W’s question: I’ve been focusing a lot on indication lately and noticed she’s getting lackluster and starting to wander off. At this stage is it ok to mix it up and sometimes do just a big reward for find it with food or toy then release and not wait for down? She’s not the type of dog that I can do a ton of reps in a session and have to change things up often or I lose her! Definitely not like the dogs in videos where they can have them sitting at the box for 10 minutes!
Answer: It’s common for performance to decline the longer you choose to make your practice sessions. It completely depends on your dog what you need to do to maintain motivation. Motivation is FAR more important than stamina, or even skills. Don’t forget novice scent trials usually only test 1 hide then done, with the maximum search time of approx. 3 minutes! Please do not practice so many indications or searches that you get a lackluster performance at any point in the training session.
Yes, do mix it up. Start easy with a warmup on indication box, do a fun search and reward the instant your dog finds source, then a reward event (or a fast, fun, easy find). Stop when the dog still wants more, pulling you back to the search areas. Next session, do something different so you’re not robotically repeating the same old drills. Don’t constantly raise the bar. If a search is difficult or your dog fails twice, you need to jackpot the next success, even when you have to set it up to do so.
Always reward finding source, with a verbal marker and/or reward. Then you can wait and see if the pup will go back for a few extra food rewards. If the indication happens that’s great. If it doesn’t, you know what you can work on.
If you’re not sure what is appropriate search duration for your green dog, aim for a 30 second search. Video your searches and notice the amount of time when your dog’s performance and drive start to decline. Very gradually, you can make the average search length a few seconds longer, as long as the dog still loves searching. If you try to push your puppy to do that before he is ready, you will likely cause major problems. Quality is more important than quantity, so preserve your dog’s confidence and drive and don’t push for too much too fast. Let your dog tell you when it’s time to make it harder by adding a few seconds of search time to your average.
Any numbers I give won’t necessarily apply to your unique dog. As a ballpark: with our bed bug detection candidates at 5 months of age, we train every day before eating. I’ll budget only a handful of food for the session then we’re done training and have a play. Between 8 weeks and 4 months I worked up to 13 short container searches in the lab then done (about 3 minutes). Currently I put out 2 boxes and 5 interior hides in about 1100 square feet at home then we’re done, in under 5 minutes. The best indications happen at home, without distractions, on the wooden indication box. When we practice at a hectic event in a horse barn, I give them time to acclimate to the environment so they’re comfortable, then find 3-5 hides and stop. I’m not timing the searches (although the videos would tell me), but I have in mind an idea of the usual duration. Motivation is great throughout and at the end and the pups are still pulling me back to the hides so I have to work hard to lure them away. Their indications aren’t as intense in distracting environments. In fact there can be no indications on the first hides, then they’re better at indicating by the end of the session when they’re a little more relaxed, but not yet tired. That’s a great time to stop.
The numbers above are only guidelines. They aren’t as important as what your dog does on that day, in that environment. If you pressure your dog and ask for “something more” or longer duration, and the dog leaves, quits or barks like crazy or cries in frustration, you asked for too much and need to make it easier and more rewarding next time.
Hope that helps.