When your dog works in a search area, they are working on some complex puzzles in order to track odor back to the source and communicate its location to you. On the surface, this can look pretty simple, but in order for it to go smoothly and for your dog to be confident about their job, there actually is a lot of reinforcement required.
Behavior chains are a series of behaviors that are individually cued and rewarded after the last one is performed. Here is an example of a behavior chain: You have taught your dog a few tricks and once they finish their routine, they earn a cookie. Each behavior still requires a cue from you ("sit" "stand" "come" "rollover" "spin").
Scent work is a long behavior chain that is strung together by your dog using cues from the environment to cue the next behavior. Here are a few cues your dog uses during scent work:
Verbal "Search" or Detection of Odor (Behavior: Move away from handler and seek odor/source)
Containers on the ground (Behavior: sniff the containers in front of them)
Finding an odor source (Behavior: Deciding on location & communication to handler)
It's the source that ends the behavior chain and results in a cookie to your dog (or toy!). It's this last piece that is the most complex and causes the most issues for people and their dogs. This is where you get additional cues that can muddy your dog's understanding of when they should communicate to you. There are 3 elements your dog must do in order for you to successfully & confidently call "ALERT" in a trial.
ONE: Sourcing / Pushing to find the Source
This first step requires your dog to have enough value of odor to be able to go through the effort to find the source. Often this piece of communication is the final piece of "hunt drive". Hunt drive is much more complex and involves focus and drive from the start, but just isolating the last little bit of this type of drive, we can focus on the "PUSH" that your dog should be doing to find the source. This can be physical: pushing into a tight area, or mental: working through a complex problem without giving up.
Having a dog that wants to push to the source can be through training, through a natural drive, or both. Even for dogs with natural drive, it's important not to lose the value of this skill!! This is where pairing can be helpful since it uses a primary reinforcer (food or toy) and builds urgency and higher value to the source. I personally find that if we spend a little more time on foundations, we can create this same value of odor for most dogs, allowing them to recognize the value of odor and HOW to earn a reinforcer from the start of their journey.
Training the PUSH. You need a dog that understands that effort is rewardable. This often means splitting down your final picture and rewarding your dog when they make effort, even if they haven't made a decision about where the source is. Failing to add value to this will result in a dog that gets easily distracted, a dog that is overly influenced by handler pressure, or a dog that gets bored with the game.
TWO: Decision on the Location of Odor Source
There will come a point when your dog has made a decision that they have gotten close enough to the source (strongest concentration of odor) that they should be rewarded. This decision point is highly dependent on your training and what you have asked your dog for. It's WHAT you have rewarded that will influence when your dog thinks they are "at" source. Let's break this into a few variables:
Distance - What is your reinforcement history for how far away your dog is from the source? If you have a strong history of rewarding your dog for being "nose on source", then they will make their decision when their nose is ON the source. If you have a strong reinforcement history for rewarding your dog when they are "close enough", then they will make their decision near the source.
Odor Concentration - Our dogs start to learn to alert at a particular threshold of odor unless you actively expose and set hides of a wide range of strengths. It is not uncommon to see a dog that is working at a moderate or light odor, to alert further away from source when they first meet an AKC strength hide. The odor threshold (how many molecules of the odor are in the air) that they are comfortable with is not AT source, but actually can be 6-12" away from the source (or more!).
Handler Influence - How clean are your mechanics? Do you start to lean in, move closer, or reach for cookies when your dog is almost at source? It's highly likely that this is now part of your dog's ability to make a decision if they are close enough. At a trial, this can be a big problem since we don't know when we normally would be cueing our dogs. Training with clean mechanics will avoid this problem!
THREE: Communication to Handler
This part of the behavior chain is highly dependent of your reward history and what you have shaped - on purpose or through repetitive reinforcement. All dogs will have an "Alert" behavior if you let them, and if you have trialed or done blind searches, you have created a space for them to start to learn to communicate to you that they have found source. What does this look like?
Trained Final Response - A separate behavior with clear criteria that must be performed at source in order to earn the reinforcement. This type of response is trained separately from the search and requires a lot of proofing to create a behavior that is fluent and clearly understood. Most sport dogs DO NOT need an alert like this, but they can be fun to train! Examples of this are: Sit, Down, Stare, Nose Freeze, etc.
Reinforced Final Response - A behavior that has been reinforced through consistent rewarding (thanks Julie for this term! Love it! Check out her blog on this topic). This is what most dogs develop as their final communication at source, especially if you use a marker system. Often you see look backs, pawing, nose freeze, etc.
No Consistent Response - I include this category because you might feel that your dog doesn't fit into the above 2 options. There are many different reasons why this might be, but I find that most result from the handler wanting "MORE" and instead of shaping and reinforcing behavior, they pause and see if their dog will offer something visual they can see. The dog is not getting rewarded, so they either give more (usually more destructive type behaviors) or they give up and walk away.
They might have an expectation of being fed (they pop off of odor and come to you or forming a "look back" behavior). I see this because the dog finds hide and the handler is slower to reward (in the mark or move in to present reward at source) and they look back to the handler to see where their cookie is. Issues that can arise from this are Fringing (alerting further and further away from the source) or a decrease in clarity of HOW to earn the cookie.
They might have an intense obsession of odor (which can include mouthing the hide, pushing the hide with their nose, pawing at the hide). This often happens with more independent dogs that either has an intense need to retrieve the hide (retrieving dogs, service dogs) or that have been asked for "more" from their handlers.
When the handler always marks or moves in quickly to reward, the dog clearly gets reinforced at source - Great!
BUT your dog never gets to learn how to communicate to you about the source. Always early means you are rewarding the first 2 steps - "PUSH" or "Decision", but stopping before they learn the last step, something that can be important for trialing.
Creating a dog that is clear about their ability to earn the reinforcement, motivated to continue working until they locate the source (or as close as they can), and happy to do this job requires finding a balance in rewarding the above 3 elements. If you focus on ONLY rewarding one of these things, your dog will struggle.
Failing to reward PUSH results in dogs that might give up if the scent puzzle is hard. The value for the source (AND all the behavior you might expect when they get there), is just not enough to justify the effort they have to expend to find source.
Failing to reward DECISION can result in dogs that throw their final behavior in non-source areas ("False Alerts"), or it can result in dogs that struggle with understanding what point is specifically rewardable (resulting in fringe alerts or frustration that they think they are "close enough").
Failing to reward RESPONSE can result in a dog that falters or drops in confidence when the hide location is unknown to the handler. The handler no longer rewards them when the dog THINKS they should be rewarded and unless this is proofed and worked in a training setting, it can result in a dog that becomes much less confident and can question HOW to earn the reinforcement.
Want to learn more? Want to brush up on your dog's confidence in searching AND communicating to you? Release Canine has online classes starting on Monday, November 9th, 2020! We will be covering this and more!