Ep. 51: My Dog Lies or Does He

Jul 22, 2021

It common to hear some handlers proclaim that their dog "lies" when searching...but is this true? Are dogs purposefully deceiving their people? Or could it be that the dog is playing the game they way they thought it was supposed to be played? In other words, is there a fundamental misunderstanding about the sniffy game overall that is causing these mistakes?

We delve into all of this in this podcast episode!


  • Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the All About Scent Work podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things Scent Work, that can include training tips or behind scenes look of what the training instructor or trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode, I wanted to talk about the concept of our dogs lying. So, before we dive into the podcast episode itself, let me do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos, I'm the Owner and Lead Instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sport University and Pet Dog U. These are online dog training platforms that are designed to provide high quality dog training instruction to as many people as possible and we're very fortunate to have a client basis worldwide. For Scent Work University in particular, we provide online courses, seminars, webinars and eBooks, that all cover a variety of separate training tips. So, whether you're getting started in Scent Work, you're looking to develop some more advanced skills or if you're interested in trialing, we have a training solution for you.

Since you know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the podcast episode itself. So, in this episode, I wanted to discuss the concepts of dogs lying while they are searching. Particularly, when they are lying at trial. Now, you may be able to tell by the tone of my voice, that I am not an overly big proponent of the whole idea of dogs "lying." What I wanted to talk about in this episode is a few things. First, what it means when people are saying that their dogs are lying, the underlying meaning of that. What may actually be going on and how you may be able to address those issues. So, the big thing to consider when we say that our dogs lie, is that lying, as a human type of thing, is something that you do purposefully, right? There's obviously different varieties of lies but it's all done with purpose, there's an objective behind it, right? Even a little white lie, maybe you're just trying to lessen the blow to somebody else.

But it's a conscious thing that you're doing, that is very much frowned upon and it's a very selfish act, right? You may be trying to soften the blow to the other person with your little white lie but it's really so that you can, kind of, lessen the blow onto yourself, so you don't have to deal with whatever fallout would be, by just simply telling the truth. Why does any of this matter? Well, semantics matter when we're talking about working with our dogs. Because the undercurrent of saying that our dogs are lying when they are searching and they're telling us where a hide is, even if we know that's not where a hide is, is that our dogs are purposefully being conniving and sneaky when that's just simply not true. When in reality, they may be doing exactly what we have trained them to do.

They are playing the game the way that we have taught them the game is supposed to be played. And this is where we just have to come to terms with the fact that our dogs are guessing. They're guessing all of the time, what the rules are. And there's not a way for us to really clearly 100% communicate to them what the game is. And they also know that being with us, this very alien species that does all these weird two legged species things that doesn't make any sense to them at all, being a dog but they know that the rules can constantly change, right? Even something as completely not related as, well, you're not allowed on the furniture dog. Well, you're kind of cute today, okay, you can come up on the furniture today. Well, tomorrow you're not allowed back on. Oh, well, maybe you can go up on that couch. And no, you can't go on this chair. Well, you can go up on this thing but not that thing.

They are able to deal with all of that confusion remarkably well. So, they understand, again, we're talking generalities, that the rules can very well change, basically on a whim. They would prefer if they didn't, they'd prefer if they knew what they were but they know that they absolutely are flexible. And whatever they're being rewarded for, that must be what the role is, right? So, they're being rewarded, in the context of Scent Work, to tell you where odor is going, as opposed to where odor is coming from, then they're going to assume, okay, I don't know why they want to know where odor is going but I get rewarded every single time I sniff at the box that's next to the box that has the odor in it, I guess they want to know where odor is going.

Or if they think that the game is, well, I know where the hide is but my person really likes it when they stand somewhere and they put a lot of social pressure on something and they stand still and I come over and I sniff it, even if there's nothing there, they're going to give me a cookie. Okay, that works. They haven't given me a cookie for finding the odor, maybe we're playing the, they stand still and I sniff and then it's a game, maybe that's what we're doing. Okay. The point being is that, it's important for us, as handlers and dog owners and trainers, to look at these issues in the right light. Your dog is not sitting there lying to you, that's not what's happening. Your dog is playing the game the way that they were trained to play the game. You have to take some responsibility, as the handler and the trainer and basically the communicator, of what's going on.

And that is a lot harder than it sounds, particularly if we're not really positive about what's going on odor wise, right? And then you have the whole issues with reward, timing and placement. What it is that constitutes the dog actually finding the hide and then what they think they're actually being rewarded for. This gets really complicated really quick. Which, again, is one of the biggest reasons why I am such a big fan of pairing. And pairing, for those who may not know, is when you're training, you have a treat place directly with the actual odor vessel. So, as an example, you would have a metal tin somewhere hidden within the space and there would be an actual treat placed on top of it. What that allows for is for the dog to have an immediate self-reward when they find the hide. There's no confusion, the reward is right there. I want you to find the hide, I want you to find source. Boom, bang, there's a reward and I'm coming in to give you another one as well, right?

Why does any of this matter, right? People can say, well, you're just talking about semantics, it doesn't matter. But it does. Because think about this from a training perspective, you have someone who maybe has done a bunch of ORTs or other types of trials or even just training, where they're working blind hides that they do not know where they are and they confidently call an alert and are told no, no, the hide is not there. And now they say, my dog is lying. That is putting the onus on the dog, right? But there's a reason why that person called an alert. We need to figure that piece out and then we need to figure out, okay, well, if they're truly keying off of something that the dog did, why is the dog doing whatever they did?

And it could just simply be that they're keying off of the first really strong sniff the dog has had in the space. And just because they sniff really hard doesn't mean that that's where odor is. So, that's still a handler skill, right? That's learning to read your dog but it could also be that your dog is doing something else entirely or your dog is confidently playing the game they thought the game was, which was, oh, I sniff where odor is going or I give some kind of behavior where my person does X. It has nothing to do with findings the source. So, I'm hoping that's making sense. And from a training perspective, you need to have the answer to that question, so that you can actually fix it in training. If you just simply throw your hands up like, oh my dog lies. Well, there aren't any solutions to that. Have you ever met someone who lies all the time? There's not a whole lot that you can do to fix that.

So, I wanted to put this episode out because I think it's important for us to, kind of, walk away from this tendency, that if your dog is "telling you where a hide is," and it's incorrect, you need to figure out why they're doing that. Dogs don't do things just because, they do things because they work. Now, is it possible that your dog is working out a really challenging space, something that really stretches them, they have a hard time figuring it out and they say, oh, well, maybe this is good enough. That's possible, right? But that's because they may have learned, in other training, that that was good enough. I hope that I'm making sense here, that your dog is not going to just spontaneously one day say, oh, I'm going to lie to my person all the time about hides, with the hope that I get them really super upset and then we never play the game again.

Because that's basically what could happen, right? If you're thinking about this from a consequence standpoint, I'm the dog, I like playing the sniffing game with my person. I get cookies and they tell me how great I am and all kinds of good stuff happens. So, I'm going to go into the space and I'm going to lie about where hides are and that's going to make them really upset and they're not going to feed me any cookies and they're going to storm out and we may not even play the game over again. How does that make sense? How does that help me as a dog? It doesn't. It defeats the whole purpose. So, if nothing else, I hope that people can stop to evaluate what may actually be going on and realize that it could just be truly a misunderstanding of what the actual game is. It's not simply, go around and poke your nose on things that have had hides before because the dog may truly think that's what it is. They may not associate it with odor at all. That is possible, I've seen it happen.

I've worked with dogs before, that were training on their own and they come in and they just give these, if you were only looking for overt behavior, right? And you weren't also looking for things leading up to and things that actually look like they're hunting and all the other stuff. If you were just looking for overt stuff, they're throwing overt behaviors, whether it be a nose poke or stare or look back or whatever. Every door handle, every underneath the part of a chair, every single table hinge. And, again, to someone who may not know what actual hunting looks like, that may look really exciting, except that the hides weren't anywhere over there, at any point in time, on the complete opposite side of the room. The dog wasn't hunting at all, the dog was just throwing behaviors because they've gotten cookies for doing that before. It's not that the dog is lying, the dog thinks they're playing the game of, I poke this, I look back at you and I get a cookie, right? Because that's what we've done before.

They do not understand the fundamental that, when we're doing this, it's not about the stuff, it's not about the behavior, it's not about looking at me, it's about hunting first and then, finding where the thing is. That's what I want you to do. So, a lot of times when I hear people talking about, oh, my dog lies. It, kind of, breaks my heart because I have not met a dog yet, who purposefully tries to deceive their person, when they know where a hide is and they take them over somewhere else and give a solid alert behavior because they thought that it funny or whatever, I have not witnessed that. Now, again, I haven't watched every video or every dog work in the world. Is it possible? I guess. I don't think so. But I'm sure there's someone somewhere, who would say, sure. What I see a lot more often are dogs making assumptions about what the game is because it's not very clear to them. They think they got it, right? They think they understand it.

They think through the charades that they have to do with every time of interaction with us as people, aha, if I just come up and I poke my nose on this thing, I get cookies. I don't know why we do this but we do. Humans are weird but I like my cookies. When in reality, it has nothing to do with that. Also, you then have dogs who, kind of, understand that it is about odor but they don't know to the specificity. Well, do I actually care about where it's coming from or only where it's going? Because sometimes you just feed me when it's really far away from it. Actually, a lot of times you feed me away really far away from it, we're nowhere near it. So, maybe it's not about where it's coming from because that's actually a lot harder to get right to source. Maybe you only care about where it's going. So, if you really care about where it's going, then maybe it's where it's really, really, really far away. How about this? It's over here. Is that good enough?

This is where we just have to take some ownership for how we're training and we have to be really clear. And, again, I know I say this all the time but videoing your searches and watching them with a critical eye can really help you. And if you're getting into situations, particularly with blind hides, where you're calling alert, whether to your instructor, ideally you're doing this in training first or if you're having a trouble at trial consistently, that's a problem for a whole other slew of reasons. You need to look at those videos to try to figure out what's going on. You need to work with your instructor to figure out what's going on. And then you need to address it in training. And it very well could be a fundamental misunderstanding on behalf of the dog or yourself.

You could actually be making a situation for yourself where you don't know what your dog looks like in certain situations, when they're hunting, you haven't been able to fine tune your eye as far as what the difference is, when your dog is trying to source a hide, as opposed to they just come up to something that's interesting. And it's not your dog's fault, they're a dog. Let's take a trial example. Very, very early on in my officiating career, there was an interior search that I was judging, it was a classroom, I think there were two hides. Bunch of teams came in, they ran it, did well. This one team comes in with... he was an intact male and he had found something that was just very, very interesting to him. It's where another dog had, kind of, been hanging out and he was just infatuated, he just absolutely infatuated. And he worked the space, then he was infatuated with this other spot. Every single dog after that dog looked at all those spots that he was infatuated with. The other dogs before them, not so much.

There was, again, the one dog was like, oh, what's that? Okay, whatever. And they, kind of, went on. Every other dog after that intact dog, went in, was like, oh my goodness, this is the bestest. Every single one was like, what is this? Nowhere near hides, nowhere near odor but they were very interested about what the other dogs had done in those spaces. But they went back to work and they found their hides. I would say, going off of memory because, again, this is many years ago, I would say, at least maybe four teams or so, after the intact dog, called a false alert, based upon the dogs looking at the interesting thing. To me, as a judge, again, I know where the hides are, so you can say that, well, it's because you know where they are but I could also see that their dogs look completely different from when they were working hides and then when they were looking at the interesting thing. That's a handler issue, right? That's a handler skill, that's just something that you have to do and you have to perfect with your own individual dog.

And that's going to take time, it takes practice. And if you have multiple dogs or if you get a new dog or a newer dog, you're going to have to hone your eye all over again. So, it's these kinds of things that truly are at play, instead of, the dog lied. I personally am not a fan because it interjects an emotional response that's just not necessary. At the core of this, you have to be able to trust your dog because you do not know if you're competing or if you're just training with blind hides. You do not know where the hide is, you have no idea where the hide is and you do not know what odor is doing in that space, nobody does. Even the person who set the hide. They may have an educated guess, guess is the key word in that phrase. Your dog knows. Your dog is able to tell you, in painful detail, what that odor is doing. If you listen, if you watch and you actually learn from them.

So, why this is such a sticky point for me is, when you say, well, my dog lied, you are basically poisoning this relationship that you have with your dog, that no, they're not lying to you, they're answering a different question. You told them the question was, is the sky blue? But now you're saying that the question was, is the earth round, right? That's really what this is. This is a misunderstanding across different species. And us putting a human emotion on top of it, which only complicates things more and deteriorates our relationship in the long run. And also, by the way, kind of, releases us from any kind of responsibility, oh, it's my dog, my dog lied. Oh, stupid dog. It's like, no, actually, it falls on you. You are the one who have to make it very clear to your dog, what the game is, what the goals are, what the rules are and then, you have to give them the opportunities to develop the skills to do well in that. And then you also have to fine tune your own skills.

Is this a dog driven activity? Yes. But it's a team activity. You are still part of the team, you're still a very important dance member. So, you can't just throw up your hands like, oh my dog lied. Okay. You still don't qualify. That doesn't get you anywhere. As you can tell, probably, this is something that really bothers me because if we're just being perfectly honest, I think it's a cop-out, at the absolute worst end of it. But even for people who aren't trying to just lay everything at their dog's feet, I think it inadvertently, again, it undercuts what it is that we're trying to do with playing Scent Work. You're trying to celebrate who your dog is. You're trying to celebrate this amazing ability that they have, to work through a space, to use their incredible sense of smell.

And to allow you to have a glimpse into that world and to share that experience with you and the fact that they will actually say, you know what? I, me being a dog, may actually prefer to go chase the chipmunk. We're doing an exterior search, right? That chipmunk sounds really super fun but we have entered into a contract, you and I human and I value my relationship with you more and you've made this game of sniffing so much fun, I'm going to shelf my doggie intent of go find the chipmunks and I'm going to find this burring birch instead because we're going to get cookies and we're going to celebrate, we're going to have fun. That alone is a perfect reason why you shouldn't be saying ever that your dog lied. The fact that they do that and they do it willingly is amazing.

So, I'll leave you with this. If you are struggling, with either in training or trialing or both, where you have a blind hide, particularly, but it also happens with no hides, where you believe that your dog is providing some kind of behavior or what have you, trying to communicate to you where a hide is and the hide's not there, that's information for you that there's some kind of misunderstanding. Either, the dog doesn't understand the fundamentals of the game, which is absolutely possible. The dog may be cuing off of you. The dog may be thinking that pooling order is enough. But either way, it's a miscommunication, it's not a manipulation. That's, I think, a really key distinction. And I'm sure there's lots of people who say, well, dogs try to manipulate people all the time. Again, I think this is where we get into semantics.

As a human, if I try to manipulate knowingly somebody else by lying, again, there's so much thought behind that and usually, very negative intent behind it. And even just, it's like painful, awful, terrible stuff, right? Some lies are really, really, really, really, really, really bad. And they're done knowingly and without any kind of regard. I'm telling you, your dog is not doing that. Could it be that your dog, again, like we said before, has a really challenging search, they can't figure it out and they're wondering, is this good enough? That's entirely different than, aha, I'm going to totally ruin their life right now. I hope that makes sense. And that I don't want anyone going down this rabbit hole because it's really easy to go down and then, it manifests from there into, oh, my dog is so slow. Oh, my dog is just this, oh, my dog is that. Stupid dog. It's like, don't do that. It's so easy to do that, please don't. It just ruins everything.

So, if you are struggling with your dog telling you about a hide, away from where the hide actually is, take a breath and view it as, you have information now, what can you do with that information? Work with your instructor, work with your trainer. If you're working on your own, reach out to one, a reputable trainer who can come up with a plan on how you may be able to address that. But don't just immediately go into, oh my dog lies. And, again, there may be people who totally disagree with me and they are adamant that their dog lies to them. And I'm going to disagree right back and say, they probably don't. But in any event, I hope that people will, at the very least, consider the negative impact thinking that way about your dog may have on the overall dynamic of your relationship with your dog. And to me, that's an important consideration.

I hope that this episode made a little bit of sense. It's something that has bothered me for a very, very long time. I talked about it before, written blogs about before, talk to clients about all the time but it comes and goes in these ways. Just like everything else with Scent Work, it seems to be very cyclical. And we're coming around again, where we're seeing this a lot. And I thought it was really important to talk about but we want to hear from you guys. We'll be posting this episode up on our Facebook page for Scent Work University. So, if you have any thoughts, definitely let us know, let us know in the comments section or if you have any questions. And also, if there are other topics that yo guys are interested in.

We are going to be having some more round table discussions with our instructors about a variety of different questions and topics that we've been getting over the last couple of weeks, which we're very excited about. We're also looking forward to having some other outside speakers come in but if there's something in particular that you're interested in, definitely let us know. Thanks so much for listening, happy training, we look forward to seeing you soon.

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