I’ve been wondering lately, WHAT drives the difference between a dog who truly understands how to work to source and a dog who fringes. In a recent webinar I covered all manner of fringing (“Fringing” is what we call alerting on the edges of odor or not near the highest concentration of odor.). I’ve returned to this idea as I write lectures for my newest class on Inaccessible Hides, NW243 Nosework Challenges Series 4, because it’s SO important that the dog understand the nuances of sourcing an Inaccessible Hide in order to not cause collateral damage.
With Inaccessible Hides, the typical counsel is to do at least 80% Accessible Hides as a ratio in order to avoid the dog learning to alert away from source. This is good counsel, however, if the dog understands the task, there is no danger to his overall precision.
The common denominator in fixing fringing and in teaching Inaccessible Hides effectively is to ensure the dog’s understanding of what is being asked of him. And the key? …Timing of the verbal mark.
In order to improve our timing, it’s critical to understand the dog’s communication!
In order to adequately explain the necessary timing, it’s important to talk first about what occurs between the Change of Behavior (COB) and the actual alert. You see, the Change of Behavior is completely unconscious! It’s a physical reaction to the dog encountering odor. You can train your eye to recognize it easily. Once the dog reacts to odor, he seeks it out. We can easily dissect his behavior and understand what he looks like when he’s “In Odor”. This body language is also completely unconscious. Eventually, the dog analyzes the concentration of odor in the air and finds himself at the highest concentration of odor (we call this “Source”). In his work, he will exhibit behavior when he gets to source that is the result of stopped momentum. This can be as subtle as a change of curvature in his neck or body, or a clear pause at source. Or, it can be as dramatic as a “Butt Pivot” or “Head Twist”, neither of which are technical terms! All of this behavior is simply due to slowed momentum when the nose hits source and the body is still in motion. It is therefore, completely unconscious! It is ALSO the point at which the dog actually understands that he’s “At Source”.
What happens next is the “Alert” or the “Final Response”. This is the 4th step in the dog’s communication with us. It is also COMPLETELY CONSCIOUS. The dog understands that his behavior, which may be as simple as a Look Back, a Paw or a Freeze at Source, or as complicated as a Sit or a Down, results in a reward. The behavior that your dog gives you is completely learned and is done with expectation of a cookie. This is where things break down. You see, as humans, this part of the behavior chain is like a neon sign. It flashes at us and hits us upside the head. We could have been completely daydreaming during the search and we would STILL see this behavior! It’s so convenient because it means that we can call “Alert” in a blind situation. Sounds fantastic doesn’t it?
Now the wheels come off the proverbial bus. You see, our dogs fully believe that a Final Response does a couple of things. Final Responses make the handler HAPPY! Why wouldn’t the dog want to give it to us! And what if the dog is uncomfortable? The Final Response also stops the search! This is the source of many, many false alerts. False Alerts which occur nowhere near odor are caused by either a dog (1) trying to make us happy, or (2) trying to escape the situation.
What about Fringe Alerts?
But what about Fringe Alerts? These are “False Alerts” that occur NEAR but not AT Source! Fringe Alerts are almost unilaterally caused by the dog believing that he is correct due to the BEHAVIOR that he gives, rather than the actual achievement of finding Source! This is caused nearly entirely by a miscommunication by the handler when training the dog initially. Ask yourself. Does your dog truly understand that his task is to work to the highest concentration of odor available or does he believe that his task is to give a behavior in the vicinity of odor? The answer to this question will give you great insight as to why your dog might Fringe Alert. (There are a number of factors that can cause Fringing. Misunderstanding is probably the largest cause).
Let’s talk briefly about Behavior Chains. A Behavior Chain is a string of behaviors that we train when training a dog. The start of the Behavior Chain is a cue and the end of the Behavior Chain is confirmation to the dog that he’s correct and that reward is forthcoming. Typically, the strongest part of the behavior chain tends to be the last step of the chain as that is the step that occurs closest to the reward. That’s where the dog typically places his emphasis. The problem with searching is that the last step is least reliable! Unconscious behaviors will always be more reliable than learned behaviors because they are natural. We can’t train our dogs to do a head snap at odor, but we CAN reinforce a Sit Alert! So what happens when our emphasis is placed on the least reliable part of the behavior chain? Potential False or Fringe Alerts, that’s what!
This is where we talk about timing. You see, when I train my dogs, I emphasize the Third Step (the unconscious understanding of being at source) rather than the Fourth Step (the Final Response). It’s pretty easy to do. If you search primarily Known Hides and you use a verbal marker, all you have to do is verbally mark the dog when he gives you the telltale at Source unconscious behavior. In this case you are marking UNDERSTANDING rather than a CONSCIOUS BEHAVIOR. When you do this, the dog quite easily understands WHY he is getting reinforced.
This is very important. You have to verbally mark the UNDERSTANDING that occurs at Step 3.
I usually get a couple of questions at this point.
Can I use a clicker?
I wouldn’t. Keep in mind that a clicker is typically used in dog training as a marker for a behavior. It’s extremely precise. Your dog’s dawning of understanding that he’s at source is less precise and honestly of longer duration than the click. This is False Precision in this case. Although a clicker has been used effectively with some dogs, I would argue that you run the risk of (1) drawing too much focus on behavior rather than thought process, e.g., understanding or (2) accidentally building in “superstitious behaviors”. Remember, that the unconscious behaviors that a dog exhibits when his momentum slows at source and he realizes he is at source, are not 100% consistent. Clickers are actually too precise to really use in this case. A verbal marker however is “softer” and can serve as verbal affirmation that the dog is correct if given at the point in which he understands that he’s at the highest concentration of odor. This is why I don’t use a clicker. I would actually hazard to draw the conclusion that dogs who have been successfully trained with a clicker have only done so because they are very smart and have put 2 and 2 together. Personally, I prefer the clarity that actually comes with a little less precision in this case!
Won’t my Final Response fade?
Ok. Let’s talk about this. MOST Nosework dogs have a reinforced Final Response, not a true Trained Final Response (TFR). This means that over time, your dog has used his own wiles to devise a method of communicating to you, his handler. Because he might have been correct and At Source, he was ultimately rewarded for this behavior…. And thus it stuck. A TRUE TFR, is back chained with heavy emphasis on the final behavior (often a Sit or a Down, although a Freeze at Source is also often employed). Only through very simple hides initially, with a handler that doesn’t skip or rush through steps in training, will a precise dog be trained. When foundations are rushed or the dog doesn’t fully understand his foundations (or Blind Hides are done too soon!), you end up with a dog who will Sit, Down or even Freeze in the mere presence of odor! They will often hit the edge of the scent cone and throw the behavior, resulting in a Fringe Alert. And…. Since the dog can be near source at the time, the handler is often at a loss as to what to do in that case, or they build a second behavior chain while waiting for the dog to get closer to source (effectively a “guess” on the dog’s part), ultimately resulting in loss of trust between the dog and handler.
So, honestly, I would rather my dog learn to be precise that learn to throw a behavior. Out of my 4 personal dogs, 3 have Final Responses although all 4 understand how to get to source. They will still give me their final response even though I verbally mark them at Step 3 in training. And they are all quite precise dogs! (Interestingly, my most precise dogs have had the LEAST emphasis on their Final Response! Coincidence? Perhaps…. I’ll leave that for you to draw your own conclusions!)
What do I do at a trial since I won’t call “Alert” until after the Final Response?
This is the easiest question to answer. ASSUMING you have adequately prepared your dog and built a solid foundation PRIOR to trialing, your dog will understand his job. At that point, there is no harm is not verbally marking the subconscious indication that your dog gives you at Step 3. Why? Because the training is already in place. Now… if you rush to trial… well that brings it’s own slew of risks, confusion being only one of them! Basically, if your dog doesn’t understand how to truly get to source, DON’T TRIAL. Not yet.
IF you have been using the word “Alert” in training, you dog understands this to actually be a verbal marker. Now in trialing, we use this word when we are sure of the location of source. Typically this occurs AFTER the Final Response. It can be difficult from a human thought processing cognition perspective, to have different timing in trialing and in training. This is actually why I use a “Yes” as my verbal marker. I prefer it to be different than my “Alert” in a trial. Now of course though, my dogs DO understand the word “Alert”. Any dog who has trialed at least a little bit will understand this word! I have found though that it’s easier in my own head to use the word “Yes” to mark the dog in training when he understands that he’s at source and “Alert” in trialing to communicate to the judge. IF you have a fringing problem AND you use the verbal marker, “Alert”, after the dog gives a Final Response, you might want to consider changing and using “Yes” in training (prior to the Final Response).
How about “Pairing” Food with the Odor instead of verbally marking?
Although I don’t use pairing as a method, I HAVE used it as a tool. I don’t personally believe in the whole throwing the baby out with the bathwater thing. Does pairing work? Sure it does! I will never tell you that a method of training Nosework doesn’t work (as long as it is kind and respectful to the dog). Do I prefer my method? You betcha! Do I think pairing can result in UNDERSTANDING? Yes, given time. However, when a dog self rewards, he will do so prior to actually cogitating what he’s doing. There is a slight delay in cognition. Pairing, in my opinion, has some similar challenges as using a clicker. It simply happens too quickly! Poof! The dog eats the cookie. Also, there is research (referencing “Learning and Behavior” by Dr. Paul Chance) that compares the timing of the reward to the Unconditioned Stimulus with regards to strength of Classical Conditioning. You can effectively reward a dog using four timing schemes. They are (in the order of effectiveness, least to most): (1) rewarding the dog before he gets to odor, (2) rewarding the dog well after he gets to odor, (3) rewarding the dog simultaneously to when he gets to odor, (4) rewarding the dog with a very, very tiny delay from when he gets to odor. We are able to accomplish #4 by verbally marking. I do repeat though…. There is NOTHING wrong with pairing! If you DO Pair, I would highly suggest verbally marking Step 3 (Understanding) and following up with s second reward.
Application to Inaccessible Hides
We’ve talked a lot about Fringing and not much about Inaccessible Hides. The reason being is that your dog REALLY needs to understand how to source Accessible Hides prior to introducing Inaccessible Hides. You will find that once your dog understands WHY he is actually getting a reward, Inaccessible Hides become a non-issue! An added benefit to working on timing is that the handler REALLY learns how to read their dog!
If you are interested in learning more about Inaccessible Hides and timing, please take a look at my current class NW243: Nosework Challenges Series 4 (Inaccessible Hides).