I’ve been on a personal journey over the past year that has challenged my training philosophies… the things that I believed to be true, and my perspectives on sport detection. I am more of a trainer today than I was a year ago and I am definitely better for the journey. I’ve spent this week camped out on a farm in Iowa in between seminar gigs and had unexpected time to reflect and be thankful. My conclusions are that we have Cultural Norms in our sport that limit us and that keep us from growing as trainers and handlers.

This is my journey too!

This introspective started about a year ago when I was planning a trip out to Estes Park, Colorado to debut Brava at the Summit Level. I was planning my route and reached out to a trainer whose social media posts caught my attention. She was articulate and clearly very knowledgeable. She was also outside of my “circle”. Robin Greubel, of the K9 Sensus Foundation, is a SAR (FEMA), Explosive Detection and Narcotics Detection trainer, and has a large working farm in Central Iowa. It was on the way to my final destination and I made arrangements to meet with her and get some coaching.

As fate would have it, another trainer from another circle, Crystal Wing, was also there. Crystal comes from the bite sport world and was in middle of become entrenched in Search and Rescue. The three of us became fast friends and have shared a collaborative, mutually respectful love of all things detection. In February of this year, we launched the Podcast, The K9 Detection Collaborative. I am here in Iowa after teaching an intensive 5 day camp for sport and pro handlers.

Parroting Cultural Norms results in a belief system that creates a self imposed “law”

I have often observed other trainers or handlers parrot “rules” in training and have thought that is seemed that some rules were a bit more like “law” than developed out of critical thinking and problem solving. At the same time, I thought that perhaps I was a bit more enlightened and prided myself on “out of the box” thinking and training application. You know, I realize now that I too had been affected by what I can only call “Cultural Norms” and once I started to branch out, the results were pretty immediate. In this blog series, I want to dig a little deeper into some of the Cultural Norms that I have seen… Not to instruct, more to bring perspective.

Where Cultural Norms Start, Critical Thinking Stops

I am not saying that broadly held beliefs are wrong. I am simply saying that before we apply them, we should pause and think. Sometimes if we explore other perspectives, we may just have more information that will either tell us that we are doing the right thing or we learn a new way. Cultural Norms create assumptions. Assumptions circumvent critical thinking and problem solving.

What is a Cultural Norm?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines Cultural Norms as:

a societal rule, value, or standard that delineates an accepted and appropriate behavior within a culture.


Cultural norms shape our beliefs and perspectives. They influence what we accept as “ok” or what we tolerate and shape our behavior. Some examples of non-dog training cultural norms include things like greeting other people when you see them, not “cutting” in line, opening the door for someone else, or offering to help someone carry something that is heavy. Other less palatable cultural norms might include using smartphones everywhere, valuing overworking employees, or the like.

What are some examples of Cultural Norms in Sport Detection?

We have so many… there are a few that I would like to call out…. not out of disagreement necessarily, but more out of just bringing them to attention.

  1. Automatically using food as a reinforcer
  2. Rewarding at source
  3. The use of markers
  4. Looking down on the desire to be competitive
  5. Feeding for every hide no matter what
  6. Showing the dog the hide if they were unsuccessful in the search

Keep in mind, I am NOT telling you that your Cultural Norm is wrong… I AM saying that you might learn a ton through exploration.

In training, I now often reward Brava with her favorite ball

Sometimes our Cultural Norms create blinders and we aren’t aware even if we actively try to stay open minded

Assumptions create blinders. As a part of my own journey, I had Food Reward dogs initially and was high biased towards Food Rewards. Most dogs in Nosework probably ARE Food Reward dogs, however due to that assumption, we can jump to only using food as a reinforcer. At this point I have worked with 100’s of teams of nearly every breed you can imagine and I am trialing my 6th personal Nosework dog… that includes 2 multiple Summit titling dogs and I am on the brink of my 5th dog to finish NW3 Elite. That is A LOT of experience! And yet I have still, until recently, defaulted to Food Rewards. Don’t get me wrong… my main breed is Labrador Retriever and they LOVE their food!

My own journey with breaking my assumptions, includes using a Toy Reinforcer heavily in training

In the Professional world, reinforcing with a Toy is the norm. In the Nosework world, reinforcing with Food is the norm. Food has a TON of advantages because you can regulate arousal easily, reward quickly, and get in more reps (or hides) without losing your dog due to exhaustion or arousal. Toy rewards are exciting, may be challenging to use in a trial (depending on the toy), cause irregular arousal, and can be exhausting when you work multiple hides. However, if you have a truly Toy Driven dog, you can get some incredible outcomes that can overcome distraction or mild fatigue.

Brava is a “Pink” Dog

Teresa MacPherson, a well known USAR trainer, originally coined an analogy that I learned from Robin Greubel, where there are “Pink” and “Red” dogs. If you picture source as bright red, as odor dissipates and diffuses in the air, the color would appear more pink. Pink dogs generally alert sooner, sometimes on the diffuse portion of the scent where Red dogs generally desire to always get all the way to source before the alert. In training, we are often trying to make our Pink Dogs more red and our Red Dogs more pink. Brava is a “Pink Dog”.

Because Brava is “Pink”, trapping and pooling odor is our nemesis. She has to dig deep to really access a lot of grit to get beyond her desire to make fast decisions in order to be accurate. This challenges her mind and her natural inclinations. It’s HARD for her!

My Prep for Brava’s last Summit included Toy Rewards

Having been influenced by my good friends and partners in crime (K9 Detection Collaborative co-hosts Robin Greubel and Crystal Wing), I started to introduce ball play into my work with Brava. As prep for Brava’s last Summit trial, I did A LOT of toy play. What I found was that Brava DID dig deep in her Summit and we ended up 2nd Overall even though the scenting conditions due to the building structure (cinderblock walls, metal roof, high ceilings, lots of objects, and steady high temperature sun) caused a TON of trapping odor. I am incredibly proud of the grit she showed.

Here is a video that shows how hard Brava had to work on sourcing at that trial… odor was everywhere! This is the search from the “Assembly” search where we earned double points for every hide found with the handler not crossing the start line (we had an error at about 2:00). We had 6 minutes to search on or off leash with a range of 3 to 7 hides. We found all of the hides in this search and earned 32.5 points out of a possible 35. She worked HARD to be Red!

Brava Assembly Search from the Alexis, IL Summit Trial

I credit the work using Toy Rewards in training with Brava having the fortitude to work through her nemesis of trapping odor. I don’t believe that we would have earned her second Summit title that weekend without changing our training norms.

Today I work towards having a more open mind and challenging the Cultural Norms when I train my dogs and when I teach

My example of using Toys as reinforcers is just one example but it is one that I have fully embraced! Not only does Brava earn a lot of Toy Rewards in training now, but so do a lot of my other dogs!

In this video, you can see our more typical training search… Brava enjoys her ball and works through a heavily distracting and critter filled area.

Brava Toy Reward at K9Sensus Foundation, searching “The Gauntlet”

Challenge your own Cultural Norms… you might be excited to see what positive impacts you will have on your training!