We need to ensure we are clear to our dog on WHAT pays. Dogs are still learning at this stage and are not quite sure what behavior is being reinforced. Being at odor is what we are reinforcing so we need to be careful when dealing with unwanted behavior at source. We need to be mindful that we are doing all we can to give reinforcement when they find odor and not lose the opportunity to reinforce in a timely manner.
First, we need to acknowledge our dog’s great find by clicking or marking verbally BEFORE going in to reward. Our mark is the conditioned reinforcer that tells our dog YES, that is the behavior we want and that reinforcement is on its way! This will give acknowledgement to your dog that they did what we wanted and they will be less likely to offer other behaviors to “call” us in. This is when adding duration at source needs to be handled carefully and not rushed. If we are not clear and we are late to acknowledge their “find”, frustration can set in causing the dog to offer other behaviors that may not be desirable like pawing, perching, chewing, or pushing the odor source around.
Some behaviors are very common on containers since there can be other associations they have with “perch like” objects. Or a dog can be very oral, or likes to retrieve items or is a pawer by nature. These behaviors may never fully be extinguished. The more drive they develop for NW the more they want to get to source. A mild amount of interaction at source should not cause you worry and generally will not be penalized.
If your dog’s unwanted behavior is mild, just wait for their nose only to be at source before rewarding. If they are perching or have a paw on the box, just pull the box out from under them and then quickly reward when their nose goes back to source.
If your dog’s behavior at source is over the top and becoming extreme, it might be appropriate to remove opportunity for reinforcement for a few seconds and then resume training and reward immediately for nose at source.
The important piece is to not make your dog think another behavior is what pays. If you mark/reward while they are pawing, for instance, they can accidentally chain in the undesired behavior which they will repeat. If your dog finds source and then paws and then you reward you are creating a behavior chain. If you decide you want to extinguish this behavior based on your dog’s temperament, be consistent with your criteria and vigilant of how this is affecting their work. Dog’s pick up quickly on what leads to reinforcement! Be fair and set them up for success.
Note: Not every approach fits all dogs!! There are many NW dogs (including those at the NW2 and NW3 level) that interact with containers or hides. It might be chewing or pawing – being a little pushy at source. For dogs that have low confidence or are fragile and can easily shut down we might want to ignore these antics. We actually might want to encourage it. If you have a dog that is soft and stresses down or shuts down easily – especially in novel or trial environments, and we put too many rules on them, they may not have the confidence to show a strong indication. So in some cases we want a dog to be pushy at source – to use that outlet for motivation and drive. We are careful not to reward these behaviors heavily (still wait for only a nose touch or nose at source before rewarding) but we aren’t actively trying to extinguish the behavior like the video example below. Softer/fragile dogs usually do not have extreme antics at the containers. Higher drive dogs can handle more rules and criteria and their antics could be a problem while trialing. You know your dog better than anyone. So decide on the criteria that is BEST for your dog. A little pawing, digging, chewing is not always a problem. Interaction within reason is not penalized. When trialing we are in and out fast and we are not prolonging their stay at source any longer than we have to. The key is to not add confusion which could lead to extra behaviors out of frustrating (timing being off, adding too much duration too soon, dog being good at source and not being rewarded, etc).