Working through lingering odor

Question from K9 Nose Work student:

My 4 year old Papillion and I have been doing nose work for a year and have been on odor for at least 7 months or more, I pair app 25% of the time. She is very driven and will do almost anything for food.

She is awesome at doing outdoor searches and can follow a plume back to source in almost any type of conditions (cold, wind, drizzling rain). An indoor search where it involves one search or multiple searches that are not close together ,high or low she can work it out and will stay at source.

In indoor searches in small areas where the odor source is being moved around and a high concentration of residual odor she has trouble working through the lingering odor to the source. In these types of searches I have seen her false alert. She is not cueing off of me she is convinced she is right and stays put. I don’t say or do anything and she will finally move on and find the source. I would appreciate feedback and suggestions.

Gail’s response:

I thought this inquiry was interesting and thought I would jot down some thoughts 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 this 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 his behavior to “odor,” but the dog is just throwing the behavior out in the presence of any odor in an effort to get the reward as opposed to the dog finding the source itself. 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!

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Multiple hides

I agree with Ron that the best thing you can do is simply remove the hide once the dog has found it because the dog is smart and knows it got super treats there once, so heck, why not try again! And a dog going back repeatedly to a hide is often a good indication that there are no other hides to be found. I do try to body block the dog but I find that assertive movements on the part of a handler in and around a hide can be intimating to some dogs, so I don’t like to do that very much. Sometimes I put the dog back on a leash but mostly I just remove the hide. Finally, if the dog does go back to a hide, I always err on rewarding the dog for the find again (i.e., protecting the proactive decision-making effort in the dog. :):):)) But I then remove the hide to prevent my having to repeatedly reward my dog because going back repeatedly to a hide is a real time sink and our NW trials are won based on the fastest time.

FWIW I do teach my dogs a command, “Find it. Another.” I emphasize the word “another” and, in time, my dog knows to find a second hide when I use the word “another.” I teach this in two ways. First, I will have the dog search an area for one hide. Once the dog finds the first hide and I am rewarding the dog, I have a helper place another strong hide upwind of my dog. I then say, “Find it. Another,” with the emphasis on the word “another.” The dog makes the second find easily so there is some connection between the new cue and the second find. Second, I place 4-5 hides in a row along an outside wall of a building. 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! 🙁 Send your dog out to search for the first hide with your normal search cue but for the next hides, repeat your new “search litany” that communicates to your dog that there is a new hide to search for. 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. One final note, watch out for SHOPPING though when doing multiple hides!

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