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Motivation and the Nosework Dog

Updated: Oct 27, 2018

I often see people refer to their dogs as being good at Nosework because they have a 'good nose'. I've always thought this was a bizarre phrase. It's sort of like saying that a certain dog is good at bitework because they have 'good teeth'. If a dog has a nose, they can smell. If a dog has teeth, they can bite. It is not the physical, but the mental attributes that a dog possesses that makes them especially good or bad at these respective tasks.

You killing me smalls, just eat the kibble!

Apart from the obvious impact of training, a dog's skill at Nosework comes down to one big thing; motivation. How much do they enjoy searching, and how much do they want what they get at the end of the search when they find the magic smell? If we have access to something the dog considers high value, we're not only able to influence how much they enjoy the act of searching and sourcing odour, but we can also work them through any environmental or social sensitivities that may be holding them back from performing at their best.

This point is so important that it warrants further discussion. All too often, the success of a Nosework team is not dictated by Nosework training, but by general training, socialization and habituation problems. The dog could perfectly understand that they need to search for, source and respond to odour when their handler asks them to, but if they're inhibited by environmental and/or social fears and anxiety, they simply won't do it at all, or not to the standard of which you thought them capable.

It's something I see incredibly often; Fido is a superstar when practicing at home or at a training facility. But when you take him outdoors - even if you positioned him directly in front of a hide - he shows absolutely no change of behaviour and no inclination to respond to your cues to search. Classically conditioned responses (something we've gone to pains to ensure the dog has for the target odours) are suppressed when a dog is stressed. The issue isn't that Fido doesn't understand what we want him to do, it's that he's so concerned about other stimuli that he can't focus. Maybe he's worried about the scent of other dogs in the area, or the construction site down the road is distressing. His inhibitions may be generalized across multiple elements, or specific to one. But this is not a Nosework problem. It's a training and motivation problem. We could have done everything right in the low-distraction, low-variable environment of the training lab and still faced the same issue in other areas. However, if we had something that the dog wanted really badly, we could work any dog through challenging areas.

While motivation, training and socialization issues are very likely to come out when the dog progresses from lab searches to other elements, it can become apparent when you first begin working with a dog. This probably won't be the case so much if you're working your own dog, but if you're in the training business and are dealing with a bunch of strange dogs on a regular basis, the above statements on motivation apply.

This aspect of the training process is always the first thing that inexperienced trainers overlook. For some dogs, a high value reward can mean the difference between their outright quitting, and their wholehearted effort being put in to the activity. For others - the majority of pet dogs - spending some time finding their ideal reward can mean the difference between their putting in just enough effort in the process to get paid, or putting their heart and soul into it. Then there are those dogs who would happily work for their kibble all day, every day. This section doesn't apply to those Unicorns.

Understanding a little bit about motivation - particularly on how to build it - is essential for all trainers, regardless of their specialty.

The Ratio

It's easiest to think of motivation's role in training in terms of The Ratio; what do I have to do? Vs. What do I get when I do it?

If a dog determines that the effort to complete a task outweighs their reward for getting it, they're not going to do it.

If a dog determines that the effort to complete a task is equal to their reward for getting it, they're going to do it.

If a dog determines that the effort to complete a task is outweighed by the reward they get for doing it, they're going to put their heart and soul into doing it.

When we're working in a purely inducive training model*, we have three options to change the dynamics of the Ratio; 1) we can ask them to do less, and/or 2) we can give them more, and/or a better reward, and/or 3) we can increase their motivation for a reward. Each are equally as important to understand, so I've dedicated a section for all of them.

1. Asking the dog to do less.

There are two situations in which this is deemed appropriate, the decidedly less ideal situation is where the dog has already decided to quit. This is a reactive response on the part of the trainer, and isn't ideal because we don't ever want the dog to think that quitting is an option, and we may have damaged the dog's enthusiasm for the activity. The preferable situation is where the trainer pre-emptively determines that the dog should do less prior to their completing the given task. In a sense, we're reinforcing effort over perfection.

On a practical level, we have a lot of options of how to reduce the difficulty in training detection. If a dog is lagging when working on multiple hides, we might just ask them to source one or two and lead them out of there. If a hide is difficult to locate, or the dog has to work through obstacles (particularly if that dog is environmentally sensitive), we may mark and reward for them simply finding the hide rather than responding to it (something which I’ll hereafter refer to as mark the find, not the freeze). If the dog is struggling to work through some issue in the environment, we may just have them search for their reward (no odour at all) a few times to induce them into the act of searching.

The most common place you'll find a need to lower the criteria that you reward for is for the response. Arguably the most challenging component of detection is the searching phase. If we've introduced a particularly challenging search to our dog (larger search area, distractions, higher hides, buried hides etc.) and they manage to work all the way to source, mark them for that find and not the freeze. In a sense, you're rewarding them for the difficult search (again, the hardest part) and for working to the highest concentration of odour. If we did ask for them to respond prior to the mark, we may very well damage their motivation for the activity. While this won't be the case with every dog, it is such a concerning issue that I tend to err on the side of caution. As a dog becomes more experienced at working through challenging searches, this doesn't need to happen quite as often. However, if you ever see a dog beginning to struggle (the signs of which differ between dogs), revert back to marking for the find.

2. Giving more, better rewards.

For most dogs starting out in this system, I find it enormously beneficial to their motivation levels to vary the quantity and quality of the reward they're searching for (in the self-reward stage). One search might lead them to one little piece of chicken, another might lead them to an entire chunk of steak. Likewise, nothing says that a mark = one reward. Feel free to vary the quantity and quality of the rewards you're giving for sourcing odour at random.

The most significant place that the amount and value of food will come into play is when you change a variable in training. Transitioning to other elements, adding distractions, increasing your criteria for the response etc. should all be met with an increase in their reward value/amount.

I've found that just saying 'increase the value of the reward' is far too open for interpretation. So to give you a better idea, these are the higher value rewards I always have on hand (along with the lower value foods like cheese, hot dogs and other traditional treats);

· Cooked roast chicken (the skin, particularly when seasoned, is often the best)

· Cooked roast beef, pork (in smaller quantities) or lamb

· Pancakes

· Bacon

· Roast Potatoes

On the odd occasion that a dog has turned his nose up at these, I've found it helpful to heat it all up. Warm food puts out more odour and is often more appealing.

3. Increase motivation for food

It's not uncommon to work with dogs that just aren't that motivated for food. Generally speaking, however, I find that these dogs do like food, but they just have no concept of having to work for it. In other words, they have no work ethic. There’s fortunately a myriad of different techniques we can employ - both in the short and long term - to help increase work ethic.

· Find the food, or you don't get it! The easiest technique to increase food drive is to ditch the food bowl. The dog’s regular meals should be tossed out in the grass, or through a scatter-matt. Doing so forces the dog to have to actually work to eat. Spreading the food out farther increases the amount of work they have to do to get it.

· Reduce food intake. The most common method of increasing food drive is to reduce how much food the dog is given at meal times. Prior to a training session, this may involve completely skipping one or two meals (which is recommended anyway, because we're going to be giving them a lot of food during training), or it can be a longer-term, small reduction in the quantity given for breakfast or dinner. For some dogs, particularly those with a more sensitive stomach, this is the preferable option. In the week leading up to training, their meals are reduced by 1/5-1/4.

The obvious impact that a reduction of food has on the dog is to increase their hunger, and thus their motivation to get food. In Nosework seminars, I encourage all participants to do a short-term or longer-term food reduction, regardless of the dog's usual food drive. The seminar experience can be very stressful for most dogs, and those who are normally chow-hounds can become quite inhibited. Increasing their hunger can help work them through this.

· Restraint builds drive.

We’ve all seen it; we freely offer our dog something unappetizing and they turn their nose up at it. But if we drop the same thing on the floor and try to prevent them from gobbling it up, they’re suddenly really motivated to get it. Restraint builds drive.

Pulling back on a dog’s harness so that they have to fight to get to their food reward can help expedite the learning process immeasurably. There is an art to doing this correctly, where we let them propel themselves forward just before the point at which they give up entirely. Each repetition is built upon the last, and the dog’s motivation for whatever we’re offering them increases ten-fold.

· Competition increases drive.

This is typically a last resort used for extremely unmotivated and/or sensitive dogs. It’s normally a big no-no in detection circles too. We introduce another dog to the equation. The ‘problem’ dog is restrained a suitable distance away, and he watches another – preferably motivated and experienced – dog go through the motions of training. I don’t know if this taps in to a dog’s competitive nature, or if it shows them that the trainer isn’t so scary after all, or both. Nevertheless, it hasn’t failed on the very occasional times I’ve had to resort to it.

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