9. Scent Detection & Nosework Continued...

Exercise 9.2 - Shaping 'Investigate Object'

Shaping is a method of training a dog to do something by waiting for him to offer a behaviour which is part on the way to your final goal behaviour and very precisely marking and rewarding it.  Gradually you ‘raise criteria’ by withholding the mark on a successful stage of the behaviour that your dog is showing you with some reliability and wait for a bit more. 


The trick is to ask for a little bit more but not too soon or for too long to keep your dog engaged in playing the game.  If you raise criteria too much too soon your dog may get confused and give up but equally you don’t want to stay too long at an in-between stage of the final behaviour in case your dog gets too fixated on that.


Overall, shaping is a really excellent way to enhance your skills as a trainer and to exercise your dog mentally!


We’ve already looked at one shaping exercise this week – Exercise 1.9 where we were shaping a ‘Fetch Object’. 


In this exercise we’re going to shape our dog to feel confident investigating objects by placing his nose inside in preparation for searching for a target scent.  For this exercise none of the containers you use should have scent in them, we are just teaching the dog to explore them by placing his nose inside.  Interestingly, scientists have found that just two weeks of nosework will measurably improve a dog’s confidence in exploring new things, perfect if you have a shy dog!


On to the exercise then and our goal is to get our dog to stick his nose in a container. Have a variety of containers but work with just one first until your dog shows he understands he should put his nose in then you can generalise the behaviour to other containers more easily.


I recommend you watch the video right the way through a couple of times before you have a go with your dog particularly if you and your dog are new to shaping.  There is a nice 2 minutes sequence of Jim learning with a new scent indication training box he hasn’t seen before and I have explained the behaviours I’m clicking.


When you get ready to do this exercise for the first time be prepared and ready to mark and reward as soon as you put the container on the floor – most dog’s naturally want to investigate and will stick their nose in straight away and you want to capture these early wins.  


Your job is rather simple, your dog has to do all the hard work!  You sit quietly and wait for the behaviour.  You need to make sure you say the marker or click at the exact moment your dog does the right behaviour.  You’ll see your dog try other behaviours but it’s important that the only one that's going to work right now is putting his nose inside the container.


Don’t be tempted to train for too long, short sessions with a good sleep in between are best.  How many sessions you need is very variable, each dog is going to learn at a different pace.  The more shaping you do with your dog the more adept and confident he will become at experimenting and working out what it is you want and the better your timing will become especially in regard to knowing your dog and knowing when it’s the right time to raise criteria. 


Once your dog is readily offering the behaviour and you feel he understands you can add a new container.  This might be day three for example.


Later this exercise is going to transition into having the target scent in a ‘hot’ container and you'll see how we're going to do that in the future videos. 


Rather than a quick head dip you want to gradually ask for a slightly longer time for his nose to stay down but go very gradually with this.  In the beginning they need lots of success to build up their confidence.  The more success they have, the more willing they are to try harder and keep working if they don't get the reward right away. 


I hope you enjoy the video and good luck with some shaping with your dog!



Exercise 9.3 - Teaching the Indication

In the Pavlov's Breakfast exercise (Exercise 9.1) we got started with odour imprinting by associating our target scent with food simply by having the scent nearby when feeding the dog.


This week we start off building on this by helping our dog learn that putting his nose near the target scent pays off!  This is the start of your indication – how the dog lets us know that he has found the target scent.


Jim demos for us in the first part of the video and you’ll see I wait for him to hold his nose to the hot tin before I reward, this is essential.


For this exercise you’ll need:

3 x Small metal tins with holes drilled in the lids  (one will always be used with your chosen scent – aka HOT. The others should never be used with your chosen scent and will act as a decoy – aka COLD.)  Label the tins HOT and COLD with a marker pen so you can tell them apart – use the same pen to mark the tins (inks have odour too and you want the tins to be identical apart from your target scent.


3 x Boxes / Containers to hold the metal tins that your dog can sniff into, again marked so that you can tell which one is hot.


Prepare your hot tin by carefully placing your item that’s been stored with the catnip (or other scent) into the tin.  Be sure to avoid contaminating other items around the house with its smell. Use gloves / tweezers where necessary and always ensure scented items don’t fall on the ground, or touch anything nearby.


Practice this exercise in multiple short sessions, rather than few long ones, to keep your dog keen and motivated. This is a tried and tested method that usually goes quite quickly but having said that the following stages can take place over the course of weeks or months so try not to expect too much from your dog too soon. 



Teaching the indication


Step 1

Hold the hot tin (i.e. the one with the target scent inside) in one hand, as if you’re presenting it to your dog.  He will probably be curious about what this new thing is and try to investigate it.


Initially you can just mark for looking at the tin. Mark each attempt to get closer to the tin, until eventually you’re only marking when his nose touches the metal tin. This is the careful process of shaping.


Once your dog is confidently touching his nose to the metal tin every time you present it, hold treats in your other hand – about 30 inches or so away from your tin hand.

Now your dog may become far more interested in your treats hand, however, you will still only mark and reward him for touching the metal tin. You’re giving him a choice, in which he will learn that only touching the tin pays off.


When he touches the tin, mark, and reward with the treats in your treat hand at your tin hand. In other words, bring your treat hand over to his snout, and reward him while his nose is still at the metal tin. This is known as Rewarding at Source, and is a crucial behaviour to reinforce, as it teaches your dog to stay at the target scent. 


Alternate hands, so that he doesn’t think it’s a matter of targeting a particular hand.


Keep practicing this game, with you holding your treat hand closer and closer in temptation, until your dog perfectly understands that pay-day comes in when he holds his nose to the tin, no matter how close the treats are.


Step 2

Start placing the tin nearer or on the ground, and continue playing as before. Go without the tempting treat hand initially if your dog seems confused, and just mark for touching the tin as you did in the beginning.  Move back to tempting him with treats, and reinforcing him for keeping his snout to the tin.


Take care not to reward any foot targeting or other behaviours as this can develop into what trainers call ‘box smashing’ later on. 


Step 3

Now place your hot tin inside a container.

This particular container now becomes your hot container – it should always be the one your hot tin goes into to minimise scent contamination.  Anything else that goes into this container also becomes hot.  Once hot – always hot.


Play the same game, this time with your hot tin inside the container. Mark and reward for nose touches to the container (on source), and vary locations to help build a strong indication.


If you have a large or very physical dog (like Ash!) it's super important to use heavy type, unbreakable containers.  I’ve gone for weighted down wooden boxes which have worked well.


Some dogs are reinforced by scattering or destructive container behaviour (box smashing) and you don’t want to invite this.  If your dog is rather more gentle you can use Tupperware boxes or even egg boxes with holes in to allow the scent to diffuse out.  You may still need to weight them with balloon weights or something else.  Just remember the containers must be identical in every respect apart from the presence of the target scent in the hot tin inside the hot container.


Always Reward at Source


Always take care to remember to ‘Reward at Source’.  This means that you will reward as close to the box as possible without actually putting food in the box.  It can be easiest to feed out of a cupped hand in order to avoid dropping food in the box.  If you drop food in your box, your dog will focus on trying to eat out of the box plus, your box will smell like food which your dog may focus on rather than the target scent itself.


Feeding away from source moves the dog towards the handler when they are uncertain and the dog ends up orienting to the handler.  This can result in a couple of things down the road:

  • The indication may be so brief that the dog comes back to the handler, but the handler doesn’t know where the indication actually occurred.
  • It lessens duration at source
  • The dog may increase focus on the handler when confused which can easily be misunderstood as an indication.



Teaching Odour Discrimination


Step 4

Now you can bring out your second metal tin & container – the one without any odour, aka your COLD tin.


Offer your dog the two containers, one HOT and one COLD and mark & reward at source for any nose touches to the hot container.


Mark & reward (at source) each time he sniffs the hot one.


Play this container game until you’re confident your dog is eagerly selecting and indicating on the right container then you can introduce a third container (also COLD – decoy). 


This is where he is learning to seek with his nose, rather than his eyes.


Step 5

Three containers

Keep out of your dog’s way when he’s sniffing the containers but be nearby and very watchful so you can mark and reward very quickly when he indicates by staying at the source.  As you’re rewarding him he may offer a ‘Down’ next to the container like Ash does in the video which is perfect.


Step 6

As your dog’s confidence grows, start placing the containers in different spots on the ground and switching them around after each successful indication.


Pop your dog away while you re-arrange the containers so he doesn’t know which is which.  


Reward him with rapid fire treats – ten or more in quick succession – for doing such a good job when he indicates the right container.


It’s also a great idea to video your sessions so you can study how your dog’s body language changes when he indicates.  It’s fascinating to watch your dog at work doing what comes so naturally to him.


Have lots of fun together!