Monday, April 29, 2013

Primary Reward: The K9 Nose Work® Way

Believe it or not, there are different methods of training scent detection beyond the K9 Nose Work method we use and love. What most of these methods require to produce results are perfectly bred working dogs and expert trainers; and even then, the results aren't always what you'd expect. Some of these methods teach a target odor to the dog immediately, some methods use clickers - both these things put the average pet dog and his handler on a training path that's harder to walk than a tight rope across Niagara Falls on a windy day. With K9 Nose Work, dogs build their hunt drive and learn the foundational skills of scent detection searching for their primary reward; it's like crossing Niagara Falls using a tight rope as wide as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Primary reward refers to scent work where the source the dog is searching for is his reward (food or toy), and the dog self-rewards by finding the source and eating it or playing with it. The key here is that the search and find behavior is perfectly reinforced through the dog's ability to self-reward at source. Once a dog is searching for a target odor only (handlers can choose to stay on primary and/or pair as long as they want), to keep that target odor as valuable as primary reward requires proper search set up, keen observation, and perfect timing - even then, the dog must have a well-developed hunt drive to keep him in the game when things get challenging. By starting dogs on primary and keeping dogs on primary to teach them foundational skills, the hides have the highest value possible, and the dogs get the clearest, strongest reinforcement of the search and find behavior. Whatever your goals in K9 Nose Work may be, one goal everyone needs to have is to maximize the benefits of using primary reward.

How To Use Primary Reward - The earliest stages of K9 Nose Work focus on using boxes to hide the primary reward in - this helps dogs contextualize the search game, it contains the scent so the source is easier to find, and it begins the dogs on a long journey of investigating foreign objects and strange new environments, leading them to discover that these things and places sometimes hold a valuable reward.

The great thing about primary reward is that you can take it outside of the boxes we use to start our K9 Nose Work dogs and you can move it to exterior locations and vehicles when the time comes to introduce your dog to those elements. Primary reward can be used to motivate your dog when introducing the challenges of elevated hides, larger search areas, and multiple hides. You don't have to transition to odor to play these parts of the game.

Do remember that primary reward should always be accessible to your dog for self-rewarding.

How Long To Use Primary Reward - There is no right answer to this question. The best advice to heed is to take your time and make sure your dog will excitedly hunt in a variety of environments and under a variety of conditions before moving on to the target odors. There's no harm in stretching your dog to search a little larger exterior area or a more cluttered interior when you're using primary reward for your hides. But, if you make the transition to a target odor too quickly and your dog can't find success in a search - walks the odor, switches over to crittering, gets stressed out - the recovery process can be difficult without the help of an experienced CNWI or ANWI, and you risk big setbacks in your dog's learning.

If you're really hot to get your dog on odor, use the expertise of a certified or associate instructor. If you have no options for instructor led teaching, give it at least 12-18 weeks of searching for primary before switching to pairing primary and a target odor, and then pair for that amount of time or longer. Really make sure your dog is motivated to hunt and to problem solve. The task of learning a new target odor is a simple one for a dog who has a strong desire to hunt and ample experience problem solving in a variety of searches.

Benefits of Using Primary Reward - To hammer home the point, while there are lots of benefits to searching for primary reward, the biggest benefit is that there are no negatives.

Having your dog search for primary reward is the best way to help him discover the joy of searching independently. It's also great for increasing your dog's overall motivation to search. And, nothing beats primary reward for reinforcing the desired search & find behavior.  

When your dog can self-reward in a search, there's no need for him to search for feedback from you that he's doing the right thing. Sometimes, a dog working a target odor hide may depend on his handler for confirmation that he's on the right track in the search; one of the reasons this can happen is because of a lack of clear communication for the dog - he may not understand that finding the source of the odor is the only rewardable behavior. Other times, the handler may not understand the communication coming from the dog - the dog may be indicating that he's found the source of the odor, but the handler may not read that indication resulting in a missed opportunity to reward the desired behavior. When searching for primary, the possibility of miscommunication for dog or handler is removed from the game.

Beyond Primary Reward - If and when you decide to have your dog search for a target odor, you will use your primary reward paired up with the first target odor ( birch). Once searching for the birch target odor you can pair it with anise and then clove to introduce those target odors.

Having your dog search for target odor only is exciting and fun, but it requires you to manage reward delivery carefully. It's simple enough to imagine your dog's nose pushing through the flaps of a box with an odor tin inside and you running in to deliver the reward, but what about when the searches become more difficult. Will you know when to deliver the reward so that your dog gets the proper reinforcement? One thing most handlers struggle with is setting their own hides once a certain difficulty level is attained. If you set a hide behind the wheel of a car, or on a kitchen counter behind a microwave, will you be able to determine when your dog has properly communicated the location of source odor? If you're missing opportunities to reward the desired behavior in searches, will you realize it before it begins to affect your dog's behavior and manifest as fringing or false alerting, or reduced motivation to search? Watching a number of dogs work the same hide under the guidance of an experienced instructor allows you to expand your understanding of how dogs communicate they've found source and when handlers should reward for maximum reinforcement of the desired behavior.

If ever you feel like your dog is struggling in K9 Nose Work, pairing is a great remedy. There's a phrase in K9 Nose Work: pairing is not remedial. Pairing is also useful if you want your dog to get that immediate, crystal clear reward at the source when you're practicing new and challenging search scenarios.

If you're already past the primary reward stage of the K9 Nose Work game, you should certainly be proud of your dog for those searches during which he works harder than ever before to find the source of his target odor. But, don't forget that he built the motivation to search for a previously meaningless odor by searching for something with high intrinsic value. His motivation came from the searches that got him excited about hunting, and that ended with a clear decision at source odor and a perfectly timed reward; searches where he built valuable scent detection skills. And what was he searching for? Primary reward. He'll search for that target odor now, but it still has to stay exciting and meaningful.

With a good foundation built through the use of primary reward searches and paired target odor/ primary reward searches, we can confidently move our dogs on to searches for a target odor only, with the expectation that they will have developed a strong desire to hunt, along with the necessary problem solving skills to work the scent to source and give us enough time to deliver a fast and meaningful reward that solidifies that search and find behavior. This is what we call a K9 Nose Work dog!

Have fun playing the game with your dog's primary reward. K9 Nose Work is a lifelong journey, take the time to get the fullest reward from the training methodology. Make your dog a super searcher on primary and learning the target odors will be much easier.

Happy Sniffing!


  1. This game only has 3 basic parts:
    The Search, the Locate, and the Report.

    The difference between your approach and one of the others is how you have the dog see the game. You train the game from the middle outward; Locating then Reporting, then Searching. In my opinion this puts the dog at a disadvantage down the road.

    Studies show to to link behaviors in a chain, such as this, the behavior chain should be trained from the last behavior back to the first one. This is called back chaining. It increases the probability the dog will be successful. It makes the last behavior (Reporting) the strongest which is what you need. Also it speeds up the training process which is good for both handler and the dog.

    In this approach you train the scent to be a Cue for the Report behavior first. Then you work on the locate to the scent, and finally searching.

    I would love to hear a discussion to the other approaches that are out there too. This can only make the sport better.


    1. Thanks for reading & commenting, Clyde! This reply has to be split into two replies due to length, so here's part one:

      I believe it's important to separate K9 Nose Work the activity and the sport of K9 Nose Work. The sport as governed by the National Association of Canine Scent Work welcomes dog & handler teams from any training methodology. The only barrier to entry in the sport of K9 Nose Work is the Odor Recognition Test. As long as a dog & handler team can show an ability on the part of the dog to find odor and an ability on the part of the handler to correctly recognize the dog's find, that team can play in the sport of K9 Nose Work. The sport is definitely in support of the exhibition of nose work teams from any and all training backgrounds - that's a pretty good place to be in terms of betterment of the sport.

      The activity of K9 Nose Work (as opposed to a general description of the game like scent work or nose work) is based on a specific training methodology and philosophy. Philosophically, I don't think we see the activity of K9 Nose Work as a chain of behaviors like we might see certain other tasks we teach a dog, like a retrieve or a go out. It's a bit more organic in the sense that hunting is natural to a dog's survival and we are not taking a directorial (commanding) role in the dog's learning of the game.

      Your idea that the game is segmented into three parts is interesting. To think of searching and finding (locating) as separate in the sense that we teach the dog one and then the other presumes they're separate in the dog's mind. When presented with food or toy that the dog wants, the dog will search for it and find or locate it as one action (he's locating it all along, just to greater degrees of specificity until he finds source). Even when we look at certain things like teaching dogs to employ patterns in searches, the pattern isn't taught separate from the finding of the source odor, it's taught through the finding of the source odor. So the search and find behavior is not really distinguished as links in a chain - it's more like braided rope. Even the behavior exhibited by the dog at source - the final response - is not a wholly separate action, it is behavior that naturally occurs when the dog is at the source or finding, and it is behavior that handlers should learn to observe and interpret.

      part two continued in separate reply...

    2. part two:

      I have to make an assumption that by reporting, you mean a trained response to the odor. If that is the case, the idea that you would train that first is a traditional idea, however, it is not the most current thinking out there. The California Narcotic Canine Association had some speakers at their annual conference in January this year that were advocating for a re-assessment of the importance of the trained response. There are also some well-known detection trainers beginning to evaluate the benefits of starting a dog on primary and developing the independent hunt drive before moving onto searching for a target odor and training a final response. These shifts in the scent detection world are very much in line with the philosophy espoused by K9 Nose Work. I won't go into detail, but there are innumerable pitfalls waiting for the pet dog & handler who begin with a trained response to a target odor. I am not saying the method can't work or can't be effective, but, in my opinion, it will not as likely lead to the kind of independence and reliability you'll get from a K9 Nose Work dog.

      The last thing I'll comment on is the speeding of the training process as inherently good. In the early days of the activity of K9 Nose Work, we moved very quickly to learning a target odor and training a final response. Due to the endless variety of search problems we can set for the dogs, we encountered unforeseen issues with the reliability of the trained response, and even the reliability of some of the dogs to find source odor - something that would have been easily avoided through a longer period of searching for primary reward and developing a strong search & find behavior with a perfectly timed reward. As a result of moving quickly through the training process, some of us had to slow our training to fix the issues and to strengthen our dogs. Today, with the benefit of experience, we give K9 Nose Work dogs a great foundation and plenty of time to become strong, reliable searchers through the use of primary reward. When training, it's not the speed you move at, but the distance you cover.

      I'm very much in favor of discussion as a catalyst for evolving our thinking and improving our understanding of things and I value every opportunity to learn something different or new. Two reasons I love the K9 Nose Work methodology & philosophy and choose to write about it are the phrases: "It depends" and "It's all about the dogs". K9 Nose Work is dedicated to evolving and improving so our dogs have the most fun and can be the most successful at this great activity!

      Happy Sniffing!

  2. Kathy Holbert from Philippi, WV taught me this method of training during my very first training session. Kathy Holbert has a wealth of knowledge under her belt. I would like to take a moment to recognize and thank Kathy CHIODO Holbert for all the time and commitment she does for all of us in the SAR world. Thank-you Kathy Chiodo Holbert. You have given so much back to the community. What a cool great person you are.