Ep. 14: Triangulating is What?!

Feb 8, 2019

When you hear the word "triangulating", when we are talking about Scent Work, what comes to mind? "Nothing, I have no idea what you are talking about!". Fair enough.

In this podcast episode, we discuss what triangulating is, why dogs do it and how it drastically differs from when a dog may simply go back to a found they've already hide over and over and over again looking for free cookies.


  • Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the It's All About Scent Work podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things Scent Work, whether it be training tips, behind the scenes look of what your instructor or trial official may be going through, and much more. In this episode I would like to go over what triangulating is, why dogs may do it, and whether or not it may be an issue. Before I start diving into the podcast, let me just do a very quick introduction of myself.

My name is Dianna Santos, I am the owner and Lead Instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sport University, and Family Dog University. At Scent Work University, we provide online dog training that's specific to Scent Work, we offer a variety of different courses both in order to build the skills for your dog. So either they're getting started in Scent Work, or if they're improving their skills. We also provide sport courses where we provide preparation so that you'll be able to compete with your dog in variety of different competition organizations. We also provide webinars, and seminars. I've been training professionally since 2011, I specialize in working with dogs who are fearful, reactive, and aggressive. I specialize in Scent Work as well. I'm also a trial official, and have worked for a competition organization. All right, now that you know a little more about me, let's dive into out podcast.

When we're talking about triangulating, it is something that dogs do when they're working within a search area space where there are multiple hides within that space. If you've never seen it before, you may confuse it for something else. I'm just going to tell you very quickly my journey with triangulating as far as seeing it from an instructor's point of view, and how I've been able to communicate to my clients what it is that dogs are actually doing, and whether or not it's an issue ... and just a cliff notes version, I don't think it is. When I first stared noticing triangulating, it was very very early in my Scent Work instructing career. I think I had been instructing for maybe a year, or so.

I had a few client's dogs who were coming off of primary, just food 'cause I am a CNWI, follow the NASCW training method for teaching Scent Work or nose work. So they had been on primary for a while, and we were now introducing the dogs to the first target order of birch. They had been doing birch for a while, and now we were introducing anise into the picture. So these dogs at this point were used to doing endurance searches where there may be anywhere between four and eight hides within a space, and that could be birch. We were now at the point where we were also introducing anise to the picture as well, and we were doing some endurance searches as well probably four or five hides within a given search area. When I first started noticing triangulating it was when we were introducing the anise hides for those endurance searches, and the dogs were going back to hides that they had already found.

It was a very quick motion, and my immediate response again very early in my career was, "Well let's pick up the hides that they found so they don't go back, 'cause we don't want to promote that. We don't want the dog thinking, 'I can just keep getting cookies because I just go back to a hide I found over, and over, and over again.'" So I would pick the hide up, and I would just place it in my pocket or I'd put somewhere else, and then just urge other person to continue searching. What I found was that these dogs were really struggling, they would still go back to where the hide was but it wasn't that they were looking for reinforcement, they just honestly looked confused. So when you watch the video back, it's not even as though these dogs were looking for anything. They weren't looking for cookies, they weren't looking for rewards, they weren't even really looking for feedback from their person initially, but they were looking for something. It was an important distinction. You could see that they were problem solving.

It took me a little bit to try and figure out what it was that they were doing, and it was probably the second or third session with these particular dogs ... I think it was three dogs for this one class that were all doing the same thing. And I said, "You know what? We're going to leave the hides down, and if they go back just say, 'Find more.'" And what we found is that they were not looking for another cookie, they were not looking for their parent, they weren't looking for anything. They were using the information from the hides they had already found to determine where the odor was coming from from the hides they still needed to find, and that was a real light bulb moment for me, was that these dogs needed that information and I was inadvertently making their lives a hell of a lot harder 'cause I was taking those hides away from them. I was removing that information from them.

I then came to a crossroads as far as what to do for training, in that it's a little difficult early on to determine whether or not a dog is a triangulater, and I don't want to be making their lives difficult as we're first introducing target odors, but I also don't want to promote them going back to a single hide to get rewarded over and over again. But I also don't want them to think that the hides don't pay, so it's challenging. What I found to work generally speaking is obviously pairing when you're first introducing a target odor, that's the technique that I think has worked very well for myself. If a dog does happen to go back to a hide when you've maybe have only just introduced it to them in that session, then giving them another reward is completely fine. Then urging them to continue on, and just watching them very very closely. I have to tell you that that technique has worked very well, and only if a dog is clearly going back to an easier problem that they had already found. They were trying to work out a harder problem.

Let me give you an example, let's say that we had an exposed out in the open paired hide, and then we had another hide that was elevated, that was a more difficult problem for the dog to work out. So we have two different problems within the search area, let's just say it's an interior search. The dog came up, they found the easier hide, no problem. It was paired, they got the reward, perfect. They're now trying to work out the elevated hide that's nowhere near the other one, so there shouldn't be too much of an odor convergence problem. They're struggling just because elevated hides tend to be a little more challenging, and if that dog went back to the easier hide and then said, "Pay me again." And they did that over, and over, and over again, that's obviously not triangulating. That's, "I like this easier problem, this one doesn't make my brain hurt so much." That's something you want to try to avoid, you don't want to make that into a routine. You don't want your dog to think, "I get to choose which problems I get to solve."

You want them to be persistent in trying to solve all the problems that are being posed, and that may take some time. Again, as with everything with dog training there are no absolutes. If you have a really super sensitive dog and they say, "I can't possibly do this, I'm about to fall apart." Well, then obviously you have to make an adjustment. But the presentation of the dog who's doing that, who's saying, "There are two problems in this area you're trying to get me to solve, one is two plus two, which is equals four. And the other one is what is the square root on 1.3 million divided by one gazillion multiplied by X and 4." And it's just an impossible problem that they think is impossible. It really isn't, but they think it's really super complicated and they determine that they only want to work out the easier problem. That is entirely different than a dog who is triangulating, a dog who is triangulating probably will find the easier problem first. It probably will sort that one out easier, or faster.

They'll figure out that problem first, and they're trying to work out the harder problem but they go back to the hide they already found. It's very fleeting, it's as though they say, "Okay, the odor that I found is coming from here. Where is the odor that I still need to find?" It's as though they're going back to a hide they've already located to rule it out, and that's a very important thing for them to do. If you deny them that ability, it makes them very stressed. So sharing another story for you as far as being an instructor and learning as I go, again around the same time, I hadn't been instructing all that long. I was working with a very well known and accomplished colleague, and I was doing a practice session where I was setting hides for her dogs. It was an exterior search, and there were a number of hides. I cannot remember how many there were, but there was a number of them.

It was still around this time where I was trying to figure out what this whole triangulating thing was, and what's the best way of dealing with it, and so on, and so forth. I hadn't come to the realization that maybe picking up hides as dogs find them is not the best thing to do across the board. Maybe you have to just do that for baby dogs only if it's necessary, so on and so forth. So we're doing this exterior search, and the dog is doing great. She's banging them out, she's finding the hide, and I am following behind and I'm picking that hide up. And she's finding the hide, and I'm following behind and picking that hide up. I'm like, "We're rocking and this is great, this makes me feel good as an instructor. The dog is doing great, the handler is doing fabulous. They're having fun, this is all good." Every time that she would find the hide, I'd pick it up. I'd pick it up and then I'd step out of the way so that she was able to have a full access to the search area.

She's now trying to work out a little bit more of a challenging problem, and she's going back to where at least two hides had been that she had found that I had already picked up. She's going back to those places and looks very puzzled, and she's a very fast moving dog. So she goes back and she's literally doing these straight lines of going to where a hide was, and then going back to where she's trying to workout the problem, going back to where a hide was, and going back to where she was working the problem and you can tell she's getting upset. Now my heart's in my throat, I'm like, "Oh my god, I'm going to break this dog that's owned by this famous person who's very influential, I'm going to lose my job and I don't know what the problem is because she had done such a great job in finding these other hides. Did I set this too difficult? What is the issue? What didn't I think of? Again, setting hides is actually a pretty challenging thing and I know that ... I've been doing this for a little bit, but I'm not an expert by any stretch. What did I screw up? What did I do wrong?"

And at that point, that exact moment, the dog comes up and jumps up, and barks at my face because she had figured out that I had stolen her hides. Then she was eventually able to go and able to find this hide that was left over. After she did that, I had a conversation with the handler apologizing profusely, who was extraordinarily gracious and very very understanding. We talked about it and I'm like, "I think she needs those other hides out the, I think she's triangulating and I totally screwed it up for her. That's not her problem, that's my problem." And again at a trial, that's never going to happen. It's not as though the official goes behind the dog and picks the hides up, and puts them away. They're able to use all that information in the space. My thought process was that we don't want to promote the dog's going back to hides they'd already found looking for rewards, which is why I was picking the hides up. So, what does all this mean?

Does this mean that triangulating is actually a problem, or is it more a problem with the way that I was handling the searches? I think it was honestly the way that I was handling the searches, and how I was focusing on only one potential outcome, and one potential thing that could potentially happen and I was trying to avoid that. But I wasn't taking into account the fact that the dogs are using all of this information, and having the hides remain in the space is actually a lot of really good information for them to have. Now, if you are a handler and your dog is working a space, they find ... let's say there's four different hides, they find hide number one, you give them the reward. Perfect. They find hide number two, you give them the reward. Wonderful. They find hide number three, you give them a reward. Fantastic. They then are trying to work out hide number four, and instead of actually figuring that problem out, they go back to hide number one.

When you are trying to determine whether or not your dog is a triangulater, it is what they do then. My dog will triangulate, he doesn't do it all the time but there are times he definitely will when there's a really challenging odor puzzle that I have posed. He is not stopping at that other hide and looking for a reward, he's not saying, "Hey, where's my cookie?" He literally goes up, he sniffs it, he blows out his nose and then he moves on. That's how you can tell whether or not your dog is trying to get some more information from the entire odor picture that's presented within that search area. Now is it possible that your dog could still be triangulating and also saying for other hides, "I'd like to get paid for this again please."? Of course it is. I mean, there are no absolutes. You then have to determine what your criteria is, and then it all depends on the level of training that your dog has.

I would rather for a baby dog, and that means a dog who's brand new to the entire concept of Scent Work, or is brand new to working with a target odor, or even brand new to a particular odor puzzle. I would rather reward the dog for finding odor, and showing that odor is rewarding, and is something that pays. Then later make it clear that, "That is not going to pay you endlessly." Meaning that, "I want you to find all the hides, I don't want you to just find that one hide over and over again. I'm very delighted that you like, I'm very delighted that you find that one to be really fun. But let's see if we could find the other ones too." One of the things that I've noticed is people tend to go very quickly as far as expecting their dogs to leap as far as difficulty level of hides, so there's not a progression.

They may have multiple hides in their search area, but the difficulty level between the two is so drastically different and the dog doesn't really have the skills yet to work out the really super difficult problem so they're almost drawn to the easier one 'cause they want to have some kind of success and they don't know how to work out the harder one. That's where you just need to evaluate how it is that you're training, and the types of problems that you're posing. Are you allowing your dog the ability to actually work out that problem? And that's where you may have to think about, "Maybe we just need to work on that problem by itself. Maybe that's the only hide that's going to be in this space, let my dog figure out what that picture by itself looks like and maybe then I can incorporate it with other pictures and then posing at the same time."

As an example let's say that you have a suspended hide where it's attached to a string that you're attached to the ceiling. Maybe it's six to eight feet actually off the ground, but it's just suspended in space. It's not actually attached to anything that's solid, it's not on a wall, it's not on a beam, it's just literally hanging in space so odor is going everywhere basically. It's really really hard, it's really challenging. If your dog has never seen anything like that before, I would argue that it would be better for you to have that hide by itself, let your dog take as much time as they need to work out that one problem. Then you can start leaving in some other problems. As an example, maybe the first session you just have a suspended hide. The dog works it, you give them a huge reward. What a great dog? Then you can determine if it's going to be the same actual training session, meaning the same day, or maybe it's a different day.

But then maybe you have a suspended hide, and then you have maybe an easier hide for whatever type of a puzzle that your dog actually does really well with, and then they can see if they can work out both hides at the same time. I think that would solve a lot problems that people have where the dogs are going back to easier hides over and over, and over again. To me, the way that I view how dogs work in search areas, it's I'm trying to determine what the dog is telling me and a lot of times what they're communicating is their ability to work out the problem. It's a reflection of their training, it's a reflection of their skill set, it's also a reflection of how they're feeling. Are they sick? Are they stressed? Are they excited? Are they happy? All that stuff does play a role, so it's not just a simple black and white, "Well, this day you have to do this." It has to be a lot more flexible than that. "So how does all this relate to triangulating, Miss rambling podcast lady?"

The reason why I think it's all important is that triangulating in and of itself I don't think this is an issue at all, I think it's just a thing that dogs do in order to try to work out other puzzles. I think that's a perfectly fine thing. It becomes a problem when; A, you don't really know that's what's happening, so you deny the dog the ability to triangulate when they may actually have to in order to sort out that really complicated odor puzzle. And B, if you are setting up your searches where the dog is almost being forced into ... maybe not triangulating, but going back to easier hides over, and over, and over again because you are progressing too quickly, or there's too many gaps in their skill set, or there are too many gaps in their training. That's something that you would want to evaluate. And again, this is where I always promote people, videotape, videotape, videotape. You want to be able to see what it is that your dog is doing, and you want to see patterns, and you want to see complete changes.

If you've been training for a while in Scent Work, and you know the type of hunter that your dog is, you know their personality, you know the way they approach the picture, all that good jazz, and out of the blue they throw something at you like triangulating but they were already working on endurance searches. All of a sudden they're doing a lot of triangulating all the time, the first question you should be asking is why, and then you want to be evaluating how are they doing the search? Did they just determine that they'd be able to use triangulating in order to get to the answer quicker? In that case, great. You should be very happy that they're triangulating. They've figured something out as far as how to make their lives easier. Or are they struggling? And if they're struggling, why are they struggling? Are they struggling because maybe some of the problems are too difficult for the skill sets that they have right now? Would you be able to present those odor puzzles in a different way? Would it be better for you to present them by themselves in a search area that was devoted just to that particular odor puzzle?

What does all this mean? For me personally, I don't think that I should be dictating how it is that my dog searches. I do not know, nor do I claim to know how they are actually perceiving the odor trails, how it is they're sorting it all out, I don't have a clue. I understand the science behind it for what people understand up to this point, but to be as arrogant to say that I know what's the best for my dog as far as searching I think is silly. They're the ones with the nose, they're the ones who can figure out the best way of sorting out the problem and that's going to be different from dog A, to dog B, to dog C. All three of those dogs are going to be working it out differently, that's just the fact. So for me to get caught on the potential that my dog is triangulating I don't think is a good use of my time.

I do think however, that I should be viewing every single time that my dog searches as a learning opportunity for me, and the way to evaluate is my training providing my dog with the opportunity to have the skills they need to work out the problem. Am I making their lives more difficult than they need to be? Such as when I was picking up hides when I shouldn't have. Or am I progressing too quickly where I'm asking my dog to go from A to Z, but they really need to have B through Y? That's what training is supposed to be, that's what those practice sessions are supposed to be all about.

It's not simply supposed to be you throw some hides around, you let your dog find them, you reward them when they do and that's the end of the day. It should be a way for you to watch, and learn, and think that entire time which is one of the reasons why Scent Work is so addictive because even if you don't want to do that, even if you just would like it to be a mindless activity, it almost demands that you do observe if you want to do well. If you want your dog to be progressing well, you have to know what you're seeing, and you have to think, and you have to analyze these things, and let it percolate in your brain, "What am I doing? Why am I doing it? And how is it helping my dog?" Or, "Is it making my dog's life harder? And if it is, why is that happening? What is it that I need to do to make things a little bit easier to break them down to smaller pieces so that my dog can be more successful?"

That's the whole key of this, and there's lots of different ways of getting there. My main goal with this episode as well as our prior episode talking about cataloging is I don't want people to conflate what dogs may do to help them personally sort out an odor puzzle to be a problem, it's not. That's just your dog being an individual learner, and an individual. I don't think that it's something that you should be trying to change, I think it's something that you should be observing, that you should be learning from, and then again maximizing on it. If I have a dog who triangulates, that's fine, that's great. I can then notice that even at a trial, that if my dog was back to a hide that he's already found he's not looking for another reward. I can tell that he's working out another problem, that means that there's additional odor in that space. That's a good thing for me to know particularly as you go into the upper levels where there may be an unknown number of hides.

So in conclusion, I personally don't think triangulating is an issue, I think it's actually rather fascinating that the dogs can go up and say, "Okay, that's the odor coming from that hide, that's the odor coming from this hide. Okay, that's where the hide has to be." I think that's pretty awesome personally. There are ways that you can definitely make things harder for your dogs ... I found that out firsthand, and there are ways that you can make things easier for your dogs. I personally am of the opinion that when they are first learning a skill, we should be making things as easy as possible, we should be setting them up for success. But you definitely want to increase your criteria and make things a little more challenging, a little bit harder as they go. Always stretching them, and that always has to be a give and take, an ebb and flow. It shouldn't always get harder. I love it when I present a problem to my dog that is really super straightforward after we've been doing a lot of stretching exercises, and just the look on his face.

It's like, "Wow, that was really easy." It kind of fills their sails a little bit, it makes them feel good and I can relate to that. I think we all can relate to that, when were we in school, or if you're learning anything even if it's on the job, even if it's in the social interactions, whatever the case may be. When everything is always hard, it's not as fun, it's not as enjoyable, it's very taxing, it's very exhausting. But every now and again just like at the casino, you get that jackpot and suddenly everything is really easy. It helps you rejuvenate the way that you're looking at it. So, in particular with triangulating I would just say see whether or not your dog actually does it. If they do, I don't think that's a big of a deal. If it comes out of nowhere, you'd want to try to ask yourself some questions of why they may be doing that now, whether or not that's a problem or not, and just always evaluate your training. Could it just be that your dog is having a really hard time working out a particular problem?

Maybe they need more time to shore up their skills on that particular problem, and then maybe they won't be triangulating quite as much. It's just something to think about. I hope that you found this podcast, as rambling as it was somewhat helpful. Again, the whole premise is just getting everyone to realize that all of our dogs are individuals, they're all going to have their own individual way of searching, and we shouldn't be caught up in trying to change who they are as hunters. We just have to recognize who our dogs are as individuals, and then try to learn from that, and then try to figure out how we can design their training and their practice sessions to help them be as successful as possible. Thanks so much for listening today, I hope you found this podcast helpful. Happy training, and we look forward to seeing you soon.

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