What truly IS a Final Response?
That’s all it is…
Final Responses are fraught with danger. But like any other training choice, there are reasons why they make sense to use in some cases and equally good reasons why they don’t make any sense at all. In fact, I’m not going to tell you that one choice is bad and one is good. What we DO need to focus on is the balance of our training priorities.
Let’s break down our definition of a Final Response in order to truly understand it.
“A Final Response is an intentional behavior“
This means that the dog CHOOSES to do the behavior. This behavior, regardless of what that behavior is, is thoughtfully executed by the dog. It is a conscious decision. For all you biology nerds out there, this means that in general, a different part of your dog’s brain is used for the Final Response than for seeking out target odor. This also means that your dog can have a strong positive emotional response to seeking out target odor and a very different emotional response associated with the alert. Food for thought!
This also means that because the Final Response is an intentional behavior, it does not actually need to happen in conjunction with actually finding a hide! A dog can certainly execute a Final Response without finding a hide. The dog can ALSO simply choose not to perform a Final Response when a hide is found! Therefore, we can also assume that the Final Response is likely the least reliable piece of information that the dog gives us during searching.
“given to communicate to the handler“
An animal hunting in the wild will never perform a Final Response. You will never find a coyote or wolf do a sit or a down, much less perform a nose freeze, when finding a chipmunk. These behaviors are purely for the benefit of the human and are only performed in order to receive a reward.
A Final Response is the dog’s way of saying, “Hey human! Here it is!”
“that the dog believes that criteria has been met“
This part of our definition is where the wheels tend to fall off of the bus. You see, the dog communicates based on what he thinks that you want. That’s it. Full stop. The dog is simply trying to get you to produce the reward and in doing so, the dog will perform based on the criteria that they understand.
This of course means that you have been successful in communicating criteria! I informally asked a group of Nosework handlers in my Facebook group (Scentsabilities Nosework Training Group) this very question! Clearly, the handlers had thought a lot about Alerts and the responses were thought out and very varied! I noticed several “buckets” of answers:
- Heavy emphasis on the behavior “at source”
- Low emphasis on a specific behavior “at source” (looser criteria on behavior, stronger criteria on the search)
- Balance between driving in to source and the behavior
These buckets tell us that there is a gradient of emphasis among handlers between the working to source activity and the behavior when the dog gets to source.
The important thing to realize here is that there is interpretation on the dog’s part. Depending on how well the handler has developed an understanding of the criteria, the dog could easily produce a result that the handler sees as “wrong”. But more on that later!
“so that the handler will produce a reward.“
There are two requirements for this to be successful:
- The dog has to value what the handler has, and
- The handler has to have a history of trustworthiness in producing the reward
This basically means that in order for the criteria to be sustained, the dog needs to reward the dog so that the dog believes that the reward is well, rewarding, and that the handler pays up when the dog expects payment.
Remember, just because you gave your dog a cookie doesn’t actually make that cookie rewarding!
For a Final Response to happen, the dog has to Stop Sourcing
I repeat… For a Final Response to happen, the dog has to STOP SOURCING.
What is important to understand about Final Responses is that they are a Full Stop on Sourcing. That means that in order for the dog to give a Final Response, the dog has to STOP SOURCING. Essentially, right before a dog gives a Final Response, they make a decision and end the sourcing process.
Wow. That’s actually really important!
That means that if we neglect Sourcing, our dogs may give a premature alert.
This can happen if the handler gets too focused on “pin-pointing”. If you want to read more about what pin-pointing is and is not, check out my blog on Improving Sourcing Skills.
What this means is that if you want accurate alerts, you actually want your dog to source as long as they can… and only alert when the dog believes that they cannot source any longer. A dog who makes a quick decision is liable to draw conclusions about the hide location prematurely. This is a major driver of fringe responses in dogs who have a final response. (Speed of decision making can be driven by the dog’s personality.)
CAN the dog actually alert on the highest concentration of odor?
One of the common descriptions of sourcing is “alerting on the highest concentration of odor”. This description sounds really fantastic on the surface. But unfortunately it sets the handler up with false expectations when working any but the most basic accessible hide.
Odor currents are highly unstable. Highly.
Here’s a visual example of the instability of air currents. These first two photos were taken only 9 seconds apart.
In fact, just 2 seconds later, this next photo was taken… can you believe the air current shifts?
This means that where the highest concentration of odor is one moment, it may be the lowest concentration the next moment. And the dog is left guessing. So if your criteria is the highest concentration of odor, all you are really getting is guess from your dog… which is rife with opportunity for premature alerts!
What this means is that in order to increase the likelihood of a dog getting as close to physical source as possible, we need to delay, or in some cases, de-prioritize the physical behavior of the alert in preference for actively working odor.
Can we increase accuracy by initially de-prioritizing the Final Response in a dog’s training?
In this example, I am working two of my dogs on the same search. The hide is a complicated sourcing puzzle because of the setup and the airflow. In this case, the hide is accessible but only if the dog goes between the garbage cans. The wind is blowing the odor from left to right. In this case, both dogs are the same breed (in fact they are half-sisters!), both are very capable and have the same trainer, and both are “high drive”. The Black Lab is Brava (3.5 years) who is competing successfully at the Elite Level in NACSW. The Yellow Lab is Powder (18 months) who has her NACSW NW2 title. Brava has a fully developed Look Back Final Response. Powder has not developed a conscious behavior at source with the exception of Containers.
In handling my two girls, I can tell you that although Brava is easier to read because of her Look Back response, Powder is more accurate when the hide is more complicated.
Remember that Final Responses are a Full Stop on Sourcing. Your emphasis on Sourcing will dictate the accuracy of your Final Responses.
Regardless of your stance on Final Responses, pay attention to Sourcing… and I don’t mean pin-pointing easy, accessible hides. Pay attention to your dog’s Drive to Source behavior, especially when working complicated scenting puzzles with “Depth”.
If you find that your dog is resorting to Pin-Pointing prematurely and you are getting Fringe Alerts, shift your training to focus on Sourcing.
If you are just starting a new dog, make sure you incorporate lots of Sourcing exercises early on in your dog’s education.
And just because in these times we can ALL use a healthy dose of puppy cuteness… here’s a short video of my newest puppy, Prize, doing an early education Sourcing Exercise as she hunts down her fleece tug in the tall grass!
Thanks Stacy for this article. It is very timely for us.
We trialed last night for the first time
I was really trying to wait for a definite indication before calling Alert. I know this cost us some time- she was searching around three stacks of chairs for 20 seconds before I called it. With only 9 seconds left !
But if I had gone earlier I would have said it was behind the chairs, rather than in the chair stack
In a later search I did call far too early and got a No. The hide was on a pole and the scent must have been blowing straight at a wall on the other side of the path. I knew my dog was confused and did not have the exact spot, but…. nerves and inexperience!
Scent work is very new in Australia, and last night I attended a “mock trial” The judge is in the final stages of being accredited as one of the first AKC judges. So it was a new experience for all the handlers, stewards, assessment team, and the judge.
It all went brilliantly, and although it was a long night everyone enjoyed it. It was very hot, and some of the dogs struggled with the heat and humidity
The teams were assigned mock levels and Stella and I competed as an “Excellent” team, which will be SWE.
Sorry this is all off the subject, but just to let you know where we are up to down here
Thanks for the science behind the why!
Thank you for your input.
Stacy would you share some sourcing exercises we could practice?
btw we are novice.
Did you check out the link on Sourcing? That should help a bit
Great article. Thank you. Last week in my NW class we did inacessible hides for the first time. I didn’t understand that I needed to wait until the dog was done sourcing, and called it as she ran her nose up and down the cabinet seam behind which was the hide. Now I have a better understanding of the task.
This is very well developed thinking about this issue, something that anyone doing nosework can benefit from.
I am transitioning to competitive nosework training from search and rescue after retiring from SAR.
In many types of SAR, we couldn’t be successful without a trained final response. So, it gets a lot of emphasis in training. But sometimes, some of the nuances you bring up are missed. An example would be an inaccessible source if the dog has always trained on accessible sources. They won’t know what we want from them unless we train them in a way that they can understand.
I tend to think of this as one part of the mental model I want to develop for my dog – I have to plan in advance the types of scenarios I will train so the dog and I have the same understanding of their job.
I was fortunate to train at two disaster search seminars with the late Canadian Kevin George and he showed us a video of his young Malinowski working a deep inaccessible hide on a tough rubble pile. The dog spent about 45 minutes (perhaps that is an exaggeration of my memory, but it was an incredible amount of time) sourcing the scent before he alerted. What made it particularly compelling was how strongly he was working at the sourcing. He never once paused for example to check in with Kevin and make sure he was doing what was expected. That was a case where I felt Kevin had done a really good job of developing the dog’s understanding of sourcing. But the dog also understood that he was expected to make a decision and perform a final response unless it was impossible to do so. Without that, we wouldn’t know whether to start a rescue process.
In competitive nosework, it seems to be more true that normally the handler can be close enough to observe the dog’s sourcing behavior and if that is the case eliminating the need for a trained final response also eliminates all the work that is necessary to develop and maintain the behavior that is not, as you said in another way, part of a dogs normal motor patterns.
Thanks for the interesting thoughts.