Please share this post whenever you see someone suggest to an inexperienced trainer that she use sniffing as a reinforcer on walks.
Hey. You know that thing that seems like the perfect solution to problems with your dog when walking on leash? It’s not a free ride after all.
Let’s say you are a beginner trainer struggling with teaching loose leash walking. Your dog is very tuned into the environment, and the thing he is most interested in is sniffing. So when you ask for advice on the Internet, it is pretty much guaranteed that several people are going to chime in with the same suggestion: use sniffing as the reinforcer!
It sounds perfect, right? Sniffing, i.e. access to odor, is a powerful motivator for most dogs and an obvious candidate to use for reinforcement. But unfortunately for us amateurs, it takes some finesse to use it. I know this from hard experience.
What’s the Problem?
The problem is that if you release a dog to sniff, you need a way of getting him back. He has already told you with his behavior that access to sniffing interesting odors is massively interesting, more so than the treats in your pocket. So if you let him sniff, then what? You have the same problem you had to begin with, only worse: your dog is all excited about the environment and can’t focus on the task of leash walking.
If your dog is a beginner at this, the problem is worse. You are asking him to learn a difficult skill, keeping the leash loose and walking with you in a connected way. But you are also letting him run around sniffing with you following behind on a sometimes tight leash. How do you keep the criteria clear?
Most of the time a non-fearful dog’s difficulty with loose leash walking boils down to some of the following:
- The dog is too excited to focus on the difficult task of walking on a loose leash;
- The dog didn’t get enough practice walking at his person’s side in less interesting environments; and/or
- The item (food, toy) the trainer is trying to use as reinforcement doesn’t have enough value.
(I am excluding fearful dogs, because their issues can be different. Sniffing may not be for the purpose of information or entertainment. It can be a displacement behavior, a sign of stress. In this post I’m discussing dogs who are not anxious, just intensely interested in the odors around them. Be sure you know which it is for your dog.)
Let’s see if releasing the dog to sniff will likely solve the above problems.
- Dogs who are too excited to focus. If you get a few steps of nice walking on a leash from such a dog, and release him to sniff, will sniffing “get it out of his system” and allow him to come back to you, ready to focus and work? Probably not. If the dog couldn’t focus in the first place, allowing a sniff session will probably not fix that.
- Dogs who haven’t gotten enough practice in less interesting environments. If he didn’t get enough practice in your training room or back yard, a sniffing session is not going to magically give him the skills to return to you and have good leash manners.
- Dogs for whom the reinforcer is not sufficient. If your reinforcer was not strong enough to get the dog’s attention in the first place, how could it work to get him back when you have released him into happy sniff land?
What Happens When You Try It
Here’s what probably happens when you try the sniff thing without adequate background work. You get a few steps of nice walking, and then you release your dog to go sniff. You follow him around a bit. When you decide it’s time to move on, you say, “Let’s go, ” or a similar cue.
Your dog will keep sniffing. You say it again. Still sniffing. You finally pull on your dog’s leash to get him to come with you. Depending on how deeply interested he was in the smell, he may come now, or he may wait until you pull even harder.
If the environment is so fascinating, and you’ve cued him to go dive into it, how will you humanely get him back?
You might be one of the lucky few with a dog who thrives on doing stuff with his human. One or two of these pulls from you and he’ll get it that he is supposed to quit sniffing and come back to you, and will do so in the future. But if you had that kind of dog, you probably wouldn’t be losing him to the environment in the first place, right?
Pulling him to you if he fails to respond is employing an aversive. Depending on the dog, it can vary from mild to extreme.
In positive reinforcement-based training, cues are opportunities for reinforcement. We train so that there is no need for an “Or else.” And incidentally, pulling on a dog’s leash to enforce a “come” cue is exactly the behavior that was used in the graduate thesis from University of North Texas on so-called “poisoned cues.” The dog in the study responded in a completely different way to the cue that included the possibility of this type of forced compliance than to the cue that was trained with positive reinforcement only.
Pulling on your dog’s leash to get him to walk with you is aversive but not the end of the world. It probably happens to most trainers at one time or another. (It’s a good reason to attach the leash to a harness rather than a collar.) But if it happens most every time you cue the dog to go sniff, you are shooting your training in the foot. Dragging your dog around is one of the problems you were trying to solve to begin with.
The Solution: Practice, Practice, Practice
The solution is straightforward, if not exactly easy. You need to practice not only the loose leash walking in less stimulating environments, you also need to train the heck out of your “return to me” cue with positive reinforcement. And you will need to reinforce it on walks, at least some of the time. You can’t leave the food at home.
It can be difficult to emulate the real life scenario of an enticing odor. If you are in a low-distraction environment, there probably aren’t many novel odors there. So there’s a gap between practicing the cue when your dog is standing around with not much else to do, and practicing it when he is enticed by something.
I actually succeeded fairly well with this with Zani, my little hound mix, and now I’m practicing with Clara. Some of you will remember my post on when not to work on loose leash walking. I’m pleased to say that Clara handles being around people and dogs on walks so well now that we have “graduated” from counterconditioning and are working on loose leash walking.
Allowing my dog to get what she most wants is important to me. Here are some of the ways I worked on our “Let’s go” cue. I bridged the gap between low-distraction practice and real life situations in several ways. You can see these in the movie as well.
- I started off by practicing indoors with Clara both on and off-leash. She learned to reorient to me when I cued, “Let’s go!” I often turned and ran after giving the cue, both to make it both more challenging and more fun.
- I have a closed-off room in my house that contains dog food, chew toys, and other interesting stuff. Odor heaven. In training I allowed Clara to go in. After a moment I called her out and reinforced her generously for walking away with me.
- I put synthetic rabbit pee on a piece of cardboard and taped it to the floor. Clara got a reward if she responded and left it at my cue. (You’ll see in the movie, though, that it was only enticing the first time. That was a lot of trouble to go to for just one repetition.)
- I scattered kibble on the floor or ground, let Clara start eating it, then gave her the “Let’s Go!” cue and rewarded generously when she left the kibble behind. This is a good corollary to what we are asking dogs to do when we ask them to leave enticing smells.
- And that leads to–Zen (“leave-it.”) Any kind of leave-it exercise is good practice for this.
Someone is sure to suggest sending the dog back to the odor or out to sniff again as a reward. That’s a great thing to do–sometimes. But you can’t use it as a reinforcer every time with most dogs. If you never reinforce at your side, you risk gradually sucking the value out of walking with you. Nope, most of us just can’t get away with leaving the food or toys at home.
One More Decision
If you watch dogs who are having a good time sniffing, they don’t just stand still and put their heads down to the ground for a moment. They follow where the odor takes them. If free to do so, many dash back and forth, run, walk, back up, make sudden u-turns, and stop just as suddenly. Our dogs are generally much faster and more agile than we are. As long as your dog is on leash you will be in the position of having to curtail some of the fun. How far into the neighbor’s yard may he go? How close can he get to their cat? You will have to assess how much these limitations frustrate your dog, and make sure that using sniffing as a reinforcer under these conditions is worth it to him.
Anybody have any sniffing odor as reinforcement stories? I’d love to hear about them.
Related Movies and Posts
- Movie–Sniffing and Returning: Zani, on a long line in my front yard, practices returning to me.
- Post–Bootleg Reinforcement: Odor easily becomes a bootleg reinforcer.
- Post–When is it OK for Your Dog to Pull On Leash?: When working on counterconditioning.
© Eileen Anderson 2015 eileenanddogs.com