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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