3 Powerful Reasons – To Click or NOT to Click

Anyone who has attended my classes knows I am a devotee of the clicker; but perhaps they don’t know why.  I don’t “force” students to use a clicker and many opt to not.  But why do I so strongly advocate for this little tool when there are so many other things to juggle?


  1. It is an effective tool to bring a handlers awareness to the exact pinnacle of their dogs performance.  I use the term pinnacle because each time you entice your dog to perform a behavior (with or without a cue) there is a moment that is more ideal than any other for marking the behavior.  I call it the “closest approximation of the desired behavior”.  This ideal moment will vary depending upon your dogs ability, level of training, environmental challenges, and so forth.  But the clicker helps keep the human on their toes and watching carefully for the perfect time to click.
  2. The concussive nature of the noise makes a very profound impact on the animal being trained.  It is consistent, sharp, adequately loud, and unmistakable.  Your voice on the other hand, or any other noise you can make with your mouth, is not.
  3. It is a very reputable technique despite what its adversaries would claim.  People who come from other scent detection schools of thought often tell me that they are not allowed to use clickers.  Pish.  The notion that a clicker is not a “professional” animal training tool is ludicrous.  Trainers of everything from elephants to badgers use clickers.  Many a closed minded trainer will dismiss this effective and powerful tool, simply because they haven’t tried them, don’t understand their use, or are afraid to appear “gimicky”.  No really I just made that up.  I have no idea why they are put off by this tool and I honestly don’t care.  I focus on the positive here and I am positive that clickers are solid training tools for a variety of behaviors.

So that is really all I have to say about it.  You can Google the pro’s and con’s and make your2010_11_MileyElizabeth own decision, but after decades of training dogs and horses for SAR, scent detection, obedience and competition, I have seen MORE success and more rapid acquisition of new behaviors on command, when I used a clicker.

3 Times Assumptions Hurt

2011_01_OTF_ClaireCadenzAssumptions 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?

We don’t. 2011_01_OTF_MarthaSailor

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.

2010_05_AmyVaqueroAnd 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.

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. :)

5 Ways to Improve the Effectiveness of Your Scent Material

I talk a lot about handling scent, because that is the one area people seem to have the most “ah ha” moments.  I hate people to feel like I am “picking on them” in class, but honestly, they come up with the best teachable moments and DSC03950striking while the iron is hot just my nature.

So from the last couple of classes I have found a couple of scent material related teachable moments that I want to share.

1.   If you store your “hot” scent articles with your “cold” scent articles in baggies in your purse, you now have two mediocre “hot” scent articles.  While your scent all over the target scent article is a great cheat for a beginner dog, as you progress, it becomes an obstacle to advancing your training and encourages guessing for many dogs.

2.  When you prepare scent articles and blanks or cold articles for your training week, prepare several sets and ideally store them in different locations.  I suggest tackle boxes, one for hot and one for cold.  If you store treats in one you have to store treats in the other….and as you progress you won’t want to store treats in either.

3.  If your target scent is prepared in mineral oil, olive oil, paraffin or other scent carrier, your blanks should also contain the same material in similar quantities.  It is fine to change the scent carrier from week to week and any container you use to hold your scent material (plastic, pvc, stainless, aluminum), but your hot and cold should be identical in your training session with the exception of the target scent.

4.  If you have been using the same scent material in the same scent containers week after week, you have successfully taught your dog to find things that smell like you plus that particular “blend” of container, scent, carriers, etc.   If you have passed the target training phase, you should be changing your scent material weekly, preferably preparing fresh training aides each training session and sanitizing your containers, or preferably acquiring new ones in between.

5.  If you place scent with latex gloves, you should use latex gloves to place your blanks as well.  If you are trying to minimize your scent on the article, have a well trained friend prepare it for you.  Try using food service gloves instead of latex.

As training progresses, you will want to contaminate scent material as little as possible.  Try storing it in jars in your freezer and warm for 20 minutes before placing in the field.  Avoid bare hands handling when you think your dog is nearly ready to migrate their training to a production environment.

Some dogs make the leap from locating truffle scent in a training setting to a wild or orchard setting with no problems.  Most dogs will need more help and it is this transition that is the most challenging.  For those dogs, it will be very important how much control you have had over your scent articles and how you place training scent in the field.

As you progress your training, your dog will use clues such as your scent on targets, to disrupted soil to help them locate the target, but as you advance it is important to remove or mitigate as many of these clues as possible.DSC01991sm

In my technique for more advanced dogs, I like to use my right hand for placing cold targets or blanks (or making disturbed soil) and my left for placing hot.  I always place cold, then hot to avoid contaminating the cold targets with target scent.  After the targets are placed, I walk through the area touching various spots so that the dog cannot use the age of my scent to identify the hot targets.  A little superstitious perhaps but that is my routine.

What Makes a Great Truffle Dog?

One of the first things people tell me when describing their dog’s scent detection potential is that their dog “has a really great nose!” and I smile and nod.  The truth is, barring any abnormalities or medical issues, all dogs have really great noses.  And the variation between breeds is so minute as to be irellevant, particularly in the realm of an aroma as potent as a truffle.

The real talent comes in your dogs desire to barter their skills for whatever is in your goody bag.  Your job is to make sure that it is the BEST TREAT EVER.  But outside of the scope of the nose and your dogs inclination to trade their skill for your cookie, what characteristics make a great scent detection dog?

In classe as I begin to describe characteristics of what dogs have been successful in our program in the past, people begin to giggle.  They think I am describing the attributes about their dog that drive them nuts.

    • dexterDoesn’t Listen
    • Exists in Own World
    • Looking for the Next Adventure
    • Doesn’t Make Eye Contact
    • Total User
    • Couldn’t Care Less if I Exist

The less needy, clingy and dependent a dog, the more independent, curious and distracted a dog, the easier it is to turn them into a scent detection dog. But you have on job to find that ONE SPECTACULAR TREAT. This treat will make your dog flip. Wallow at your feet. It is the treat that your dog will take a momentary pause in their busy schedule to retrieve from you. But the treat is another blog. Today we are talking about the dog.

This dog is a total user and only wants one thing from you. Your cookie! They aren’t interested in your scratches or even your praises. Affection is fine but superfluous, the bottom line is this dog does what this dog does and and no amount of ASB (attention seeking behavior) from you is going dissuade them from being a total user.

When it comes to scent detection training, we love these guys. They know what they want in life and they know how to get it. They are smart and independent problem solvers who think you apparently need the help they are prepared to give. They like you on their own terms and tolerate your quirky need to touch them. Does this describe your dog?

If you find you are living with one of these rogues, help them find their purpose. Put their aimless wander to good use and train yourself a truffle dog!

Free Truffle Dog Class – WHY?

People keep asking me why we have started providing truffle dog training free at Kalik Acre. We have fumbled around the answer and decided to try to better answer it here. It is a multipart answer really, no single reason really stands out for us.


1. Our truffle training patch was clear cut.  We had a very reliable, highly accessible location six miles from NW Truffle Dogs HQ. It made moving truffle dog teams from the classroom to the field a breeze.

2. Laws changed.  While NW Truffle Dogs always sought and received permission to foray on properties we practiced on, new Oregon laws make it more challenging: https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2013R1/Measures/Overview/SB0578

3. Competition.   A number of our clients and former students started truffle dog training businesses of their own, thereby diluting a relatively small pool potential clients.

4. Ethics.  Deception and dishonesty amongst some people in truffle community created a distasteful atmosphere. If we are no longer accepting payment for training we no longer have a dog in the fight and can be honest with our students without appearing biased.

We are glad classes are full, we hope people are learning a lot and having fun. You are always welcome to give feedback about the training or the content by sending us an email or completing an on-line review.

How to Train a Truffle Dog

Training a truffle dog is not a linear process. It is more of a three steps forward and two steps back undertaking. Come to our truffle dog training class to get more information about the process and have an opportunity to practice and have questions answered. It is far easier to start the journey correctly than backtrack and try to “fix” mistakes made along the way. We begin every class by reviewing the first three steps and then focusing on the details of one or two of the remaining steps. You will only practice on the steps that your dog is ready for and not move forward until your ready.

In a nutshell:2011_01_OTF_HollyFinn2

Step 1 – Select your reward, marker and alert.
Step 2 – Load the Marker
Step 3 – Mark the Target
Step 4 – Lure/Shape the Alert
Step 5 – Generalize the Target
Step 6 – Reduce/Remove Visual Queue
Step 7 – Proof off of Distractions

What this looks like in detail:

Step 1 – Select your reward, marker and alert
In our truffle dog class we usually help determine what the reward and marker will be prior to beginning our training. They can be changed, but it is helpful to have a clear idea of what these are in the beginning and how to use them. We will also discuss when it is appropriate to change them. The alert usually is introduced week two or three if it hasn’t spontaneously developed during training.

Step 2 – Load the Marker
Week one the first three days of training will involve loading the marker. For ground based scent detection training there is a very specific way to do this and optimize your training down the road. We will give a marker and a reward but in a very particular fashion. Come to class and we will demonstrate what this looks like.

Step 3 – Mark the Target
Once we have the marker loaded, usually by day four of the first week, we will introduce a target. In class we will discuss what articles make the best initial targets and why. It might not be the same for every dog and involves factors such as temperament, inclination to paw or mouth a target and more. We may or may not introduce scent at this point, but it will not delay progress if we do not introduce scent until week two.

Week two will involve marking the target in a variety of distraction free environments WITH NO HIDING!!! And by this week we will be using a target scent. It may not be our final scent, but it will be a similar as is practical. Again, using a substitute target scent will not delay progress.

Step 4 – Lure/Shape the Alert
If all prior steps have been completed properly most dogs spontaneously introduce their own alert during week two.  If not, by week three we will discuss how to select an alert that is best for you and your dog, depending on your dogs breed, your hunting goals and your dogs disposition and behaviors.  We will develop a queue for the alert and we will practice the alert independent from other training lessons.

Step 5 – Generalize the Target
By now you will be marking a target in a variety of locations, you will have selected and queued an alert if necessary and you will be using a placebo scent. This week is all about moving that further and further away from your living room. You will begin practicing in wooded parks and locations similar to the truffle hunting habitat. If there are any issues that arise we will step back and sort them out prior to moving forward.

Step 6 – Reduce/Remove Visual Queue
Our visual target will become smaller and smaller as we continue to generalize the environment. At any point the dog falters we will move back a step or two, focus on our timing and environmental control and only move forward when the dog is absolutely reliable.

Step 7 – Proof off of Distractions
This is the final step of training and the most difficult. It involves taking the dog into environments similar to where we will be hunting truffles and creating opportunities that are as realistic as possible. We will use blind hides and buried scent in the field and in a controlled environment we will introduce as many distractions as possible. Distractions used at this stage will be those realistically found in a truffle habitat and include mice, scat, and depending on the dog, sticks. :)



Luring Behaviors

Now that you have the clicker loaded, and you have learned to cue and mark behaviors, we can talk about luring and shaping. In the old style of dog training when you wanted to teach your little Brutus to sit, you would look Brutus in the eye, and sternly command “SIT!” while simultaneously pressing down on Brutus’ rear end. The inevitable result of this is that Brutus would rise to the pressure you have placed downward and the battle of the wills ensued until at last Brutus would give in and plop to the ground in resignation, certainly having forgotten the cue that instigated the whole affair. Whoever thought that physically manipulating the dog into the position you desired never read Newton’s Law of Motion.

“So if I can’t push my dogs butt down when I want his butt down, what CAN I do?!” Glad you asked. We are going to use a much more humane method of training….more humane on you that is. OK, so you say you want your dog to sit? Take the cheese square, not that dried up ol’ dog biscuit you call a ‘treat’, a cheese square, and hold it between your dogs eyeballs, about 12″ away, carefully caged in your fingers so your dog can’t actually can’t get it. You dogs nose will rise in eager anticipation and attempting to sniff the treat. As the nose rises, so rises the cheese in an arc right over the top of your pooches head directly between his ears. He may back up, and dance around a bit, but if you keep trying to place that cheese about five inches directly above you pups head, and between his ears, eventually something magic will happen. He will get tired of trying to crane his neck around and he will sit. Instantly pop that cheese into pooches mouth and praise profusely.

Yes, we did not give the command of sit. We will discuss that later. But look! We produced a sit without pushing, prodding and pain in the rear. You have learned to lure your dog. Where your dogs nose goes, his body must follow. Using a piece of cheese, or chicken or something equally tasty, you can lure your dog in all kinds of directions and positions. Move forward, back-up, sit, stand, stand on two legs, and on and on. Yes, luring is not perfect. Sometimes your dog will be quick and sneaky and get the treat. Sometimes your dog will get frustrated and lose interest before the desired behavior is performed, and we will work on all of that. But more often-than-not with practice and good timing, he will, without realizing it, be coaxed into the act you want performed, and each time you achieve it, it will become easier and easier, until it is time to name or cue the behavior.

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.

Improving Confidence – The Dog’s and Yours

I have worked with a number of submissive, timid and insecure dogs over the years and to me they are the most difficult problem to solve. To me it is much easier to tamp down drive, check energy or coral enthusiasm than it is to build confidence, yet that is a problem presented to many pet owners who want to take their canine to the next level or even into Home Depot.

My experience with this has often been in female dogs, though I have seen a different presentation in males in the form of fear biting and barrier aggression.

At any rate, I have tried different things at different times, with different dogs, and have had different results. Dogs are not computers they are individuals, so while having a basic understanding of motivators is great, experience does not always replace trial and error.

Take Lika for example. Lika was slated to be a working dog because that is what her owner wanted to do. Unfortunately Lika was not sure that that is what she wanted to do, desperate as she was to spend time with her master. When I first met Lika I didn’t find her to be overly shy, but she certainly was laid back and very soft. When working with strangers she was reluctant and hesitant which was a problem for a SAR dog who needs to be eager to rush up to perfect strangers with enthusiasm and abandon.

Lika’s master also had a problem in that he was unenthusiastic. It was a terrible combination. Though they were no doubt wonderful room mates, it was almost a lose/lose combination. We tried a variety of games and activities, but nothing seemed to make a big difference. Oh, there were gradual improvements, just from repetition and habituation, but it was very slow progress.
I tried to convince Lika’s master that he needed to put aside all male pride, and become shrill, animated and ecstatic when Lika showed interest, pleasure or comfort in contact with strangers, but this was just not in his bag of tricks. I asked the volunteers working with Lika to make like squirrels and run from her on her approach. I watched her timidly wag her tail when she saw this game but she would look back at her master for approval only to get a gruff nod.

Perhaps part of Lika’s problem was not getting the level of approval and enthusiasm from her handler that she needed. Maybe she just was not wired to be a confident outgoing dog and trying to make her was spitting in the wind. Sometimes you have to be ok with not getting what you wanted and loving the dog you’ve got.

Other examples of confidence are clearly fear based. But not in the dog.

I was complaining to my animal behaviorist and training mentor that I hated nothing more than a dog that rocked the whole vehicle charging and barking as you walked by and my dog had begun to do just that. She explained to me that I had taken on a guarding breed and he was doing what guarding breeds do. Guard. She told me I got the wrong breed if I didn’t want my guarding breed to guard my car. Love the dog you got. But she further advised me it was not unreasonable for me to expect the dog to not do that when I was in the car. When I am in the car, guarding the car is my job. It is a matter of confidence.

If a healthy ambitious dog trusts that you are going to handle a situation, and you give him every indication that you can, he will submit to your leadership. If a healthy ambitious dog senses some ambivalence or insecurity in you, then he may just step up to the plate and handle it for you. Even if your insecurity is that you fear the dog is going to have an outburst at some unsuspecting stranger. This presents as many different problems to include barrier aggression. A weak or insecure person and a strong dog can be a dangerous and unpredictable combination.

I asked my trainer to help me work on my dogs vehicle barrier aggression. We started with obedience and again a muzzle. I feared something bad was going to happen when my dog confronted an unsettling situation. My dog thought that my fear was something he should act on, even though the fear was exactly that he would act. Placing the muzzle on the dog allowed me to relax and develop confidence. If I was sure nothing bad was going to happen then the dog sensed my comfort and succumbed to my leadership. Next thing you know he was getting cookies from every gas attendant, banker and drive through and I didn’t fear them reaching in the car. Problem solved. It was that easy.

Fear and barrier aggression is a common problem and I advocate muzzles all the time. Muzzles give these poor dogs and owners a real shot at addressing the issue with some measure of safety. Unfortunately there is a negative perception about a muzzled dog and that is very unfortunate. A muzzle can be a wonderful training tool and can deescalate an dog with an escalating behavioral problem, and give them the opportunity to become more socialized and well adjusted. This is an opportunity they may never get if their owner is too embarrassed or inhibited to be seen in public with a muzzled dog.