Go Sniff! Then Please Come Back!

Please share this post whenever you see someone suggest to an inexperienced trainer that she use sniffing as a reinforcer on walks.

Summer air scenting keep 3
Summer air sniffing

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:

  1. The dog is too excited to focus on the difficult task of walking on a loose leash;
  2. The dog didn’t get enough practice walking at his person’s side in less interesting environments; and/or
  3. The item (food, toy) the trainer is trying to use as reinforcement doesn’t have enough value.
This is probably stress sniffing
Zani is probably stress sniffing

(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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Elderly Cricket's sniffing on walks was no problem
Elderly Cricket’s sniffing on walks was no problem

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.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

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

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

26 thoughts on “Go Sniff! Then Please Come Back!

  1. Love this, Eileen! My only concern is that I also see many novice trainers using their Let’s Go or With Me or Look at Me cues in a nagging way. Of course, if you are nagging it means you have not practiced enough, or built a large enough reinforcement history for those cues. My solution was always to have clients learn to focus on waiting for the dog to be done sniffing, capturing and reinforcing the choice to look back at them (a la Give Me a Break), reconnecting with the dog, and THEN either cuing Let’s Go, or Go Sniff again. But as you say, this takes a lot more skill than one might think to: 1) pick the right place and time to release a dog to sniff; 2) staying totally focused on the dog after a sniff cue so you can keep the leash loose yourself until the dog is ready to reengage; 3) noticing and capturing when the dog is ready to reengage; 4) keeping the distinction clear to the dog which “walking mode” you are in (Let’s Go or Go Sniff)?. Your post is a good reminder that the Let’s Go part needs to be practiced (and reinforced) just as much as the release.Thanks!

    1. Really good points, Sarah. You have a broader view of this than I do. I did really want to talk about picking a good time for the cue, and several other things, but the post was getting too long! Glad you mentioned what you did.

      1. Just another thought along those lines…this post is actually the first part of what a person would need to know. After one gets that really good cue conditioned at home, then one needs to learn how to use it well. I’ll leave that post for someone with more experience about the typical problems, though.

  2. Thanks for posting this Eileen. I’m now glad I’ve never tried it. Luckily our dogs love food and toys as reinforcers.

    What you say makes perfect sense because I was taught not to recall a dog when it’s sniffing. When the nose goes down, the ears switch off.

    1. Thanks, Nicola! Yes, when they go into sniff mode it is pretty intense!

  3. Love love love this article !
    Thanks for the great ideas.

    I usually click dog for lifting head from sniffing a lot before I work on putting sniffing behaviour into play as a reinforcer. Then I use “let’s go” cue when dog lifts head from ground (they’re usually looking at me expecting a click by then) and then click that let’s go behaviour.

    1. What a great method, Rachel! Thanks for sharing that. Glad you liked the post.

  4. As you noted, tracking an odor is great fun for a dog. Instead of having a dog stop then and come back to my side, I teach it in two segments. I’ve found that more dogs will react faster to “stop” than anything else. Once they’re learned that, I can have them stop multiple times while tracking a scent and other things, as that command allows much higher repetition than most others. Being able to track the scent or continue walking then becomes the immediate reinforcer & I can do many of these for each single time you call your dog back to your side. Once that behavior is learned, teaching others becomes easier as you can already stop the current activity and get the dog’s attention, before the other command is given.

    Of course I don’t start the above with high-value odors. It starts with ordinary poles, bushes and such, as there are plenty of those, just not for every one. But, until you slowly get there, a sniffing dog is a sniffing dog, and I don’t try to teach when I don’t have their attention. I think it was Ian Dunbar who gave a whole talk on that issue.

    And once they learn this, “leave it” is only a few minutes away, as it just builds on existing behavior.

    And Sarah’s point above on nagging cues I feel is an important issue that also effects many other things in training. And teaching people the points she makes so well is both important and often difficult. Patience is often a scare resource.

    In the article you said: “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.” However, we do know that eventually you will need to continue reinforcing this behavior many times in the future when you don’t have food or toys with you. That treats and such will often make it easier at the start, but are not strictly needed as long as the desired behavior is being reinforced, from the dog’s point of view.

    1. Good points and sounds like a good method, Gerry. Thanks for commenting.

  5. My dog and I use a sniffing cue on a walk exclusively for when there is another dog in proximity. It was initially used as a reward for calm behavior as a reaction to the presence of other dogs. Now, many times he heads toward where the other dog WAS before the dog is actually gone, to sniff the spot! The silliness never ends (which of course is the best part)!

    1. That’s so cool! The other dog has become the cue! Thanks for sharing, Dianne.

  6. Just out of interest, how do you feel about letting multiple dogs, when on lead ( and when off lead exercise has been short) sniff as a group as they go along? Dogs wandering along, on lead, someone gets a sniff, they all casually investigate? They move off again when I move? Good article, made me check through my criteria and habits 🙂

    1. Karen, I am just not qualified to answer that. I hope some of the experienced people will chime in. I personally don’t ever walk more than one dog at a time, and it’s not something I have thought about extensively. Thanks for the question, and glad you liked the post.

    2. Karen, it’s just a question of establishing enough control to manage multiple dogs. That’s a place where my comment on teaching “stop” may come into play. While walking 4 dogs if one wants to sniff the others are told to stop. One or more may come over to join him in sniffing. If they then move off again when you move or on command, you still have control and you’re simply enriching their walk. Often the most difficult part is untangling the leash.

      Multiple dogs will of course make it harder to teach a dog to walk by your side, and it may be better to wait for a single dog in doing that. However, they can still learn enough control to make the walk easy and pleasant.

      1. Thankyou for your reply Gerry, really reassured me that I am going along the right lines. I have quite a mixed bag at the moment, and have found that implementing this ‘sniff’ routine helps the other 3 be patient with the 14 yr old, plus is encouraging my reactive youngster to be calm whilst gathering info on dogs that have passed close by (she gets lots of solo walks/training too, plus the 2 youngsters go running with me). I don’t use commands for this particular sniff routine, everyone seems to have worked out that I’m not going to move again until the last dog has finished sniffing so the others just wait patiently. totally agree re tangled leads! I taught all of mine a ‘paw paw’ command which is ‘lift the tangled paw’- sadly the oldie has forgotten it and whilst I’m untangling him one of the others usually manages to get caught up behind my back! Happy days with multiple dogs 🙂

  7. It should be noted that the “study” referenced on poisoned cue is a master’s thesis and not a juried article. With an N of 1, there are some very serious deficits in the experimental design. I am not disagreeing with your blog, but I would suggest that the study you reference is not a terribly good study.

    1. Very good point, and thank you. I’m going to reword a bit. That initial study has been embraced by so many, and has such a “sticky” name, it’s treated as gospel at this point. I don’t want to add to that.

      1. Thank you for not wanting to add to that! The ABABAB protocol that makes up the bulk of the data in her study is a procedure that is used in Applied Behaviour Analysis but that should not make up the entire data set. The more master’s theses I read out of that department the more I get concerned about what people are taking as the gospel truth about science. They did not do science in that case! Three years and they did a number of procedures on one learner and then it becomes the only evidence that we have for poisoned cue? This is really a travesty of science.

        There is some pretty good evidence that poisoned cue is not as valid as people might think. My kingdom for some very high quality research to support or refute this concept. Anecdotally, I teach my horse nearly everything using R- and then follow that up with R+. I have literally poised every single cue I have given her. She is for the most part a willing learner and a happy horse. I have erred from time to time, but honestly, when you teach almost 100% of your cues with R-, you would expect to see some significant fallout if poisoned cue were a valid concept. My thought on poisoned cues is that the vast majority of learners are much more resiliant than that!

        So far as teaching a go sniff to be used as a reinforcer, there are very elegant ways to teach this. I use old style film canisters with scents on cotton balls within. I offer the dog the chance to sniff one, and then substitute another by removing the first and re-cuing the sniff again. Most dogs learn very quickly that they can move from one sniff to the next without issue. From there it is a simple matter to start cuing the dog to sniff out treats that you point out to him in long grass. Don’t be afraid to go on scent walks with your dog and come up with “better stuff” for the dog to sniff out. As with any Premack procedure you have to be certain that the dog you are working with really actually wants the behaviour you are asking for, and the best way to ensure that is to actually practice sniffing as a discrete behaviour before using it on a walk. In general…this is not something I send my novice students out to do without a coach, and I too dispair when I see people on lists advocating doing this without any prep training to get started.

        1. mrsbehaviour, I normally don’t read MS thesis’ but after your comment I just scanned through this one. I’d have to say that your opinion on it was, well, rather kind. And that the issues go beyond just the data set. Unfortunately, “catch phrases” often seem to take on a life of their own.

  8. While I do train whiplash turns (having the dog recall off of visual and scent distractions on their name or a whiplash word), to use permission to sniff as a reinforcer, I first build a history in the dog of choosing to orient to me upon being given that permission. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but I have had tons of success with it.

    I had one dog in particular who was a dedicated sniffer. She had Lab in her and she preferred to explore the world with her nose above everything – even Agility, which made outdoor Agility trials (and sometimes indoor ones!) a nightmare!

    I tried “everything” to get her to keep her nose up on course, but nothing worked. Not a strong reinforcement history for orienting to me when she heard her name, not using higher value treats . . . nothing!!

    So (based on Leslie McDevitt’s Give Me a Break Game), I taught her a “quick release” that gave her permission to sniff, and then jackpotted the heck out of her when she chose to stop sniffing to orient to me. We started indoors in a small area. It didn’t take long to work up to limited outdoor spaces. In the end, all I had to do was say, “go sniff” and I couldn’t get her to stop focusing for love or money!

    I have had very good success with this with all of my dogs. I like it because it removes the need for me to be constantly calling my dog off of scents. I can if I need to, but I rarely do.

    I have a good friend who has done this with her Beagle and he almost never sniffs in the ring!

    Using permission to sniff is a techinque that I am sold on. I use a different training protocol than you do, but – absolutely – there is groundwork that must be done before it will work in real life.

    1. Interesting method! And yes, the commonality is that there is prep work. Thanks so much for sharing.

    2. ksammie2, I’m a bit confused. You taught her a quick release (not identified) for permission to sniff, then jackpotted (many rewards of some kind given all at once from accumulated behavior) her to “capture” when she stops sniffing and orients to you? Yet, previously, you couldn’t control her stopping to sniff. There are several possible interpretations here. I’d suspect you’re teaching her to go and sniff on command, and to do so before she would normally do so on her own, in order to gain control on the behavior.

      If that’s right, there’s nothing counter-intuitive here. Otherwise, I’ll wait to see what you say here.

      1. Hi Gerry – to teach the “quick release” (aka – permission to sniff), I worked with her first in an area where she wasn’t all that interested in sniffing. I gave her the quick release and allowed her to sniff all she wanted. I waited until she chose (without me saying her name or anything) to stop sniffing and to orient to me. That’s when I would click and jackpot, and then immediately give her the quick release again. We did this until she flatly refused to disengage and sniff.

        Next step was to add in some behavior. Let’s say it was taking a jump. So, she would be given permission to sniff, and when she chose to re-engage, I would click/jackpot, cue a jump, and then quick release again. I would do this until she flatly refused to sniff, and was clearly in the mindset to keep working. We would build duration into our work.

        Concurrently, we would start the whole process in more challenging environments.

        Before long, when she would be given permission to sniff, she would very rarely accept it. She would look to me to train/work/perform. And when she did break off to sniff in training, I would immediately give the quick release (even though she had broken off herself) and would jackpot when she chose to return, and then would quick release again until she refused to sniff.

        Over time the result of this was that even when I had no treats on me, particularly in competition, all I had to do when she got distracted (whether it was a scent or not) was tell her to “go sniff”. Practically every single time, her response was to reuse the permission and rivet her attention on me, or to the task at hand.

        I hope that clarifies it for you. What can seem counter-intuitive is that when I gave her permission to sniff, I really meant it – she was actually free to break off and sniff. But . . . I knew that I could rely on the quick release to actually get her to refuse to sniff and focus! Even though I truly was giving her permission to sniff, I could count on her refusing that permission. It was incredibly effective – and I could use it to keep her attention before she would break off to sniff, and I could use it to get her focus back if she had broken off to sniff.

        1. ksammie3, thank you for the explanation & I now see what you’re doing. You’re right in it seeming to be counter-intuitive, but that’s ONLY when it’s compared against what you normally read about. However, it’s a form of impulse conditioning which is often effective for similar issues when other approaches fail.

  9. Hello eileen, I inadvertedly taught a “let’s go” cue to Inouk, and I find it very usefull. I say “on y va” as we depart on a walk, or for a car ride. And I found out that the cue works very well when on leash and sniffing something, and I don’t necessarely wait until the end. I found a secondery interest to “On y va” (primary interest in my opinion) : when I’m getting ready to leave, Inouk doesn’t know if she’s coming or not, and she shows signs of early stress, she is questioning me, and until I take the leash, she’s never shure she’s really coming with me. So If I say “on y va” early as I get ready, then she is exited, yes, but relieved. She knows what’s happening. And that reminds me of a cartoon where a man and his son walk their dog, and the man answers to his son : “I don’t know Peter, I think anyone who DOESN’T speak to his dog IS creasy”. Well, I thing that we talk to our dogs to let them know what’s going on and releive them from something that can range from doute to anxiety. And by repeting always the same words in the same context, we do learn to talk to them, and soothe their frightning interogations.

    1. You are always up to something interesting, Joséphine! I think it’s so nice that you can use that cue to reassure your dog so she knows what is going to happen. (She also sounds very smart to be able to generalize it that way!) Thanks for sharing!

Comments are closed.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.
%d bloggers like this: