Scent Work 2-3 False Alerts

This lecture will cover what a False Alert is and how to handle when your dog is showing interest/indicating on a cold box or area.  A false alert is when your dog indicates they are at source but they are not. If it were a trial/test, you would think they are at source and you would call it. A dog may do this on a distraction (food in container), fringing on odor nearby, finding novel odor and thinking it may pay, stressed and defaulting to a known behavior, or trying to read handler cues and “guessing”. The last two probably are closely related.

Our job is to convince our dog that only odor pays and anything else will just delay getting reinforcement. A dog may also get used to cues that we give off as handlers and try to “tell” us that they found the container to see if we will come in and reward. When they are at source, we always come in and reward. They learn pretty quickly when we do nothing or say a certain phrase, they are probably wrong and will move on. So they start guessing and watching our reaction.

In the very beginning we give our dogs some time to figure it out without much intervening. We should be setting it up in small increments so that we only increase the challenge (more boxes, new areas, distrastions, etc) when they were successful at the last step/level. The following information is to tell you what to do if you start seeing a pattern of false alerts. We want to start off pretty soon with some consistent reaction whether the dog is right or not.


Simply pick up the box, then put it back down again.  Picking up the box takes it out of play and communicates to the dog that that box isn’t correct.  Be careful to try to be silent… we don’t want to accidentally use a NRM or Non-Reward Marker (never use the word “No” or “Leave It” in Nosework!). This is a great way to address an occasional false alert.


In this case you are dealing with confusion and you need to give your dog more information.  You do NOT need to do this if you only occasionally get a false alert!

This is a great quote from Denise from the very first FDSA NW classes:

I acknowledge every time my dog talks to me. If she tells me she has it, then I go in to see. If she’s correct, she eats. If she’s wrong, we admire not much of anything together. Since admiration is not what she’s looking for, I find that goes away in a hurry. But you must respond when your dog talks to you, or they’ll get in the habit of thinking that no response from you means they are wrong – that’s a disastrous problem to have when you don’t know where the hide is, such in a trial where the dog really does have to take responsibility for convincing you. I always respond – just not necessarily the way they were hoping.

Here are a few things you can start doing now if you are seeing some of this behavior with your dog.

  • If your dog is indicating or interacting with a cold container, first just walk in slowly. Let’s see first if they’ll move on.
  • If they insist on that box, continue over and pick it up and admire it. Say “what a nice box”. You can even open it and show that there isn’t anything in it. Put the box down and then move away. Repeat – move away. At this point we are using your movement to help a little with the situation.
  • I would not start adding any verbal questions like “is that it?” or “did you find it?” at this stage. People often add that in later when their dog is more advanced as a routine of confirming with their dog. If you do that, you need to be very consistent and always ask that even on the right box. It can’t only be asked when they are wrong. For now, we want to keep our chatter to a minimum. Focus on easy setups and lots of successes.
  • If your dog is really struggling, go back to fewer containers.

The eventual result of admiring a cold container should be your dog moving off on their own as you come in if it’s not odor.


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