Blank Rooms - The Motivation Conundrum

ODOR IS MOTIVATIONAL.  Yes that was in caps.  We spend so much time pairing odor with a positive Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) that odor does indeed become motivational! 

So what happens when we reach a blank room???  Our dogs enter the room, full of vim and vigor to find source and there is nada…  nothing…  no odor…  no chance of reward.  They are in fact cheated out of the game.  Personally I hate blank rooms.  I can read my dog and identify them but I hate the let down and the cheat that they bring to the table.  Give me a room with tons of odor any day because that’s what my boys love.

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But…  blank rooms are a matter of course in the Nosework world.  In fact, in Canada, EVERY Excellent trial will include a blank room!

What do we do about this?

In training, I don’t practice blank rooms.  Period.  I just don’t do it.  My mantra is CONFIDENCE, MOTIVATION, SKILLS and STAMINA…  I personally believe that blank rooms erode both confidence and motivation, and if done too often will erode trust and drive.  So what do I do?  I video my dog in a blank room…once…  and then I STUDY it….  Videos tell us gobs and gobs…  I’d rather torture the TV dog with multiple blank rooms by rewinding and rewatching than set my real dog up for failure by practicing them.  Set up for failure?  Yes.  We ask our dogs to search and then we give them nothing to find???  Not fair I say.  I don’t believe in cheating my hard working nosework dogs…  Some dogs can take it, but should they?  Other dogs just are not naturally resilient.

In a trial situation our dogs WILL come across blank rooms.  So how do we build resilience?  How do we help them to cope with the inevitable?

It all comes down to the post search party!  After every search, regardless of the hides or the outcome, I party on the way back to the car or the crate.  By doing this I am developing that positive emotional association to the act of searching.  Over time, this increases the resilience in my dogs.  When I say party, I mean praise, scritches, hand touches and lots and lots of cookies (or the dog’s preferred primary reinforcer)….  all the way back to the car (or crate).  My goal at a trial is to never seem different on the way back to the car regardless of what my dog has found.  The party is part of our routine.  The post search party not only increases resilience but as a side effect you will notice increased drive!  Drive?  Yes but that’s a subject for another day….

© Stacy Barnett 2015