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Rewarding at Trial

We received a wonderful question regarding what to do when, at an AKC Scent Work Trial, a dog hits upon a blue "x" showing where a hide used to be - do you reward or not?! The best thing to do was to pose this question to a panel of our talented instructors to get their take!

In this episode we hear from Michelle Doram of White Collar K9, Khara Schuetzner of The Doggie Spot and Michael and Natalie McManus of Ready Sit Go. We look forward to having many more conversations with these talented instructors and trainers, so if you have a question about Scent Work you would like for us to pose to them, let us know!

Podcast Episode Transcript

Dianna L. Santos:

Welcome to All About Scent Work Podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things that work, that includes training tips, a behind scenes look of what your training instructor, or trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode, we are going to be having a round table discussion, very exciting, about rewarding at trial. So before we start diving into the podcast episode itself, let me do a very quick introduction of myself and also an introduction for our speakers. My name is Dianna Santos. I am the Owner and Lead Instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sport University and Pet Dog U. These are online dog training platforms. They're designed to provide high quality dog training instruction to as many people as possible. We're very fortunate to have a client business worldwide.


For Scent Work University in particular, we provide online courses, seminars, webinars and eBooks that are all designed to help you achieve your Scent Work training goals. Whether or not you're just getting started, you're working on developing some more advanced skills, or if you're preparing for trial, we have a training solution for you. Our speakers include Michelle Doram, Khara Schuetzner, Michael McManus and Natalie McManus. So without further ado, let's dive into the conversation.


In this podcast episode, we're going to be answering a question that we received regarding rewarding hides at AKC Trials. The specific question was, when there are hides that have been moved and now there's those pretty little blue Xs within the search area, if a dog were to come up and to hit on one of those blue Xs, should they be rewarded or not? I then pose this question to our speakers, and Michelle Doram was the first one to share her thoughts.


Michelle Doram:

There are things that popped into my head immediately as you were speaking. The first one is 100% a training issue, and it's something that dogs can pretty quickly learn to work through. Lingering, residual, whichever, being present in a search area when there is source to be found. Noticing lingering, noticing residual odor, leftover molecules in whatever form is really, really, really normal part of the training process. I don't believe it should be paid in either case. It's literally there exed off, this is no longer a hide, don't call it. So even if she's not calling it and just wants to pay her dog on it like, yes, I noticed that you noticed odor, appraise off would work just as well. She could say, "Mm-hmm (affirmative), let's keep working." I think it's much more simple when framed as a training obstacle.


Dianna L. Santos:

Okay. And then Michael, you had something you wanted to add?


Michael McManus:

Yeah. I think framing it as a foundation problem is absolutely right, but I think it's important to make sure people it's... We're talking about the foundation of Nose Work, not the foundation of training or anything like this. This is just basic conceptual work and Nose Work. And I think this arises because of how artificial Nose Work is, it's totally artificial human construct. This doesn't occur... This kind of concept is not as complicated in real Nose Work, let's call it real Nose Work, for example, in hunting, where instead you have a pheasant and then you have a place where a pheasant was, and nothing about where the pheasant was is relevant, except for how that information might lead you to where pheasant is now. Right?


So this idea of should I reward my dog on residual pheasant scent never happens in hunting. It's like, no, I can't eat residual pheasant scent. It's not interesting. It actually doesn't even come up that much in primary work either, because primary Nose Work is coherent. It's not artificial, but once we put them on odor, we add a layer of artificiality to it that confuses people, but it shouldn't confuse anybody. Residual odor is not what we're looking for. It's not. In any way in any form, it's not rewardable in my mind.


Dianna L. Santos:

Okay. Perfect. Khara, did you have anything you wanted to add?


Khara Schuetzner:

I always like to equate it to the popcorn scenario. I make a bunch of popcorn and you're going to have some of the popcorn and I leave the room. So if I leave the room, the odor of the popcorn is still there, but there is no source for you to find. So Michael's right, you don't reward this in real life situations. Now, I rent Cadaver Dogs, so I have some forensics dogs that can find residual, if somebody killed somebody with their hands and touch something, my dog's going to hit that because I train them on that. But there's a lot of Cadaver Dogs that can't do that because that's what I needed them to work with, with cold cases and stuff like that. So in Nose Work, there's an X there, I wouldn't even say, good job or anything, I wouldn't even acknowledge that with the dog because they should be going to the stronger source of the odor.


Michelle Doram:

Especially in trial.


Dianna L. Santos:

Okay. And then Natalie, did you have anything you wanted to add?


Natalie McManus:

Yeah, one thing that really helps me clarify this is just having a really clear definition of source for myself that makes it clear both what I'm supposed to pay and what the criteria is for the dog. Currently, I'm defining that that I've found helpful is that it is the oil on a Q-tip, or molecules of the oil on a Q-tip in some kind of scent vessel. And so that is my definition of what should be found and what's payable because of how the sport of meals are set up. In other applications like in what Khara does, I think you have to have other definitions, or in drug detection, or bomb detection, or whatever, your definition is going to be different. For me, that's a helpful definition for sport Nose Work, because it's always set that way. I mean, unless you're just setting making Q-tips, but very few people do that and we aren't generally encouraging that anyway.


Michael McManus:

Yeah. I want to build on that. I think what Khara brings up is a really important point. I know someone who's trained her dogs to indicate on pieces of a bird, a feather, a bone, because they're collecting conservational data. Right? And so they've intentionally trained that, but I want it to be clear that that's an intentional training choice, which if I did that with my hunting dog, would confuse the heck out of him. It would totally ruin him for his application. And I think in a lot of ways we might be ruining our sport dogs by confusing them about what their job is. Their job is clear and don't make it confusing.


Dianna L. Santos:

Okay. So I think all of that was very helpful as far as really trying to clarify this specific question. But I think it also brought up in the discussion that you all having preparing for this little call, that people are having this difficulty of trying to figure out, "Well, what do I do when I'm at a trial? My dog finds one hide, they're working a space and they do a little circle and they come back to that hide, or what do I do?" And this brought up a really interesting conversation with all of us, be like, well, it really shouldn't be that unclear, but I wanted all of you to maybe take that opportunity to say, "Okay, person is now they're in a room, there are no little blue Xs. It's totally fine. It's a hide their dog has already found, but they've come back to it for whatever reason." What should they be doing in that situation in your opinion? And we'll start in a new direction, let's start with Natalie first.


Natalie McManus:

For me, it's somewhat depends on what level of trial I'm working in, but I'm going to assume for the purposes of conversation right now that this is a novice or NWN type search, or maybe that it's advanced or NWT. So there's maybe one or two hides in this space. If I found the hide, I paid, we moved on and my dog comes back, I need to ask myself a couple of questions. One: did they come back because I either held them here or brought them back. And two: have we finished the room and should I have called finished already? So those are really the considerations are going through my head, but I am most of the time, particularly in trial, just going to pay again and move on. They found source, they did their job, they don't know why, I don't know what's going on because I'm a frazzled mess because it's a competition.


And I shouldn't take that out on them by saying, "Oh, you've already found that one," and then lowering their odor obedience potentially in our next search, or lowering their morale for our next search, or maybe even reducing the chances of that. If there are other hides in the space that they choose not to alert as strongly on those because I have punished them to some extent on the odor that we were just on. So I personally would almost always just go ahead and pay that and move on, and then look at what I'm doing in my handling that's causing us to end up back at this hide.


Dianna L. Santos:

All right, Khara, did you have any input?


Khara Schuetzner:

You need to pay for that. Whether it's food, or verbal praise, or whatever, because what happens when you stop rewarding for hides found? Why should I search for that? I mean, seriously. And some dogs go back to hides to find the other hide. So there's two ways of doing it. If your dog goes back, you need to give some type of praise. I don't care what it is, but you need to reward that dog. You use leash, and you don't let them go back all the way to the hide, and they kind of get into the odor plume then that helps them too, but by not rewarding them for going to source, you're teaching them that odor does not pay. And eventually when it's inaccessible, or it's a harder problem for them they're going to be like, ah, I don't need to work this because mom's not going to pay me, or dad.


Dianna L. Santos:

Perfect. Thank you. And how about you, Michelle? Any thoughts?


Michelle Doram:

One of the most reliable replies to a question about Nose Work competition or training is always it depends. And it sounds so dismissive to say, "Well, it depends," but it does really, really depend. And again, it could be a training issue because that's something that we should be working out or practicing what to do about by the time we get to trial because our dogs need to learn how to solve A to B converging puzzles. In training, I support repaying or praising a dog for returning to a hide, especially because a lot of times that's how they solve a puzzle and like Khara mentioned, they will go to hide A and to discern the cloud of convergence to hide B. When it becomes a game of stay at the hide because they get more and, oh, wait, I'm still here and so I get more and awaits.


Let's do that again because that was really fun and I got paid for that, that's a handler feedback loop, is generally influenced by leash tension, proximity, body pressure. Sometimes it can be just as simple as a pivots, sometimes literally body pressure to stand up and face them in the hide, and they can keep going back to it, and that's a really fun feedback loop game, also a training issue.


If we find ourselves in that loop in competition, where the dog is going back to a hide without making any effort to continue, that's on you as the handler to pivot, restart, develop a cue of let's keep working, or find more, some sort of constructive, let's go do that against somewhere else momentum shifter. In the higher levels, I strongly support repaying without even questioning because areas are larger, time pressure is stricter and as was already mentioned, there is a no circumstance and occasion, where we should be not paying communications over. The difference to me in really big search areas, more advanced levels, a great telephone to be free and elite in summit of course, and the more advanced AKC detective, hides are very closely converging, and there can be two to three or more hides in one cloud of convergence, and they may be hitting three within six feet of each other, and we need to at least praise, "Yeah, good job. Hey, continue, continue, continue," as they are solving the problem.


I hear it goes that it depends, sometimes don't need to, they're like, okay, noting, noting, noting. They're like drawing guides or grams in the air while they're doing so. But in general, we shouldn't be diminishing their odor obedience and their drive to continue to solve the puzzle by not paying, or the worst part to me, the really, really cringey part is, you got that one. It's not praise. It never sounds like praise. And it sounds condescending that handler is... I'm sorry, I'm blanking on a better word, but it's almost belittling like, about that one. And it's really like a peeve of mine, it makes me sad for the dog.


Dianna L. Santos:

And that's a really good point. So before I let you chime in Michael, a lot of the things you've already been brought up, and as far as we want the importance of odor obedience, but also the relationship between the handler and the dog is very important. So I really appreciate that you bring that up Michelle, because it's very key. Okay Michael, what were your thoughts on this?


Michael McManus:

Yeah, sure. Everyone had some really great points in there, and I'm actually a little surprised that there isn't a little bit more disagreement here between trainers, because this is a controversial idea between really good Nose Work trainers, they don't necessarily agree about this point. So I want to bring it back to the point I made before, which is the artificiality of Nose Work. This is only a problem that happens in Nose Work because of how artificial it is. It doesn't happen in hunting. You don't tell your dog to leave a pheasant and go find another pheasant. You shoot the pheasant, you take the pheasant. You don't even do this in Barn Hunt, you find the rat, you take the rat out of the ring, you remove it.


This only happens in Nose Work because we've added this layer of artificiality to it. And I think, everyone as a trainer has to decide how they're going to navigate the artificial elements to make it what you want it to be with you, or you own a dog and not let it damage your communication and relationship with them, because I do think this is a point, where we are consistently damaging our relationship. So one thing that I think needs to be considered is, does not paying your dog when they return to an odor, does it actually fix your problem? Does it actually get the dog to stop returning to odor, and not cause 5 billion other problems? Maybe it diminishes their going back to odor, but it also diminishes them finding new owners because they just care about odor less. It doesn't pay as much so who cares.


I really don't think that dogs can understand this concept of you get paid the first time, but you don't get paid other times. Some dogs do, I've seen it, some dogs definitely do. And this is something I hear a lot from people who want to do this is that really good dog does it, and it works for them. And yeah, it can work. There are exceptional dogs who can tolerate all sorts of, in my opinion, shoddy forms of training, which that should be the bar for us is, what works for the dogs who aren't the A+ students, what is working for the Basset Hounds, the Siberian Huskies, the nonperformance breeds, what training methods work for them? Because those are the ones that are foolproof, right? Those are the ones that are most reliable.


So, remember that this cost benefit weighing thing. Now I'm also not going to say you should always pay your dog when they go back to hide. I'm not going to say that. I think it's a cost benefit. I think if you've built enough odor obedience, and you're in a competition scenario, and for whatever reason, points, time, whatever, you don't want to pay them for going back, you can make that choice provided you've built your odor obedience, where you can chip away at it and not lose too much.

You better rebuild it before you take too much away though. And I wouldn't recommend that. The problem I see is when people are doing it at a beginning level, where the dogs first starting out on odor and they've jumped into multiple hides too quickly, and the handler doesn't know what they're doing. So the handler's lack of handling skill makes them return to areas over and over again with a dog who is at the beginning stage, and now you're not paying the dog. It's just a recipe for disaster.


Dianna L. Santos:

This is all very good stuff. So to wrap up our conversation, I wanted to have one more round if that's okay with everyone. So I want to really try to emphasize the difference between trialing and training, that I think people really struggle with. And now that the world is starting to open up again, after our lovely shutdown over the last year, more people are trialing and they're running out to trials as fast as they can, because they want to go see people and do things and live life and what have you. Now they may or may not have been practicing during the shutdown because life is what it is. So during this next round of... And again, you're free to talk about this however you like. How is it that we can really emphasize the way that people should be doing this in training, as far as you have a training scenario with multiple hides? And you can break this up by level.


Say, okay, for generally speaking, a beginner person can do this, a more advanced person can do that, but they have multiple hides. Their goals for their dog to find all of the hides. Is there something that they should be doing as, I don't know, the dog finds a hide, pick the hide up, and take it out of the search area so they can continue going on, or what else they should be doing? Should be repairing hides? I'll give you guys the floor to give whatever kind of advice that you would like. But again, just do really emphasize the importance of the difference between training and trialing, because a lot of people are trying to backwards engineer when they see a trial, to then make that their thing that they do in training which is disastrous. So why don't we go backwards, so I'm going to have Michael go first and then we'll go from there.


Michael McManus:

Sure. Yeah. Actually picking up the hides is the way that I circumvent the artificiality of Nose Work is it actually makes it real in my mind. And I think in my dog's minds, when I pick up the object that contains the odor, the dog recognizes that we were doing a hunt for that object. And that that object is no longer present and there's nothing back to return to. Now this is the way I train all my dogs at every level. So it's not a beginning skill level, it's not an advanced skill level, it's something I do with all my dogs. It basically connects a through line from the primary stage where the hide is removed by the dog by ingesting it, and then connects that to the odor level. Now the only time I wouldn't do that is when I'm intentionally setting up multiple odor problems for the sole express purpose of getting the dog to work through them without picking them up, which is, you decide how frequently that needs to happen.


The second thing I do is I do a lot of segmented searches, or don't go back searches, or whatever people like to call them, which is very common at the elite level, and I think should be more common at every level, including the primary level actually. I think it does several things, it exposes handlers to the idea of search area management, that you don't just wander around aimlessly, you tackle the search area in segments. It teaches the dog that upon finishing an area, they may not be permitted to return back, which actually helps the dog progressively hunt into an environment. It also teaches the dog how to become resilient to handler restraint, which even if you want your dog to be a very free spirit in those work search, the ability to resist restraint and cope with restraint is a skill that every dog benefits from, even if you don't plan on using it as a trial strategy, because again, this is not something I'm talking about as a trial strategy.


This is something I'm talking about as a training drill to help dogs increase their skill and motivation and reduce confusion. So, those are my two go-tos when handling multiple hide searches. Another thing that I just want to say in your premise is, you did say that the goal was to find all of the hides, but I would just throw this out there as an idea that I see a lot of people having this goal. Why is that your goal? Especially in a training. In trial, obviously that's your goal because that's how you get the most points in a trial, but in a training scenario, I don't think finding all the hides is necessarily a good goal.


I think sometimes ending the search on a high note before you finish finding all the hides is great, or even ending early intentionally to give the dog agitated that they wanted to find more. That's something I do all the time with my puppies. I'm not going to let you find them all every time. Just like I don't let my dog go find every quail in the field. There's more quail out there and that's part of what keeps his hunt drive up is he knows he didn't find them all. So just an idea.


Dianna L. Santos:

No, and that's really good. So I think that that's an excellent thing to add into the conversation. So, let's have Khara join in on that, and you're more than welcome to build off of that last part that Michael brought up as well.


Khara Schuetzner:

I kind of agree on that with what Michael says, even like novice dogs, we play games where they don't get all the hides, and it's okay. And it's more of a handler mind melt than the dog. And then what happens is all the dogs will leave and then we'll bring them back in, and you'll see the dogs are a little bit faster the second time, because they're like, crap, I left stuff behind. And I also have some of my novice people, which a lot of people are my beginning Nose Work, I mean, my students compete in everything now. They run blank searches too, because I've taken some of my professional training and tailored it to the Nose Work dog, because we all don't run those [Mals 00:21:57] and Shepherds. I have students who run Pyrenees. If you can get a Pyrenees, the search, you're like, "Yay, hoo! You found something sweetie." But I think it really depends on the level and you want the dog to be successful, but that does not mean finding all the hides.


I agree with Michael on that tremendously because... And one thing that I tell my students is better to time out at a trial and I teach them to do this in class than to false alert your dog. People say my dog falses and that kills me. Dogs are very honest and true when it comes to odor, they're playing on the cues and we give a lot of cues to our handlers and our dogs. I mean, everyone does it. So I think you need to not try to say, "Hey, I had this problem at this trial," and emulate it because you can never get it the same, but do scenarios, or do things that can build up to it, and always go back to foundation.


I think a lot of people, when they start getting problem, troubles at trials, they forget their foundation and they don't realize they could fix it with some just throwing some boxes out or going back to the very basics and working at it at a lower level. They still want to be at that PhD level, but maybe they need to go back to kindergarten. So I think there's a lot of that versus training versus trialing. And I mean, we've all done that. I've done that with my own dogs in Nose Work, where I was having trouble with containers and I was like, container drills every day, and when I finally gave up on that beast, my dogs and I started doing better. And I think we forget that, that sometimes they need to be dogs and sometimes it's okay if they don't find all the hides. And it's all on us and not the dog.


Dianna L. Santos:

Perfect. Thank you very much. Michelle, do you mind chiming in?


Michelle Doram:

Sure. I think that the trialing bug hits really, really hard and especially when it's been absent. And even in non-pandemic time, sometimes it's so hard to get in, or it requires vacation time use and savings and credit cards tapped into, and it's really a big deal for some people to come up with the opportunity to do it. AKC has helped that to a certain extent. However, it has also made it almost... Well, I don't want to say too plentiful as if that's a bad thing, but it keeps people in trial mode all the time, instead of training, practice, fun, skill-building, learning. So those two things weigh really, really heavy. Either, you haven't gotten into one, you haven't be able to afford it, there's been a pandemic, you haven't been able to go anywhere, or you have AKC trial every three weeks where you live.


There are two things, the same thing can happen in those two situations. One can get too deep in the rabbit hole of trial prep, and it becomes a lot of going searching, a lot of new to the dog or unfamiliar to the dog handler pressure, handler nerves, and a lot of, as Sue Sternberg says, "Withdrawals from the dog's account of trust and enjoyment and fulfillment," because we're putting new leash pressure, new body pressure, new nerves pressure, new endorphins. The dogs are like, I thought this was fun before, but okay. So I think that trial prep should be entirely different and much more judiciously chosen than training and practice. The very, very best thing that someone can do preparing for a trial are playing all basic fun foundation drills. And I do not care if you are getting ready to do AKC novice, or detective, or NW1, or any CSW summit, those drills are the same.


They're powerful, they're effective, they're fun. It puts so much in that bank for the dog. They love doing what they're good at and if they need a little refresher, then there's nothing better than doing that, especially things that are really heavy on drive building, odor obedience drills, because the drive building, I love, what was mentioned just a minute ago with don't get them all drills, blank search drills, and off-leash speed drills in boxes. There's nothing more fun for the dog than boxes is that humans going, "Oh, containers." That makes it stressful. If you think you have a problem with an element, as Khara said, it's probably much more basic. You probably have an opportunity to improve the leash handling. You probably have an opportunity to take a better look at your observation skills of your dog's communication.


The trial prep phase, where you really do kind of need to practice having a blind search with someone staring at you with a straight face. If someone else would watch you in front of them saying nothing, from time to time, because we do get out of the habit of that loop, I don't why. I've got a year between files with dogs, and you can forget how that pressure feels on you. So I'm not saying not to prepare yourself for handler nerves. I'm saying it's way more important to refresh the skills and the enjoyment for your dog, if you haven't done it in a long time.


Dianna L. Santos:

Very good. Thank you very much, Michelle. And miss Natalie, what did you have to add?


Natalie McManus:

Well, one big thing I think about trial versus training is just remembering how many errors you're accumulating when you're trialing. And this was made really clear for me a few years ago when I was lucky enough to get into several elite trials, really close together, a couple of weeks apart each. And I saw, after two elite trials back to back, my dog was just hitting the odor really far away from source and communicating strongly. And that had been good enough for a bunch of hides in our previous trials. And now it was just a little bit further, or it was a more accessible hide but she hadn't checked well enough to know that. And it really hit home for me, and I hadn't been doing my really important sourcing drills, drive building, all the important between trial stuff.

And so I realized that I had made a mistake in not tightening all that stuff up, and making sure that we weren't just in trial mode. And so now all of my trial prep stuff, when I have a trial coming up is a whole bunch of accessible, often paired, especially with that particular dog and with most dogs, a lot of paired stuff, a lot of just, odor's wonderful go to it, have fun with that, but make sure that that criteria of sourcing is paramount, because the more advance you get, the more that goes out the window. And usually like you take a novice dog, NW1 dog, they're not thinking of anything but going all the way to source because that's all they've ever known. But then you take an elite dog, a summit dog, and they're like, this is not. That'd be good enough.


Even if you have been doing a lot of practice, if you're setting a lot of inaccessible hides, you're going to get a lot more of that questioning of what's the criteria here. So making that criteria incredibly clear and strong to me is one of the most important things for the dog, and I think that's done through foundation drills, drive building, sourcing exercises and all that stuff.


Dianna L. Santos:

Well, thank you all so very much. This was a fantastic conversation, and I really hope that we may be able to schedule some more things on a more regular basis, because I think that these kinds of podcasts discussions are really helpful. We may should be able to do some Facebook Lives, but just again, you're all a wealth of information for people and we're going to continue getting, and I'm sure that you have as well with your clients, getting these kinds of... They're not basic, but foundation type of questions because like Michael pointed out really brilliantly, the artificiality of all of this, just people have a hard time wrapping their head around it because they're trying to figure out, well, I want to do this, a trial, but trial is very different than training, and Natalie's example's perfect of that the trial could actually diminish what it was that you were defining in your training that you wanted to have done in the first place.


If you're only doing an accessible hides ad nauseum for forever, well then your dog is going to think, oh, well, what about this? Is this good enough? And then just trying to help them understand that we're trying to translate what it is that we want our dogs to do. The great thing about this conversation that you all pointed out is, we're trying to help the vast majority of dogs. We don't want to only help that one dog in a million who can do anything. We want to be able to help every dog. And not every single team wants to trial, they just want to be able to play the game and play it well.


So as you can tell, this is a very interesting conversation. We're so fortunate to have such experienced people available to us, and all of these individuals, our instructors, through Scent Work University as well. So you would be able to participate in any of their available webinars or courses, or to work with them, or you be able to work with them one-on-one. They also have their own individual businesses that I strongly urge you to check out. So, as an example, Michelle Doram has her White Collar K9 business in Southern California, Michael and Natalie McManus, have their Ready, Sit, Go, training business up in Missouri. Khara Schuetzner has the Doggie Spot in Oklahoma. These are all, again, extraordinarily talented and experienced instructors.


So if you ever have an ability to work with them, either through our online training, through Scent Work University, one-on-one through virtual consultations, or if you can work with them within their businesses, please do. But we look forward to future conversations with all of them, and even more of our instructors, because we really do think that these round table discussions are helpful. Thanks so much for listening, happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.

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