What truly IS a Final Response?

A Final Response is an intentional behavior given to communicate to the handler that the dog believes that criteria has been met so that the handler will produce a reward.

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.

In this photo, Powder does a freeze alert on a Container.

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:

  1. The dog has to value what the handler has, and
  2. 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!