Part Two (of three) – Detection Canine’s False Response/Nonproductive Response

Thanks to many of you who read and commented on Part One of this article, I appreciate your time and opinions. I would like to add a clarification to one of my sentences after a very astute and correct reader asked me about its real meaning. My sentence reads, “so if a consequence is pleasurable the behavior will increase, if the consequence is un-pleasurable the behavior will decrease.”
To better clarify what this means, “It is the FUTURE strength (through demonstration/performance) of the behavior, not our assumption that tells us what the dog is willing to use ITS behavior to get more of!! The reinforcement selected by the receiver, not the giver, which is the most valuable.”

Thanks again! Now here’s Part Two…

Memphis the SAR Redbone Coonhound detecting a smell.Canine selection – We will not be discussing canine selection in this article. It is assumed that the dog we are dealing with is healthy and suitable for detection work (Email me if you need assistance in this area.)

Trained Odor Association – We will not go too deeply into the scientific descriptions of the classical and operant conditioning that takes place during trained odor association. (There are several GREAT books on all of the science and its canine training applications.) In simple terms it is the combining of something very important to the dog (i.e. food, ball etc.) with something that has no meaning to the dog (i.e. C-4, marijuana, cadaver etc.) classical conditioning at its finest. Through repeated association we creep into and then land squarely into operant conditioning as the outcome of a search is either rewarded or not rewarded depending on if the dog found the trained (target) odor or not. This should not be confused with whether the dog was CORRECT or not (which is actually to me the most important).

Remember our initial question and four answers?

Every time a detector dog is deployed to search we are just simply asking the dog a question, “Is there trained odor present in the search area or not?”

Here are the four possible answers that our trained canine is going to provide us.

  1. The dog responds “positive” and there is trained odor in the search area (correct).
  2. The dog does not respond and there is not trained odor in the search area (correct).
  3. The dog responds “positive” that there is trained odor in the search area but there is not trained odor in the search area (false).
  4. The dog does not respond and there is trained odor in the search area (false).

Again, here is another training situation where we begin to “train-in” more problems in our detection dogs! The success of the dog in the trainer and handlers eyes, are whether or not he found the trained odor. However, from the dog’s perspective it told the truth there was no odor in the search area and it did not respond and it did not get rewarded! Now the dog begins to look for any additional information that may possess the formula for getting rewarded (reinforced) it may be found in environmental tips, information coming from the handler or any combination that may relate to the dogs version of a successful outcome (which is always to receive its reinforcement).

Although taken lightly by many, the trained odor association training is the foundation for success! Poor or incomplete (unclear) training in this area is the root cause of many false responses/NPR. The reason is quite simple – if the canine isn’t clear on what actually gets him rewarded, he will very likely be confused and begin to respond inappropriately to non-target odors, environmental or handler cues or some combination. Not to over-stress my point but this is usually where the trainer or handler “thinks” the dog has trained odor and reinforces the dog and thus actually “confirms” to the dog that it is the other cues (maybe involving the trained odor or not) that get the reinforcement and not exclusively the trained odor (if at all)! Extreme care must be used in this first step of trained odor association to ensure that only the target odor and nothing more is being added to the canine’s simple behavior chain – trained odor + traced/followed to source + trained final response = REINFORCEMENT!!

Also, I firmly believe that planned and prepared “scent discrimination” exercises (a separate subject) should be added early into detection training so that the canine is able to make NUMEROUS correct choices and be reinforced for giving the correct answer, not just finding the trained/target odor. Many trainers assume that because they are working in different environments that discrimination training is built into the program, they are wrong!

Verona the Search and Rescue Dobermann.We will be touching a little more on this subject later in the article, but by no means will we get close to dissecting this subject in its entirety and its vital importance!!

Trained final response (TFR) to target odor - This is the process of teaching the canine student what you want him to do to communicate the end of the behavior chain. I still find this portion of many training programs quite amusing! The dog has no concern what this final behavior will be he just wants to get paid (reinforced). If you want a sit then train a sit. If you want a scratch or bite then train it. If you want the dog to literally stand on three legs and point out the trained odor with its free paw, it can be trained! Many handlers waste an exorbitant amount of time teaching or repairing the trained final response. Remember from the dog’s perspective, this is the behavior right before his reinforcement, so he will quickly learn this is a very important step to him. This is another step in training that confusion slides in. A properly motivated dog that has correctly learned the trained odors and how to trace them to source is still learning the final portion of the behavior check and is therefore quite alert to environmental or handler cues. Unfortunately, teaching the TFR is another area that the application of incorrect compulsion/punishment is also likely to appear or reappear. I have NEVER seen a properly motivated dog benefit from compulsion to train or “fix” a TFR! When used, it adds confusion to the behavior chain, devalues the reinforcement and usually causes mistrust between the dog and handler or trainer. It also does something else that many folks just miss – as the dog begins to learn how to AVOID the correction, it becomes hyper-aware of the environment, making it 100% LESS likely to learn, demonstrate or follow the desired trained behavior chain!

If there are issues with a TFR the early training was done poorly or added to the confusion of what exactly was/is being reinforced. Why would any dog use the energy to concentrate to search, locate and follow a trained odor to source and then through sheer disobedience deny itself the highly prized reinforcement by giving a faulty TFR? It wouldn’t!! It’s doing what it was trained to do or what it has been successful in doing that got reinforced by the handler/trainer! The solution to fix the TFR is always simple, but as Bob Bailey says “Simple doesn’t mean easy.” There are several ways of “correcting” these issues; some will be mentioned in part three.

Memphis the Redbone Coonhound searching for a scent. Trained odor search sequence - This is the process of teaching the canine students the most efficient and effective way to search for the trained odor. Again depending on how this is done we begin to build in factors that will influence the dogs understanding and demonstration of the task in hand. It has to do mostly with what and where the “productive” or “reinforced” areas are to the dog. Again, it is slightly alarming to me, the sheer number of trainers and handlers that say, “this dog never goes low” or “this dog has always been bad at high-hides.” The fact is dogs that are not taught certain search skills CAN NEVER demonstrate them. You want the dog to search low? Then using successive approximations, the next 15 out of 20 hides are all low… Problem solved. The dog has always struggled with high height training aids, use successive approximations to teach the skills of tracing and then physically orientating to the high trained odor plumes. It’s now more “productive” as there are more of them and the skills have been taught WITHOUT handler/trainer assistance (totally crippling to the learning process, but more on this in Part Three.) and through correct aid placement!

End of Part Two - I hope I have begun to open up some new perspectives on training issues, timing, rates of reinforcement and historic falsehoods in detection training.

In Part Three - I will tie it all together and show how the earliest training errors lay the foundation and through improper maintenance training, both trainers and handlers enhance the confusion that lead unnecessarily to the detection canine’s false response/nonproductive response issues. I will also bring on the final piece that deals with serious legal ramifications.

Authored by: Don Blair

Photo credit: Photos courtesy of Amy Lawson, featuring Memphis (Redbone Coonhound) and Verona (Dobermann).




  1. Adam Cox says:

    This information is well done. My mother judged K9 Police dogs, my father was a Chief of Police in New York, and I am getting my first Shepard puppy in a few months. I have trained many dogs before but not in this form of discipline.

    Great content. I hope my dog can contribute to the community.

  2. grant says:

    Where is part 3 of this please?

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