Tag Archives: scent detection

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.