That (Un)Comfortable Feeling in Training

Learning is stressful. To learn, you need to be outside your comfort zone. It goes for us, and it goes for our dogs. If the motivation and expectations are always the same, learning will be minimal at best.

So how does that affect us when we are training our dogs? I don’t want to push my dog to the point that he gives up and doesn’t want to try. I also don’t want a dog that can’t progress in the skills that he already has. If I set the exercises up so that they are always identical and never challenge the dog, and the dog always gets paid the same, the dog will never progress. If I push the dog to a point that it can’t function then no learning will happen either.

Last year, some of the way I train was challenged when I attended a seminar taught by one of the brilliant trainers at the Scandinavian Working Dog Institute . I discovered Progression Planning (of which I love but still struggle to get it right) which has helped me push Camo in his learning, but not so much that he cannot accept it.

So what does a training session look like for Camo when I push him outside his comfort zone?

The goal of my last session was to have Camo do a search independently (no leash) and indicate on live bed bugs where he would have search past his reward (a ball). Camo LOVES balls…If he doesn’t have a ball in his mouth, there is usually one nearby. The only thing he likes better at this point is his flirt pole. Working past, without interacting with his reward is a huge big deal. It definitely would put him outside his comfort zone to work with his ball accessible.

Here is a modified version of our progression for today.

  • Camo searches and indicates (normal search no ball in sight) on bed bug vial. Camo is rewarded with ball toss (this was successful, no problem)
  • Camo is revved up with ball (yes he knew it was available and fun), and ball is placed in sight of Camo. I then sent Camo to search. Guess what, he headed straight towards the fun ball (who wouldn’t?). I was faster than Camo and the ball was removed from the ground (he didn’t do what he was asked, so he didn’t get to play). I also gave him a moment to reset in his crate for about 10 seconds.
  • I then revved Camo up with the ball again and set it down in front of him. As I knew the last rep was a little too far outside his comfort zone, I then asked Camo for a simple sit for control. I then sent him to search. He went past his ball, searched, and indicated on the bed bugs. The ball was immediately (I did not require a long indication as I was working on a separate skill), tossed for a reward with a huge game of fetch. Our training session ended there.

Was Camo outside his comfort zone in this exercise? I great big affirmative. Did he learn and accomplish the training goal that I had set for the session? That is an affirmative too. I was not afraid the remove the reward opportunity and not afraid of a moment to reset my dog. Learning is stressful. Learning in uncomfortable. If I had of done this exercise in a busy building with lots of chaos and smells, and added the criteria of having to search past his reward and expect a long indication, I would have set my dog up to fail. That would have been way too much stress and no learning would have happened. If I would have continued with simple searches with no change of expectation, no learning would have happened either.

So today’s lesson – a little discomfort and stress is not a bad thing. I challenge you to push both your limits and your dog’s limits. Let me know how it goes.

Training with pseudoscents

Pseudoscents are a controversial topic amongst professional detection trainers.  Some will never use them, some will always use them, and some flip back and forth. So what am I doing with Camo?

Without a realistic dedicated training facility and a steady pool of live bed bugs, training a bed bug dog can sometimes be a logistical pain in the rear end.  A trained bed bug dog has to alert on live bed bugs only ( alerting on dead bugs, feces, and casings are not acceptable for a professional bed bug dog).  Training bugs need to be contained and kept alive for training purposes.  While there are vials specifically designed for training detection dogs, the vials do not necessarily fit in all the places that bed bugs can fit.

bed bug detection dog training vial
Vial of bed bugs for training a bed bug detection dog

Dogs do not generalize very well so need to be worked in unfamiliar places.  Live bed bugs are not normally welcomed at other people’s property, and this is where a solution can be found using bed bug pheromone spray.

bed bug pheromone spray
Bed bug pheromone spray ready for use

Some may ask, “why not do all my training on pseudo pheromone scent, and then I don’t have to worry about keeping live bed bugs?”

In short, I worry about the scent profile that the spray has as it is within a carrier alcohol.  If the dog is imprinted on the pseudo, I worry that the dog will look for a scent profile that includes the carrier alcohol.  

My solution with Camo was to initially imprint on live bed bugs and then introduce the pheromone spray to see if it was a seamless transition.  The following pictures will show where the hide was, and Camo finding it.  I did not introduce the pheromone spray by itself.  Rather, I just sent him to search and he was searching for bed bugs.

Pseudoscent hide location
The gauze with the pheromone scent was placed under the baseboard heater, behind the dustpan

Camo finds pseudoscent hide
Camo seamlessly found the bed bug pheromone spray hide

I will continue switching Camo’s training back and forth between live bed bugs and pheromone spray so that I am able to fulfill a well rounded scent detection training program with him until we are ready to test for certification.

Stay tuned for future inside looks of Camo’s bed bug detection training journey….

The Importance of Intelligent Disobedience in Task Focused Activities

If you ask trainers what dog and handler teams make the best teams in sport/scent activities (scent detection, nose work, gun dog work), it is often not the high scoring obedience teams, the dogs who never take their eyes off their handler, or the dogs that look to their handlers for direction.  Are these teams successful, most definitely.  Are there other teams that seem to pick it up faster?  The most usual answer is yes.  You see dogs that have a long history of not looking to their handlers for inspiration (I’m avoiding saying a long history of disobeying their handlers), are not afraid to think for themselves, and are not afraid to use their nose despite what their handler tells them.


Here’s the next thing to remember, handlers and trainers are human sometimes make mistakes, and in gun dog work, birds don’t always follow the training plan.  I have forgotten where I have planted a hide and on more than one occasion, a dog has found it in a different location than I thought it was planted.  I have seen birds planted that got up and moved, or buried themselves so deep that they would not flush.  If the dog was afraid to disobey me, there is a big risk that I would end up with a false alert or point, or worse a “blink” (dog avoids the area completely and pretends it doesn’t exist).

My best advice is this, your dog has the expert nose, not you.  If a dog false alerts, or does not follow your search pattern the way you want it, let your dog lead, and do not punish it.  There is only one thing that will pay and that is scent (or a bird).  In a blind search (or hunt), you are dependant entirely on your dog telling you where scent is.  If your dog is so focused on pleasing you and is afraid to make a mistake, they will give you the alert you want, but it might not be correct.  Let your dog disobey you and obey their nose. Celebrate when your dog does not follow your direction and makes a choice for themselves.  If they get it wrong, they just don’t get paid, but they did learn something (even if it is that their handler’s body language is not to be trusted.