There is more to training elevated hides than putting a hide out and rewarding your dog when he finds it. Probably the most influential aspect of training this skill is TIMING. When you mark and/or reinforce your dog sculpts his searching behavior in the future. Because what you practice is what you get!
Humans are a highly optimistic species
It’s so normal to get excited when your dog pops up on their hind legs when you’ve set a high hide. You want to reward your dog, I get it! Sometimes, handlers get over enthusiastic and start to assume that the popping up behavior has something to do odor. It may seem like the right thing is to reinforce that popping up behavior but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, if you reward that behavior and the dog doesn’t actually know where the hide is, you have now taught your dog to pop up randomly or when confused. You have created a Meerkat.
(I have since learned a little more about Zoology… apparently the analogy that I’m seeking is a Prairie Dog… please forgive Poetic License! … and read on…)
Dogs search up as a natural part of Seeking
If you have done your foundational homework and you’ve taught your dog the value in seeking, your dog will naturally explore up in the normal course of searching. You may find that your dog seeks UP frequently in the presence of no odor!
Let’s define “Seeking”
To really understand this phenomenon, we need to define “Seeking”. You see, when our dogs are searching and odor doesn’t immediately smack them in the proverbial nose, a dog who will “seek” will naturally enlarge the area in an independent and dog driven attempt to find target odor. They will continue to enlarge the area until they do actually encounter target odor. What this looks like is a dog that will move through the search area, dismissing parts of the area without odor, continually driving and searching. This is “Seeking”. Seeking doesn’t start to shift to Finding until odor has been encountered.
If a dog has been successful finding a hide above nose level in the past, when the dog Seeks, they will explore the air currents beyond nose level. This seeking often involves the dog popping up. Sometimes this results in information about an elevated hide and sometimes it results in nothing at all!
If you reward “Seeking” and not “Finding”, your dog will show you more Seeking behaviors when there is nothing to Find.
What do I mean by that? That means that if you optimistically reinforce popping up because you know that there is an elevated hide and your dog isn’t actually aware of the hide location, you have taught your dog nothing at all except to go UP. Fast forward to a blind search… is there a high hide? Who knows… but now you have a dog who will pop up in an effort to please you. And…. when our dogs get confused, because they are generally biddable pet dogs, they will look to us naturally. So if you create and condition a dynamic where “correct” is to go up, I guarantee you that you will drive false alert behavior. Well more appropriately, it will drive previously reinforced behaviors that will result in you making a false alert call.
Effective Seeking Behaviors will only include focused exploration.
Focused exploration is HOW the dog looks for odor. It can be shaped through hide placement and thoughtful setups, and should not be shaped by human feedback, otherwise you will ultimately impede your dog’s independence by creating reliance on the handler for direction and feedback.
Finding involves knowledge of the hide location
Finding is the part of the search where the handler provides feedback and reinforcement to the dog.
Confounding human intervention and feedback into Seeking Behaviors can result at minimum in a loss of independence, but can also result in bad calls, and in more extreme cases, loss of self confidence, extinction of autonomy, and loss of joy.
This means that you need to be careful WHAT you are rewarding!
Let’s look at what “Seeking” and “Finding” look like
When a dog is Seeking and pops up, they do what I like to call an “Exploratory Popup”. They are simply tasting the air, and checking it to see if there is target odor or not. An Exploratory Popup will either result in a dismissal or in the discovery of target odor.
Seeking and the Exploratory Popup
When a dog is Seeking, they are just checking. There is an Up and a Down motion with no stretch over the topline.
To see this in action, let’s watch a brief clip of Brava doing what I like to call a “Sniff and Dismiss”. She does an Exploratory Popup and dismisses the area as having no relevant odor.
Seeking and Encountering Target Odor
When the popup is followed by discovery of target odor, there will be an emotional shift in the dog. The dog at this point can be considered to be “in odor”. This is also the cue to the handler to take a back seat and let the dog problem solve! You will see an uptick in excitement from the dog and the dog stops expanding the search area. At this point, the dog starts to narrow the focus. This is a dangerous point for the handler because the handler will be tempted to step in and insert themselves into the problem solving process… which usually results in a premature Alert call in the wrong place.
Let’s watch that emotional shift in action! Once Brava encounters odor, her mood elevates and her exploratory popups become more frequent and localized as she tries to narrow down the location of the hide. Her Seeking has gone from Expanding the search area to Narrowing the focus.
Seeking… Shifting to Finding and the “Ah-Ha Moment”
Once the dog realizes that they are AT the hide, there is another emotional shift because the dog has knowledge of the location of the hide. This is the point at which Seeking turns into Finding. This is the only time in which a handler can and should reinforce. The reward (and marker) is the handler’s way of saying “Yes you did it!! Good for you!! You are correct!”
Here’s a great shot of that moment of knowledge that I like to call the “Ah-Ha Moment”. This moment is when the reinforcement has a real cause and effect impact and where the dog has really understood that they have succeeded in finding that elevated hide! Look at the stretch over this dog’s topline and clear focus in the direction of source. This is a “sustained up” with clear understanding.
Let’s see this in action! Here’s the rest of that search with Brava. Watch how she does an Exploratory Popup and then realizes that YES!! she is at the hide! This is a clear capture of the Ah-Ha Moment.
If you reward PRIOR to the Ah-Ha Moment, you will create a Superstitious Behavior
Superstitious Behaviors are behaviors that dogs are likely to resort to if they don’t know the answer. That means that if you routinely reinforce the Exploratory Popup without the Find, when the dog doesn’t find the hide right away or gets frustrated, you will get a popup… out of superstition that the popup is what you want. In a blind situation, you will likely call a False or Fringe Alert.
So rewarding prior to the Ah-Ha Moment, will create a Meerkat.
As a handler, you have to identify the Ah-Ha Moment and not just reward when the head is pointed at source.
Making things more complicated, the dog can have their nose pointed towards the elevated hide and not actually know it!
Air Movement is inherently unstable.
As humans who don’t naturally understand air and odor movement, it’s easy to underestimate just how dynamic air currents really are. Go outside and watch the leaves blow on the trees. One moment they will blow one direction, and a split second later, they may blow a completely different direction.
Here’s a short video clip of a smoke bomb used to simulate odor movement of a high hide. One moment the dog would have odor enough to solve this hide, and the next moment, no odor would be available. And dogs need to be in the way of odor in order to find a hide.
That’s kind of important actually… “dogs need to be in the way of odor in order to find a hide.“
If we understand that air flow is inherently unstable and that dogs actually need odor to find a hide, just because your dog is in near, under, or in the vicinity of a hide, doesn’t mean that they actually know it.
So if the dog does an exploratory popup under a hide like this one at the wrong time, the dog will not have knowledge of the hide location. In essence, they “got lucky”. This is a primary reason why a dog may popup at a hide and then leave. This is NOT the right time to reward and is NOT an indication of a lack of Odor Obedience.
You only want to reward when the exploratory popup results in knowledge, otherwise you can inadvertently cause the creation of a Superstitious Behavior.
What about Successive Approximations?
Successive Approximations would mean in this case, rewarding before finding the hide with hopes that next time the dog will get closer. This is a great thought and works really well in most dog training. It’s a super shaping technique that can create behaviors like retrieve of a dumbbell or shaping going out to a target. However, when we consider the instability of air currents, successive approximations are just simply put, Magical Thinking.
Because you cannot, as a human, determine what is “closer” because of the instability of air currents. At best, your dog will interpret your reward structure to be random. Random reinforcement creates random results.
What if the dog can’t find the hide?
If the dog can’t find the hide, you have either set an unfindable hide (meaning the odor is not available) or the hide is too difficult for the dog.
There is no shame in ending a search prematurely! Just be cheerful about it! Your dog really won’t suffer from not finding the hide! However, their training, and ultimately their self confidence COULD be harmed if you try to reward the look up or the pop up, if no knowledge of the hide accompanies it. Just end the search cheerfully and set an easier hide next time.
In the end, the best thing you can do is to set a hide that you KNOW your dog can find confidently, without frustration, and then reward heavily!
Special thank you to friend, Cynthia Langford, for the perfect shots of Bruce Wayne!