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Tuning Drive

Building drive seems as first a simple problem to solve. Your dog is lackadaisical, aloof, unmotivated or easily distracted. All you have to do is find out what flips his trigger, right? Ah well, not so fast, Sparky! Drive is a wonderful and treacherous tool.

When I mail ordered my first working dog from France, I picked him up at the airport and looked at him cowering in the back of the crate. Great. This wasn’t a good sign I thought. I took him right out and started flooding him with new and diverse experiences. No time to start like the present. He tolerated all of this with a tense aloofness. Partially the breed, partially mishandling. And then I began his search and rescue training.

The dog was a little aloof, so I decided to perform some drive building. Each time he located his subject (found a person), I had him grab a tarp that they were wrapped in and tug and play with it. This cause two problems. He didn’t really make a good connection with the human…he was in it for the tarp. He began tugging at clothing or nipping people sleeveless arms who weren’t wrapped in a tarp. Yikes!

It wasn’t an aggression problem, it was an over driven dog who was taught a bad habit by an inexperienced trainer. I was pretty unconcerned about it at first, after all, a lost person isn’t going to complain that the SAR dog tugged at his pant legs when they were found, but the first problem I ran into was people didn’t want to hide for him any more. The second problem is that people wanted me to pay for the $250 North Face jacket he maimed. And I could see other potential problems in our future.

The nips were not aggressive but they were lighting fast and intense. He was performing a little herding dog action on his lost subjects. That will teach them to get lost! Of course I share all of this at grave risk of people labeling my dog a biter. True he bites, but he doesn’t MEAN it. Uh huh. Tell that to the guy with the big purple pinch on the back of his arm.

Something had to be done so I removed the dog from SAR training and began working with an animal behaviorist. The first thing we did was muzzle him to remove my anxiety regarding errant nips. We taught him some solid obedience and a rock solid ‘leave it’ command. After he was more socialized and under control, we returned to SAR and armed our subjects with an e-collar. This could have been a great tool were it not for imperfect timing and hair trigger.

I further began ignoring the advise of my SAR mentors and trainers and I refused to amp my dog like a police K9. Yes, yes that works great for your labradoodle, but my dog has drive in spades and he doesn’t get to take it out on a bite sleeve. Instead of blindly revving the dog up, I was much more careful and meticulous about how much energy to give him. Were we going out for a four hour training, or just a quick run-a-way. And as he approached his subject, I gave him cool down commands or negative markers and advised my training volunteers to do the same.

It wasn’t a matter of weeks, but within six months, the dog understood that under no circumstances was he to make contact. And without sacrificing a cent of drive, this dog would go out for the pure joy of the hunt and work for hours.

The moral of this story is, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Build only as much drive as you need and can control.

K9 Scent Work – Introduction

K9 Scent work varies in complexity from the mundane to the inordinately complex. From the type or types of scents you would like to imprint your dog on, to the environmental variables you would like to proof him against, it could take days to years to have a fully functional dog.

For the average hobbyist however, in a few weeks you can have your dog up and pointing the way to anything from bee hives to truffles if you carefully follow a few easy steps.

1. Obedience train your dog. This makes everything easier and you will see why later. The dog should be able to sit, down and recall on command as a bare minimum.

2. Select a reward. As I have discussed before this can make or break your training. You may find chicken/liver/cheese irresistible, but some dogs will just die for a tennis ball. Also some rewards are simply too cumbersome for the speed and spontaneity that is required for concise training.

3. Load the marker. Whatever your positive marker, be it a clicker, or verbalization, you need to associate it with the reward. Before you even begin your scent training, load your marker for at least a few days, if not a couple of weeks.

4. Scent imprinting. Assuming you have selected and collected your target scent, you can now begin imprinting your canine on it. Start out working in a very small and bare environment. Using a dog proof scent container with ample scent in it, allow your dog supervised freedom in the room. Begin by marking and rewarding your dog showing even remote interest in the scent container (a glance, a sniff, any movement towards it). Continue shaping the behavior all the way up to the alert you require. Initially reward any interest, enthusiasm or effort, and start withholding the lesser 20% or 30% of the behaviors that are not as vigorous.

5. Select the Alert. Like the reward this should be well thought out. The alert should be a behavior that will be acceptable in the environment you will be eventually working in, and also a behavior you will be able to associate and request upon command. Typically a bark, sit, down or scratch is used, with some favoring mouthing a brindle or other more complex requirement.

6. Proofing. The final step in your scent training involves proofing your dog to distractions, environmental variables, as well as similar but wrong scents. Your dog may need to eventually be comfortable working in rain or snow, with heavy equipment operating nearby and may need to detect ants versus termites. Proofing a dog to the gold standard can take years, but will certainly take months at the very least. A dog that is proofed to a large number of variables and distractions is worth his weight in gold.

With that, I will let you on your way to try your hand at this immensely rewarding canine training discipline. Relax, have fun and watch your relationship grow.