Digging, Pawing, Scratching and Chewing

Dealing with digging, pawing, scratching and biting is a complex issue but I think it must be addressed in our training.  The following is a short overview of this behavior and some options for dealing with it.

We do not train an “indication” first in K9 Nose Work.  Rather, we imprint on “hunting” instead. In K9 Nose Work, we develop in the dog the understanding that “it is the hunting for, and the finding of, the target-source that is being rewarded” and “the behavior your dog selects on his own, or that of a specific behavior that becomes an option for your dog based on heavy reinforcement history,* will be used by the dog to demand that you ‘pay’ the dog for the find.”

I personally believe that the dog ultimately makes two decisions as training progresses.  Decision #1 is when the dog decides that he has found “source.”  That decision is all between the dog and the source.  Decision #2 is when the dog demands to be paid for making the find. This decision is all between the dog and the handler.  When the dog selects a behavior as his “demand to be paid,” the dog does not think he is getting rewarded for that behavior. He believes he is getting rewarded for the find and not for the behavior that he selects as his “demand to be paid” for making the find.

Dogs will naturally do one of two behaviors when they “demand to be paid:” Either orient to the handler because the dog knows that the handler has his reward food.  Or, dig, paw, scratch, chew as their “demand to be paid.” Law Enforcement sets up problems where the dog has to dig, paw, scratch and bite to get to the source.  This is called an “active or aggressive indication.” Law Enforcement wants this type of indication on their narcotics dogs and so they set up problems, called “puzzles,” for the dog to physically solve with an “active or aggressive indication.” We do not want that in K9 Nose Work.  In K9 Nose Work, we want the dog to have a “passive indication.”  If your dog excessively digs, paws, scratches or bites to get to the target in K9 Nose Work Trials, you could receive penalty points.

Digging, pawing, scratching or biting are extremely self-rewarding behaviors that do not extinguish on their own and it takes a lot of careful training to change the dog’s selecting of these behaviors once they get started as dogs like to dig and scratch!  So we want to avoid our dogs learning that digging, pawing, scratching or biting are things he can do to get to source and we certainly do not want them practicing and rehearsing these unwanted behaviors. To avoid the dog learning to dig or scratch or to address a situation where the dog is already digging and scratching, you need to open the box lid immediately upon the dog finding the “hot-box.”  Do not let the dog open the lid of any box (i.e., that is beginning of “puzzle” training as described above). Do not stare at your dog as he tries to open the lid.  Don’t wait for your dog to orient to you. Don’t wait for an “indication.”  Rather, immediately open the lid the moment that your dog gets to the “hot-box.”  This is the beginning of the dog learning that it is the FIND that brings the reward to him.  If you delay at this stage, all kinds of “different learning” takes place in your dog and lots of extraneous behaviors can creep in (like digging at the box, biting the box, etc.).

And, if the dog is too quick for you to get to the box and open it, then just have all the boxes open – that is a way to “manipulate the environment” to prevent the behavior you do not want from happening.  It does not matter if the dog can see the food-bowl at this stage as we are not teaching the dog to “hunt.” You dog was born knowing how to hunt and, in the wild, would use his eyes, ears, nose and memory while hunting.  So, we do not teach our dogs to “hunt” in the early stages of training.  We are just teaching our dogs to “Play The Game” with us and whatever sense he uses at the initial stages of training is fine.  We just do not want the dog to learn that digging, scratching, pawing and biting are components of The Game!

Another way to prevent the dog from digging, scratching, pawing and biting is to put the “hot-box” up on chairs which makes it more difficult for the dog to paw and scratch and open the box lids. While mostly we put the “hot-box” up on chairs during the initial training is so that the dog learns that hides are not always found on the floor but maybe up at head-level, in doing so we also are making the act of digging, pawing, scratching and chewing less doable by the dog because the “hot-box” is now at chest-level (or higher for the shorty dogs). In the words of Bob Bailey, this is called “manipulating the environment to make a given behavior less likely to happen.”  Putting the “hot-box” up on a chair minimizes the likelihood that the dog is going to thump the box with its paw in frustration because it is awkward for the dog to get his paw up that high.

An additional way to “manipulate the search environment” is for the handler work their dog on heavy containers — weighted cardboard boxes, wooden boxes and even concrete blocks — , so that the dog learns that moving the box is not an option, or at least is not a comfortable option, and the dog learns to just commit to scent without also having to interact with the container.  When my young GSD first started pawing at the card board containers to get to the treats, I am immediately shifted her to wooden boxes with holes cut in each box’s wooden lid like those pictured in the attached photos instead of cardboard boxes. Or, if training outdoors, you can use concrete blocks.

Again, dealing with digging, pawing, scratching and biting is a complex issue and the above explanation is pretty truncated . . . but, hopefully, I have given folks some food for thought as we all strive to develop strong PASSIVE responses in our K9NW dogs!!!

*This is what I refer to as “Layering on a Default Behavior” by heavily reinforcing and rehearsing a specific behavior such that the dog selects this behavior on its own when “demanding to be paid.”