Instructor: Lucy Newton
Does your dog need to have a specific alert behavior in order to compete in your nosework venue? Is your dog not committed to staying at odor source? Is your dog too aggressive or destructive towards the hide when working nosework odors? Does your dog need to develop stronger more readable behavior at the source of odor? Then this class might be for you!
This class is designed to serve several training purposes. One goal is to assist handlers that need to train their dogs to perform a specific trained alert behavior at the source of odor. This is desired at certain trial levels for some nosework organizations. Another goal of the class is to help students who are having trouble with their dog being too aggressive at the source of odor. This is a common development of certain training methods. By developing a trained alert behavior, or modifying the dog's current behaviors, we can attempt to diminish that aggressive behavior towards the hide. For both purposes, we first want to make sure that the dog understands that the ultimate goal is to get to odor. We want a strong commitment to odor. Then, once we have that, we raise our criteria and teach additional behaviors that the dog learns to perform in order to get rewarded. Getting to source is still the primary goal, the dog just has to perform one more "trick" in order to get rewarded.
Here is an example of a young dog that I recently trained for conservation detection work. One of the detection projects that she was utilized on was searching wilderness areas looking for sites where large predators had been feeding. The purpose of these searches was to collect various types of data regarding the predators and their habits. So her mission was to basically find dead things. Often stinky, decaying dead things. Quite easy to train a dog to find that right!? Not so simple to teach the dog to alert to them! In her case, I taught her a sustained nose hold at or near the source of odor in order to get rewarded with her ball. Here is a clip of the training sequence:
Here is a young Doberman that had a history of being violently aggressive to the hide. Not only would he smash open boxes, he would often open the tin before performing an alert!
There are pros and cons to what type of alerts we have the dog perform at odor source (we will discuss those in class). However, regardless of what that behavior is, we want the dog to be very clear in knowing exactly what their task is and what behaviors result in reward. Here is Jill being non-aggressive but very clear about which box contains the hide.
There are no scheduled sessions for this class at this time. We update our schedule frequently, so please subscribe to our mailing list for notifications.
Registration will begin at 11:00 AM Pacific Time.
For answers to commonly asked questions see our FAQ page.
Enrollment limits: Gold: 12 students, Silver: 15 students, Bronze: unlimited.
Silver level for this class is offered as "Working Silver". In addition to asking GENERAL clarification questions about the class lecture materials, silver students will now have the opportunity to submit two short videos, one minute each, for critique and review. You may submit two questions. Each question MUST have a one minute video attached so the instructor can actually answer a question that they can see. The question must relate to a topic in the class and the video must be a demo of the question. Please see the discussion forum for a detailed explanation - feel free to sign up at bronze, read the explanation, and then come back here to upgrade to silver if that interests you, and if space is available.
If you are interested in a bronze level subscription, you can sign up at any time during the registration period.
1. Baseline - current type of alert (if any) and goal. Stronger alert? Trained alert? Less destructive alert?
2. Determine the desired behavior - pros and cons
3. Equipment needed (for specific goals)
4. Common pitfalls and problems - why do we have alert problems? False alerts, destructiveness, etc.
5. Step One: having solid odor recognition behavior
6. Shaping desired behavior
7. Selecting odor and performing behavior
8. Selecting odor, performing behavior from distance
9. Selecting odor, performing behavior, in drive
10. Selecting odor, performing behavior with other containers and locations
As a prerequisite, the dog should have an understanding of odor. If we attempt to teach the dog a trained behavior along with training the odor then this can be a challenge. If we aren't careful, the inexperienced dog will not understand whether he is being rewarded for the odor or the alert behavior and this creates a lot of confusion and leads to problems such as false alerts. If the dog has a natural behavior, such as a nose touch and if he is used to being rewarded at source then we can just raise our criteria and add another behavior in addition to the natural behaviors. If you are not sure if your dog is ready for this class or if the class can meet your goals, please feel free to contact me.
Specific equipment will depend on the individual dog's needs and habits. However, one item that I have found very helpful for teaching a trained alert behavior are the solid metal containers that Pika (the malinois) was using in the above video. See also the photo below. These are metal electrical boxes with detachable covers (4" square x 2" high). In the United States they are easily found in home supply stores such as Lowes and Home Depot. They are convenient because they are not easily knocked over, they are not easily smashed or moved around, the metal discourages mouthing and the round opening offers a small opening for the dog to insert his nose. Three or four of these will be helpful during the early stages. Don't worry, though, if you cannot find the boxes; I can work with you and we can try to come up with something similar.
Welcome Everyone to NW160 Training the Alert!
I am very excited to be teaching this class! The first couple of weeks will be a bit lecture heavy but then the rest of the class will be focusing on training each of the gold students’ dogs. I am hoping that there will be enough diversity in people’s goals so that the course will be educational for everyone.
Before we getting started talking about training an alert, let’s clarify a few things.
Rule #1: Obedience to Odor Is Most Important!
I initially was hesitant to offer this class. The reason being that people need to be careful in teaching an alert. It can get messy if you don't stick to criteria and stay focused on obedience to odor. Regardless of the detection venue, working as well as sport, if you don't need to train an alert then just go with the dog's natural behaviors. Too many times when people try to encourage or train a specific alert they focus too much on the alert at the expense of the dog staying obedient to odor. As a result, they give the dog the impression that the alert behavior is what is important and what gets the reward. This is especially true when the alert behavior is something that the dog already knows, like a sit or a down. People also often try to simultaneously encourage an alert along with the dog learning the odor. Of course, the dog is going to focus more on the behavior that already has a strong reward history. So obviously, we can really mess up the dog’s understanding of the game if we are not careful. In addition, we can’t just simply ask for or cue the behavior. We have to create an understanding on the dog’s part of exactly what they are doing in order to get the reward. I want it to be black and white for the dog – he should know what to do and exactly where and when to do it. I don't want to scare anyone off, just caution everyone that we need to give the specific alert some thought and train it carefully. Hence, the need for this class!
As an example, below is a clip of a dog that has been trained to do a bark alert. I did not do his original training. However, I then got him to to train him for a new odor. The camera angle is not great but he is facing a row of boxes, one with the correct odor concealed inside it. I am not a big fan of the bark alert but this was what he was originally taught. The reason it concerns me is because it can occur in a variety of circumstances and mental states. Excitement. Frustration. Communication. However with this dog, the bark alert was necessary for his training. However, in this case, it was very unfocused and not directed at anything specific. It was more in response to being frustrated rather than him using it as a means to show his handler the location of the substance. Anytime he got frustrated, regardless of what odor is present, he performed the bark alert. At the very least he needed more proofing in order to learn that offering a bark without odor does not get rewarded. In addition, you can see him doing lots of glancing back at me, looking for information and hoping I will reward him for something. He does not give you the impression that he understands that barking is a means of telling me he is at odor does he?
Regardless of each person’s goals for the class – our underlying focus should always be obedience to odor. I will talk more about how we accomplish this and how and why alert problems develop. However for now just keep that in mind –obedience to odor is our primary concern. Due to this emphasis on obedience to odor, if I need to teach an alert behavior I want to teach it after the dog understands odor. I am a big fan of using back-chaining as a training technique. However, in this case, I want my default foundation to be the dog going to and staying at odor source. Regardless of the alert behavior, the dog needs to understand that he has to be at the source of odor. If I decide to keep the lab's bark alert, I first need him to understand that barking is useless unless he is at the source of the odor. Watch part of this clip again. I am waiting and watching for some acknowledgment of odor and I am trying to time my reward in response to that. I have slowed the action down so you can hopefully see it. Watch him localize at source in the midst of his barking and I try to time my reward as close as possible to that moment.
In the long run, I am okay with not getting a perfect alert. I am not okay with a dog alerting where there is no odor or too far from odor source. I am especially not okay with the dog having a perfect default alert, but not finding a substance. This is especially true if I am training the dog to find a person in a rubble pile or to find explosives! Remember that the trained alert behavior at source is just an extra “parlor trick” beyond finding and staying at odor source. It gives us additional information.
In some cases, with working dogs, the alert might be required for court. In other cases, it is needed for certain types of sport detection venues. So, if that is the case, my first goal is to develop a clear understanding of odor and obedience to odor. Then train the alert. However, during that process, I do not want to encourage behaviors that I will want to get rid of later. That cleaning up can be done but it is a challenge and can be a lot of work. For some dogs in this class, we are a little bit late to achieve that goal. Don’t worry if that is your dog! We will work on that issue. And keep reading. The first step to fixing the problem is to understand how it developed. In addition, for the dogs that have not developed unwanted behaviors, such as box smashing, we need to understand about communication so that we can develop a clean alert without fallout, such as false alerts or destructiveness.
A Word About Behavior Chains
Most people are familiar with the concept of asking the dog to perform a series of behaviors prior to being rewarded. Many call this a behavior chain although that is not technically the correct term. For example, picture me heeling with my dog. I stop and he automatically sits. I then leave him and walk 10 paces away and call him to come. He comes, sits in front of me and then goes to heel position at my cue. That was an example of a long series of behaviors – lots of individual actions before I reward or praise after he goes to heel position. In competition I want the dog to perform the whole sequence of behaviors, each one in a certain way. So in training, if a behavior is incorrect, I start the sequence all over again. For example, if the dog broke his stay. I wouldn’t let him come to front, then go to heel, and then reward him. That would be confusing and not very informative to the dog. It also would not be likely to improve my stays right? In that example, I would stop the dog after he broke and restart the exercise back at the beginning of the sequence. However, if I have to do that too many times, I obviously have a weak behavior. I really need to go back and make the stay more solid. This is similar with nosework. If I release my dog to search, he searches, localizes to odor, smashes a box and then offers a nose touch and I reward him – I have rewarded all those behaviors, including the box smash. Contrary to what we might think – just rewarding the end behavior (the nose touch) will not eliminate the box smashing behavior. We are just creating a behavior sequence that includes box smashing. This is because we are rewarding all of the behaviors. In this case, we want to pull that unwanted behavior out of the chain. There are a few ways to approach that, which we will address as we go through the training process. But for now just stay aware of our role in creating behaviors we might not want.
An Important Awareness of Communicative Behavior
When trying to either enhance or modify alert behavior we also need to remember the purpose of the alert behavior. We have already taught the dog obedience to odor. They know that they will get rewarded at odor source and, hopefully, they have strong obedience to odor. If your dog is easily pulled off the hide, then that is another behavior to work on, making your dog “stickier” at the source of the odor. However, in addition to rewarding the dog at odor source, we quickly want to start rewarding communicative behavior. I call this “I got it!” behavior on the dog’s part. Some dogs exhibit this behavior very quickly, lucky us, we don’t even have to teach it. High drive dogs are particularly easy because of their reaction times, they are often hard to miss. They also really want the reward, so they are more demanding. However, in some dogs, it can be very subtle. But it is important to respond to the information that the dog is giving us, regardless of its intensity. If we do that, then the dog will become less subtle. That is because we are “hearing” them. We often do not need to be better listeners; we need them to be louder. That behavior won’t happen right away but it will happen quickly once the dog knows odor and learns he can communicate with you.
Before teaching an alert, our first priority is to recognize and acknowledge the dog’s natural behavior. If we do that, then he will become more obvious, because he expects us to “hear" him and he knows we will. Here is a clip of a young malinois locating explosives in a row of boxes similar to the ones you saw with the lab in the clip above. Watch carefully, it’s subtle, but see if you can tell when he is at odor source!
It looks like he is looking for the waiter in a restaurant to get more breadsticks...
Developing this “I got it” behavior is a natural process in the training. The dog will not exhibit that behavior immediately. Even after he learns odor. But with enough reward history, he will start to show that behavior. At first, it is sort of an “is this it?” behavior. Over time, we challenge the dog more and more, developing a “THIS IS IT!!!” behavior. A few days ago I did a private lesson with a dog that lacked some confidence. She knew odor but she was used to being rewarded prior to her “saying” anything about the odor. My instruction to her handler was to be stupid for just a few seconds. Wait for a stronger behavior at odor source and respond to that. If we wait too long then we risk her leaving because she thinks she is wrong or we risk her being more aggressive with the hide to get her point across. With this specific dog, the former was more likely than the latter. As you can imagine, timing is important when doing this and will be a big part of developing and/or fixing the alert.
The clip below shows another lab that is just learning odor. Because he is so inexperienced, I reward him for the briefest hesitation at the correct box. My movement is a cue, but it is one that he needs. It will be faded out quickly, within a few sessions. Notice that while he recognizes odor, he offers little to no interaction with me.
In the next clip, we have the same dog a day or two later. Notice that after he hesitates at the box, I try to hold back just a tiny bit. I am looking for some communication from him. On the second repetition, I even give him a single piece of food in response to him looking to me in expectation. He sniffed odor and looked at me expecting a reward. I want to prove him right! Later I will move in closer in response. His communication will bring me forward and then his indication will get him rewarded. Then, still later, I will just play dumb and pretend like I don’t know what he is telling me. At that point I expect him to have enough confidence to continue to stay and present the same alert to me until I get it. Destructiveness is less likely because he is not frustrated - he will know that eventually, I will understand the communicative behaviors. The only variable is how many times or how long he has to present the behavior.
In the clip below several of my dogs demonstrate nose touching the hide as a communicative behavior. They are not being aggressive to the hide per se. They are just pushing the button that they have learned makes my feet move. When working a green dog, like the lab above, the minute his nose touches source and looks to me, I then move my feet. I respond to what he is telling me by moving (bringing the reward).. With these dogs, since they are very experienced, I make them work pretty hard! They have to push the button quite a few times to get me (and my tennis ball) to their location. However, they know exactly when to do to make that happen. Of course in the rottweiler's case, he has taken it a step further and will try to speed things up by moving the hide closer to my feet! Both of these dogs are drug detection dogs with active alerts - their only goal is to get to odor source and then stay in contact with the source.
So how does this apply to what we want to accomplish in this class? If we ignore that communicative behavior a variety of problems can develop. In some dogs, the communicative behavior will go away. After all, if I call your name a couple of times and you ignore me every time, I might stop calling. Similarly, in the nosework dog, the alert stays subtle or he doesn’t even bother to give you one at all. After all, you didn’t hear him. You are then forced to watch the dog closely and interpret his behavior.
Conversely, if I called your name and you ignored me, I might call much louder. If you noticed me then I might decide to always YELL when talking to you. And maybe bang on the wall. And if that were successful then I would make a note to myself – yell and bang on the wall. That is one of the ways we can develop a dog that is destructive at odor source. They get no response to the subtle communication, so they get frustrated and then do something "loud". Which we then respond to. Thereby reinforcing that unwanted behavior. And of course, some dogs go to yelling and banging on the wall more quickly than others!
In summary, in developing the trained alert we want to keep sight of our primary goals:
We want the dog to clearly understand odor.
We want the dog to show obedience to odor and stay “sticky” at odor source.
We want to train an alert that occurs in addition to the natural communication behavior (provided those natural behaviors are acceptable).
Class Goals - NOTE THAT YOU DON'T HAVE TO WORK ON ALL OF THESE! USUALLY PEOPLE FOCUS ON JUST ONE!
a) train a specific alert
This purpose of this class is to help people improve their dog’s ability to alert to a specific odor source. For some, this means training a specific alert behavior. This is because some working venues require that the handler specifies what alert the dog will perform. The behavior itself is not specified, the handler just has to say what it is prior to the search.
A common question is “what type of alert is best” and the most appropriate answer to that is “it depends”. We will discuss this in some detail for each individual dog however some guidelines include the following:
What behaviors come easily or naturally to the dog?
What behaviors might be most compatible with natural behaviors?
How much drive and determination does the dog have?
Is the behavior destructive to the hide?
What behavior allows the dog best access to the hide?
Are there any behaviors that we are trying to discourage?
There is no hard and fast rule. But we should keep those thoughts in mind when deciding what type of alert would be most useful.
b) reduce hide destructiveness
A second goal of the class is to help people with dogs that are destructive to the hide. Some dogs go quickly from the yelling and banging on the walls stage. Most of my dogs fall into that category. Below is a clip of Jill. She is a wonderful bitch but she thunders through life like a herd of buffalo. I was pretty careful with her to develop non-destructive behavior from the beginning because I knew that she would be a box smasher for sure!
For some dogs, we may want to just modify how we reward the dog and encourage the natural alert behaviors. For other dogs, it may make sense to develop a new alert/communication behavior that is incompatible with being destructive. Keep in mind that the longer the dog has been rewarded for a behavior sequence that includes destruction, the more challenging this is going to be.
c) Develop stronger, less subtle alert behaviors
Finally, another goal of the class is to help dogs that need to develop a stronger alert behavior. We want to enhance that natural communication behavior. This has two purposes. One is that obviously, the handler is better able to call the alert when trialing. The other, less obvious, one is that it makes the game a lot more fun for the dog. It puts them in control of their reinforcement and they have a way to “make” you give it to them!
#1. If you have not already done so, give us some background on your dog and what you are hoping to accomplish.
#2. For those that have already done this, give some thought to what I have presented in this first lecture. Does it give you any additional insights? If so, share those!
#3. Post a clip that best represents where you and your dog are now and, if applicable, what you want to work on. I will add some more information as the week progresses but want to give everyone a day or two to get started on this first lecture.
So let's get started!
A sampling of what prior students have said about this course ...
This class was just what I needed. My dog would occasionally smash boxes, manipulate hides, and just overall not be kind to them! Lucy helped us figure out what the motivation behind the behaviors was (I hadn't been super clear about the alert behavior that I wanted my dog to have), and how to fix it. Laika is now far more confident when the boxes are in places where she cannot face me and I'm happily working towards doing the same training for other containers. Every step was simple and easy to follow, and it has really helped Laika become just that much better with her alert. If we continue with this training and I don't let it slip, she's going to have a fantastic alert! Brittany L.
What a great class! Lucy distilled the concepts in ways that made them truly easy to understand. Now I know why my dog has an aggressive alert and the specific, detailed steps I can take to create a substitute. Best of all, I now realize what I can do to stop myself from reinforcing bad behaviors. Karen I.
Lucy's lectures are always filled with so much information but the real 'gold' often lies in her response to the questions in the discussion threads. Her depth of knowledge in working with dogs on scent is amazing. I can't wait for this course to be offered again when I can take it at Gold.
Lucy, You are a WONDERFUL instructor AND incredibly knowledgeable about scent detection training! There is a saying that "you can't teach what you don't know." You KNOW the material AND know how to instruct others!!! A rare combination. You were incredible as you customized the material to meet each Gold's desired goals. You excellently answered all discussion questions. I appreciated your willingness to get into the details of training, which provides clarity to me that hopefully they can pass on to my dog during training. This is the BEST of the many nosework classes that I've taken at FDSA! I greatly appreciate the vast amount of work you did to give this class.
Lucy did a great job providing useful relevant lecture material then tailoring for each gold student. I learned immensely from watching each golds progres because of her detailed instruction.