Pairing, What is That?!

Oct 26, 2023

During your Scent Work training journey, you may have heard people referring to pairing or paired hides. What is that?

Pairing is a training technique and tool where we place food or a toy directly with the hide to allow the dog to immediately self-reward upon finding the hide.

“Why would you do that?!”

There are so many reasons!

Let’s say you are imprinting the dog on a target odor (Birch, Anise, Clove, Cypress, etc.). Pairing leverages classical conditioning to help the dog make the association that the odor is reinforcing, "I find this new odor and I get a cookie or my favorite toy!”

The wonderful aspect of this method of imprinting is it awards the dog the power of choice.

“What do you mean?”

Believe it or not, many dogs are put off by the target odors. Or perhaps they are concerned by certain odor vessels, such as metal tins.

Pairing empowers the dog the power to choose.

If you are using a super high-value treat or toy your dog typically adores in all other training concepts and they are hesitant to self-reward on the pairing, that is crucial information for you!

Perhaps reduce the odor concentration you are using. Let’s say you were using the AKC odor concentration of having 2 drops of essential oil placed directly onto a single cotton swab that is within your odor vessel. This odor concentration is VERY high. Switching to the “24 hour cooking method” and having a single scented cotton swab in your odor vessel will greatly reduce the odor concentration. You can then incrementally progress as your dog’s opinion of the odor shifts to using a gradually higher concentration over time.

Or you may opt to use a different type of odor vessel, such a straw or tube that will not make a noise or startle the dog as much as a metal tin can.

“I never thought of that…”

We must remember every dog is an individual and even dogs who are incredibly confident in other contexts may suddenly display concerns in new situations.

Leveraging training techniques and tools which empower the dog to make choices can avoid inadvertently placing them into conflict. However, this also requires that we properly read and support our dogs. Meaning, if you noticed your dog hesitates to self-reward on a paired hide, you should immediately move to make an adjustment as opposed to pushing them to finish exercise.

Forcing an uncomfortable dog to complete the exercise may cause them to create a NEGATIVE association of the odor, otherwise referred to as "poisoning" the odor. This should be avoided at all costs and once the negative association is developed, it can difficult to overcome.

Pairing also provides an incredible amount of clarity to the dog. They are immediately rewarded upon finding the hide. There is no confusion as to what is expected of them.

"Okay, so I would only use pairing in the beginning stages."

This is common misconception.

Pairing is a training tool you can leverage throughout your entire training journey. It is NOT a stage.

“What do you mean?”

Let's say you and your dog are experienced and have been doing Scent Work for a while. Now you are working on more challenging puzzles and want to introduce a brand new concept to your dog. Pair that hide to ensure the dog truly understands when they are correct. They do not need to wait for us, as the handler, to inform them when they correctly solved the puzzle.

"Can you give an example?"

Of course!

You're working on pooling odor puzzles to your dog. You set a paired hide with a floor fan pointed at it, blowing the odor into a part of the search area where the odor plume is likely to pool and collect.

When your dog encounters this collection of odor, we want them to understand the “cloud” of odor is NOT the ultimate objective nor is it rewarding. Rather, we care about source. We want the dog to decipher the cloud, turn into the plume and work their way back to hide, or source. With a paired hide, the dog knows they are seeking a way to self-reward. Obsessing over the cloud is not productive. They must determine how to use the odor information to get to source and when they do, they are immediately rewarded.

Pairing drives the point home that we care about SOURCE

Likewise, if you are working to generalize your dog’s ability to search in novel environments, initially pairing your hides can ensure the dog is immediately rewarded upon making the correct choice: find your hide as opposed to getting sucked into the environment.

Using paired hides for your warm-up and recovery searches can be highly effective as well.

Pairing can help develop the dog’s understanding of the game while building and maintaining their enthusiasm. Confusion and frustration will directly impact the dog’s desire to search. We can all relate to how frustrating it is be unclear about something we are tasked to do. The same applies to our dogs.

Picture this: your dog confidently enters a search area, immediately detects and chases odor, successfully sourcing the hide…and nothing happens. You are simply standing there, stuck in your own head, frozen in indecision.

It is as though you asked the dog, “What is 2+2?” and they confidently answered “4!”

Instead of immediately saying, “Great job, you are correct!”, you instead stared at them blankly and asked the question again, “What is 2+2?”

Confused, the dog may hesitantly answer, “…4…” only to be met with another blank stare and the dreaded repeating of the question.

This painful process drags on as the dog becomes less and less confident, even exasperated, second-guessing themselves. They may start offering incorrect answers in a desperate attempt to please you!

In a search, this means the dog may offer pawing or biting at the hide or other trained behaviors. The game is no longer about FINDING the hide, that wasn't good enough. Or perhaps the dog blows the hide off, assuming they must do something else entirely. Worst still, the dog may simply quit the search altogether.

Pairing avoids all of this. The answer is provided immediately upon the dog finding the hide. The handler should then follow-up with substantial secondary reinforcement to drive the point home: you were right!

Another fantastic reality when it comes to pairing is it grants the handler time to hone THEIR SKILLS. Learning how to read the dog, how to tackle the search as a handler, interpret what the dog is narrating regarding odor as they tackle a search and so much more. We have so much to learn to be the best teammate for our dog and this takes TIME and PRACTICE, which is close to impossible to do if we are lumping, doing a million things at once.

Is pairing a magic wand? No.

Will it solve all your training ills? No

Does everyone opt to use pairing? No.

Is it still a powerful and effective training tool? Yes.

Looking to pair your hides with food? Look into the What a Pair accessory.

Learn more about pairing and how you can fully utilize it with these resources:

Happy Training!

Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.

Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.

In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! The advent of the Cyber Sniffing Games, Traditional Cyber Scent Work Program, in-person and online assessments have been met with much fanfare! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, you will be happy you did!

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