to you, then the puppy’s butt will tend to swing away from you. You could correct this by moving your hand with the treats further away from you so their butt swings the other direction.
When to Reward
- Always reward the find. The instant the dog puts his nose in the hole, click and reward inside the box. Then wait for lying down to deliver subsequent rewards.
- The ideal performance: dog lies down close to the box, with his muzzle shoved deep into the box. Flood this whenever this happens.
- When the puppy meets one of the criteria, click and reward. For example, if your puppy puts his nose in the hole while standing up, mark and reward. If your puppy lies down but is looking at you, mark and reward.
- If it helps your dog at the beginning, you can use your verbal cue, signal or gentle physical pressure to suggest that he lie down. Never say it more than once. As soon as possible, you need to stop using this word. When your dog is searching independently, smelling the odor is the cue for him to down, not obedience to the handler. He needs to perform the indication behavior on his own, without any help from you.
Here are the steps for your first week of homework, as demonstrated in the video.
Be Prepared – Potty your dog before you begin. Position your video camera behind the start position, so it’s not an object in the dog’s field of view near the box.
Be Fully Prepared to Reward Instantaneously – YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO MARK AND DELIVER TREATS in 1-2 seconds!
I like to wear a vest with handfuls of treats waiting in my deep pockets, but some trainers prefer to wear a bait bag. I put a bowl of treats on a table nearby in case I need to reload. I keep a handful of treats in my right (dominant) hand.
I kneel next to the box and place the clicker inside my closed left hand, ready to click. I like a bracelet to secure the clicker to my wrist so I don’t lose it even if I drop it for a second. Many puppies and dogs will be so fast that if you fail to click and reward you will miss their success and then they’ll move on to something else you don’t want to reward.
Step 1) Taste Test – Verify High Value Rewards at this time in this environment
Away from the box, offer the dog a few high value food rewards, and watch how enthusiastic he is about getting another one. Use the treat the dog loves the most. If your dog spits out the reward, or looks bored and doesn’t really want another treat, do not proceed with training! The food you offered is not rewarding to the dog. The feelings of boredom and disinterest will transfer to the work, and you will both be frustrated. Even if he loved that food last week, it doesn’t necessarily mean he loves that reward this week.
Step 2) Some dogs may be scared or hesitant to approach the box. If that’s the case, then the goal of your first session should be any kind of interaction with the box e.g. looks at it, takes one step towards it. Don’t push. Click and reward the smallest successes. Your dog needs to learn at his own pace. Quit there and make a plan for success at the next session.
Step 3) Release the puppy close to the front hole e.g. 1 foot away. The video shows a box and puppy on the handler’s left side. Note: both holes in the box are equally correct (the same high concentration of target odor). If your dog puts his nose in the hole closest to you, adjust his starting position so he’s closer to the other hole. That way his nose can be inside one hole and your hand is inside the other hole at the same time.
Step 4) The next step is to wait until the pup sniffs at the hole in the box. Then click and reward ASAP by delivering a treat from your hand deep inside and high up in the box.
The instant the pup APPROACHES the hole, click and reward from your right hand placed inside the side hole. You can just wait. Or tap that hole with your right hand or lure with treats if you need to, but that help must disappear ASAP for independent performance.
If, at any time, the puppy lies down at the box, flood him with rewards. Flooding is fast like a machine gun: click, treat, click, treat, click, treat, continuing as long as the puppy is lying down, up to 10-15 treats. If the puppy stands up, pause and watch for him to return to the hole.
Repeat a few repetitions.
Step 5) The next step is watching for the pup to push his muzzle a little bit INSIDE the front hole. Click & reward inside the box. When your puppy starts close to the box, you want him to dive in with enthusiasm, pushing his muzzle in deep and offering the down.
Step 6) Puppy puts his muzzle DEEP inside the hole, so you can’t see his eyes. His entire focus is inside the box where he is sniffing deeply at the location of source (the highest concentration of odor).
After 10 reps, or flooding for a down position, gently push or lead the puppy away from the hole to restart. It is very important to remove any treats that fell on the ground or dropped inside the box, every time you start the exercise, to prevent the puppy from being distracted and sniffing the ground to hoover treats.
Prevent Common Mistakes
- Starting the puppy too far from the box. The puppy may be distracted by the environment instead of focusing on the box. Start 1-2 ft. max distance from the box to set your puppy up for success
- Mechanical difficulty – if you aren’t ready to click and deliver treats, you may fumble around in your pockets while missing successful performances. Your puppy may quit before you even knew you were started! Practice priming the clicker for a lured down instead of practising the mechanics at the indication box or with odor.
- Leash too long – if you attach a 30 ft. leash to the puppy because you’re worried about him running off, it’s better to go home and train this off leash first, in a distraction free environment. Consider blocking off a small room with an ex-pen, or baby gate, to prevent the puppy from leaving. As a last resort, attach a short light leash to keep the dog in the search area. Do not use the leash to guide the puppy.
- Eliminating during the search – allow plenty of time to ensure your puppy has pottied outdoors before you start the session. After you’re finished, go outside together for potty. This is an important habit you need to maintain even while your finished partner is competing, since eliminating during a search results in being dismissed and forfeiting your entry fee. You need to prevent this problem, not try to fix a bad habit later.
- Dog spits out the rewards – it’s critically important that your puppy is hungry and the rewards are so enticing he’s dying to get them. Rewards are defined by the puppy! If your puppy spits something out, it is not rewarding enough to use in training at this time, in this environment. See above for ideas on other rewards to try in a taste test. Sometimes variety is helpful and novel rewards will be more desirable.
- Handler talks constantly – many people talk to their dog while trying to encourage him. Most puppies and dogs learn to ignore repeated verbals that are not helpful. Set your dog up for success and be quiet until you mark the moment of success.
- No marker – Moment markers are hugely important. A clicker is best, because your dog should only hear it when a reward is coming so it’s a very powerful cue. You can say “yes” rather than using a clicker. It’s likely less powerful, since your dog hears you talk all day long, including the word yes. So saying yes doesn’t always mean a reward is coming. Regardless of the moment marker you choose, the marker is critically important to communicate with a young dog about the instant he succeeded in meeting your criteria. Giving a moment marker on time will teach your dog the skill far more quickly and with less confusion compared to delivering food late without a marker.
- Treat held near the floor of the box – To make it more likely that your puppy will lie down, hold the treat higher than the front hole of the box. (Why? Puppies don’t have rear ended awareness, so their nose usually leads and they hold their back straight so the butt moves accordingly.)
Dealing with Frustration & Failure
Focus on setting your dog up for success, marking the moment of success and efficiently delivering rewards. Some dogs may be frustrated by the exercise. For example, if you’ve completed a pretrial with your dog, or his history is being rewarded the instant he approached the source, then he should expect the usual routine, and will be frustrated when you withhold rewards. Always reward the successful find! Then wait until he offers more, to earn subsequent rewards. Hopefully he will push his nose in deeper, or put his elbows down and you can click and reward that. If he is frustrated that you aren’t paying like usual, don’t worry if he paws at you or moves to the side hole, or barks. That’s ok at this stage, and we’ll get rid of those behaviors before we move on. We only want to ensure that we are making a little bit of progress in each session. Focus on being rewarding as possible. It should be easy to succeed.
Never show the dog the location of odor and ask him to “show me” or “down”. Be quiet and allow your dog to do his job without distractions.
Whenever your dog fails, choose one of the following options:
- Stop and reevaluate, or get help or change your plan
- Make the exercise easier. Go back to the last step where the dog was successful. Repeat it in the current environment. The change only one thing, by a small amount. In the teaching phase, you need to set your dog up for success.
- Wait and be quiet and see what happens
When you’re succeeding, you’re on the right track. Keep training but quit before your dog loses enthusiasm. Always quit when your dog wants more.
Every time you flood a successful performance at the box, you are cementing the behaviour in the pup’s mind. Repeat this session until your puppy is diving at the box as soon as you release him, and offers the down quickly at every rep.
When to Progress to the Next Module
When you kneel on the floor and release your dog 1 foot away from the indication box, your dog should:
- Go directly to the box with enthusiasm
- Push his muzzle deep into the hole
- Lie down and
- Stay there while you deliver multiple rewards.
Training a rock solid indication takes hundreds of repetitions. Please don’t think that the first time your dog lies down at the box that he fully understands the behaviour. Continue multiple 3 minute sessions daily with many high value rewards until the dog meets all 3 criteria.
Want to learn more? Sign up for our new online course: “Show Me – Train a Rock Solid Indication”.