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My Dog Knows the Scent But…

2011_04_LoriJesterI’ve heard this almost as often as I have heard that their dog has a “great nose”.  They hide the same scent article over and over in all of the same places and their dog is a complete rock star. He GETS it, you say!  He totally knows what he is doing….he KNOWS the scent you tell me emphatically, but he just falls apart when we try to do the same thing out in the real world.

If I were a horse trainer I would look at you dead in the eye and ask you if you had done your ground work.

I call them the basics, or the fundamentals, but if they are truly rock solid then a dog has a much better chance of success when you hit the field.

1.  Does your dog know what the marker means?  This is actually not entirely important down the road, but it tells me if you followed a process that ensures the best possible outcome for your dog.  If your dog (or you for that matter) does not know what the marker means then you have already made things harder for yourself and your dog.

2.  Can your dog touch a target?  Again, only relevent to show that you followed a reliable process.

3.  Does your dog alert 100% of the time on a visual target?

4.  Does your dog alert 100% of the time on a hidden target?  What about a target that is blind to you?  This is VERY important.  If your dog cannot find targets that you do not know the location of, then what you may have is a very solid case of Mr. Ed syndrome.  Not irreversable, but the first step is to admit you have a problem.

Ok so it appears you have laid a good foundation, but the other half of this process is to make sure that foundation holds up to pressure, before you move to the field.

5.  Does your dog alert 100% on targets that you do not know the location of, in the presence of mice, scat, rain, squirrels etc?  Ahhhhhh that may be the rub!

So this maybe where your training has fallen down……or perhaps not. If yes, your dog CAN do this, then what else could the problem be?

1.  Your target scents are not authentic enough. (very likely)

2.  Your dog thinks that the scent will always be inside (name your container). (not entirely improbable)

3.  Your dog thinks that there will always be recently disrupted soil to clue him/her (also very likely).

These are a few of the primary points of failure when moving from a “training” environment to a “production” environment.  And frankly, some dogs are going to struggle.  Some will be less than interested in playing this game.  At some point you might have to say “ok, lets try flyball” and leave it at that.2011_01_OTF_HollyFinn1

Not every kid wants to play the piano, and it is really hard (or not very nice) to try to make one of those kids a piano virtuoso.  Relax, smile and go with the flow if it doesn’t work out.  It doesn’t make you a bad parent. :)

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.