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Let me start out by saying that the only thing that two dog trainers will ever agree on, is that a third dog trainer is doing something wrong! I personally don't believe there are many, if any, wrong ways to "train dogs" but there ARE wrong ways to train a particular dog. Every method of training is like a tool in your tool box. 99.99% of the time, you might not need a specific tool, but it costs you nothing to learn a training method and keep it in your tool box in case of that .01% instance where you need it. I am going to describe my general training plan. Other people use other methods, and that is fine. I might even try some of those other methods out along the way to see if they produce better results with these specific dogs, and if they do, change my training plan up! Adapt and overcome!
So we at K9s 4 Conservation are very lucky to have two adult dogs that are "green." A green dog is one that has been tested for drives and has some solid foundational work, but hasn't been put on a specific task (like drug or explosives detection). This means that we can skip a lot of the really basic obedience stuff. Both dogs know how the "clicker" works (I click, they get a treat) and all I really need to do is obedience drills to build rapport and solidify some things like the recall ("come here") command.
So how DO you train a dog to find an endangered turtle nest? The same way you train a dog to find anything from drugs, to human remains, to bat poop, and desert tortoises! You get a sample of the scent you want the dog to find, present the scent to the dog, and reward them every time they sniff it! I like to start adding the "search" command in here when the dogs nose touches the source so they start to associate those words (I'm using "find it") with looking for that specific scent.
As it becomes obvious that the dog is starting to understand that their job is to put their nose on the source, you can start trying to add in a "final response." This is the signal the dog will give you that they have pinpointed the source of the target scent. There are many possible final indications to choose from including active alerts (barking, digging, returning to the handler) and passive alerts (sitting, laying down). Since we will be dealing with fragile critically endangered sea turtle eggs, and there could be nesting mothers nearby, we do not want an active alert. Barking could frighten a nesting turtle and digging could damage the eggs, so our turtle dogs will be trained for a passive alert. To train this alert, you can wait to see what the dog does naturally, Saul for instance has started to lay down next to the source already, or you can "cue" the behavior. To cue the behavior, you just add a "sit" or "down" command when the dog sniffs the scent. Eventually, the dog will learn that sniffing the scent is always coupled with the command "sit," for instance, and will automatically begin sitting when they get to the source!
Eventually, you can move the scent further and further away. After a while, you will start to put the scent source somewhere they can't see, but the dog still gets to watch you "hide" it. As you move it further and further away, you will get to a point where the dog doesn't remember exactly where they saw you hide it, and they'll start to sniff around to find the source. Once they are doing this really well, you can start trying to hide the source without the dog seeing you do it. When you get to this step, you start out with incredibly simple problems, so the dog does not have to travel far to find the source, then gradually increase the distance.
It is very important to remember that you want to vary the difficulty of your training. Some trainers want to start easy and progress to harder problems without ever going back to those easy ones again. Just harder and harder and harder each time. While some dogs will be okay with this approach, most will become frustrated and disinterested in the work. And why not? If you went to work the first day and they said, "Pick up this box and put it in the other room," then gave you $5 when you were done, you'd be pretty motivated to move that box! Easy task, good payout! But if they kept moving the box further away or making the box heavier and heavier, it would eventually get to the point where you'd think, "Moving this giant box is no longer worth the $5 I'm getting paid for it." But if you still moved a light box 80% of the time, moving those heavier boxes wouldn't be so bad, because usually, the job is very easy. So we will always make sure to spend time working on moving those light boxes with our dogs.
Saul and Dasha are still in the very beginning phases of their training, so still back at the "scent imprinting" stage.
In future training blogs, I will post about:
Choosing, obtaining, and caring for scent sources
"Proofing" the dogs off of other scents
And of course, how Saul and Dasha are doing!