Weekly assessment guidelines for development

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Quality of time spent is far more important than the quantity of time

Obedience is purposefully omitted. You are creating a dog that is curious, investigative, confident with their physicality, and INDEPENDENT! The dog should be free to search and not inhibited nor focused on the handler. 

All performance exercises should be age appropriate.  A six week old puppy cannot carry a tennis ball easily or attempt to sniff for their reward object on top of the refrigerator. Environmental stability/ socialization should be short for the young dog (less than ten minutes) and longer for the adult dog. The same is true of reward engagement sessions. A minute is an eternity to a young puppy. 

Resilience is developing a dog for life as a detection dog, this includes but is not limited too- veterinary care, wearing a muzzle, life in a large kennel, transport in crates and trailers within vehicles, temperature extremes, performing with kenneled or trailered dogs nearby, etc.


The most repeated mistakes

o Clever Hans- Helping your dog with cues versus letting the dog work

o Spoiling a dog in the comfort of a pet.

o Advancing progressions to quickly- Most people want to go straight to complex searches, which leads to a dog that is frustrated and quits or to the Clever Hans syndrome

o Giving in to the dog’s weakness versus building strengths- repeatedly rewarding a dog for a partial or minimal performance will not build strength, even if it makes you feel better.

o Too often giving a dog affection and treats for nothing, squanders great opportunity for training. 

o Stress is not all bad, performing through stress builds resilience.

o Not observing unintended learning, often as we train there is learning taking place that is intended and often learning that is unintended. Be acutely aware of both.

o If you perform each of these exercises for 5-10 minutes a day you are looking at 40 to 80 minutes a day per dog. That would not include travel time, set up time, or routine care and feeding of the dog. Use you time wisely. Do not consider process (going through the motions) to be progress (a steady increase in progress). I would schedule different things for different days to make best use of time. 

o Your priorities with a young dog are Environmental Stability with Socialization, and Reward Engagement. 


Environmental Stability- Usually. the first point of elimination for dogs being evaluated. 

You can simulate some of this with playground set ups at home but, rearrange and move them frequently to help the dogs generalize. You want the dog to want to do these things with the least amount of input from you. You are creating a dog who is investigative, curious, confident, independent. Physical challenges in the environment need to be reduced to simple obstacles between the dog and his reward. You should make it a habit to visit different areas with your dog that provide the challenges and exposures you need for your developing dog. 

- Unfamiliar environments

- Unfamiliar noises

- Unfamiliar groups of people

- Stairs and ramps

- Variations in floor surfaces

- Open grated footing

- Tight places

- Jumping on to things of a reasonable height and stability

- Stretching body and extending onto with front paws towards things of a reasonable height and stability

- Sliding glass doors and air curtains

- Hanging objects and plastic sheets

- Elevators, escalators, and moving sidewalks

- Loud machinery and moving vehicles

- Anything in the environment that will distract the dog from their detection dog tasks.


Socialization- Too often socialization is misconstrued to mean that the dog needs to visit and “socialize” with every strange dog and person. This is very impractical for a working dog in a heavily traveled pedestrian area. A dog should be very comfortable around strangers (as they could be odor targets) but should not be rude or intrusive. Be cautious how often you let you dog be petted by strangers, sometimes is okay, but not all the time. The dog should be comfortable with other dogs being nearby, but should not feel the need for a “meet and greet”. It is of very high value to regularly visit the veterinarian, if only to go in to the waiting room and then leave. This is also a good time and place to practice putting a muzzle on your dog as a high reward behavior. 


Reward Engagement- Develop three forms of possession of the reward object.

Mental possession- The dog will hold a fixed gaze on the object sitting still a few paces ahead of them and will track people moving with a reward object and moving away from the dog.

Physical possession- This is the desire to play “tug of war” with the reward object. There is a significant amount of misinformation floating about that this will make the dog be aggressive. This is only true if you make is a game of aggression and not possession. 

Independent possession- This is where the dog always wants to keep the reward object in their mouth. Retrieving is a poor way to teach this as the dog is inhibiting its natural desire to keep its “prey”. Research has shown that dogs in play will release reward objects quicker to humans than they will to another dog. Try to be another dog. In open areas I will have a dog drag a check or long line when they are engaged in independent possession. It is much easier to get to the end of a 30 foot line than the head of a dog. 


Search- People place far too much emphasis on this in young dogs, which causes two problems-

-Dogs give up out of frustration if the hide is too difficult

-And or the handler starts cueing the dog on where the hide is, making the dog dependent on the handler to locate the object/odor. 

Until the dog shows extreme possession in all three types, hides need to be super simple ( just around a corner, at the edge of short to tall grass, in an open drawer, just at the open seam of a cabinet or closet, just inside and open doorway). Working your way up to more complex hides as the dog matures and has clearly demonstrated intense desire to find the reward. 


Olfactory Acuity- Deep sniffing is a learned behavior and must be developed. Using new reward items heightens their use of nose since the odor is stronger when it is a new ball, kong, etc. There are exercises to develop this in very young puppies, but it will require some investment and additional education for those wishing to pursue this training. Sniffing for food in young dogs is good, but must be eliminated around 6 months of age when the possession for the reward object is high. A dog searching for food can be a liability within the training systems of using reward object based training. A dog that is highly active and panting will have a hard time learning to sniff. 


Physical Exercise- Dogs get the majority of their exercise in the yard or kennel. The next level of exercise should be during play. Always keep in mind the conditions and try not to exhaust the dog. End play sessions before fatigue, with the dog wanting to play more. It takes time to build endurance. I would be very interested in seeing how different forms of exercise impact the developing detection dog (slat mill, treadmill, swimming, biking, etc) Dogs who open mouth pant are often eliminating from consideration for procurement if they display that behavior during the search.  


Play -"Play is all motor activity that appears to be purposeless....." Play can be categorized as social or non social. Social play can be with your own kind or with others outside your species, non social play involves objects, toys and the environment. 

Play in the detection dog is both social and nonsocial. Socially the dog is in a game of hide and seek with the handler, where the handler can give the dog clues and opportunity, but relies on the dogs ability to find the hidden toy, The nonsocial function of play is the dogs desire to find and possess the toy. If the toy is not self motivating and self rewarding, the dog can lose the desire to find and keep the reward.

-Play with your dog will create a better bond. 

-Imitating dog play postures can signal play to your dog

-Dog to dog play is distinct from people to dog play. That dogs tend to possess the play object less when playing with people than in playing with other dogs.

-Just because you think of it as play, your dog may not perceive it as play. 


Cross Training- Any other activity you are doing can be beneficial to the young candidate in training. Agility, tracking, puppy socialization classes, and others could be beneficial. The caveat would be to do these things somewhat irregularly and try to let the behavioral pathways of detection work dominate the dogs time and desire.

Playing with the teaser pole

Basic rules-

Be fair, the pup should always win.

The bunny never jumps in the dogs mouth.

Anticipation is as desirable as is the reward itself.

Challenge the dog to go longer and be resilient to distraction while engaged in toy play.

Keep in mind an adult dog searching hundreds or thousands of blank targets in order to find their reward!

Comparing two puppies

Here are two puppies placed in an environmentally enhanced environment. Can you see a difference? (video is sped up)

Self exploration

Many people want to bait and reward dogs for moving through obstacles. There is some value in this for generalization, but what they will do on their own and gain in independence is better found in self exploration.

Development with an end goal

Malinois pups development

Early development of independent behavior

Old video, but good content

Obstacle courses

This is a video that is inspiring in many ways. Read more about my view of this work on my blog.

Epigenetics primer

Ghost in the genes

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