Ep. 55: Are You Rewarding Effectively

Sep 1, 2021

As dog trainers and handlers, we use rewards to communicate to our dogs when they have done a good job. But when it comes to Scent Work, this message can be easily muddled and confused depending on the reward placement and timing! In this episode, we discuss the importance of effective reward usage as well as exercises you can try to improve your own timing and mechanical skills.


  • 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, a behind-the-scenes look at what your instructor or trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode, I want to talk about the importance of rewarding and how it may actually be influencing the efficiency and effectiveness of your training. Before I start diving into the podcast episode, though, 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, 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. We're very fortunate to have a client basis worldwide.

For Scent Work University in particular, we provide online courses, seminars, webinars, and e-books that are all designed to help you achieve your scent work training goals. So whether that's just getting started in scent work, trying to develop some more advanced skills or getting ready for trial, we have a training solution for you. Since you know a little bit more about me, let's step into the podcast episode itself.

So in this episode, I wanted to talk about the importance that rewards play when we are doing scent work with our dogs and how it may actually affect the effectiveness of your training. So for anyone who's been training dogs for a while, you probably have heard the saying of effective treat or reward placement, that reward placement really does affect whether or not your dog is going to understand what it is that you're trying to train or teach in that given moment. Something that we have to remember constantly is that our dogs are guessing, it's basically like a game of charades whenever we're doing something with our dogs. They are a different species, no matter how hard we try there's still going to be a gap between what we may understand or perceive what we are doing as humans translates to our dogs and our dogs are taking in the information as a dog.

So there is some guesswork going on on their end and we always have to remind ourselves of that because something may seem really super clear on our end, right? Yes, I do this, that meant that you did that, that is the thing that I wanted you to do. But the dog may have been taking in other stimuli, other information, and they may have come to a completely different conclusion. So how does this all relate to scent work? Well, let's talk about what the whole purpose of scent work is, let's really get down to the nitty gritty of it.

When we're talking about whether or not we're playing for fun, or if we're getting ready for trial, the entire point is that the dog is going to find the hidden item, whether it is a target odor, whether it is a primary item, such as food or toys, whether it is a scented article, you want them to go find that thing, right? That is the entire goal. That is what we are trying to do. And in training, ideally, you are designing searches that are going to be stretching your dog's ability to do that. Meaning that you are presenting different pictures to them, where they may have to learn new skills in order to figure out where exactly that item is.

The odor may very well be traveling away from that given item and they need to figure out how to get back to source. As an example, let's say that you are trying to train your dog to find your keys. Well, if your keys are hidden somewhere next to a vent and the odor from... Your odor, that's on the keys, and the keys themselves are blowing away from the keys and they're getting trapped in some cabinets somewhere, and your dog is saying, "Hey, they're here. Hey, they're here in the cabinet," but actually stuck behind the couch, you can search that cabinet all day long, you're not going to find your keys. That's not overly helpful, right? You want to know where your keys are. So if we can think about it from this context, I think it makes a little bit more sense and it can keep us more honest as far as how would it is that we are rewarding.

That we are trying to tell our dogs, "I need to find where the thing is. I don't need to know where odor is going. You, Dog, absolutely can use that information to get back to source, but I need to know where the thing is at, right?" Whether that be my keys, whether that be a Birch hide, whether that be a piece of a hot dog, whatever the case may be. Why does this matter when we're talking about reward placement? Well, again, we are in a communication loop with our dogs whenever we're training them, but also when we're interacting with them and they understand that we, as humans, are constantly changing the game.

Just even your day to day life, sometimes they're allowed on the couch, other times they're not allowed on the couch. Well, they're allowed on that chair, but not on this piece of furniture. Sometimes they're allowed to jump up on you and sometimes they're not. Maybe they're allowed to go through that door without permission, but these other doors are not... Like, it's all very fluid, right? And it can change multiple times in the same day, or it may change from day to day.

But dogs understand that humans aren't overly solid in their definition of anything. Some are more solid than others, but generally speaking, we're pretty loosey goosey with this stuff and they understand that they need to be flexible, that they have to try to do this dance of figuring out, okay, well, what's the game today? And also there is a level of flexibility that we have in our training programs, just naturally, what we call very fancily as increasing criteria, maybe when you were first training your dog how to sit and stay. They just need to hold onto the position for like a quarter of a second and now you're trying to build some duration, so now you're increasing the amount of time they have to sit and stay.

Now, to us from training standpoint, that makes perfect sense, right? We're trying to increase a skill, but from the dog's standpoint, the game used to be I put my butt on the ground, I sat here for a quarter of a second and then I got a reward or whatever. Now they've changed it to where I need to sit here longer, okay? But we have to understand how this all interplays when we're talking about all types of dog training, but particularly scent work. Scent work, in my opinion, is in a world of its own than other types of dog training, because the dog is the one leading the entire enterprise.

They are the ones with the nose. They are the experts as far as odor is concerned. We can try to learn as much about odor as we can, we can become knowledgeable about all these different effects and environmental factors that may be affecting the way the odor picture is presented to the dog and also the good stuff, which is good to do, not downplaying that at all, but the dog is the one who actually understands that and is interacting within the space in order to find source.

Because of that, they are more likely than not to come conclusions sooner than we would have thought that they would have. Meaning, we may see something that the dog does as a behavior but they have already determined, before that point, where source is so we could accidentally be rewarding, something that has nothing to do with source, or we're still that we are rewarding them for doing something that is away from source. So, as an example, let's say that you are working on more advanced problems, just like what we were talking about before with the keys, right?

It could be the keys, it could be a hide, it doesn't matter what it is. Source is somewhere odor is blowing away from it at a pretty good rate and it's pooling somewhere else away... Like far away from that hide, if you reward your dog where the odor is pooling and you did that consistently over any period of time, the dog is going to think, "Oh, they don't want to find the keys. They just want to figure out where the key odor is going. Okay, it's over here," and if you did that consistently, you're going to see that at trial too.

This is why for myself, personally, and what I say with my students, please, when you're training, number one use known hides, number two reward as close to source as you physically, possibly can. Make sure that that is what the dog understands the game is all about. If you're rewarding something else, you're going to get something else as a result and you're going to get dogs who start fringing and they start rewarding, farther and farther away. The example I always use has nothing to do with scent work but is in the same realm in that the dog is using their nose. It was a barn hunt. I was teaching barn hunt classes when I was still doing stuff in person and we had this one student that came in, they were like drop in courses so people would come from all over, and they were fairly experienced, their dog had done barn hunt for a while and they would do these drop in classes and she basically just like, "You hide the rat, I'll do my thing, and I don't want to hear from you," no problem, I can do that.

Over the course of a few weeks, I noticed that she was rewarding the dog farther and farther and farther and farther and other away from where the rat tube was and I mentioned, I'm like, "I don't know if that's going to serve you very well," and she's like, "No, we have all these titles. It doesn't matter. It's fine," okay, you know your dog best. Within a couple of weeks of doing this, her very smart dog had determined that, "Well, I just needed to come into the space and let my mother know where rat odor is. So I'm going to stand here at this gate and let her know rat odor is everywhere and give me my cookies. I'm not going to do anything." And she was completely flummoxed, she was just beside herself. She's like, "I don't know what they're doing."

Like they're doing what you train them to do, you told dog over the course of several weeks, this is even probably before you saw me, that the tube or source has nothing to do with the game. They just have to tell you where rat odor is. Well, in the course of a class with barn hunt, you're moving rats who happen to leak, meaning they're peeing in the tubes, every single run. Well, if we have a drop in class of 10 people, and there's three rats out there with every run, that's a lot of rat odor. So the dog is telling you exactly what you train them to do, "Hey, there's rat odor here. I don't need to do anything. My job is done. Give me my cookie."

Now we were able to fix this by actually using pairing, having primary with the actual rat tubes, making sure that she was very diligent, only rewarding when the dog found on the rat tubes, removing all distractors, we basically had a build up the foundation understanding of the game again, then dog was fine. The dog did great. The dog was very honest, but I always use that as an example, that it's not that this dog was trying to be manipulative or was being stubborn or anything else. The dog was doing exactly what their person had trained them to do, "Hey, there's rat odor feed me."

And it's absolutely possible that you can have this in scent work as well. Here's another example, and this one gets a little bit dicier, because I have been guilty of this myself. If you have a dog who tends to like to play with containers or they like to back containers, or they like to interact with containers, maybe you've done shaping with your dog before where they're used to standing up on things, particularly if you have a dog who's used to shaping and you may have a delay between when you react and then they start offering behaviors. So your dog may find the odor container, you're trying to get a reward, but you haven't gotten one yet and they're like, "Oh, well maybe I should dance on this," and then you go in and reward them, you're rewarding them for dancing on the container. I have done this myself with my own dogs and it's very hard to do, right?

This is where your video is going to really help you. It's going to keep you more honest. What exactly is it that you are rewarding? Are you rewarding the dog for bashing and playing and doing all kinds of stuff with the container? Are they rewarding themselves by bashing and dancing along with the containers? That's possible to. And then you need to figure out how can I change this dynamic so that my dog is not doing those things, and without getting upset at the dog, right? But also being mindful of what you need to do. So for myself personally, cause I'm extraordinarily uncoordinated, I carry in my hand as I'm going along when I'm training. So I will actually go and try to get in as quickly as possible. I use pairing a lot simply because I physically may not be able to get there fast enough.

Some people may say, "Well, I'm going to use a marker. I'll be a bridge so that my dog knows that a reward is coming," you could do that too, I guess, if your dog actually understood what that meant and you're not trying to isolate the actual hunting piece. If that works for you, great. But the whole point is make sure that you really are applying these rewards in a way that your dog understands what it is that you're rewarding and use your videos to keep yourself honest. If you are doing training and you're thinking to yourself, "Aha, I'm going to do one, two, and three, A, B, and C, and I'm going to get result X," right? And instead you do all that and you get result D, well, that means that something went wrong and that's on you. That's not on the dog. That's on the dog interpreting the information that you provided them in a completely different way than you thought they were going to.

More often than not, it's because of the way that you rewarded the dog because they thought, "Oh, that's what you wanted." So again, to go back to our original example, "Oh, you didn't want to know where the keys were, you wanted to know where the odor was going," or for the barn hunt example, "Oh, you don't care about where the rats actually are, you just want to know where rat odor is," or for the bashing containers, "oh, I found this, but I didn't get reward, you want me to dance on the box to let you know, okay it's this one. See how it's nice and flat now? It's this flattened box."

So all of this is just to say that we as handlers and trainers need to be more mindful about what it is that we're communicating to our dogs. The more clarity that we can provide the better. The more honest that we can be as far as what the results are that we see the better. The more flexible that we can be in our approach and, again, it's going to be being open to observations from others, i.e. being open to criticism. Being able to be critical of yourself without tearing yourself down, like to your core, there's no point in bringing yourself into the fetal position that you're like the worst person ever, that doesn't help anybody. But being able to video your training sessions and say, "Okay, this went right. This went right. That needs work. Okay, my dog was totally off the mark on that one and this is why," right? And then trying to clean up our own handling mechanics, that sounds a lot easier than it really is, particularly when you're talking about scent work.

Some people think, "Oh, no, agility is the hardest thing," as far as handling is concerned and I say that agility, absolutely, if you're doing it well, is challenging, no questions asked, but I would argue that scent work is almost harder sometimes because you're trying to do so many things at once. You're trying to watch your dog interpret what your dog is doing in the moment, keep track of where you are in the search area, where have you covered? What haven't you covered? Where have they shown interest? What could odor be doing? Oh, and I also need to be able to reward my dog.

It's a lot... That's a lot to keep track of, and then if you add on the stressors of, let's say that you're trying to prepare for trial, so you're also adding in time constraints. Again, this is challenging. This is not easy in the least. So these things take practice and we as handlers need to recognize that we may have to isolate our own skills and work on those away from our dog to get them up to snuff. This is speaking from someone who was chronically dropping treats at trial, fell over her own two feet, would just completely blank out in the middle of a search and be like, "Oh, I'm supposed to actually be like, be calling alert or something," like I have done it all, okay? I am a perfect example of someone who really needs help on these things.

The things that I did do that were helpful were as such, working on mechanical skills outside of dog training altogether. I'm not doing anything with my dog. I'm trying to strengthen the synapses and my own brain between idea and taking in information and then actual... Allowing the motor skill to occur. This is something that I did for my basic obedience classes and for myself as well, but I think it's also helpful with scent work. Try to find something that you can watch on your computer or TV or on your phone, whatever the case may be. Newscasts are really helpful for this because there's a lot of camera cuts. Every time the camera cuts or they're looking at the reporter from one angle and then all of a sudden they go to a different scene or they look at them from the back or whatever... Every time the camera cuts and changes, that's your cue to get treats out of your treat pouch and deliver them successfully to a cup. That cup is supposed to act like your dog.

You can do this sitting down, being still, doing nothing. How many treats can you successfully get from your treat pouch into that cup with you doing nothing else, without dropping any? It is harder than it sounds. At least when you're as uncoordinated as I am. You may also find that the treat choices that you have are making your life harder, where they could actually be more crumbly or they're sticky or whatever the case may be. So you're fumbling inside your tree pouch, and now they're stuck to your hand. You can't get them into the cup. That's all good things for you to know in this situation that has no bearing on anything. You're just working on yourself as opposed to trying to figure that out at a trial. Then make this harder, now you're going to be standing up and you're going to have either a long line attached to something, like let's say a chair or a door knob or whatever else, and you're going to be out six feet for that long line, right? It's just attached to something stationary.

Every time that camera angle changes on whatever it is that you're watching, you're going to reel in your long line, feed your treat, putting a treat inside the open cup, and then reeling yourself back out. This is really hard and this is the thing that people struggle with the most, right, is being able to do those two things at once. How do I reel up my long line so that I can reward my dog and then provide them space again? So we have first, you're just being stationary, just trying to get treats out of your treat pouch to the cup. Then you have yourself moving with a long line, right? Now, you want to have your cup to the side, so now it's on its side a little bit with something over it, like a piece of paper, or you can have the cup underneath something, like maybe you or monitor if you're doing it on your computer, or it's up in a shelf or something, basically where you have to cup your hand to slide that treat into the cup as if the cup is now your dog's mouth, right?

As if, let's say that you were trying to reward an interior search and your dog has found a hide that's underneath a shelf, you want to be able to reward them as close to source as possible without contaminating your search area, so that's what this is supposed to mimic. All of this may sound ridiculous, but I cannot tell you how much it helps. You have to build up your own motor skills for this stuff. You can't just expect to that it's just going to go well the first time, cause it's not going to, you need to be able to do this on your own and you need to be able to refresh yourself when you may have gotten flummoxed either in training or at trial. Don't think that you just do this once and you never do it again, you want to have these refresher courses to that you are continuing to improve and solidifying these skills.

I know it sounds silly, but I cannot tell you how much it helps. Particularly for people, such as myself, who have no natural coordination whatsoever, get very easily flummoxed ,the brain just turns off, the body does other random stuff, and it's just a mess. If you are more together than I am, maybe this isn't helpful, but I think it would be helpful for everyone to try to do. Then you can start making it a little bit more complicated, where you're going to maybe even play a video you of your dog doing a search, and you're going to do the same exact things of trying to potentially work on your long line, reeling yourself in rewarding the dog... Rewarding the dog with the cup on its side and all that other good jazz, but you're only going to do that when the dog finds source.

Not when they're heading to the hide, not when they're figuring out we're odor is, not where it's pooling, when they actually get to the hide itself, hone your eye to that. Even play it muted. Then you can do it another really fun exercise. Again, be careful with this, we don't want anyone falling or dying doing training. Maybe this one would be better if you were just seated, but just have the treats in your hand already know where your cup is, you can hold it with the other hand, and have your eyes closed and just listen to the dog sniffing on the video. Ideally, this is a video where you're not calling alert, but that's fine too, and see if you can tell just from the sniffing, when they have actually gotten to source and then feeding your treats then.

The point being is that if we can clean up our own mechanical skills of how we deliver a reward, that's half the battle, right? Then you need to figure out when you're delivering the reward, in what manner are you're delivering the reward, what type of reward are you doing? What level of reward are you doing? All these things matter and they make a big difference as far as the effectiveness of your training. One last thing to end it on and then we'll wrap this episode up.

Always try to have a different level of rewards available to you to provide to your dog. You want to always have something that your dog will consider a reward, but there may be something that they were like, "Oh my God, I can't believe you gave me that this is my best day ever of life," right? You're going to save that for the exercises or the puzzles that they really had to stretch themselves for and that doesn't necessarily mean that it is only the super hard hides, right? Your inaccessible hides or something like that. It could just be that in that moment, the dog was struggling and they were being stretched. It could just be that you have done a couple of runs back to back to back. It's really hot and humid outside. And your dog is like, "Wow, I'm tired," but they did it.

You should be really tapping into those higher level rewards then to reward the dog for the effort that they gave if it was a good level effort. You don't want to be rewarding decreasing value of efforts. You want to be cutting off your training session before then, but effectively using your rewards and choosing them wisely and mindfully and applying jackpots, higher level rewards, really getting excited with your voice, using play, all this stuff, to add an exclamation point when your dog really nails something, particularly if they were struggling or if it was something that was new and they put in a ton of effort and they figured it out, please do that. Again, the whole point is you're trying to teach your dog to do something and if they did that successfully tell them that they did. Don't be like, "Okay, here's a treat, bye," like that's... No stop that.

So to wrap this episode up, we need to be mindful that our dogs are always guessing in any type of dog training that we're doing, but particularly with scent work and it's complicated because we are also guessing, we're guessing what odor may be doing in a given moment. Our dogs really are the experts about that. So there's this constant give and take. We need to try to provide as much consistency as we can to help our dogs understand the game we want them to play. In my opinion, that means the purpose of every single scent work exercise is to find source, right? There may be other things and skills you may be working on in addition to that, but the big crux of everything is we want to find source. I want to find the keys, not where the odor for the keys is going. So make sure that your rewards are promoting that idea that we are finding where source is.

Then also be mindful of how you're rewarding, are you actually getting close enough to source for the dog to understand? Are you potentially taking too long to reward? So now the dog is offering you all these other behaviors, such as smashing your boxes or retrieving the hide that was hidden underneath the table or whatever the case may be, or even leaving source and going somewhere else entirely, and then they're rewarded, I mean, there are all kinds of different things that can happen. If that's happening, are you rewarding your dog for something that's entirely different from what you want them to and how can you clean that up? And finally, what are the ways that you can improve your own motor skills so that you're able to keep track of all this stuff as a handler?

This is not easy. I know that we, in our community, are constantly trying to put forth the idea that scent work is really super simple, it's open to everybody, and everything is great. To a point that is true and something that I want everyone to get involved in, absolutely, but when you get into the nitty gritty of it, some of this stuff is really challenging and it may take and will likely take and should take from us, as handlers, some thought, some effort, and some time to hone our own skills. Even just learning how to deliver those rewards, even just learning how to handle your leash, even just learning how to multitask of watching your dog, processing what you're seeing and then reacting to it. Again, maybe I'm just more aware of these things just because of how poorly I do because my brain is such a mess, but it is something that I think we all should keep in mind.

I hope you guys found this podcast episode helpful. Again, these are just things for all of us to keep in mind, but we always want to hear from you, let us know if there are any other topics that you may be interested in. We'll be posting this episode up on our Facebook page, so we're always more than happy to hear from you there. Also, be sure to check out our online courses, seminars, webinars, e-books through Scent Work University. We just released a new course with Laurel Scarioni called Leash Handling Skills, which is why these things are first and foremost on my mind. I would strongly urge everyone to check that out. All right, guys. Thanks so much. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.

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