Self-Rewarding and Supplementally-Rewarding

The question was posed as to whether one would both pair and then subsequently reward from handler.

This was my response:

There are many, many ways to train a detection dog.  And some ways work for some dogs and other ways work for other dogs.  But I have found that allowing the dog to both self-reward and to be supplementally-rewarded works extremely well for the majority of dogs that I work with.  So, in my classes, we  put value – a lot of value — on the source by “pairing” the odor of birch (or anise or clove) with a luscious, salient reward-food that the dog really, REALLY likes.  (Alternately, if the dog is more toy-driven than food-driven, you can use a toy in the same manner as reward-food is being used.  Please read another blog on my website as to some ways to properly reward with a toy).  I have my students sprinkle 5-6 pieces of the stinky reward-food (or the toy) into what I call my “bowl-sandwich” and place the “bowl-sandwich” into a box (“hot-box”) and shut the lid.  When the dog finds the “hot-box,” I instruct my students to immediately open the lid and allow the dog to self-reward on the food.  When the dog has finished self-rewarding, I then have my students drop anywhere from 5 to 40 pieces of food in the top bowl, one piece at a time (i.e., “supplementally-reward”). Keep the amount unpredictable but the reinforcement over odor should be more, not less, in this early stage.  You are imprinting value on the odor, so make it a super strong association with heavy reinforcement.  Also, make sure that the hand that is dropping the food into the bowl does not move further away from the top bowl than 2 inches because you want the dog’s nose to stay in the top bowl and not swivel back and forth following the hand that is dropping in the food.  The dog must learn that he gets the food in the bowl and not from your hand and start to orient to the bowl more and more.  Each time you repeat this training, the dog will be inhaling the odor of birch (or anise or clove) as the dog is self-rewarding and then being supplementally-rewarded.  The longer you have the dog inhaling the odor while he is being rewarded the stronger the association between the odor of birch and the salient reward will become.

In time, by doing this, the dog associates the odor of birch (or anise or clove) with that salient reward-food (or toy) and the dog learns to love the odor just as if it were the reward-food.  This is pure classical – i.e., Pavlovian – conditioning at its best.  And we condition in this concept that “odor is important” (i.e., “odor obedience”) in the context of HUNTING for the odor right from the beginning.  Thus, I believe that K9 Nose Work Training is “hunting-based” as opposed to “obedience-based” from the start of our training.  If done correctly, you should end up with a dog that eagerly hunts for the odor of birch and pushes toward source when the find is made.

Take a look at the following two YouTube clips of my dog, Cajun, working some blind hides — blind to both Cajun and me.  Cajun is a product of this training system. Cajun is a mega-testosterone boy and definitely has it in him to be distracted by other “of-male-interesting-extraneous-odors.”  So, I have been very careful to keep the motivation for the search – on my terms, not his 🙂 – as high as I can make it.  And so, can Cajun in these clips be any happier at making his finds?  Can he be more focused?  And can everyone tell “when” he makes his finds?   In one video, Cajun is so into “making the find” that I think I surprise him when I start to reward him!  🙂

Cajun 1

Cajun 2

JMHO but I hope this helps!

Gail McCarthy CNWI



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Using a Ball or Tug as the Primary Reward

In K9 Nose Work, you can use either food or toys as the primary reward.  The key is to select the one that your dog really really likes.  There are many ways to use a toy reward to put value on an odor….but the key thing to remember is that all the play must occur right over the hide.  If your dog likes to chase a ball, then the handler can make the ball “spring” out from right over the source.  Do this with multiple balls, one at a time, you will soon have the dog racing back to this hide to have another ball “spring” out from source.  Watch it though, as this type of reward-play can make the dog back up away from the hide, anticipating where the ball where go, not where it comes from.  Obviously we don’t want that in a sport that requires pinpoint precision, so the dog’s head should be down near source before “springing” the ball.

Alternately, it is easier to use a tug toy or a ball on a rope.  All tugging must occur over source and, if the dog pulls too far away, just let go and wait for the dog to re-engage the game over source.  Use another similar toy to get the dog back if necessary until the dog naturally learns to push back into your hand.

If the only toy that a dog likes is a tennis ball or squeaky toy that does not come with a rope on it and if you don’t want to punch a hole in the ball or toy and thread in some clothes line, then order a Ball Jock…..

You can still throw the ball with these on but the balls don’t roll so far from source and they make it easy to use any ball to play tug over source.

Have fun!

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Thoughts on Rewards/When to Intervene on the Inexperienced Dog vs Experienced Dog

I was looking for a specific email I wrote and found this old post I wrote in response to someone’s multi-question when to intervene in a problem he set up for an inexperienced dog versus and experienced dog. I thought the points were worth revisiting….even for me and I teach alot. 🙂


Q: Do your students carry food on them when the dog is first learning to search? And what kind of foods do you suggest handlers with novice dogs use?

*****Sorry for the delay as things were very crazy on my end, and I don’t mean to answer for [other people], but, as with all dog training, everyone has a different opinion as to what and when things should be done. However, as Karen Pryor once said, “There are as many recipes to train a dog to do something as there are people to think them up!” JJ So, other folks can do things differently but, if we all apply the Laws of Learning, we will get there!! But, in answer to your question, what I personally do is both!!! I ask my handlers to always carry a bait bag even when the dog IS at the level where he is still searching for food. That way, the dog gets used to the handler carrying food on his/her body and the dog learns that he must “complete the behavior” (ie search and find) before he gets any reward from the handler. Not doing so makes the dog suddenly focus on the bait bag when the food is removed from the box and the handler starts to carry it!! And since, over time, we want to ping-pong the amount of scent available for the dog (ie from subtle scent all the way up to scent that “grabs” the dog from 15 feet away), I ask my handlers to augment the food hidden in the box, piece by piece, to give a meaningful reward IF there is not so much food hidden in the box. I probably err on asking folks to bring really stinky, salient treats because I want to imprint intensity and excitement into the search behavior and strong, enticing scents usually wake up even the most reserved dog and creates laser focus in the driven dog. Plus, I am sort of fanatical about my handlers giving at least 10-15 separate pieces of food for each find during the dog’s initial training and whenever needed thereafter. You need to “pay” your dog in a way that makes an impression on your friend!!!! JJJ BTW, we have found over the years that the following reward foods make a BIG impression on your dog: Frozen Turkey Meatballs, Al Fresca Garlic Sausages, and [[drum roll]], yep, McDonald’s Big Mac sans onions and pickles!!! McDonald’s learned long ago what ratio of chemicals made us addicted to their foods and dogs succumb equally fast!!! LOL

Q: And if the dog does move on, is it better to shift the hide so they can find another or wait for them to return to the original hide?

******You are doing a lot of thinking on all this! JJJJ That is wonderful!!!!! And your question really taps into the age-old issue that all detection dog handlers must address at some point in their training and that is (1) when should the handler leave the dog alone, (2) when should the handler intervene or assist, and (3) when should the handler abort the problem and restart. These are tough questions and let me say that there are NO clear lines in the sand. And there are so many nuances involved that it is difficult to write about it, especially in a quick email. In short, making the right decisions along these lines requires experience and even experience can result in wrong turns! LL But, since my quest since 1992 has been “how can I efficiently and effectively train an independent and reliable working dog that can search and find without handler support,” I have wrestled with these issues and have come up with the following shorthand rules (and again, all kinds of shades of gray can impact what I will do in any given situation):


1) Self-learning in an inexperienced dog is paramount. You need to stay out of the picture as much as possible and allow the young dog, in a controlled setting, to figure out what it needs to do in detection work on its own because when a dog is ENGAGED in the learning process, then learning – permanent learning — can occur in record time. Learning will not happen if you help the dog to solve the problem by stopping by the Odor Box or pointing it out. Learning only takes place if the dog does it on its own. Also, it is crucial that a detection dog INTERNALIZE its hunting response so that it does not rely on the handler to solve its problems for him. And so, if I have a dog that is zipping up and down a line of boxes, and is focused on the boxes, repeatedly circles back and around in its search for that Odor Box, I am going to follow that dog and I am going to allow that dog the time it needs to discover that the Odor Box smells good and, on its own, make the decision to stop at that box to check things out. And dogs WILL make that decision “all on their own” IF you do not interfere and IF the dog is motivated and not overwhelmed by its environment and IF the problem you set up for the young dog is not complex or so challenging that the dog feels over faced meaning that it should NOT take the dog long to solve the problelm. Lots of IF’s but all will go well IF you always remember that problems for the inexperienced dog should be EASY EASY EASY to build courage and confidence and the willingness to try!!

2) Inexperienced dogs do not generalize well. Think of dogs like an autistic person who may learn to recognize a 747 as an airplane but needs to also learn that a Leer Jet flies in the air, as does a Cessna. Dogs are like that and it takes a while for dogs to see a relationship in all the various things we are asking them to do. So, if I have a dog which loves hunting more than stopping at the Odor Box for its reward (which really, if you think about it, is a wonderful thing to have in your dog, you just need to know how to channel that hunting desire!!!!) or if I have a dog for which I mistakenly set up a problem that is too challenging and outside of its frame of reference for whatever reason and it is taking too long for it to solve the problem (and, again, we should really try to never set up a problem for an inexperienced dog that “takes too long” JJ), I may do one of the following: 1) Do something to draw attention to the location of the hide (ie, drop a box by the hide) so that the dog comes over to check out the box drop and hopefully hit scent in doing so; 2) Unobtrusively flap the lid on the box or fan the hide to build up the scent available for the dog … or even open the box up when the dog is not looking; 3) Offer passive handler support by slowly wandering in the direction of the hide and even circling it from several yards away, trying to keep the dog at 6 o’clock and you at 12 o’clock, dog at 7 o’clock and you at 1 o’clock, etc – and the dog, being bonded to you, will move in your direction and, again, hopefully acquire scent as he passes the hot box; or 4) Wait until you believe the dog has acquired scent and, if the dog nonetheless “walks” the scent after I think he had it, I would (under certain conditions that experience tells me is appropriate) be right down there in a nanosecond saying “Good Dog,” and rewarding over source. I do these various things when things start to “go south” because I believe that the training we give our FNW dogs is so free of pressure and our dogs really really “want” to be right, that if a dog “walks” scent, or has difficult acquiring scent, than something innocent is going on. For example, the dog simply may not have detected the scent (in which case I would likely do one of the first three things listed above to allow the dog to self-learn). Or, the dog does not recognize scent at that particular intensity. Or, the dog does not recognize that scent can be found in that particular container I selected … or where this is no container. Or, the dog simply has not been conditioned sufficiently to want to stop at the Odor Box because the “imprinted hunting desire” is so much more fun!!! The variables are endless but I believe at the root of them all is the fact that if a FNW dog cannot find scent at a level or in a condition that he recognizes than the problem was probably too hard for him at that point in time (for whatever reason). Or, if he leaves scent after finding it than he does not yet understand that the scent he found is predicative of greater reward. However, allowing the dog to race around searching and searching and not being successful, or allowing it to leave the scent in the hopes that it “may” wander back and somehow “know” what to do risks the development of a lot of extraneous behaviors that I may not want or, worse, may result in the dog hitting “nosetime” and shutting down. And this downward spiral is something that every detection dog handler should go out of their way to avoid – we want to empower our dogs and make them feel they can problem-solve, not make them feel like failures!! So, in certain situations where I want to educate the dog that the opportunity to get rewarded is possible or where I want to avoid “nosetime,” then I will reward a dog OVER SOURCE even if the dog left the Odor Box IF I feel that the dog has really TRIED to find scent or if I feel that the dog ACQUIRED scent but just did not know what to do with that scent. I will do this because I do not want a dog to fail, I do not want a dog to be disappointed or stressed or frustrated because it cannot find, and I do not want a dog to ever quit. By doing this, I protect at all times the dog’s desire to hunt – which I hold sacred — and I maximize the education opportunities for the inexperienced dog (ie I help it to recognize scent, or to stay at scent, or to learn to recognize that scent exists outside containers, or whatever) and I help build a stronger and stronger desire for the scent because the dog was successful. If done properly, you should see that the dog is able to complete the same problem – or one tapped down a little — EASIER the next time WITHOUT your assistance. (However, JSYK, dealing with imprinting situations will take many reps before you start to see an independent response on the dog’s part).


1) If the experienced dog, “walks” scent, I abort the problem WITHOUT making the dog feel unsuccessful. This is very important because trainers get upset when their dog, for whatever reason, is not able to complete a problem. It is so easy to crush our dog’s confidence and it really is true that “the absence of a positive is a negative” in our companion dog because our dogs want to please us and they know by the absence of a positive word or a chin scratch that you are not happy with them. Nonetheless, you don’t want to reward mediocrity in the experienced dog so you need to stop the training and then analyze WHY the experienced dog did not complete the problem. And then set up the next problem which the dog CAN COMPLETE after addressing the underlying training issue. But all that is a discussion for another day.

Hope this helps!
Happy Hunting!
Gail McCarthy CNWI

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Use of Your Voice in Detection Dog Training

In March 2010, I sent the following post to my students and, as I was asked today about my thoughts about the use of the voice in detection dog training, I thought I would repost this email again:

Good Evening!!

GREAT classes tonight!!  All of your dogs at the various Levels continue to do really well!! And it was a really hard class for all of you!! :):)

If I can, I will try to do a little write-up on one of the topics we briefly scratch over in class.  One of them is the “use of your voice,” something I feel is a very powerful training tool.  The advent of clicker training in to traditional dog training has been a HUGE boon to both handlers….and their lucky dogs, each of whom are now the recipient of “kinder, gentler training.”  But sometimes there is a feeling among positive trainers that you need to keep your mouth shut while rewarding and let the click/treat drive the behavior and, whatever energy the dog naturally puts in to working for that reward is the level of effort with which we have to work.  I disagree.  Especially for working dogs that need to work in complex, every changing environments.  I have seen dogs fall asleep after months of such training, even when handlers continued to incrementally increase the quality of the performance, or they put their dogs on intermittent schedules of reinforcement or they use varying systems of varying rewards.  Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely a trainer that uses markers….but I also believe that you need to make the reward “come alive” because your dog is living, sentient creature that is hardwired with drives and instincts which FEEL GOOD WHEN TAPPED INTO.  Now, while this does not apply to the training you are getting from me right now, one way of making the reward “come alive” is to present the food to the dog as if it is a tug toy.  Make the reward move AWAY from your dog so that he has to move quicker to get it instead of just dropping it at his feet.  But, we sure can’t do that, can we, if the dog is eating right out of the box or (as you soon will be doing if you are not already feeding by hand) if I am instructing you to feed over source!!!   Ha!  So, what to do??  Especially as I have also told that “Intensity to do the work is the criteria that you will monitor throughout your dog’s working career!”

Well, you can use your voice in a way that makes the dog want to move into the box (or into your hand when we get there) to get each sliver of food.  YOU DO THAT BY USING YOUR VOICE AND YOUR BODY LANGUAGE TO COMMUNICATE TO THE DOG THAT YOU ARE PART OF THE HUNT PROCESS AND THAT YOU ARE PROUD OF YOUR DOG’S EFFORTS!   The mindset I have when Lourda makes her find is to communicate with my voice and my body how much I appreciate her finding that scent and how worthwhile I believe her services to be and I might tease a little bit with my hand as I present the food to her, all the while starring at the box and NOT my dog. 

Now, I know that sort of sounds silly….sort of Zen like … but mindset is all important — as I said in class, “a dog knows the difference between being kicked and being tripped over.”  It is all about intent, about you’re your mindset, about your appreciation for your dog.  You know they can read you better than you can read yourself….so why not take advantage of a huge training tool – your mindset communicated by your body language and your voice!!!

So, a couple do’s and don’t’s…..

1)   Do use your voice in a way that communicates appreciation for your dog and that you are proud of your dog’s efforts;

2)   Do not use your voice loud and fast if you have a soft dog — you will end up backing your dog off.  If you watch Lourda and me, a dog that is very quick and always very aroused, I talk softly with her but I am at all times with her in “her hunt” and “in her find.”  But for a slower, less aroused dog, I might talk faster, in a higher pitched voice to communicate energy to my dog.  In others words, calculate the strength of your voice based on the dog you have at the end of the leash.  Communication does not have to be loud to be meaningful.

3)   Your voice should have some effect on your dog!!  There should be some reaction to the first time you use your voice correctly – the stronger dog’s tail may wag harder, they may push harder into the box or into your hand, the dog may simply seem happier, the soft dog more confident in his efforts as he takes the reward.

4)   Do not use your voice as the dog is hunting UNLESS the dog losses focuses and is not hunting.  We want the dog OUT IN FRONT OF US, focused on the boxes.  If you are constantly saying “Find It,” the dog is focused, at least partly, on you – and we do NOT want that at this stage.

5)   Do not use your voice when your helper is agitating the dog on the boxes to bring the dog’s attention to the boxes.

6)   Do not use your voice in a way that pulls the dogs attention OFF the boxes and onto you – even while rewarding, the dog’s focus should be in getting the reward out of the box, and the out of your hand when you get that far.

Well, that’s enough for now….always more to say….

Hope this helps!!  I will continue to share with you the knowledge I have acquired over the years….and I want you to share back!!  So, WRITE if you have any questions or any comments!!!



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Lingering Odor/Fringe Odor/Going to Source

I had an inquiry from a person whose dog was alerting on “lingering odor” and wanted to know the difference between “lingering odor” and “fringe odor.” Also, this person was confused about what it meant to “go to source.” So, the following are some thoughts I jotted down in response. When you read the following, however, remember that these are my thoughts and there are as many different ways to address training issues as there are different people to think them up! For me, I just try to stick as close to the “Laws of Learning” when trying to work through what may be a training hiccup for me…but, what behavior a dog may offer is, to the dog, just another possible rewardable-option — and, in any dog training venue, we just need to figure out how to communicate with our dogs as to what is, and is not, an rewardable option in our world!☺☺

With that, as we all know, K9NW dogs are taught to “go to source” and the handler needs to be able identify exactly where the source is if asked by a judge at a NW1 Trial. If you cannot immediately pinpoint based on your dog’s behavior, you will not pass that element. So, “going to source” is an important component to this K9 sport but it is really just a learned skill to the dog — the dog really doesn’t care where he makes his decision and pinpointing source initially makes little difference to the dog. To help our dog learn, delivery of reward over source educates the dog as to where he is to make his “find-decision.” Another way of understanding the importance of “reward-delivery-location” is by watching the following Streaming Video of Mike Ellis, one of the preeminent trainers of our generation, and his theory of reward placement: I would say that “learning to pinpoint source location” is a “gray” area for the dog initially but, once the dog learns to pinpoint, it is black and white. ☺☺

But, in the process of getting the dog to the point that he understands that he must follow the scent to source, there are different issues that can arise. One of the issues that can occur is that the dog “fringes.” Fringing occurs when the source is located so that the dog can pinpoint accurately but the dog instead makes the decision that he is at source when he is still some distance away from the source. “Fringing” may occur for many different reasons. In the early stages of their learning, many wonderful, eager, proactive dogs anticipate the find when these dogs first hit scent that it is flowing from a source and they alert on this fringe scent without first having followed the scent plume to source. Alternately, “fringing” may occur in a tentative dog that is having difficulty in following the scent plume to source and that dog makes a premature decision to alert when it first hits the fringe scent instead of correctly following the scent plume to source. Finally, “fringing” may occur because the handler has not been consistent in rewarding directly over source and, say, when handlers reward 5, 6, 10 inches away from source, they are actually putting value on the intensity of scent at this distance away from source! You are training your dog to fringe if you reward away from source!! Again, watch Mike Ellis’ Streaming Video!!!

Alerting on “lingering odor” is slightly different in that there is no source to which lingering odor is “anchored.” “Lingering odor” is the odor remaining after the source has been removed. Most K9NW dogs regularly learn to work through “lingering odor” because we move the sources so often during classes that the dogs learn that “odor not attached to a source” will not pay. And dogs are hardwired to learn to distinguish between “odor that leads back to a source” and “odor that is just lingering without an anchor” — if they could not tell the difference, wild dogs would have starved staying at the spot where the rabbit once was, and not where it went!!!

But, “lingering odor” *is* odor!! “Fringe odor” *is* odor!! And so, it is our job to teach a dog that only when he follows the odor to source will he get paid. That it is the SOURCE that the dog must pinpoint. And, if a dog fails to go to source and makes a decision on “fringe, my response to the dog differs depending on the experience of the dog. For a dog that is still learning the “Rules of the Game” but who makes a decision when it first hits the fringe scent instead of correctly following the scent plume to source, I will verbally reward the dog for making a decision, BUT I will reinforce directly over source so that I continue to educate the dog as to where he should alert the next time. I interpret the dog’s “premature response” as “confusion as to what is expected” but I want to reinforce the dog’s willingness to try for me and to make a decision. This is important because my dog thinks that he was “right” when he made his decision and, if I do nothing, the dog (at this stage) does not know how to be “more right.” Giving no information to the dog following his “decision” or “waiting the young dog out,” does what I call “leaving the dog hanging,” which is a major source of pressure and stress to a dog. I no longer ever leave a dog “hanging.” Again, I respond to the dog’s willingness to try for me by verbally rewarding the dog for making a decision, BUT then my reward delivery is directly over source so that I educate the dog as to where he should make his decision the next time. In time, the dog will learn, with no pressure from his handler, that reward delivery occurs only at source and not on fringe scent. And I have seen dog after dog after dog after dog after dog after dog learn the importance of source in this way.

With that as a backdrop, what to do about “decisions made on lingering odor”? There are many different reasons that a dog would make a decision on “lingering odor.” I won’t list them all but one reason is that the dog simply does not have a rock solid understanding as to the “importance of source.” He knows you want him to make a “decision on odor,” but he is not clear “where” the decision is to be made. To address this, I would make crystal clear that it is the SOURCE that has value by HEAVILY REWARDING at source — and I am not talking about 3, 4, 5 pieces of food, I am talking about 10, 20, 30 pieces of luscious, salient treats distributed one by one and NOT all in one handful. You have only given the dog one reward when you feed everything all at once!!!

Another reason could be that the dog thinks that reward delivery is linked to a “location” (i.e., where a hide once was) as opposed to “the presence of a source at a location.” To address this in a dog that was confused as to what it is searching for, I would initially reduce the number of times I would move a hide in one search location. I might only move the hide once in any search area for a while and I might even make sure that I use a DIFFERENT hide when I do set up another problem. By re-using the room, you do give the dog an opportunity to learn to work through lingering….but you will not be overwhelming an already confused dog by moving the hide over and over again. Using a different hide for the second problem will also help the dog to ignore lingering…as it will not be related to the second hide. As the dog gets stronger in his hunting for source, old locations will not have such an attraction for him.

Finally, another reason could be that the dog is not clear that it is the “finding of a source” that pays and instead mistakenly thinks that it is the “making the decision on any amount of odor” that makes the reward appear. This is a tricky problem and can result when a “behavior at source” is emphasized rather than the “hunt for the source.” Yes, the dog is linking both behaviors to “odor,” but the first dog is just throwing the behavior out in the presence of odor in an effort to get the reward because the dog thinks that it is his behavior that brings the reward as opposed to the dog believing that it is finding the source that brings the reward. There is a huge different in those two activities. To clear this up if this is happening, I would really go back to foundation work. I would pull all of the containers containing the odor out of their hiding spots and place them out in the open so that the dog can visually target any hide he is asked to search. In doing so, you help clarify for the dog that it is an ACTUAL SOURCE that is important and not just odor. And, when doing this, I would again HEAVILY REWARD at source as described above. (NB: Of course, you can pull the targets out, and even pair, for any training issue but, at some point, the dog has to learn to deal with fringe and lingering odor in the absence of a visual target or paired source which is why I did not suggest these options earlier — but as Jill, Ron and Amy so often say, “pairing is never remedial” so that is always an option!!).

At any rate, the above are just some random thoughts as to what might be happening with your dog. Without actually witnessing what your dog does, it is hard to accurately give you training tips. But, maybe the above will give you food for thought!

Thanks and I look forward to feedback!
Gail McCarthy CNWI

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Pawing, Digging, Retrieving and Otherwise Engaging Aggressively with a Source/Box

While crushing a box while searching or when making a find – or picking up the box and retrieving it to you — is a training issue, your dog doing so at an ORT will not be grounds for dismissal according to the NASCW ORT Coordinator. That’s why the Certifying Official makes extra hot boxes and has extra neutral boxes from which to draw. Be aware, however, that faults may be assessed at an Official NACSW Trial at the judges’ discretion if the handler has “compromised the search area.” “Compromising the search area” has been defined in the NACSW Standards to include, but not be limited to, contaminating or damaging/destroying boxes or other items in the environment, dropping/leaving food/toy rewards in search areas, and urinating/defecating. So, if your dog is interacting aggressively with the boxes, you need to interrupt that behavior for whatever length of time it takes so that the dog stops thinking that picking up the box is an option and you have replaced it with another more acceptable behavior – i.e., staying at source and waiting for you to deliver the reward.  Retrieving the box can happen with operant HAPPY dogs that are just out having a good time, but this behavior usually occurs when handlers wait for that “magic decision” or “indication” BEFORE the dog has stimulus control at the box.  A quick dog, that has had sufficient training, “knows” that good things happen at the box, but he does not necessarily understand what he is to do while “waiting” for a handler that delays too long, too soon.  Such dogs are more than happy to step in and bring the “predicator of reward” (i.e., the box) to you.   Remember, dogs are thinking all the time too how best to get what they want and they know you got what they want – the reward!!  :):)  Regardless of the “why,” to address this problem, you can manipulate the environment in several ways to make it less likely your dog will retrieve the box: 1) You can weigh the boxes down (but this does add another extraneous odor to your boxes but you can address this if you put bricks in all boxes in addition to the box that has odor so that the dog has to discriminate).  You can also use some naturally heavy item as your container –  i.e., concrete blocks with a concrete paver as a lid (I have these out in my backyard).   I also use boxes made of wood with a hinged top with one hole drilled in the top for scent distribution (there is a metal slider on the top to cover the larger hole when I work more experienced dogs on pinpointing).   Wooden boxes are much more transportable than heavy concrete blocks and picking up a heavier wooden box is not as much fun as a lightweight Uline box.  I made 15 such boxes early on when teaching K9NW and I still pull them out for dogs that are really insistent on doing this.  Similarly, I use those heavy plastic gray electrical boxes which have a lid that can be scewed down because a dog can’t really pick these boxes up…but they sure can slide them all over the floor. 🙁  Some of them come with pre-drilled holes but I found it very difficult to drill the holes myself, so I really only use these boxes for exterior work or for doing disaster training.  2)  Manipulate the environment to get the behavior you want by placing the majority of your boxes on top of chairs that the seat of which comes up to your dog’s chest.  When boxes are at this level, it is less likely that the dog can raise its paw to dig or to grab the hide to run off with it. (You can also work the dog for a while on “vertical” hides (i.e., drawers or those wonderful Randy Hare boxes) but I have found that dogs that like to self-reward on boxes still need to learn “proper care” of the boxes even if started on vertical hides which is why I more often select boxes on chairs as my preferred training tool when having issues with digging etc).  3)  Finally, you need to do your very best to get to source as quickly as possible to reward.  The dog needs to learn that it is the find that brings the reward and source location is where the reward will be delivered.  If dog beats you there, then quietly take the box from the dog, bring it back to the hide location and reward at source.  If your reward delivery is proper, then you will begin to educate  the dog WHERE reward delivery occurs.  And if you make the “reward event” big enough and important enough to the dog, then staying at source and waiting for what the dogs knows will be something the dog really wants will occur all on its own.  Natural stimulus control. 

So, it is very possible to address a dog’s aggressive responses to the boxes….but a change in behaviors that are self rewarding will not happen overnight.  And, that is why it is best to avoid this happening at the start of training.  Remember, dog training is all about conditioning in the right expectations in a dog and, if the dog has selected an incorrect expectation, then you need to carefully change his expectation to the one you want.


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Aging Hides/Intensities

In my classes, I routinely change out the Q-tips in my tins so that the dogs that work with me are constantly being exposed to different intensities of scent.  We also have training drills where I set up problems with decreasing amounts of odor (at least I think it is decreasing but only the dog knows for sure… 🙂 ) to see how the dogs work the different amounts of odor.  Everyone should do this outside of class as well of course as we never know how much scent is going to be available to our dogs at trial.  The concept of “going to source” regardless of the scent threshold available to the dog must be really locked in.  Aging the different hides is also very important.  I had one student that was an ace in class, nailed every problem beautifully in class as well as in my off-site classes but then would false alert when competing.  I initially thought that the false alerting was caused by the handler’s nerves, but that really wasn’t an issue.  I then began to think that the lack of MY odor on the source was the problem for this dog until I said in passing to the handler, “You do age your hides, right?”  It turns out that every problem that they worked had not been aged more than ten minutes.  She set the hides out and then immediately worked them.  And so, of course, the dog got conditioned to indicating on a scent plume that was only “ten minutes in intensity” (my phrasing and not that of the dog 🙂 ) and, when the dog encountered scent at that “ten minute intensity,” the dog told the owner that he had found, even though the dog had encountered that “scent-intensity” about four feet from source on a hide that had been aged over seven hours!  Fringing!!!  Arghh!!  As soon as I identified the problem, the handler started to age her hides and this particular dog when on to title at NW1 at the next trial.  And then, a few months later, this dog titled at NW2 and the dog went on, just a few months later, to title at NW3!!  Whew!!!  Moral is:  Vary the intensity of your hides AND age them!!! 🙂

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Ability To Follow Scent to Source

One of the questions I repeatedly get asked is, “Can the dog really follow scent back to source?” Another variation is, “How can the dog know to leave lingering odor (i.e., where the source once was) and move to where the source is now?” My reply has been is that if a dog did not have the ability to locate where the mouse had gone, as opposed to where it had been, dogs would have starved to death long ago! In support of that opinion, I’d like to direct my students, as well as others who have joined my FB Page, to read the results of a canine scent detection study conducted by the Auburn University in June 1999. The title of the document is the “Canine Detection Capabilities: Operational Implications of Recent R&D Findings,” by J. M. Johnston, Ph.D., Institute for Biological Detection Systems. The whole article can be found at:

It is a very good read and there are many thought-provoking determinations in this article. I don’t have the science background to say, unequivocally, that all that is said in this article is 100% accurate, but most of it makes sense to me based on what I have seen in the 20-odd years that I have been training scent-detection dogs. But, in answer to the above questions, I point you all to the following excerpt:

Of course, for dogs, vapor collection, signal processing, and detection cycle times are essentially instantaneous. This level of olfactory sensitivity plays a key role in the dog’s ability to use concentration gradient information to locate an odor source. It is reasonable to presume that a dog coming into contact with the periphery of a vapor plume will initially encounter only relatively low concentrations of target compounds. Although the means by which spatially dispersed variations in concentration guide rapid movement toward the odor source has not been studied, it is clear that they are extremely efficient in using this information. That is, minimal sampling effectively guides rapid locomotion to the odor source. All detection tasks require that dogs respond to the lowest detectable concentrations of the target odor because it is such initial samples that can then prompt them to move in directions that lead to higher concentrations. Although trainers and handlers tend to focus on the quantity of training aids used as defined by weight, dogs respond to training aids in terms of the vapor concentration of signature compounds, not weight. It is therefore important that all dogs are trained to pay attention to a range of concentrations, including even the faintest whiff of target odors, regardless of differences in search scenarios. The findings from these sensitivity studies suggest that this approach will make the best use of dogs’ impressive olfactory sensitivity.

Enjoy the rest of the article and continue to learn about these incredibly talented canine partners with whom we share our lives!!

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Mock trials

I have had it on my to-do list to respond to Ron’s reminder about keeping Mock Trials fun and that is certainly what we have tried to do up here in Massachusetts in all our Mock Trials. We want everyone to leave our Mock Trials feeling good about their dogs, feeling good about their handling skills and reveling in the camaraderie that is such a trade-mark of this sport. With that said, the pass rate has not been good at our last two Mock Trials and I’d like to share my thoughts about that.

First, each of the hides in NW1 were sourceable – meaning that the dog could put his/her nose right on the hide. As such, the judges (Jean McCord, Anne Steciw and myself) decided that a NW1 dog would only pass an element if they “went to source.” With regard to NW2, we continued to agree that sourceable hides required that the dog go to source. Diffuse hides would pass if the dog made a decision somewhere along the edges of the area where the hide was placed. So, I believe the hides in both of our most recent Mock Trials were eminently fair and passable – so why the low pass rate??? Well, though it is hard to do a mind-dump in a nutshell, this is what I think happened…..

1) Weather: All handlers had a TERRIFIC attitude given that it was POURING for most of the morning runs. I had the good fortune of being the exterior judge :):) and my chair was literally sitting in three inches of water . . . with ice still all around . . . all of which frankly limited where we could set up the exterior search location as we wanted to stay out of the icy areas and where the deep water was. So, handlers were GREAT to bring their dogs out in such weather, but it certainly added a “dampening” effect on many of the dogs.

2) Duration: I also was judging the last element and all of the dogs had gone straight through vehicles, interior, containers in that order before me. And I think some dogs were simply pooped out by the time they got to me. I know folks up here in New England want the elements offered back to back in a Mock Trial, but there were many dogs that just trudged around in my element and were not actively hunting for source, and many even walked the odor when the passed through the plume.

3) Fringing: From speaking with the other judges, dogs were fringing on the hides and not going to source. Remember, heavy reinforcement at source creates a dog that WANTS to find source, so don’t be cheap with your rewards!!! Be in the double digits when rewarding pieces of treats!!!!

4) Intensity to do the work: A dog does NOT have to be racing around, franticly hunting for source to be a good search dog. NOT AT ALL!! They can move at whatever speed is unique to them. But they do need to be focused on the task at hand and they must WANT to find the hide because the hide HAS VALUE to them. However, my instincts tell me that when I see so many dogs trudging around in a search area — and even walking scent — that folks have not built enough value into the odor. Or that folks are doing too many complex problems and they are not maintaining a good strong foundation of easy quick problems.

The way our K9NW dogs are trained results in dogs that are THRILLED to make the find – I actually see dogs light up when they get to source. The training we give our dogs makes them HAPPY to get to source. Even my reactive dog’s tail starts to sweep back and forth when she is at source – because she is happy and she has learned to trust The Game! So, what happened to that joy that I am so used to seeing in all the dogs???

Well, most of the handlers I saw at the Mock Trials have been training for at least one year, if not two years. And that probably means folks are out there doing those nifty high hides, or those glitzy exciting hides that channel or pool, or the hides that the dog has to work for some time before they can get to source. Those problems make us all hold our breath in anticipation, don’t they!! :):):) But, all those nifty exciting hides that are fun for us humans, one after another after another, just burn the good dog right out.

So, when was the last time you set out an easy row of boxes for your dog? Or, when was the last time you brought your dog into a room with a strong hide blowing right into his face that he could nail in seconds?? Or, when was the last time you did the Dumpster Drills I wrote about over a year ago? Those are your foundation hides — and I believe that there should be a much, MUCH, MUCH (can I say MUCH again??) higher ratio of easy quick hides to those glitzy ones when you work your seasoned dog. And you CERTAINLY need to build that energy and confidence into the young dogs with quick easy hides so that they do not learn the awful, gut-twisting (in us humans) option of “wandering around” the search area (what I call “dinking”).

Easy quick problems ARE NOT BORING to the dog – they EMPOWER your dog. As Ron Gaunt told me once, “Dogs never get tired of success.” So, help your dog stay strong, confident and energized by maintaining that high ratio of easy quick problems!

At any rate, those were the things I saw – I saw happy hopeful and eager handlers with dogs that were just a little jaded. So bring those boxes and other fun easy hides back out, don’t be cheap with the rewards AND reward OVER source – delivering reward 1″-2″-3″-4″-5″-6″ and even 12 inches away from source (which is what I saw at the Mock Trial) means that you are putting value on scent at that distance!!! You are teaching your dog to fringe!! Yikes!

Well, happy trialing and hopefully all this makes sense!

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Dumpster drills

Question from a K9 Nose Work student:

Hi Gail,

I am in WI and not familiar with your Dumpster Diving Drill. Could you please explain this to me? Many thanks!

Gail’s response:

To build drive and focus – and also to help educate the dog that there is always “another hide to find” —  I will often place 4-5 hides in a row at nose height along an outside wall of, say, a building with steel walls so that my magnetic tins stick well. The hides need to be placed far enough apart so that there is no overlapping scent plumes. The back of strip malls work great for this as there are often multiple recycling dumpsters in the back and you can attach the magnetic tins on multiple dumpsters — just don’t stick them on food containing dumpsters! 🙁  This is what I call my “Dumpster Drills.”  Send your dog out to search for the first hide with your normal search cue but for the next hides, come up with a slightly different “search litany” that communicates to your dog that there is a new hide to search for.  I use the cue, “Another!  Find it.” I emphasize the word “another” and, in time, my dog knows that there will a second hide to find when I use the word “another.”  Over the years when I really geared up in my training, I have 3-4 of these such locations and my dogs definitely get excited when we go to train in one of these areas.  This is an outdoor version of the box drill, just bigger and with multiple hides.  And because it is bigger and I usually work them in only one direction, the dog learns to leave one hide and go to another without ever going back on an earlier hide.

Well, I hope this helps.

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