Assumptions play a large part of scent detection training. When we put the scent in front of the dog, we assume the dog understands that they are acquiring the target scent. When practicing a blind problem (we don’t know the scent location) we assume the dog is on the target scent when they linger or return to a particular location. When the dog alerts we assume it is because the dog has acquired the target scent. Sometimes assumptions are helpful in expediting training, but lets examine problems that they can lead to.
In the first example, we place a new target scent in front of the dog and let the dog check it. While the dog is acquiring the target scent, how do we know that a connection is being made to the target scent and not the container, the medium or vehicle the scent is place in, the treat we accidently dropped on the container during the last reward, our scent or other contaminants?
So how do we avoid confusion? Many, many, MANY repetitions of the same introduction to scent exercise with everything about the presentation changed with the exception of the target scent. With and without a container, in oil, in wax, in the raw, with latex gloves, with nitrile cloves, with food service gloves. Only then can we be certain that the scent the dog is acquiring is the scent we have set out for them to acquire.
In the second example, assuming you have completed all of the prerequisite foundation training properly, you are attempting a blind hide and your dog is showing an enthusiastic work ethic, but doesn’t seem to make any finds. At some point during the search your dog lingers in a particular area and you move a little closer to see what happens. Your dog looks at you, looks back at the spot that they are currently attracted to and performs a hesitant alert. You as a handler explode with excitement. “Show me!” you exclaim. “Show me!” And the dog alerts again with more enthusiasm. Congratulations, you have just elicited a false alert through your body language. I call it the “Mr. Ed” syndrome. But really I am referring to “Clever Hans“. Google it.
Your dog should NOT need to look to you for your approval if you are doing blind hides. You do not need to move closer, make eye contact, hold your breath or do anything to encourage an alert if you are moving to this stage of training. Your dog needs to be able to make that decision alone, without your input, or you have moved ahead too quickly.
And when your dog finally alerts on his or her own cognizance, you assume it was as a result of acquiring the target scent. To test your theory, you will have a helper prepare a fresh scent sample that has not been handled by you, nor stored in your house. Your helper will prepare the scent with new gloves that have not been stored in your house. Place the scent amongst blanks as well as appropriate distraction scents. In the case of truffles, appropriate distractions might include deer scat, mouse scat, rotten mushrooms, sticks, etc. If your dog can still successfully identify the target scent, then congratulations, you are ready to take your skills to the field.