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.

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