Thursday, September 13, 2012

Alert! (The Final Response)

In K9 Nose Work®, we consider a dog's final response to be his alert, or indication that he's found source odor. In a competition, when you see your dog give a final response you should yell out "Alert!" This allows the judge to evaluate how well you can read your dog. A clear final response can make it easier to read your dog when he's found source odor, but how do you get from the sometimes subtle behavior changes - tail stiffening, forceful exhale, lip curl - to the solid performance of a sit or down? And is it what you really want? Ask most K9 Nose Work enthusiasts if they would like their dogs to have a clear sit or down response and you will get an overwhelming yes.

*If you're interested in a final response for your dog, discuss it with your CNWI/ANWI to figure out what's best for your dog and how to achieve a final response without adversely affecting your dog's overall K9 Nose Work performance.

Are You "Looking at Me"?

In the transition from self-rewarding to handler delivered reward, most dogs develop a habit of anticipating where the reward will come from (handler) and checking in to see when it's coming. We refer to this as the "looks at me" response.

There are top dogs in the sport of K9 Nose Work who can communicate clearly and consistently just by looking at their handlers once they've found the source.

One benefit of the "looks at me" response is that it develops very naturally and without prompting, so there's less confusion on the part of the dog as to what gets him paid.

How do I Know If My Dog is Ready to Be a Better Communicator

The important thing here is not to rush things. If your dog finds source odor, looks at you, and moves on to sniff the next thing, you need to focus on raising the importance of the odor for your dog. Nothing trumps odor obedience, not even the prospect of your dog striking an odor pose at source.

If you've got an eager searcher, the type who won't leave the odor box even when you're a little slow to deliver the reward, you've got a good candidate for developing a clear final response. 

Sit, Down, or Both?

Just like the "looks at me" should come very naturally, your dog may also display a preference for sit or down - or be agreeable to both. To figure out which final response might be better for your dog, use a box drill with chairs. Have the odor box elevated on a chair and let your dog find it, then move in with the reward in a closed fist and hold it right on the box. Offer your dog enough food (a lick and a nibble from between your fingers) to get rewarded for finding the odor box, but keep the rest for rewarding his potential sit or down. Your dog will probably slide into a sit position to get the food reward from your hand - that is the moment you open it and give him his reward. To see if your dog prefers to down, just have the odor box placed on the ground and use the same closed fist on the box presentation, releasing the reward when he downs (or sits, if that's his preference). Got a tall or small dog? Just think of ways to set the hides as close to the nose height of the dog as possible. Stacking boxes to achieve desired height is one plan, so is using a table top. 

Once you've identified which final response your dog has shown preference for (or which you prefer) you can reinforce it by repeating the drill for a sit or down described above. Keep the search very simplified and do not worry about moving the odor box around. A few repetitions and a short break is more effective than a marathon session. 

Your dog will begin to respond quickly with the sit/down to get at the food in your fist. Now, when he finds the odor box, wait just a few seconds before moving your hand to the box. He should go into the final response all on his own; and, if he does you need to reward him right away. If your dog shows signs of confusion over what you want, don't delay any longer, bring that closed fist in again and wait for his final response. Do not over-train the final response. Make sure you are still doing lots and lots of regular searches and do not expect your dog to exhibit the same kind of final response behavior in these searches that you've been getting in your drills.

As you work on a final response, you may find that your dog sits most of the time, but downs for certain hides. This is not uncommon. It's generally related to hide placement, and can be addressed in your regular searches. If your dog is sitting most of the time, but downs on ground hides, just set out more nose-level hides than ground hides. The repetition and reinforcement on the nose-level hides should help get a sit on every hide. Despite your efforts, there will always be situations where your dog won't offer the usual final response, so don't obsess over the dual final response. 

So, You've Got a Sit Response... to Everything

My dog, Muriel, had a strong natural preference toward sitting as a final response; and, boy did she make it look good. The eager little cattle dog mix would sniff furiously until she found the odor box, then she'd snap her haunches to the ground and eye me for her reward. 

About a week before the first K9 Nose Work practice match in December 2008, Muriel began alerting to everything in the environment. Chairs, cabinets, flooring, stacks of books, etc. This would be fine if odor had been present in all of these items. It was not.

Turned out Muriel began to test a theory that she could get paid solely for striking her sit pose. I panicked and contacted K9NW & NACSW co-founder, Amy Herot, and begged for some miracle advice. Amy gave me a short list of instructions that boiled down to me showing no interest in what Muriel was sniffing and alerting to unless it was source odor. I even changed the pace at which I walked, and kept my body language to a minimum, all in hopes of eliminating every alert but the right one. After just a few days of practice, Muriel was back to being a solid searcher; she even won the first ever Harry Award in the 2008 competition.

Be careful with your own dog and a trained final response. It's easy for some dogs to make the connection between sit & treat and decide that odor is no longer the only thing that could get them a reward. If your dog starts alerting just for the "reward of it", take a deep breath and simplify your searches. Set your dog up a few feet from a hide and give him very little chance to fake you out with a false alert. Work your way back to larger and more complex search areas, but make sure your dog is clear that only odor gets him a reward before going on to challenging or blind search scenarios.    

Do You Really Need The Sit or Down?

The answer is "no." All you need is the ability to read your dog in odor. Even in competition, you need only be able to describe what your dog does when he finds the hide (wiggles three toes, whistles, says "it's right here, dummy!"). In fact, many situations will arise in training and in competition that will cause your dog to offer behaviors other than his usual final response, like odor placed in an area where he can't sit or down, a difficult hide placement or an unusually weak or strong concentration of the source odor (single cotton swab versus a jar of cotton swabs).

A sit or down alert does come in handy when doing blind searches in competition. When you're searching a new environment under the pressure of the clock and you need to be able to trust your dog, a strong and clear alert makes you as a handler feel more confident calling "Alert!"; but it doesn't mean your dog will be any more likely to find the hide than a dog with an ear twitch for an alert.

As much as I'm happy to have a dog with a sit alert, I've gone through a lot over the years to correct her false alerting issues, and to get her to make faster decisions. Just in the past week I've had to deal with her getting sloppy about sitting - now she's nose-touching the hide several times and doing more of a hunchback alert. It's a fixable problem, but it's a problem I wouldn't have if I was rewarding a "looks at me". 

Now, I know a number of people with sit-alert dogs who have been solid since the day they learned their final response, so my experience in no way defines the norm. And, despite the periodic troubles we've had with the sit, I'm committed to this final response and overall glad that Muriel chose it and that we've worked to make it work.

When you're ready to think about an alert behavior for your dog, just remember that the flashy sit or down final response is not what K9 Nose Work is all about. Odor obedience is most important for your dog. Observing your dog is most important for you. A good team that excels at those two things can go far in K9 Nose Work, be it with a sit alert or a nose-hair twitch alert!

Happy Sniffing!


  1. How close (accuracy)to source should the final alert (sit/down) be for a judge to accept? Annie's response to odor is often taking a few steps back and looking up at me for her reward.I am assuming that when she starts to sit, she will be quite far back from source...

    1. Just to avoid confusion, the dog should always go as close to source odor as possible - nose touching if it is accessible. The final response/alert is the last part in a series of behavior changes (e.g., a head turn, detail sniffing, more intense sniffing/breathing, sourcing odor, final alert) and is meant to signal that the dog has found that particular hide. A dog with a down alert might find a hide under a microwave then drop into a down to alert. The handler should have been watching the dog and know that the dog's behavior at the microwave followed by the down alert signals that the dog believes the hide is under the microwave. Even well-trained alerts don't always result in a dog that is right on top of the hide when he's in his alert, so you, the handler, should always be watching for the signs leading up to the alert to read your dog most accurately.

      For the problem of backing away from the odor, you may want to set up some non-blind searches where you can time your reward to come right when Annie finds source odor - before she has a chance to even think about moving back. Do a few searches this way, then go back to a search where you allow her the time to communicate with you that she's found the hide. And, think about positioning yourself in different places relative to Annie as she's getting close to sourcing the hide. We often come from behind our dogs to deliver the reward. Try positioning yourself so you come from in front of or to the side of Annie to deliver the reward. That could help with the backing away from source.

      Also, try setting up multiple hides in an area - or even spaced out ten or fifteen feet in a line - that start at nose height and drop just six or eight inches, ending with a ground hide. Make sure she's working the hides in descending order from highest to lowest. I've seen her give a nice close-to-odor snap sit on a nose height hide, so an exercise like this may get her doing it on lower hides, too, and may turn her alert into a sit.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Happy Sniffing!

  2. I have an 11-inch-tall terrier who, in most cases, could not sit and have her nose on the odor at the same time. She is also very quick and I might miss the exact location of the nose-touch before she sits. Often she looks at me and points to the hide with her paw. If I wait, she will do it again as if to say, "It's here, dummy." We missed our getting our NW1 title the first time when I misidentified the hide by only a few inches on the vehicle. Later, when I looked at a sequence of photos, I saw that she did go and sniff the hide before sitting. But I panicked and called alert without really knowing exactly where the hide was. I should have waited for her to go back to the hide instead of taking a guess when the judge asked me where it was. So, for us, teaching a sit as a final alert probably isn't ideal.

    1. Thanks for sharing! Your example is exactly why I closed the post reminding everyone that the dog's alert is not as important as the handler's ability to read the dog accurately.

      Happy Sniffing!

  3. I hope you are still reading the comments here. I have 6.5 years old a German Shepherd who was trained as a cadaver dog before I got her. One of the reasons her previous owner got rid of her is that she was unreliable as a search dog. I started to teach her to find truffles as a hobby. We have no instructor, I'm mostly learning from the internet and books. I'm doing the method you described in your blog, using only primary rewards first, later I will introduce the sent. Since truffles grow under the ground I often dig her food. When she finds something in a place she can reach the reward easily she offers very little behavior changes, but I think I'm starting to figure it out. When she can't reach it easily or it's under the ground, she will scratch. However she also scratches when she finds anything she considers edible, like cat poop. I think it's going to be a problem later. What should I do? Teach her indication early?

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! I'm going to simply address the question related to final response, which was, do you teach an indication to avoid the dog offering confusing behavior that could be truffles... Or it could be cat poop.

      Probably, the set of behaviors displayed by the dog when hunting for cat poop are discernibly different than when hunting for a target odor, so you'll want to learn to recognize the dog's distracted behavior.

      If you're getting clearer behavior at source with certain types of hide placement, that's great. I wouldn't train an indication to primary reward, I'd train the indication to truffle scent. But, make sure you really need to train an indication, as opposed to just proofing the dog off of distracting and/or novel smells. a dog engaged in searching should not interact meaningfully with distracting smells, whereas, a dog engaged at source should be committed to the source and anticipating reward.

      Happy Sniffing!