When a dog learns, emotions play a large role in their ultimate ability to apply the skills in the future.

In our previous installment of the Elevation Blog Series, we talked about what makes a dog confident and how that applied to elevated hides. (You can read that blog here: https://scentsabilitiesnw.com/blog/elevation-blog-series-2-what-makes-a-dog-confident/) In this installment, we will explore the learning process that a dog goes through during training high hides and what things are important to focus on.

When dogs learn to find elevated hides, they are developing part of their Long-Term memory, an aspect called “Episodic Memory”. This means that the memory is event based. This event gets encoded into the memory and adds to previous experiences. The interesting thing is that memory is enhanced through emotions. We will get into that important aspect shortly.

Once the event is encoded into the Long-Term memory, the Working Memory can access the information and apply it to future situations. This means that if your dog has a history of successful searches in training, you will likely have a successful search in trialing!

Emotions are the KEY to Success

Episodic memory is tightly linked to emotions. We all know that the sense of smell can elicit memories, and these result in an emotional reaction. There are of course more aspects of Long-Term memory that come into play, and our training affects all of them. But core to Long-Term memory are emotions.

What does this mean for our training?

It means that we need to make our reward sequence an EVENT, and even more importantly, we need to think about Confidence. Remember that a Confident Dog is a dog that will take initiative knowing that they will likely be correct. So supporting a dog’s confidence and ensuring positive emotions are really where the rubber meets the road.

To support Confidence, remember that we need to:

  1. Make sure the hides are DOABLE
  2. Ensure that the dogs knows WHY they are getting a reward
  3. Be consistent as a handler

There is an ideal point of time when learning is greatest

I call this the “Ah-Ha Moment”. When the dog realizes where the hide is located, they react in clear, yet unconscious way. Their emotions brighten. They get excited with anticipation, and their body language starts to tell a story. The don’t put conscious effort into this communication, but they DO put conscious effort into the hide.

In this search, you can see Powder brighten at 0:49. She then pursues the odor to the elevated hide.

Although Powder knows where the hide is located at 0:49, I will wait until she is as close to source as she can get before marking her. Without knowing where the hide is, I would acknowledge the biggest push in on her part. Generally that is a reliable point to call the hide. That Ah-Ha moment and the point that I mark her is the optimal time for learning.

Also notice the party! Powder gets plenty of rewards and praise. She leaves the search feeling positive. Next time I ask her to search and she finds a high hide, she will approach it with optimism and excitement.

Stay TUNED… 

NEXT INSTALLMENT: What about successive approximations?

See also: Bulletproof Elevation, a 3 Part Workshop