Alert: True or False?

A recent discussion on a Yahoo group has brought to light something I’ve been struggling with for a while. If you have ever trained for Nose Work or gone to a Nose Work class, ORT, or trial, you have probably heard the phrase, false alert. Handlers say things like, “He lied!” or “He wanted the food distractor” or “But he looked at me.” There are no two ways about it, saying a dog “falsed” puts the blame squarely on the dog’s shoulders.

So what actually makes a dog indicate odor if there isn’t odor there? Or more to the point, what was the human half of the team doing when the dog false alerted?

Sometimes a handler stands stock still—or stands too close—as the dog works. When this happens, a sensitive dog may react to the handler’s stillness and closeness and interprets that body pressure as a cue for a certain behavior; and in response to this physical pressure, the dog may offer a behavior (a nose touch, a paw, a look) thinking that is what is being asked. The handler sees the dog performing the alert behavior and makes the call.

Sometimes handlers just get in their dog’s way. Many of our companion dogs are polite and won’t push past a handler to get to the other side of the room, and so then perhaps feeling a little stuck or confused, a dog might offer a behavior (a nose touch, a paw, a look) to see if that’s what’s being asked. “You won’t let me go where I want to, so maybe you want me to do this?”

Sometimes, a handler who isn’t sure that a dog is at source will ask the dog to, “show me.” This can be an inadvertent cue to perform an alert behavior. Or worse, this can dissolve a dog’s confidence and create doubt that maybe he wasn’t right the first time he told you. You can see how this can lead to a downward spiral that decreases confidence for both members of the Nose Work team. Perhaps a more apt name for a false alert is a forced alert.

So what is it that we look for when the dog is at odor? Are we rewarding a behavior at source or are we awarding being at source?

Students ask how it will be possible to know if their dog is at odor if the dog doesn’t sit, paw, down, look back, or do anything else specific, they say they won’t know. And the concern is that then in a trial they will miss the signals–or won’t be able to answer a judge if asked where the location of the hide is.

Nobody knows your dog better than you do. How often during a regular day at home, do you see your dog do something and understand exactly what’s being communicated to you, even though you have never trained that communication? As Amy Herot said in a recent seminar in New York, if there was a cooked Thanksgiving turkey on the top of your refrigerator, would your dog know? Would you know that your dog knows about that turkey? You haven’t trained your dog to do anything to alert you to the presence of a cooked turkey on your fridge, but your dog tells you about it just the same and you understand.

Pay attention to what your dog is doing. If you are worrying in practice about what might happen at a trial, you aren’t fully present with your dog at the moment your dog is at source. You are somewhere in the future worrying about something that might happen.

There are a million ways in which your dog is telling you loud and clear that he is at odor. Reward that and reward it fast. Reward the clear signals your dog gives you automatically. Reinforce what your dog is doing, and soon those signals will be unmistakable to you.

Here’s why:

If you reward your dog at odor before your dog does anything specifically not only are you reinforcing your dog in the best possible way—you are training your eye to see what it looks looks like when your dog reaches source. In fact, not only are you reinforcing your dog, you are reinforcing your observing skills (Yes!! I saw him turn his head when he was under the chair! He’s at source!) It’s a win-win. Your dog’s confidence gets bolstered (Yeah! I did it!! I found that tricky hide under the chair in the corner. I can do this thing!) and your confidence gets bolstered (Yeah! I did it!! I saw my dog find that tricky hide under the chair in the corner! I saw it as soon as he got there!)

If you wait until your dog paws at source to reward, what is your dog learning? That he gets to source and then he paws and gets a reward. Maybe this will work for you. Maybe your dog will understand that it’s the combination of odor+paw in that order that gets the reward. But what if the reward is high or inaccessible? How can your dog paw then? And what if your dog gets confused and feels the stress of his handler at a trial, and then paws something random—because in the past pawing has paid off? Or paws because you are right on top of him and he can’t move to do anything else.

Wouldn’t you rather just feel confident that you genuinely know your dog—and can offer support in a thoughtful way? Wouldn’t you like your dog to be able to rely on you to understand him? Asking for behaviors or repeat finds (show me!) only muddies the message you want your dog to receive: You get rewarded for being at source. Celebrate that moment of the find together. Enjoy being a true team where each member respects the other’s natural abilities.