Making sense of how to address false alerts

As discussed in my last blog on how training methods need to make sense to you … I’d like to chat about how I handle false alerts in nosework and why the approach makes sense to me. You need to decide what makes sense to you.

A false alert is the dog’s incorrect response to where odor is. If it were a blind hide/trial situation, you would think they are at source and you would call “Alert”.  It is most common to happen in containers since food/novel odors can be placed inside a container as a distractor. Many dogs have different responses if it’s odor or a distractor, but some responses can look very similar and more difficult to read. And in a trial situation with nervous handlers and dogs, it’s easy for both a dog to false and a handler to misread it and call “Alert”.

One method is to ignore your dog’s false alert. The dog will eventually move off and learn that it didn’t lead to reinforcement.

The method I use is to go in and admire the container or location of their false alert.  It was the method I was first taught and although that is a powerful factor, it made a tremendous amount of sense to me. Since it makes sense to me, I can successfully and consistently apply the method in my training as well as transfer it to trial situations.

To quote Denise Fenzi …

“I acknowledge every time my dog talks to me. If she tells me she has it, then I go in to see. If she’s correct, she eats. If she’s wrong, we admire not much of anything together. Since admiration is not what she’s looking for, I find that goes away in a hurry. But you must respond when your dog talks to you, or they’ll get in the habit of thinking that no response from you means they are wrong – that’s a disastrous problem to have when you don’t know where the hide is, such in a trial where the dog really does have to take responsibility for convincing you. I always respond – just not necessarily the way they were hoping.”

In the very beginning, we give our dogs some time to figure it out without much intervention. We should be setting training up in small increments so that our dogs are set up for success and not in a position to false. We only increase the challenge (more boxes, new areas, distrastions, etc) when they were successful at the last step/level.

Once my dog understands that odor pays and is successfully finding odor in the early foundation games, I’ll start to address any false alerts by going in to admire the container. When I admire a container, I’ll pick it up, see if there is odor, chat about how nice the box is, put it down and then move on. I would apply this to non-container searches also by going in and admiring/checking the area they called me in on.

This makes sense to me because:

  • I’m responding when my dog talking to me. My dog may be stressed or confused and similar to some obedience exercises – I do not want my dog freezing, being unsure and then associating stress with that exercise/situation.  I want to interrupt that moment and respond to my dog.
  • A dog may false out of frustration or timing out when they can’t find odor. We see it often with scent articles where a dog just never hits on the right one and just grabs one. In nosework training, by going in to admire it, it “clears” it as not being odor and frees the dog up to continue searching.
  • My handling is the same if the dog is right or incorrect. I walk in.
  • My dog won’t perceive any handler movement as meaning anything.
  • The dog learns after a few sessions that non-odor will never pay, even if they fall for it due to stress or a distractor and I walk in.
  • In a trial, if my dog calls me in, I can walk in before calling “alert” and since our history is I only pay if it’s odor, they move on if it’s not odor and they will stay/insist if there is.
  • I don’t want silence to mean they are wrong, as we are silent during much of a dog’s search!
  • By responding and not ignoring, I remove any pressure or stress my dog may be feeling and keeps that connection and teamwork.

You can absolutely proof for body language if you chose to ignore false alerts. When your dog indicates you can keep moving, walking and wait for your dog to leave or insist. You’d proof that in training when they are correct also so your handling is the same in either case.  In most cases, I don’t proof/delay when calling my “alerts” so I don’t want to rely on that method for handling possible faults. If I’m unclear on my dog’s indication on a container where there may be a distractor odor, I would handle with walking in to “admire” and hope our training history kicks in where the dog thinks “Should I Stay or Should I go”! (Great song by The Clash!) In other words, what will this pay or will it not!

We are covering this topic now in my FDSA online NW101 class. With permission to share, here is a great example of one of the working teams applying this method after introducing it earlier. The setup was a “decoy” cold box. You’ll see the dog clearly knows that container is “cold” as she checks it out twice and moves on. After about 30s the dog times out and indicates on that cold container. By admiring the container, it “clears” it for the dog and she moves on quickly – even moving on before the handler completely admires the cold container. Best part? Is how the dog then picks up odor quickly after that and retrieves the container!!! Nothing more clear than that!

The handler did not allow the dog to get stressed. Applied a consistent trained method, by listening to her dog and clearing a cold item so the dog could move on to be successful! Great teamwork and communication during a training session!

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