What is an Indication?
The indication or alert is the means by which your dog is able to communicate to you that he’s found the location of his target scent source. It’s a behaviour that, after training, your dog will perform “immediately and unprompted” (Cablk et al, 2006) and is usually categorised as being either passive or (pro)-active in nature. In large part this classification is dependent on the degree to which the indication behaviour involves contact, or direct interaction with, the scent source.
I tend to view passive indications as those where the dog makes minimal or no contact with the scent source. For example, your dog might sit or lie down beside the scent source or place his nose on it or simply stare at it. In contrast, the pro-active indication involves far more direct engagement with the scent source and may include behaviours such as scratching, grabbing, biting and retrieving (Hurt et al, 2009).
Barking is another very commonly used indication. As this behaviour doesn’t involve any direct contact with the scent source, it would seem to be just another form of passive indication, however, as Hurt et al (2009) point out, as a fundamentally frustrative behaviour that “can accelerate into other frustration behaviors” it is probably better described as another form of pro-active indication. In explaining their position, Hurt et al (2009) cited the case of search dogs on the Island of Guam who were trained to detect brown tree snakes and indicate their location by barking. Unfortunately, before very long, this behaviour transformed into pawing and biting and, for the safety of the dogs and the welfare of the snakes, the dogs had to be re-trained.
Does my Scent Detecting dog need an indication?
My short answer to this question is YES and here’s why …
Successful Scent Detecting requires your dog to search for, and locate, his target scent source. Without an indication (either passive or pro-active), you’ll have no means of knowing – for sure – that he’s found it. As Scent Detecting is primarily all about finding, it makes little sense to overlook training the one unambiguous way that your dog has to tell you that he has done just that … his indication.
Why spend time training an indication when I can just watch for a COB?
Recently I’ve noticed a growing trend toward relying on a dogs change of behaviour (COB) to help the handler recognise that their dog has located the scent source. Typical changes in behaviour might include slowing down, speeding up, heightened interest in a particular area of a room, walking on tip-toes with head held high … the list of possibilities is almost endless. Each of these behaviours may help you narrow down the location of the target scent source but may also act to totally mislead you.
As an example of just how poor a COB can be as a means of helping you decide that your dog has located the target scent source, take a little look at this video of Dream working amongst farm machinery.
At 23 seconds Dream starts to show a heightened interest along the wall of the tractor shed. This extra interest, or COB – standing on tip-toes, head in the air, staying close to the wall, carefully investigating certain areas – continues until approximately 58 seconds into the video when she then moves on to investigate other parts of the building.
I think it perfectly reasonable to suggest that many handlers, seeing their dog showing this level of interest in a particular area, would be sorely tempted to keep their dog working there until something is ‘found’. That something being a false indication.
The dog’s COB → Increased interest in the area by the handler → Increasing interest in the area by the dog → Further interest in the area by the handler → Increasing psychological pressure on dog to ‘find’ something → False (positive) indication by the dog!
This is just one example of the ‘Clever Hans Phenomenon’ or ‘Clever Hans Effect’ at work – “where a person or animal can be influenced by subtle and unintentional cueing on the part of a questioner” (Jackson, 2005). If you’d like to know more about how the Clever Hans phenomenon can impact your scent detecting, just follow this link to False Indications, Clever Hans and You
At “Scent : Detect : Find” dogs are trained to search independently, following scent plumes and filaments back to source without undue interference from their human partners. This “hands off” approach to scent detecting goes a long way toward mitigating the Clever Hans Phenomenon. In addition, all dogs are trained an indication behaviour that is totally reliable and unambiguous …. so much so that it is easily recognisable, not only to the handler but, to anyone else who might be looking on.
If you review the video again, you’ll notice that throughout her search Dream’s handler remains out of shot. At all times, Nicky gives Dream the necessary space to work independently. Even when Dream shows heightened interest along the wall of the tractor shed (23 secs – 58 secs), Nicky stays clear of the area and waits for Dream to persuade her, by way of her indication, that her target scent source is there … or, as in this particular search … in a completely different area!
And this is why your dog’s indication is not an optional extra. Having a well trained indication allows Nicky to simply watch her dog until that indication comes.
… Nose Touch. Stillness. Duration.
So, what type of Indication is best – Passive or Pro-Active?
I favour the passive indication and train my own, and other handlers, dogs to place their nose as close to the target scent source as possible and hold it there for a minimum of 5 seconds or until their handler asks them to move away.
This type of indication fits well with your dog’s natural olfactory behaviour. Watch your dog when he’s pottering around the garden. What does he do when he catches an interesting odour? He gets his nose as close to it as possible and, more often than not, will stay fixed to it for a lengthy period of time.
If the scent source is inaccessible to your dog’s nose, for example, placed high up on a wall, or submerged under-water, then this nose touch is transformed easily and quickly into a sustained nose point.
My reasons for selecting the passive indication and, more particularly, the
nose touch → nose point (if inaccessible)
Safety – Passive indications help minimise any direct engagement with the target scent source. This can be important where either the target scent itself, or its location, may pose a danger to your dog.
For example, tobacco products such as cigarette and cigar butts, nicotine patches and gum and e-cigarette fluid are all harmful to our dogs (Novotny et al, 2011).
Whilst the target scent may be safe for your dog, its location may not be. Sadly, every year there are a number of reported dog fatalities from Acute Water Intoxication following a period of time playing in water (Toll et al, 1999). Typically, these dogs have been repeatedly diving into water to retrieve items thrown in for them whilst, at the same time, ingesting excessive volumes of water (Becker, 2013). Although the actual prevalence of this condition is difficult to confirm – Becker (2013) believing it to be a relatively rare occurrence – retrieving from water should be an activity that you monitor closely and / or consider restricting.
If your dog has a passive indication, all of these potential dangers are markedly reduced.
Precise and unambiguous – There is no mistaking the precise location of the target scent when your dog’s nose is either touching or pointing toward it. Adding duration to the indication adds even more certainty … your dog isn’t simply having a passing investigatory sniff!
Other passive indications such as a sit or a down cannot match this degree of accuracy particularly in situations where your dog is searching for tiny amounts of target scent, so tiny that you would be hard pressed to see it yourself.
Can be used in all situations – No matter where the target scent is located – submerged under water, high up on a piece of furniture, buried underground, in an easily accessible position – it will be possible for your dog to either touch his nose to it or point toward its position.
Preserves the integrity of the scent source – A nose touch, or point, minimises any possible damage to the target scent source. This is unlikely to be the case with a Pro-active indication.
Requires no further training / re-training in changed circumstances – Starting off your Scent Detecting training with a pro-active indication may seem like a good idea until you decide to change your target scent. At this point, letting your dog interact with it may now be a dangerous or very expensive mistake! Oops.
But a Passive Indication is difficult and time-consuming to train, isn’t it?
Well, that all depends on your point of view …
It certainly requires careful, detailed and thorough training to ensure reliability. Training can take anything from just a few hours or, in a limited number of cases (and for some very specific reasons), a few months to complete and this should all happen BEFORE searching “proper” begins.
Without this careful, early, training you are likely to encounter indication problems further down the line. Far simpler to train a reliable passive indication in the first place than have to add in further, often complex, remedial training at some later point in time including “Show me” or “Where is it?” cues.
The “Show me” or “Where is it?” cue is used, predominantly, within competition scent work circles where time means points means places! For very obvious reasons, an indication with lengthy duration is rarely trained and, as a consequence, any indication that there is may be missed by the handler. The “Show me” cue is a way of asking the dog to return to the location of the target scent and indicate again. I’m afraid I’m not a great fan of this sticking plaster approach to training. Far better I’d say to train the indication behaviour thoroughly in the first place than add in this extra layer of training complexity.
And then there’s the thorny issue of being “just a pet dog owner”. According to this viewpoint, pet dog owners are rarely interested in training a reliable passive indication. … It takes time … It delays their dog from starting to search until the indication training is complete … They aren’t bothered about an indication … They don’t have the training skills … and so on. Certainly this has never been my experience. The majority of my clients are “just pet dog owners” with almost 60 of them having trained reliable passive indications and another 50 or more well on their way.
So … in conclusion …
As Scent Detecting is all about finding, it makes little sense to overlook training the one unambiguous way that your dog has to tell you that he has done just that … his indication.
If you’d like to know how I train a Passive Indication, look out for my next Blog – “Smoothing out the Lumpy Bits; Why it might be wise to teach the indication before the search”.
And NO … your dog’s indication should never be a scent detecting optional extra.
As with all of my blogs, I include a reference list. This allows you to investigate the topic a little further, check out the sources of my information and decide for yourself whether my interpretations of the literature are an accurate reflection of the author’s original work. Happy reading.
© Lesley McAllister – Scent : Detect : Find Ltd 2018
References / Further Reading
- Becker K (2013) Water Intoxication: Too Much of a Good Thing. https://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2013/10/28/water-intoxification.aspx Accessed 15.12.2018
- Cablk ME and Heaton JS (2006) ACCURACY AND RELIABILITY OF DOGS IN SURVEYING FOR DESERT TORTOISE (GOPHERUS AGASSIZII). Ecological Applications. 16(5). 1926-1935
- Hurt A and Smith DA (2009). Conservation Dogs. IN: Helton WS (Ed) Canine Ergonomics: The Science of Working Dogs. Taylor and Francis Group: London.
- Jackson J (2005) The Clever Hans effect – a horse’s tale. Critical Thinking. http://www.critical-thinking.org.uk/pdf/clever-hans.pdf
- Novotny TE, Hardin SN, Hovda LR, Novotny DJ, McLean MK, Khan S (2011) Tobacco and cigarette butt consumption in humans and animals. Tobacco Control. 20. 17-20
- Toll J, Barr SC, Hickford FH (1999) Acute Water Intoxication in a Dog. Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care. 9. 1. 19-22.