Delayed Rewards Are Missed Opportunities in Scent Dog Training

From the dog’s point of view, rewards are the most important component of dog training. Sadly, many handlers are lousy rewarders and dogs are left confused and rewardless. Is your dog in this miserable majority? Has he ever shut down, or had trouble understanding a seemingly easy behavior? Has he ever found source and left source, unrewarded?

Delayed rewards are missed opportunities in scent dog training. This video captures a nosework training session where rewards are intentionally late, so you can see the consequences of delayed rewards: In the first part I confuse Vite by rewarding late. In the second part, I mark the moment of success and reward immediately. It’s easier to watch nosework than to handle your dog in a blind search, so hopefully you can better appreciate the experience from my dog’s perspective after you watch the video.

In Part 1, can you guess what behavior I’m rewarding?  That’s essentially what I asked Vite to do: to figure out what behavior is being paid. Please watch the video now, so you can see training through my dogs eyes, without the lengthy explanation in human terms.

***SPOILER ALERT*** Video Part 1: Rewarding 5 Seconds Late

I intentionally rewarded late by noticing when Vite barked, then count out a 5 second delay before delivering her reward. Confusing, isn’t it? If you can’t guess what I’m rewarding, it’s not surprising that my dog would be confused too. Yet, many scent detection students withhold rewards for well over 5 seconds, or omit rewards altogether.

By the time Vite received each reward, she happened to be silent, so it was probably challenging to figure out that I wanted her to bark. Vite offered a wide range of behaviors, from sitting at heel position, to standing on the weigh scale. In fact, Vite was performing a different behavior every time I rewarded her! She performed many frustration behaviors I don’t want (such as spinning), and very little of what I do want (barking as an indication for scent detection). Distractions, such as the scale, further muddied my message.

From the dog’s perspective, late rewards are confusing because success is difficult to distinguish from failure. For example, in the photo #3, Vite was sitting in heel position, behind the scale, to the left of the distraction box against the cabinet, silent and still, looking at my face, while smelling treats in the kitchen and trace birch essential oil on  my desk from previous training. How was she to know that, of all of those things, she was rewarded for barking 5 seconds earlier? That’s quite a leap!

The session lasted 113 seconds, and Vite was rewarded 8 times, which works out to 14 seconds per reward. At best, it was confusing, and at worst it was demotivational for both the trainer and the dog.

No matter what method you use to train your dog a skill, when you mark and deliver rewards late, it can take hundreds more (unnecessary) repetitions to train the skill to fluency, while your confused dog tries to figure out what you want.

Video Part 2: Marking the Moment of Success and Rewarding on Time

In the latter part of the video, I made a dramatic change: clicking the instant my dog barked, and delivering the reward in less than 2 seconds. Photos 7-12 captured the moment when I clicked.

Vite’s mouth is open and her ears are flapping in almost every photo, because she was barking during every click. She still needed to figure out that barking was being rewarded, rather than where she looked or what she smelled. But within seconds, Vite got a fast, easy win. She appeared less confused, was rewarded more often, and rehearsed fewer undesirable behaviors, thereby preventing problem behaviors I might need to fix in future.  Incidentally, I was smiling in most of these photos, because it felt good to succeed. When you’re more rewarding, it’s more fun for both you and your dog.

Luckily, making mistakes in the first part of the session didn’t break my dog. She keeps on trying, and rapidly catches on, once I communicate more clearly with well-timed marking/clicking and rewards.

This session lasted 55 seconds, half the previous duration, with better results. Vite received 12 rewards, which is a reward every 4.6 seconds. That rate of reinforcement was about 3 times higher (4.6 sec. vs. 14 sec.) than the first part of the video. I clearly communicated what I wanted, and paid heavily for the behavior of barking, so the frequency of barking rapidly increased. In the next session, Vite succeeded in barking 5 times in a row, further cementing her understanding, so we progressed to generalizing the behavior quickly.

If you click the moment the dogs succeeds (or say yes), you mark that precise moment of success in the dog’s mind, so he knows the reward is coming, and he doesn’t need to keep guessing at what you want. When you progress to working at a distance, the clicker becomes even more important to clarify your dog’s understanding, since there will be a delay while you approach the dog to deliver rewards.

Improving your reward timing can yield positive benefits from the very first session! For most trainers, that could be as simple as holding a bite sized treat inside your hand in your pocket, ready to deliver before you let your dog into a distraction-free room. If you wait until the dog is successful to look for a treat in a plastic bag, you are delaying rewards and the dog may move on to undesirable behaviors.

To practice, choose an uncomplicated skill that’s easy for your dog e.g. barking or lying down, and surprise your dog with an immediate reward. If you turn the skill of your choice into a daily game, your dog can rapidly progress over a week. We’d love to see you succeed, so please share your video or your comments.

In conclusion, when you don’t mark the moment of success and deliver rewards late, it is confusing for the dog to figure out what you’re rewarding for, and the dog will offer many undesirable behaviors. Therefore, it can take hundreds more unnecessary repetitions to train that skill. In future articles, we’ll delve deeper into how to be more rewarding. Whether you want to train a bark indication for scent detection, or an obedient dog that drops to the floor on cue, I hope you’ll join us in embracing the challenge. Seeing is believing.

Learn how to train your nosework dog online:

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