Yep, that’s right, I’m talking about a trained indication!!! For many dogs and handlers, teaching a clear behavior at source – otherwise known as an indication or final response – can be very useful for our dog’s understanding and for handlers to read their dogs.

Recently I’ve heard from many people through my classes, workshops, seminars and on Facebook about their struggles reading their dog at source and would really like to teach a clear indication but were taught to only learn how to read their dog.

It’s time we start looking at this more closely and realize it is OK to train a final response at source. Or at a minimum ensure a strong stay at source behavior.

Cultural Fog

I recently learned of the term “cultural fog” by Dr. Susan Friedman. It means something has no bearing on facts but is a condition of the culture. That is how I feel about the resistance to training an indication at source. It’s how we first learned about Nosework – that it was better to learn how to read our dogs at source and let the dog pick their natural indication. The truth of it is – not all dogs are that clear at source and not all handlers can read the subtle (or clear) signs dogs give when in odor and at source.

I’m not really sure why people are against a trained indication at this point in the sport. I know the sport started with shelter and pet dogs in mind but the sport has evolved into much more and appeals to all kinds of dogs and handlers!

I’ve heard that we can’t know what odor is doing so we can’t use a marker event in Nosework. I can surely mark a find and duration at source!

I’ve heard a trained indication causes more false alerts. I don’t buy it! I just don’t! I see enough false indications with dogs who don’t have a trained indication – because people struggle reading their dogs or there are foundation issues.

I believe the main reason people aren’t in favor of a trained response is that it’s just what they learned first and what we learn first, like dogs, we know and learn best.

We have many savvy dog trainers in the sport who are capable of training an indication at source. There are also progressive training methods available to help new handlers learn as well. We should NOT be afraid to actually train a behavior as we do in any sport.

Reading your dog at source

This method refers to reading a combination of behaviors our dogs offer when working odor and finding source. This would also include their natural indication. These are commonly referred to as Change of Behaviors (COBs). Changes can be a head snap, change in foot fall – slows down/smaller steps, speeds up and is on a mission, stops, sniffs more, zig zags, tail wags, tail stops wagging … as well as pawing, biting, retrieving, etc.

If we solely use the method to “read the dog”, I find that can be hard for many teams. Some dogs are not as easy to “read” as others and may struggle on how to communicate they found source.  Many factors may lead to a dog’s subtle behavior – confidence, security, lack of understanding/foundations … that’s when we need to up our game as trainers and find the solution for that team’s unique situation – to find a way for the dog to have clarity and the handler to have more information.

A dog whose natural indication is interactive with the hide or worse, destructive – that’s a real problem. So whether or not your dog is soft/subtle or monstrous/clear – both benefit with some criteria and clarity!

A Trained Response

So let’s take a look at what a trained response is and the foundations around training one.

First, you will need to decide what criteria you want at source with your dog. Your dog’s indication at source is driven either by your criteria or what you end up reinforcing.

There are 2 kinds of a trained response at source.

  1. A reinforced trained response (RTR) –  a behavior that we have consistently reinforced to the point that the dog offers it consistently and we can read it well.
    • Examples are stay at source, nose freeze, a down, a sit, a look back.
    • This can also be one we incorrectly reinforce and is not what we want! For example pawing, perching on a box, mouthing, and maybe even a sit or look back.
  2. A final trained response (FTR) – a behavior we specifically train/shape like a nose freeze, sit or down.
    • Fewer sport teams use this approach. Taught extensively with professional detection dogs. 

By having clear criteria we can avoid or minimize unwanted antics at source that can cause damage (scratches) and faults that are increasing in the sport.

One of the reasons that a trained behavior may be associated with a false alert is that we reward the indication over finding odor. Odor trumps all – reward the find, then cue/reward the position. 

For dogs with box antics, teaching a down at containers can be a good option – by rewarding the find first then cuing the down to reward more. Be consistent with that and your dog will anticipate the down cue at source.

Once my dog is conditioned on odor, I shape a nose freeze as the final response. I like this method as all finds are led by the nose! But I will always read all the other signs as I know I may not always get that solid freeze. 

Best of both worlds

You absolutely need to read your dog working odor and finding source! It’s part of the whole picture. We can have both! We can teach a final response and learn to read our dogs! We all know our dogs may not offer a trained response in a trial/novel environment or that it won’t be exactly like training. Therefore their natural behavior at source will always trump a trained indication and may be easier to read.

Here’s a video of my young dog with a trained nose freeze at source. You’ll also see other COBs of her at source – she stops, plants all feet, and her tail totally relaxes! 

Building the foundations for a trained response

The first thing we need is COMMITMENT to source. Also referred to as Obedience to Odor. I love the clarity on what earns reinforcement – being at source!

Here are a few ways to build a better response to odor:

  1. Build value for odor by associating it with high value reinforcement.
  2. Pay heavily at source. Often people can be stingy with treats and/or feed too far off source. I’m known to reward for up to 1 minute at source! Rewarding for position (at source) is very powerful, especially in the early stages of training.
  3. Have criteria at source and use an event marker to mark desired behavior and ignore unwanted behavior. I like a nose freeze at source as that’s how we start conditioning dogs to odor and finding source is always led by the nose. 
  4. Reinforcement doesn’t come unless nose is at source. I don’t lure my dog back to source and they quickly learn to stay as close to source to earn reinforcement. That includes when I’m coming in to reinforce.
  5. Be clear and consistent with good mechanics. Staying neutral until you have marked their find at source or until you reward.
  6. Give ZERO handler clues as to where the hide is. The #1 issue with dogs being unclear with their response is that they learn to read the handler when reinforcement may come.
  7. Build duration in small increments so your dog will reliably stay and insist at source. We can’t always mark their find immediately since without duration you will have issues reading your dog on blind hides. We can’t lump when building duration – remember to build up in small increments and vary your timing with immediate, your dogs normal find and “tell” and then some insisting duration.

Here’s a very early training session with Moxie where I built up to some duration at source with a nose freeze. 

Whether you decide to train a final response or not, if you follow some of the steps above with payment, clarity and duration – you’ll be well on your way to having a better read on your dog!

If you want to learn more about starting your foundation skills on odor, check out my current NW101 Introduction to Nosework at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Class is currently in session and closes Sunday December 15, 2019. If you want to explore more about teaching an indication to your current Nosework dog, check out my Handlers Choice Nosework class starting February 1, 2020.