Category Archives: THAT STINKS!

Putting a dog’s strongest skills to work.

Where’s the stare?

Training focus including eye contact is not something new to me. It’s woven into most things my dogs and students work on. There’s a huge history of my dogs being reinforced for looking AT ME to get the thing they want, and away from the thing they want (you know, to exhibit impulse control and not just grab whatever looks good, but rather to go “through me” to get their rewards). For scent detection, you need to remove yourself from the picture. Us humans are so olfactorily retarded (if I may make up a word) that we ignorantly might try to “help” when we are pretty clueless about exactly what is happening to the odor in the environment. So training a good alert is quite a different game for us. There is an agility exercise to train a dog to focus away from the handler at a particular obstacle, but it is cued by the handler. The stare for an alert needs to be cued by the odor, not the handler.

In order to get that intent stare at the highest concentration point and source of the odor, I needed to experiment. There’s a lot of work to do before even introducing the search component. Otherwise, you get something like this:

After talking with Jen and Steve, I decided the idea of developing the alert without the odor present made sense, so that I could start proofing the behavior and complete the understanding of it before attaching the cue. If you don’t know, the cue (the odor) is only supposed to be attached when you are getting the terminal behavior (otherwise you’re naming something else, right?). So, next to figure out how to get the dogs to sit and stare strong and with duration, while trying to distract them.

Let me save you a whole lot of time and recommend that you figure out a way to make the reward appear to come from the source. Even throwing the reward onto the odor target (though that is better) isn’t as good as it appearing to come from it. Here’s how to attempt to throw the reward correctly.

Building the behavior with duration will be close to impossible if you noticeably bring the reinforcement in. Even if you mark exactly when the dog is alerting, if he breaks the alert and looks at you, you have a lot more work to do. I wasted over a week trying to train a stare with a laser, using a desirable item (toy/food)…and then I got a remote treat dispenser. I needed a good reason to get one, and it’s so much fun!!! I should mention that I think a remote treat dispenser in the wrong trainers hands can teach a dog to ignore the person, which is normally not recommended for a companion dog’s training. But that’s exactly what I needed here. In a remarkably fast time I have multiple dogs sitting and staring, with such determination that proofing can begin. Once a dog has a strong enough focus in the correct alert position, I’ll attach the odor. Then to quickly change from the giant treat dispenser to less visual tubes. Eventually there will be no dispenser at all, but to get the alert built up I can’t think of a better way. Experience instructs me to prevent any dependence on aids, so containers and dispensers will be changed as often as possible (and early on).

So to summarize and give you some great links, the goal is to get the dog to stay glued to the odor in spite of you. Check out Randy Hare’s excellent version of “box hides” that makes a lot more sense than setting cardboard boxes in the middle of the room.

They’re running with that for SAR, too:

Check out a super cool device anyone with a ball dog would love to have! They call it a BSD, in my mind that’s a ball shooting dealy, but yes, it definitely is a behavior shaping device. There are a few videos in that series. I can’t get enough of that BSD! Super fun!

Do you think that I should put the alert on a verbal cue before adding the odor? Or just let the odor be the cue?

Stinking Foundation

There I was, watching my dog exhibit frustration after successfully seeking out the hidden odor (outdoors and buried), I spoke my cue that ought to mean, “show me exactly where it is”, when it dawned on me. Wait a minute, there are 2 separate behaviors here…

Some days you’re just lucky. On this particular day, I had an invite to sit down and talk to Jen & Steve White, who’s been instrumental in moving professional working dog trainers towards positive reinforcement. I’d been asking around for suggestions of good resources to educate myself further about odor training. There’s so much to learn and I was venturing away from “recommended protocol” and experimenting in how to train scent detection. Steve and Jen proved to be invaluable resources, offering their own time to talk shop and catch up a bit. The conversation was excellent.

I really like Steve because he’s a (primarily) positive trainer who’s pragmatic. He needs to get working dogs educated asap. Philosophy-wise, we are in the same camp. We believe foundation training is key. The problem with my scent detection education thus far was that I still hadn’t grasped what comprised the foundation of odor training. All 3 of us believe in back-chaining for most complex behaviors, and, after my experience that day, it became apparent that the 1st thing to train here, obviously (in hindsight), is the alert..

It was really cool (or maybe almost cruel) that my dog showed me what was up before heading into this fortunate conversation. I thought I did train an alert, mind you. Most of the dogs can indicate with clear changes of behavior followed by paw activity (paw targeting, digging, one often begins the chain with a very dramatic head whip back to me), which, of course, I was rewarding and shaping to be a chain of paw target then nose target. But, technically I hadn’t trained much, and certainly hadn’t proofed.

Here’s the deal:

The alert isn’t inherently reinforcing like the search is. Watch Zeal prove both that the search is rewarding and how totally incomplete his alert was.

Being of the camp of “conquer and divide” (no, that’s not what Bob Bailey called it;), one can cultivate the alert apart from the search, complete with proofing. So, that day I went decided to halt all searching and figure out my alert. You don’t have to train a dog to dig/paw target. You can elicit it easily. And, digging does damage. Not only that, but a frustrated dog might pour extra stress into the activity and even self-reward some by blowing off steam through that activity. If you do want to train a digging response, don’t let me stop you, and go for the gusto, like an old-school drug dog :P!

I decided on a sit AND stare for my purposes. A sit because my dogs would never otherwise be sitting down some distance from me while on a hike. A stare to tell me exactly where to dig, and to continue to tell me where to dig. Now to train it.


Working out causes stress on the body. If you exercise the right amount, you might feel a tiny bit sore, but your body will respond by building a stronger machine out of you. Even further, you can grow important cells that otherwise go dormant and cause the body to atrophy in age. If you go overboard, well, you tear yourself down instead. Such is true about the mental demands of training on your dog.

Some dogs don’t get much of a mental challenge in their daily life. Depending on that dog’s makeup, that dog may decide to create some fun to get the endorphin high. A lot of dogs will tend to rank interactions with other dogs as more exciting, as humans can bore a dog with our predictability coupled with our almost handicap ability to run (compared to how athletically a dog  moves). But you can drastically change this around if you train in a way that lets your dog learn to become a good thinker. Do enough of this and you’ll end up with a dog that wants to engage in your puzzles for the fun of it (but that conversation belongs under “work ethic”).

But teaching a dog to think, largely by employing shaping, can be very stressful on a dog. In that respect, I think that shaping (or agility) done poorly is best not pursued at all. My local beginner tricks course is 8 weeks long because I don’t want to give just enough information to make someone dangerous. You need to really understand how much pressure can benefit learning, and how much might detrimentally pressure a dog, particularly with certain dogs or dogs new to learning. Training sessions should be really short. Winning should be easy, and pay extremely well at times.

You don’t want your dog to “think too hard”. Even though you want your dog to be challenged and think, you don’t want them crazily spinning their wheels. Some dogs are more apt to have such tendencies, and when you find yourself in that situation, break it down. Or just stop. Take breaks. Training should involve starts and stops, stop a dog before she starts thinking too hard (do not pass the point of diminishing returns). While it’s fun for the dog to be challenged, it’s not fun to be confused. This is what happened to me following a certain training method for teaching my dogs to scent.

These days I don’t want a dog to take too long to begin to understand a new skill. This does not mean it will be taught anywhere close to completion in that time, but the understanding has started to take shape. You can sculpt a behavior from there, giving a dog lots of opportunities to learn to completion, taking prudent steps to get there. I think someone’s calling it: “the decision point”. That’s what you’re after. And while going after it, you can be very generous with rewards and forgiving with criteria, because the first big goal is to get that light bulb to turn on. Otherwise you mess around with doing the thinking for the dog, chanting a cue word you want them to comprehend, all the while not developing the behavior into something you can work with. When the dog actually understands what you want, even if it’s the most rudimentary version that looks little like your terminal behavior, that’s when you can start to get somewhere. And you want to hang out at this initial moment where you make sure your dog gets the game.

Following, though, you want to advance the behavior. Don’t stall out at an easy level. You’re looking for understanding, and evaluating what your dog is “telling” you by his responses. This is where I think a lot of “positive reinforcement” people get lost. When your dog gets it, and you’ve reinforced generously as that comprehension forms, the skill can be advanced pretty quickly, some times significantly so. But in order to do so, you’ve got to up the ante. You have to make demands and put pressure on the dog. The trick is to make sure you’re giving your dog good information about what’s right, and what’s not “it”. All the while, “paying” well for leaps in understanding, keeping it as long (or short) as is constructive, dicing it down if you’re asking for more difficult versions, and PAY REALLY WELL.

It can be hard to tell exactly how much you can stress your dog. One of my dogs is really difficult to gauge. He stresses out easily because I’ve trained too many behaviors at once without completing the process with each individually, he gets confused under pressure, and he’s highly distractable with an incredible prey drive (a former stray that probably hunted his food). However, I don’t think the answer is to never push, or stress, him in training. This is getting long so let me tell that story in another post.

& now for something completely different

What’s an injured dog to do?

Working with odor is pretty much a completely different “department” of dog training from all the other training endeavors I pursue. What characterizes my usual training is a focused interaction where the dog and the handler work and play together, with that interaction being the central component, and a common thread among them all. Doing nosework with a dog is different (from what I understand). Allow me to insert that I am by no means an authority on the subject! While I’ve dabbled with tracking and detection with some well-versed people, including police trainer Steve White, it never really got me excited before.

Originally I thought Zeal, my BC boy, would excel at tracking since he scours the ground endlessly on hikes (or just about anywhere outdoors) with full tracking body language (it’s fascinating to watch). While yes, he’s a stellar tracker, I have yet to figure out a way to counteract his desire to abort the trail I laid  on the heels of more exciting pots of gold (you know, squirrels and rabbits and such). I don’t enjoy frustration (neither does he), so we abandoned that pursuit.

At a month long training with John Rogerson, we worked a number of dogs on detection and tracking. But it never really excited me. One of the things about working nosework is you are less involved with the dog, it’s more a matter of setting the dog up to learn and observing and capturing their natural behavior. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an awesome direction for people to take dogs that lack confidence, have aggression issues, or if you just think it’s fun. But for me, I rather work on tricks, assemble them into chains, train my dog to play with me directly in lots of different environments, make heeling as much fun  as running around an agility course/chasing a ball/tugging. If you can train something as boring as heeling so that it makes your dog’s pupils dilate, you know how to train.

But I recently had a giant change of heart. And a big part of that reason is I found a scent sport that marries all the things I love: truffle hunting. Before you run out and rape the land of these treasures, I’m going to warn you that there’s a lot of training involved. And I know from decades of seeing people with their animals, most people wouldn’t want to put in all that work (and a portion of them couldn’t if they tried). But for me, that’s the selling point. Wrap your mind around how involved you’d need to be with your dog—your dog has to find something buried, alert you, selecting the spot from among lots and lots of other smells (including other sources of your target odor and critters), taking changing winds and strange currents into their calculations, and continue to help you dig for the exact location. It’s like an old-school geo-cache! Keep the muggles out of it, K?

What could be more perfect for someone who already spends hours upon hours in the woods? And with a couple of injured dogs, training odor is a great game to exercise a dog’s mind. Exercising a dog’s mind makes him more relaxed/tired than just exercise alone can. That’s a big reason why most of what I train capitalizes on teaching the dog to think—it leaves a dog pleasantly tired. But you don’t want them to think too hard…that causes bad stress. Good stress builds a strong creature, bad stress breaks him down. And that’s an important topic for us to talk about.