Dog Scent Work – Early Levels
The dictionary term , ‘indication’ it’s a sign, a pointer to something else.
The inspiration for me to write this article was my own trials and tribulations as a scent work handler and dog team in trying to gain a passive indication from my exuberant young Flat-coated Retriever. I was desperately trying to achieve funky freeze, a sturdy sit or a steadfast down indication from her. Being new to the sport at the time this challenge literally made my brain ache in how to channel my very spirted young dog that wanted nothing more than to please me by searching inside any closed box to retrieve the item and bring it back to me. Now, retrieving the item can be utilized in scent work training but she wanted to retrieve the actual scented swatch within the item. Trashing prevailed.
What was the problem? Why was this training turning out to be so difficult to achieve? Two main reasons were influencing this. Firstly, her high instinctual drive to retrieve which was off the scale and the two-way communication that had already formed in our relationship since puppy, when I say two way, it was more one way, her way! As a puppy she was allowed to play with boxes too so to her why was this situation any different. She also did not understand want I wanted from her, in her mind she is doing the correct behaviour. I needed to reassess and channel this high energy with refreshing on our basic obedience in everyday life and teaching a desirable indication as a separate skill.
You may have a dog that naturally indicates, wow that is great news! or your dog may bark, use his paws, mouth or both. Your dog may look back at you or be the dog that gives such a fleeting indication that it is hardly noticeable. Whatever your indication story is on commencing your scent work journey I feel it’s important not to get too overwhelmed with it to the detriment of the early stages of your odour obedience training and confidence building. You and your dog have found a great activity to do together so let’s keep it fun. Odour obedience is discussed later.
For scent work handlers an indication is a learnt sign from our dog that it has located the source of the said odour. There are various types of indications which are termed as passive and active. Active indication including pawing, retrieving, nosing, barking (barking is not an indication I would generally promote but is an indication nonetheless) Passive indications include a freeze, sit, down.
In operational detector dog’s passive and active indications are both used dependent on the type of search. Dogs that have an active indication can be used to locate concealed odour’s and can cover large areas and work well in locating and indicating finds at varying height levels. Passive indications are used more widely now in the professional capacity for searching people, drugs, money, explosives or crime scenes therefore the dog is not permitted to touch the source of the odour due to cross contamination.
To train a passive indication is a complex training exercise of chaining a series of behaviours. As our companion dogs are not going to be used in professional capacity, we want them to enjoy the experience and have fun and maintain a drive to participate in the activity. A passive indication is what we would all desire to see from our dogs and to see a novice dog that gives a passive indication quite naturally is quite enviable, for most of us our pet dogs do not offer this initially and it is something that we have to work on.
Scent work for companion dogs is a relatively new dog sport for pet dog owners and most of us didn’t seek a breed of puppy purposely to be a natural scent work dog. We also have a history already established of how our dog communicates with us. When we respond to these communications and the dog gains what he wanted, he has been rewarded and that behavior communication is learnt and repeated
A few examples
- A bark at the door to go outside to toilet
- Using paws at the door to go outside and toilet
- Jump up for attention
- Stare or bark at the dog food cupboard or treat tin
- Use of paws, barking, nose pushes for touch and affection
I remember when my girl was a youngster, she had a treat ball that would get stuck under the coffee table, we used to leave her to work it out herself. With her long gangly leg’s, she would maneuver like a gymnast and be very dexterous with her paws scooping it out very quickly. We would laugh and congratulate her for being a clever girl. Woah, that use of paws to signal she wanted to get to something has came back to haunt me! These types of learnt communicating history and signaling that our dogs have used in which we have responded can affect what indication our dog gives on commencing on the scent work journey.
Odour obedience and indication training are two differing aspects in scent work training. Odour obedience is all about working with your dog with the early cues to commence and finish a search. To build confidence with correct marking and rewarding. As well as training to ignore distractions, staying in the search area or returning promptly, growing endurance and advancing search criteria from that very first box to more complex searches of additional items, varying heights, distraction odours’, new odour’s and environmental weather conditions.
Indication training is an operant training method. The dog shows a behaviour, whether naturally or on cue and gets rewarded for it. If it is not the behaviour we want to see, we don’t deliver the reward. If we have an established indication behaviour which we don’t want to see, we must devise a training plan of what behaviour we do want from our dog. This is an exercise done separately to your practical searches and then working to combine the two gradually.
When first starting out what did you see your dog naturally do when he recognized the scent? it would most likely to have been whatever communication he has used before that has gained the desired response from you or you may have seen an instinctive behaviour surface. In the early days of your food searches I would look to acknowledge this communication with glee and inspire your dog to love the activity. As you progress you can work on a stand-alone indication exercise that you have decided upon by rewarding the correct choice of behaviour and then shaping this with adding duration and steadiness in microseconds at a time.
Teamwork is the essence of becoming a great handler, your dog’s nose is uber great and he knows the art of scenting well but he will need your help in assisting when and if you see signs he is struggling, directing to missed items and guiding to ensure the search area is covered. After all it is only you that knows the exact criteria of the search area and you need to communicate this to your dog.
Knowing your dog’s search style and physical abilities is paramount. Your dog’s changing body languages are your first indications that he is ’on to something’. By hovering back from your dog and moving slowly to get a side on position gives you a better view of the changes taking place as your dog investigates, latches onto the scent and works the scent to the odour source. Your dog’s tail position can change and the upper body especially the shoulders can appear more rigid as your dog concentrates hard on the exact location of the door. Note, the speed of your dog’s movement and how this alters throughout the search especially on picking up the scent and seeking the exact location. (Video footage is a great help to you here!) Some dogs slow down whereas others speed up. A head turn (termed as a knock) with your dog doubling back to the location of the odour is a big clue that he is close. Mouth positions can become closed allowing the nose to work more efficiently and breathing more rapid and noisy as the odour is moistened and transferred to the dog’s complex olfactory system to assimilate the scent. Nose positions high in the air signal that the dog has latched onto the odour and now must work it back to the source.
Knowing these body languages is equally important to the actual indication. The two work together hand in glove. When you have watched these signals and you are very sure your dog is now at the source, look at what behaviour your dog offers you then. If you have pretrained an indication, then await that behaviour and mark and reward. If you have not yet done any separate training in this area, see what your dog offers, it might not be exactly what you want at the time, but it is their indication to you which should be acknowledged.
I have found if you ignore these signals early on in your training and are waiting for more from your dog then this is when frustration sets in, either trashing, false alerts or even worse a complete disinterest in doing the activity, your dog just simply doesn’t know what you want. Therefore, it is advised to work on indication training separately making in a fun and enjoyable activity, then you can bring it into your search training and mark the smallest link evident to your indication training and build from there.
Indication can regress when you train alone and hide your own odour, as you know where the hide is it is easy to mark the find seconds prior to waiting for a more fixed indication. These seconds add up and can shape a different indication. So whenever possible have a helper who is instructed well on appropriate locations for the hide for that particular exercise.
My advice to you is be kind to yourself and to your dog, look to work on your dog’s natural indication utilizing their individual energy level and instincts either by enhancing it or simmering it down rather than trying to change water to wine.
Within my classes I do bring in indication exercises early on within their course, this is as much to give the handler an insight in what they are looking for from their dog and to know where they are heading. This has also helped handlers understand early on the relevance of marking the correct behaviour and what an important part of the team they are.
If you are interested in where I am in my personal indication journey with my girl, Reenie, I am training in a behaviour of a nose touch which would still be considered an active indication but it’s a huge step forward to the ‘talking paws!’ And transfers her energy at that crucial point to do an alternative behaviour. I will then move onto the marking the behaviour just before the nose makes contact , it’s a work in progress but we are not giving up, optimism is high. Hooray!! Keep the indication faith.
For further information on becoming involved in scent work for companion dogs please contact Mandy on 07745 419030 or email email@example.com Yes! Good Dog Scent Seekers
Mandy is a Scentwork Uk Trainer for more information about Scentwork Uk or to locate a trainer in your area visit their website Scentworkuk.com