I talked about motivation in the blog Motivation – keep it up! earlier. Since the motivation is the key to keep the dog interested in the work it is supposed to do thoroughly and intensively we should always pay attention to it.
In a study which dealt with Explosive Detection Dogs (EDD) Irit Parnafes-Gazit argued that “[…] despite the reports in the literature that suggest the importance of sniffing rate for successful olfactory detection, I suggest here that the influence of the dog’s motivational level on its detection performance dominates that of the olfaction variables (i.e. sniffing frequency). Under motivated situations the dog will recruit all of its resources in order to fulfill the assigned task successfully, by fully focusing its attention on the olfactory cues available for detection of explosives.” Thus, without motivation it is useless to use a dog for detection work.
In another study Gazit et al. tested highly trained Explosive Detection Dogs and how their motivation changed when they were training on a pathway where there were never any targets to find. Already after a few training sessions the dogs showed significant decrease in search behaviour and started missing newly placed targets. When the dogs were taken to train on another path similar to the clear one, their motivation was again higher as they had no prior expectations to this environment. And finally they tried to gain the dogs’ motivation on the first path by doing 12 training sessions per day where there always was one target per session. However, they failed to regain the level of motivation that the dogs had when working in the new environments or in the environment they knew the dogs would find targets.
This is a very common thing to happen and an effective way to decrease the motivation of a detection dog. This holds especially for the dogs that search for target scents that are rarely found in real life searches. As it can be seen in the study with the EDD dogs searching on the pathways, it is very difficult to gain the motivation again when it is once lost in a specific surroundings.
To keep the motivation up, in some cases you can hide the target scent in the working environment and let the dog to find it regularly. Some target scents, however, can be too dangerous to handle or otherwise impossible to leave unattended in the working environment.
A study of Porrit et al. tried to solve this problem. It explored whether another target scent could help a dog to keep up the good motivation for search, despite the fact that the main target was usually not to be found in the search area. One of the main conclusions of the study was that a dog can be taught various target scents and it is irrelevant how often the main target scent/s is found in relation to the motivating training scent. As long as the dog knows the main target scent/s, it will react to them and indicate them during the search even if it mainly finds only the training scent.
When teaching a dog the training scent, it should be taught separately from the main target scent. By doing so the training scent is added the scent memory of the dog. Usually the training scent is taught first when the dog is just learning the detection work. When the dog has learnt to search and discriminate the training scent, it is later easier to teach it to react also to the main target scent/s.
And this is where the KONG-toy comes in the picture. You may have noticed that the KONG-toy and pieces of it has been mentioned in this blog multiple times and it has been used as the training scent for some exercises. Why it is especially a KONG-toy? The reason is that it is made of patented material that is not used for anything else than these KONG products. To make it clear, this is no advertisement of KONG products and the enterprise is not sponsoring this blog.
The point here is that you can use any scent you like as a training scent, but you need to understand the possible side-effects that might bring. If you for example train with some spice, a tennis ball or another kind of toy, the possibility of them or some ingredients of them appearing in a context that you did not plan to be there is bigger. That means, that in the working environment there is a bigger chance the dog might find the training scent and it is harder for you to control them. If a dog indicates a kitchen cupboard or someone’s bag, it is harder to verify if there is a small amount of a spice or some other material the dog has learnt to indicate, than if there is a KONG toy or some other unique material.
KONG as a training material is popular among many dog training professionals for some other reasons too. It is easy to cut in pieces, but it will not crack even when handled in small pieces. It is possible to boil it to decrease the distraction scents. The red colour is easy for a human eye to see, but dogs can not distinguish red and that way they can not look for the pieces with their eyes so easily. And of course, you can use a KONG toy as a reward, which increases the motivation of a dog to find the scent even more.