Learning to read your dog is CRITICAL.

Yes.  We all know that…  we all know that learning to read our dog gives us the tools to call “Alert” and hopefully earn a “YES”.  However, there is so much more to it than that.  It’s a critical component to building the dog’s confidence.  Intertwined into this is the dog’s communication to the handler that he has arrived at Source.  The indication isn’t innate…  it has to be developed.  It’s developed over time through a dance between the handler and dog where the handler reads the dog and the dog learns what behaviors result in reinforcement.

Dog sniffing stone

Confidence?  Yes of course.  It’s highly stressful to a dog to not know HOW to win the game.  He’s found the bunny but unless he can convey his find to the handler, reward is not going to be forthcoming.  Nothing is more demotivational to a dog than finding a hide and being ignored by the handler.  The handler MUST learn to read the dog.

Does this mean we need a trained final response?  No.  In fact, a trained final response is the very first thing to fall apart under stress.  Searching is a behavior chain.  It starts with a cue to search and ends with an indication and reward for the find.

All too often I find handlers reliant on a final response.  I hear “he has to look at me before his reward” but all too often, so much of the dog’s body has already conveyed where source is located.

So let’s take a step back and think about what happens BEFORE the final response.  (A final response is the action that a dog takes to convey finding the hide.  This can be either trained or encouraged.  Common final responses might include sit or down or can include a look back.)  Before a final response, you might see behaviors like head snaps, heavy interest sniffing, wagging of a tail, stiffening of body posture and most importantly nose orienting to source.

In a situation where a dog is stressed, such as at a trial or in the case of environmental dogs, just being a new location, will dampen ALL behaviors.  All of the indication that the dog is at source will lessen and it’s quite possible that the final response will not be given.  In the case of a handler that relies on that final response, it’s very possible that the dog will go unrewarded at source!

So what can we do?

We can do several things…  (1) we can ensure that we reward for nose on source, (2) we can lower the stimulus of the environment while increasing the reward and (3) we can get better at reading our dog’s natural language.

Let’s talk about each in turn.

We can ensure that we reward for nose on source…

What does this mean?  This means that we ALWAYS reward at source.  We are rewarding in position.  In this way we are encouraging our dogs to be PRECISE.  Nose at source, whether you have a look back, a sit, a down, or just a freeze….  it rewards for precision at source.  Building that reinforcement history is critical.  This puts the dog into a very natural and easy indication to the handler that he is at source.  No stress, no bother.  Don’t worry about that final indication, READ your dog and reward at source!  It also becomes VERY clear to the dog that reinforcement is forthcoming.  The final response is great to have, but if you don’t get it, your dog will stress even more.  Nose touch to source (or as near as possible) is a natural phenomenon that occurs as soon as the dog gets to source, regardless of the final indication.  If you reward at or as near as possible to source you will reinforce this.

We can lower the stimulus of the environment while increasing the reward…

This is pretty easy…  when in a new environment, make the hide EASIER.  It can be as easy as slapping a hide on a wall and shrinking the search area to TINY for the environmental dog.  Set the dog up for SUCCESS.  Success breeds confidence.

For this, go to a series of locations and literally place an easy to find hide.  Keep the rate of reinforcement HIGH.  I like to use school exteriors for this and use every little alcove and bend as a new search area.  The dog acclimates to one location (the school) but has the opportunity to do 5 or 6 searches in quick succession, building confidence with each one.

We can get better at reading our dog’s natural body language…

This takes some time and effort.  One really helpful technique is to video your search then watch the search in slow motion.  I have one student who has a very environmental dog who videoed a ton of searches and broke down her body language into into individual pieces.  We noticed that a rotation of her body and a specific wag of the tail indicated source.  Some of this could only be seen in slow motion.  (If you upload to YouTube, you can watch your video at any speed.)  What you will find is that there are probably four or five behaviors that your dog exhibits before indicating source.  This is all about reading the Change of Behavior.  A Change of Behavior DOES indicate a certain point in time but it also indicates a chain of events that leads to source.  It’s that chain of events that you need to watch and learn.

The overall essence is that we need to become better partners for our dogs.  Those of us on second, third or more Nosework dogs realize how much easier training is.  It’s not because we are being gifted with better partners…  it’s because we are better at being THEIR partner.  We are better at reading and we are better at training.  We are better at being clear that reward comes with nose goes to source.  Clarity reduces stress and helps to build confidence.  Reward at source.  Build your dog’s success rate and learn to read your dog.  These tools will create a confident team with clear criteria for reward.