There are 3 elements needed to be successful long term in Canine Scent Detection.
The dog needs to know what scent they are looking for.
The dog needs to want and know how to search.
The dog needs to be able to clearly tell you it has found it.
You would think these are obvious but too often we get bogged down in teaching one of these skill that the other 2 are forgotten.
Most often we worry about the dog "identifying the scent". We set up hide after hide moving the scent around, maybe adding distractions and guiding the dog past the set up until they find it. Really this is teaching the dog which scent pays. We think we are teaching them to search, but they are really just learning 'yes', or 'no'. Is the scent at this object or is it not.
Searching is a separate skill not taught at the boxes or in a typical class set up. .Class settings have to be controlled. There are many dogs in the room, and instructors have many classes and reuse spaces often. They need to be able to remove and clean the area the scent was hidden, so most hides in classes are placed in something. This means that all of those hides have visual cues. A hide is always in something that the dog can see creating the expectation that all hides have a visual element. You, the handler, also get into a routine of going from object to object and asking the dog "is it there?"
So, how can you teach a dog to search? This is where your homework comes in. They need to be taught to use the scent cone and follow it to source despite any plan we may have of how they should search. For a dog to learn to search they need to be given free reign to explore the area without interference. This is how they build drive and determination. We have to teach them to follow scent and not trust their eyes only. They need to be given hides that challenge them to use their nose, not just go from object to object. Sport detection dogs need to practice hides placed in a random place without any visual clues. Try throwing the hide in the grass or place it in a crack on the wall, sit down and tell them to search. Can they still find it. Will they still even search?
A dog that is never taught a container search will still be able to find a scent in a container, but a dog that has never been taught to follow a cone without visual clues will not be able to find a scent in the sand.
The third piece needed is a clear way for your dog to tell you they have found the hide. I have addressed this issue in another post; Why I want more then a Freeze and Stare
I want more from my dog then a stare alert. Don’t get me wrong, I want the stare, but that is just the beginning. I also want them to clearly give me another signal that they are sure they have found the closest possible position to the odour source. It makes it easier for me and for them.
We use a stare alert because it is the best way to know exactly where the odour source is. Consider what that behaviour looks like. When I use the term "stare alert” the dog has their nose and eyes locked onto a spot, the body is frozen in place.
What are the different parts telling you? The nose is telling you approximately where the scent is located. The eyes and body freeze let you know how committed the dog is to the scent. For many dogs this is a natural behaviour and they can be taught to hold it to communicate to you that they have found the scent.
Is that really the most efficient way to have your dog communicate with you in the stressful, timed event that is the sport of Scent Detection?
The nose point is. When the dog is close enough to the scent, there is no better way to know where the scent is then to have a dog touch it with their nose. The frozen stance is very subtle communication, however, when you consider other possibilities, and this can mean the difference between a pass or fail in sport.
My biggest problem with relying on only a stare alert is that it is a natural behaviour. Sounds crazy right? What could be better then a natural behaviour, but picture what happens in a trial. A pet dog is in a new environment with grass, toys, and squirrels. Many dogs will have been in that exact spot in the past few hours. Most dogs will pause on these smells, how long depends on how interesting it is compared to their desire to find the trained scent. A professional working dog is obsessed with its ball, they may literally run themselves to death in their relentless pursuit of the ball reward, and they are still most often taught a supporting behaviour to the stare.
Most dogs competing in the sport of scent detection do not have the drive, of a professionally bred and trained dog. That is why 90% of sport handlers use food as a reward, but even food is not as motivating for some dogs as the chipmunk hiding in a hole 2 inches from their head. Even when they are well trained and still searching for the trained scent, they may be staring at that distracting hole for a few seconds. As a handler can you really tell the difference between the stares? Will you be able to tell the difference when you are nervous and competing at trial? How long does it take for that look to become a stare? Half a second? 2 seconds? 30? 2 minutes? They may be staring even longer if you happen to be looking away when they start. Do you know the longest time they may stare at a distraction and trained them to hold it longer for an alert? Will you be patient enough in a trial situation to wait?
If you train a dog to do something that they would not naturally do while exploring a new environment you are giving the dog the ability to let you clearly know when they have found source.
I want my dogs to “plant it”; either sit or down, their choice, I really don’t care. It will vary depending on the height of the hide. And, yes, continue to point with there nose and stare the whole time.
Even high hides the dogs will figure out a way to plant themselves on a wall and if the hide is too high, they can pop out of the plant to touch the source as soon as I have acknowledged that they have found it.
The bonus is that a “planted” dog is much harder to pull off of a scent, both physically and mentally. They now have an easier way to tell you unequivocally that you are wrong when you are puling them away.
You will still know exactly where the scent is, but, instead of them just saying ‘I’m interested in this spot” they can now say “This is the scent you want me to find”.
When you have given them the tool to communicate, they are quick to tell you. It takes much less time for a dog to sit, then for you to decide if the look has turned into a stare. In our timed events those seconds’ count. It also makes it much easier for you the handler. No second guessing, just relax and trust your dog.
When a dog is trained to sit, nose point, and stare as an alert, you have given the power of the final decision back to the one with the nose, where it belongs.