Sourcing is at its core, one of the MOST important skills that you can create with your searching dog. It’s the very essence of finding a hide. Sourcing skills are what separate a well trained dog from a dog that doesn’t really understand his job.
What is Sourcing?
Sourcing is one of the most misunderstood concepts of Nosework. Many handlers consider sourcing to be the work of narrowing down to source and pinpointing the odor. Sure, that’s a piece of it, but it’s only the very end of the behavior chain.
If we think about Sourcing as a behavior chain, we realize that the narrowing down of the hide location begins WAY sooner. Sourcing involves the entire finding process from the moment that the dog encounters odor. In fact, we can definite Odor Obedience as the quality of the dog’s sourcing skills! Odor Obedience exists where DESIRE and CAPABILITY meet.
What are the components of quality sourcing?
They are simply:
Independence, Desire for Target Odor, Ability to Problem Solve, and Understanding of Source.
If you can build these four components, you will have excellent sourcing! If your dog lacks in one of these, you will have problems in sourcing. It’s THAT simple.
A dog who has built incredible independence will have a real “leg up” when it comes to sourcing. Why? Because humans impede the dog when the dog is working odor. Suggestions and even presentations can make sense prior to the dog encountering odor, however once the dog has registered that they are in the scent cone, an independent problem solver will get to the hide most effectively. (In a trial situation, a savvy handler CAN shortcut the time to solve but it can also increase risk of a fringe alert).
Independence is necessary in part because scent cones are not actually shaped like cones…. They are plumes. We call them “scent cones” in a very rudimentary and kind of awkward attempt at describing the shape of something that we as humans cannot see. However, what we usually miss is how unstable the actual shape of the plume can be. Plumes will have a prevailing directionality and elevation that is due to the prevailing wind or pressurized air flow and the thermal affects on air currects. Moment to moment however, can vary wildly.
Here’s an example of just how unstable a scent cone truly is. I’ve used a smoke bomb to simulate a scent cone. Watch how in a matter of seconds, the smoke changes direction completely!
Because of the instability of air currents, an independently working dog is CRITICAL.
Desire for Target Odor
DESIRE is directly related to the value that the dog has for the target odor. There is a direct correlation between Odor Obedience and Desire. As desire increases, the attraction to distractions decreases. And, as desire increases, the dog becomes more intense, resilient, focused, and relentless at getting to source. Who doesn’t want that?
This is where it gets complicated…. The dog’s value for target odor does not directly equate to the value of the cookie or toy. Sure, that is a piece of it…. However, you’ll find that a huge part of the desire for target odor is related to how interesting your searches are. This is a big piece that handlers neglect. We as humans see the cookie and assume that the dog is searching because they like what we have to offer. If your searches are boring, sure that might actually be the case, however if your searches are stimulating and challenging in all the right ways, searching will be intrinsically valuable and the cookie becomes the proverbial “cherry on top”.
Now I DO recommend always rewarding with a high value reward. I want that Cherry on Top to be REALLY special. However, the value of the reward should only give you an extra oomph in your search and should NOT be the main reason why your dog is searching.
This is where people ask about Pairing (setting a piece of food on the hide). Although I am not overtly against the practice, I will tell you that that is not how I train. Why? Because if I need a piece of food to increase motivation and draw my dog to the hide, then I have an issue with my training. To fix that, I need to look to my hide placements and searching practices. Of course there ARE times when pairing can get you the answer quickly and with motivation. I don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, however I am quick to fade the pairing in that case.
Now that that conversation is past us, let’s get back to talking about DESIRE for target odor.
Here’s an example of a hide setup where I made the hide INTERESTING. This is Joey, my 13.5 year old low drive Standard Poodle with little to no food or toy drive. Watch how his intensity in the search INCREASES as he solves this puzzle. The hide is located under the table top and the wind is moderate left to right. I start him downwind and let him work into the wind. These are the sorts of puzzles I do when I work Blowing Odor and Problem Solving.
Wasn’t that the sweetest thing ever?
Ability to Problem Solve
When we are children and learn how to read, we first learn our letters and then use the knowledge of how our letters sound to sound out words. “D” dddd “o” oooo “g” ggggg becomes Dog. In the beginning, we have to put a lot of thought into each word. We aren’t very efficient readers and we certainly aren’t going to read “War and Peace” right away. Eventually though, our brain learns the pattern. Our reading gets more and more natural. It gets EASY and our brain only has to see the word and even if the letters are jumbled, we can still read it! THAT is how a dog learns to problem solve air currents.
The ability to encounter odor at point A and solve it to point B is the direct result of the dog’s brain learning patterns based on the information that the nose (and other senses) gathers. This is why hide placement and using air currents and forethought is the key to training dogs to search effectively.
Building that ability to quickly problem solve is where the dog learns speed in sourcing.
I love this video although it’s not a new video, that shows Brava working a HUGE area for a single hide. Here she shows incredible problem solving. First by moving through an area without odor and then by working air currents to identify a single elevated hide in a wide open pavilion. THIS is sourcing!
Understanding of Source
This is actually the part of sourcing that most handlers focus on. It’s about the ability to pinpoint source, getting ALL the way as close as possible to source. This is also where a lot of mistakes are made. If the dog focuses on the pin-pointing but lacks the drive in to source, you end up out of balance.
From my blog “Training Series: Improving Sourcing Skills“:
Well executed (short-term emphasis) Pin-pointing exercises have their place. Pin-pointing is only partly about putting the nose on the hide. It’s also about the dog realizing what the human considers to be correct. This is where the need for balance comes in… IF you over-emphasize this step, your dog will worry more about what you consider to be correct, than actually working to source. I see this so often as it results in the dog offering a final response on many, many objects in the vicinity of odor as he or she tries to guess where the handler will finally reward. (This results in the handler worrying about false alerts… and unfortunately also results in more pin-pointing exercises).
A dog who is focused on Pin-pointing becomes less precise as the hide conditions become more complex. Inaccessible hides for dogs trained to emphasize pin-pointing can be very stressful.
Pin-pointing DOES create clarity for the dog. But once you have that, Pin-pointing exercises need to be set aside, only to be brought out again briefly when needed.
The understanding of source is a coupling of driving into source and then receiving a reward. For dogs who do have issues with this understanding, briefly pairing the hide CAN give them some knowledge and a shortcut. However, I prefer to gravitate to marking what I call the “Ah-Ha Moment”, when the dog understands that they are at source, and make a clear cause and effect relationship between getting to source and receiving a reward.
This is where Desire for Target Odor and Problem Solving come into play. By emphasizing these components of Sourcing, we can raise up the DRIVE TO SOURCE aspect, giving our pin-pointing exercises a proverbial Power Boost.
Interested in learning more? I have a class starting in April that deep dives into all 4 Components of Sourcing. You can find out more or register here: