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Why Dogs Don’t Remember Changes of Behavior

Have you ever truly watched your dog do a multi-hide search?  How many of us have been in a trial and think (later), that we wish our dog returned to such-and-such area to find a hide we missed?  Have you ever wondered WHY your dog doesn’t return?

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I have a theory.  It’s based on watching many, many hundreds of videos of dogs searching as well as research I’ve done regarding the dog’s brain and olfaction. 

My theory is that they literally CAN’T remember a Change of Behavior.  Why?

One of my favorite articles is in Psychology Today called “Smells Ring Bells”.  It articulates that the sense of smell is processed through the limbic system where the other senses are processed through the the more “cerebral” parts of the brain.  The limbic system is responsible for emotions and influences long term memory.  It’s not an area where actual thoughts are processed.  Short-term memory however is processed through the pre-frontal lobe.  

For a dog to literally remember where he had a Change of Behavior he would have to process this information through short-term memory.  However, that connection is less than indirect when scent is routed through the limbic system. 

When a dog is actually sourcing odor, he gets actively engaged in the process and this is no longer an issue.  He can “focus” on the task at hand and source the hide.

The challenge comes when the dog is working multiple hides

This is why it’s of paramount importance that the handler pay attention to the dog’s Changes of Behavior.  After all, in the moment, we have processed that change of behavior through our short term memory and we can act on it.

I’m currently teaching an online class (NW230 through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy) where I asked my students to film a baseline video showing a multi-hide search.  I was fascinated by this phenomenon when I watched a young, green, talented Australian Shepherd source converging odor.  His owner has graciously allowed me to use her video in this blog.  Here’s the search.  I have narrated the search (the voice you hear is mine).

Watch how Rankin catches odor but is enticed to source the second hide.  He doesn’t remember the first hide.  This is NORMAL!  Once he catches odor for the second hide he works it to source beautifully.

The other wonderful thing about this search is that Rankin is green.  Why is that wonderful?  It’s wonderful because green dogs share with us what scent is really doing.  Experienced dogs will sometimes seem to “skip steps” in order to get to odor.  The very best thing you can do for your Nosework education is to watch green dogs work!  Watching an enthusiastic green dog such as this is both a joy and a privilege.

So what are the ramifications of all of this?

It means that YOU have the responsibility to read your dog.  When we are handling, the optimum ratio is 80% dog / 20% handler.  Reading your dog means that you are taking the 20% by the horns and really fulfilling your end of the bargain.

Are you noticing your dog’s Changes of Behavior?  THAT is one of the biggest success factors of a successful search.

Happy Sniffing!!

© Stacy Barnett 2015