eileenanddogs

Category: Scent work

Go Sniff! Then Please Come Back!

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

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Summer’s Turtle Diary

Summer’s Turtle Diary

A three-toed box turtle is walking through some high grass. Its she is yellowish brown with darker markings. Its head is held high
Turtle minding its own business

I was reminded again this week of the awesome olfactory capabilities of dogs.

My dog Summer has a passion for turtles. Passion is maybe not the right word. Fixation, love-hate relationship.

She wants to get them and chew them up. I have no doubt that she would eventually chew through the shell completely and kill them. Second best is getting them and having me remove them from the premises. I’m getting really anthropomorphic here, but she acts like they really, really offend her.

She cannot rest if one is around.

A sable dog is curved towards and looking directly at a small, black and white rat terrier. The sable dog is resource guarding a turtle. The look is direct and unfriendly.
Summer says, “My turtle!”

Here is a video (from when she was much younger) of her trying to get a turtle. You can see that she gives Cricket a very hard look (at 0:30) when she comes a little too close. Summer is resource guarding the turtle, which is unreachable on the other side of the fence. Speaking of the fence, note the chain length fence. That fence is still there, behind my privacy fence. That becomes relevant in the new movie below.

Turtle Migration

These are three-toed box turtles, and this is their migration season. They used to come in my yard from my neighbor’s yard, heading west. Then I put in a privacy fence. This was both bad and good for the turtles. Bad because it made their migration more difficult. (Sorry! I hate that!) Good because they won’t stumble into the clutches of Summer, the dog who hunts turtles.

Amy Martin has a really nice blog post on how to help turtles that are trying to migrate, including directions on how to handle snapping turtles. (Answer: very, very carefully.)

Anyway, a turtle showed up in the neighbor’s yard on June 16th, and Summer stalked it relentlessly for 11 days. Every single time she went outside, even during hard rain, she paced the fence until she got as close as she could to its current location. Then she would dig. I wasn’t particularly concerned because between our two yards are a wooden privacy fence, the original chain length fence right next to it, embedded in the ground, all mingled with a privet hedge that has been there more than 30 years and has an impermeable tangle of roots. Or so I thought.

If this were one of those tacky, click garnering websites, here is where I would say, “and I couldn’t believe what happened next!” And I really couldn’t! But I’ll tell you below in case you don’t want to watch the video (which is adorable, grin).

On June 27th Summer dug a shallow but incredibly accurate hole under the fences and through the roots, and pulled that turtle out of the other yard. I still don’t know exactly how she pulled that turtle through. Did it just stand there on the other side, wait, and tumble into the hole she dug? Was it digging too?

In any case, she grabbed it and brought it up to the house, then very nicely put it at my feet (really!). She watched me quite happily as I took it away into the other neighbor’s yard, in the direction it was going.

She has been patrolling the original fence daily since then, but not with the same intensity. She just gives it a quick check, to make sure there are no new offenders. She pays no attention to the fence in the direction I put the turtle, which tells me it must have torqued on out of there. I don’t blame it!

I have known four other dogs who were very intense about turtles. They were all rat terriers. I also read that there is a guy in South Carolina who uses Boykin Spaniels to help researchers do turtle counts. How about you? Are your dogs interested in turtles?

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • You’re Too Close! The Pressure Sensitive Dog
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

 

 

High Speed Nosework

High Speed Nosework

A tan dog and a smaller, black and rust dog play chase. The tan dog has a black ball in her mouth.
Clara’s got the Ball!

Just a little fun for the middle of the week. Clara can now find her ball anywhere in the yard in under a minute. I’m going to have to start burying it, or get a bigger yard. Or I know! I could clutter up my yard some more!

In this video, Zani is with her, and since Clara is running around in circular patterns, Zani takes it as a cue to play. She finally gets frustrated at Clara for not responding and starts fussing at her.

They have a good game of chase after Clara finds the ball.

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