Do You Make These 3 Mistakes that Cost You Success in training your scent detection or medical alert dog?

By Debby Kay ©2014 all rights reserved.

This fall the weather has been so wonderful for training dogs I have had to really get on my own case to sit and write this month’s blog. When I am out with the dogs I tend to lose track of all time and just want to continue doing what both the dogs and I love to do and that is train. What does training mean to you? Is it a chore or is it a joy? Do you and your dog(s) really come away with a satisfying feeling after a good session or are you both happy to see it end? I’d like to talk about 3 common mistakes I see people make that can affect the performance, learning and outcome to your dog’s training.

#1 Attitude. Most people I deal with want to train their dog to help with some special task such as alerting to a blood glucose change, or identifying an allergen for their person. These are important tasks for a dog and it is critical to your success that the dog has the right attitude towards the job. What many don’t realize is they will get that attitude from you, the trainer so it behooves you to come to the job with the right frame of mind. You should always know what you are hoping to accomplish during the particular session. Start with a goal in mind. Make sure that goal is reasonable and can be accomplished in the time you have set aside. Train when you feel you have the energy and the right positive frame of mind. If you are super tired, angry with some other person that just ruined your day, don’t bring that baggage to the dog’s training time with you. No one, including your dog, wants to work with someone with a bad attitude. If you are tense, relax with a cup of herbal tea and a spoonful of honey, both of which are known to help with moods. Just let your dog sniff and play on their own until you feel calm and centered again before you pick up the leash and treat bag and start to work with your dog. If you are tired, take a 15-minute power nap. Be refreshed when you start your work with your dog.

#2 Consistency. I am not talking about routines when I am talking about consistency. Routines are nice and certainly are useful in training, especially early on to help the dog focus on the learning objective. I discuss this in my Super Sniffer™ Handbook and we practice this concept at the workshops I offer. What I see as a common mistake though is lack of consistency in both intent and communication people give to their dogs. The best example of intent I can think of that I see frequently is during one session the person will be very serious and strictly enforce the “rules” of performance for the dog on a particular exercise. Then the next session they allow for slack behavior that previously was corrected or not allowed. If you intend to be serious about the “rules” of performance you are establishing then be consistent about it. You will lose your dog’s respect if you keep this up too long. This is no different for people if you think about it.

Lab jumping into ocean waves

When a dog is living life to the fullest the joy is apparent in everything they do

If my intent was to pay you for a job well done but you only got a paycheck once in a blue moon, I doubt that you would want to work very hard for me.   Communication is key to success in all of dog training and yet people will continually give conflicting commands. I see the major problem here is people are just not thinking about what they are doing or saying. It takes some practice and discipline but if your dog can learn then you can too. So be aware of what words and cues you are giving and be consistent for your dog’s sake.

#3 Time. The final and perhaps the biggest mistake many people make who are tying to train their own alert dogs is they do not allow enough time. I am not necessarily asking for hours a day but EVERY day there should be a minimum of 2-3 training sessions. These can be short and of course should be fun and engaging, with a clear goal in mind. If you are going to train the dog then schedule the time to work with the dog. That dog will not learn by osmosis or by reading the book, they are going to need to work with you so commit the time and stick to that schedule. This might include getting up 15 minutes earlier, so after you walk the dog in the morning you can spend 5-10 minutes doing a quick session before breakfast. The same can be in the evening; allow a bit of special time with your dog just for training.

This might seem too simple but it is amazing how many people will bring problem dogs to me and in reality it boils down that their person has not set aside any time for training the dog.

Yes dogs are a lot of work, but my father always said that all great things in your life would require work on your part. That is what makes those things great and so satisfying too. Happy Training!


Experience is the teacher of all things – Julius Caesar 

August has been one of the busiest months so far this year at our place. There has been so much going on if it were not for my cell phone telling me what day it was I might forget. As I was sitting down to write this blog it struck me that most everything that has been happening this month all relates back to experience at every level of meaning.

These past few weeks I have been working with many new service dog owners, trainers learning the methodology for medical detection work, and several new young dogs; all these groups had issues and challenges to overcome and all related to experience. It seems impatient and demanding people often overlook experience as a possible cause of the problem they are working on. This is true when talking about the experience of either the people or the dogs.

For example, the other day while training dogs, one of the trainers commented on the behavior of a dog, suggesting the behavior was related to not having enough of this or that drive or was not motivated or was lazy or just pick any of a dozen common “reasons” a dog is not doing what is asked. When I was asked my opinion I simply replied, the dog just doesn’t have enough experience to know what to do. What I have observed often is a lack of understanding on the trainer’s part (both amateur and professional alike) that experience plays in how a dog reacts and works. Let me give some examples to make this statement more clear.

Very young puppies are sponges when it comes to soaking up experiences. As a breeder, I spend a huge amount of time and effort to expose them to as much as possible when they are puppies for two reasons. One, I want to build confidence but I also want to build their “Experience Library”. If the pups have already walked on twenty different surfaces and that information is stored in the surface portion of their experience library, there will be twenty less things the pup will have as a distractions when they move on to new and different lessons in their future training as service dogs. This is true for noises and smells and many other things. At some point the dog just won’t pay attention to those things and will focus on the handler instead. My goal is to keep that dog’s focus so they can learn their lessons and preform their job well.

Think about the difference between the seasoned traveling adult dog verses the puppy going for the first few car rides. I have well worn earplugs that prove experience is what makes for a quiet stress free ride. The young dogs must learn from the repetition of an exercise, in many different places, to understand that when something is asked from them it doesn’t matter where, they need to do as asked. This is a major point that many people training their own service dogs fail to fully implement. What I hear from the owner trainers (of a diabetes alert dog for example) is, “my dog will alert at home really well but when we were out on a picnic last weekend the dog missed a low”.

My first question to them is, “Have you ever practiced your scent work outside in a park?” The answer is usually no. In most cases there is little practice outside the house in different places. I don’t mean to imply that you have to try and train in every location that you think you will ever visit, the point here is to give the dog some experience in new locations with different sights, sounds and smells. Maybe you can’t get to a picnic area to practice but you can perhaps, practice at the dog park.

Another commonly overlooked aspect of experience I see a lot, is when people are training a puppy under 6 months and enjoy a tiny bit of success on teaching a new behavior, then suddenly expect the puppy to continue to perform perfectly; with no further training. Often, too much pressure is put on a puppy with little or no experience to perform, which can lead to confusion on the part of the dog causing him to shut down. Worse yet, a confused dog can start to offer other behaviors that are not desirable. The end result is a dog whose behavior is worse than in the beginning. In this situation, an experienced trainer should know when to move on to higher levels of performance from a dog, avoiding boredom while progressing with the training objectives.

Another experience question came up last week, this one concerning the experience of the trainer. It really does make a difference how much experience you have, how many dogs you have trained and how much training you have had yourself. However, there are many talented and dedicated people just starting in dog training or in the case of question asked me, just starting in medical alert training. These are knowledgeable dog people who may not have the experience with the medical alert dogs but if they have a good work ethic, keen eye, and are mentoring under someone more experienced and willing to help them, I can see no reason why those people should not be considered also. I remember the first diabetes alert dog conference I went to at Wildrose Kennels; I learned that was indeed the case with Rachael Thorton.

two children with adult teaching them how to walk their pups

Experience needs to be shared. Who knows maybe one of these young ladies will one day be a dog trainer too!

Rachael was not a dog trainer when she undertook training her first dog for her Type 1 daughter. She did have the good fortune to be able to work with the experience trainers at Wildrose however and the rest is history. I have lost track of the number of DADs she has trained since her first dog, but she continues to be one of the most ethical people in the DAD training arena I know. My point is that everyone has their first dog, so in this case judging a person by their experience should not be the only thing you look at when considering someone to help train your dog. The network of trainers in this field is growing, and there is no reason anyone just starting out training alert dogs cannot find someone to help them. I have found everyone for the most part, to be very open, honest, and helpful, as it should be. 

My final thought on experience is that it should be shared. When I watch my dogs interact I am always struck by the fact that the older dogs will share from their experience with the young pups the best way to do something, to negotiate an obstacle, to open a gate, or get my attention. Dogs don’t keep their experience to themselves and I don’t think people should either. If you have had an eye opening experience, or found out a better way to do something you should share it too. Even old dog trainers like me learn new things every day.



Evaluating Medical Alert Dogs

I recently hosted an intense hands-on workshop at my kennels for dog professionals that want to train dogs to help people with medical issues. Most of the trainers were there to learn more about the diabetes alert dog program but we also had trainers interested in seizure alerting (not to be confused with response dogs), Crones disease alerting, and allergen detection dogs. In order to make this workshop the most meaningful for these trainers I brought in a bunch of dogs at all different levels of training for these various detection jobs. A good part of the dogs came from a request I put out to those service dog users I knew. We would offer free training for their dogs, for the time of the workshop, to help anyone having problems. There was a great response and we got dogs at all levels of proficiency; half the dogs at the workshop ended up being owner trained.

Dog trainers usually have strong personalities; this comes from many years of taking charge of unruly dogs. But this group of trainers proved to be more than what you might think of a dog trainer in general, they were truly educators. It became very apparent early into the workshop that everyone was here because they cared passionately about the dogs and they truly wanted to use their skills and abilities as dog trainers to help educate people who were now asking the dogs in their lives to do more than sleep by the fireplace on a cold night. It was quite moving when people came to pick up the dogs how much time these trainers spent with the owners to help them understand the issues the dogs were having and what to do about it. The owners shared with us how very difficult it is to manage their conditions and train a dog at the same time. This sharing was valuable so trainers could devise exercises to fit a person’s life style and abilities, and show them things they could easily incorporate into their daily routine. The learning went both ways and was one of the best exchanges I have witnessed.

Overall the owners did a great job with the training of their dogs. As we worked the dogs both in the classroom and out on the streets however patterns appeared in the dog’s behavior that were clues to a few deficiencies in their training.

Pulling on the leash and lack of attention were near the top as two big problems. When we randomly passed off scent samples to the handlers to see if the dogs would alert in the new settings, the owner-trained dogs had more trouble focusing enough to find the scent sample when there were high distractions. Once the dogs were stopped and worked a little with the high distraction, they were able for the most part able to settle down enough to work a few repetitions of finding the scent sample.   The high distractions proved time and again to be the undoing of many of the dogs. It took work on the part of the trainers to get the dogs to settle down. I can understand this concept of working in public with some really strong distractions is something most people training their own dog would not think to do.

I made a short list to help people remember when they are out training with their dogs to look for some of the following circumstances, then work your dog there until the dog is comfortable and reliable in alerting there.

  1. In the store in a narrow isle where people are going by with shopping carts.
  2. In a store with machinery operating, such a lumber yard with forklifts.
  3. On the streets near the fire station when the alarm sounds.
  4. At a train station.
  5. In a park where there are a lot of pigeons and squirrels. I throw out treats for the critters first and get them all around eating when I start training with the dog.
  6. At a ball game or other sports event.

Simple things like this are so valuable to the dog’s education. If the dog is not relaxed in a novel environment they are not going to have the focus to be able to do their job at detecting whatever smell they are trained to alert on. This type of training is something you need to practice at least 4 or 5 times a week with your young dog. If you are raising your own puppy, after a year of constant exposure to new places, sights, and sounds your dog would be exposed enough that he should do his job no matter where you take him.

The pulling on the leash problem is something that should be avoided while training the new puppy. They should learn from the beginning not to pull on the leash either by you stopping when they get to the end of the leash and not moving again until they return to your side, or by letting them hit the end of the leash while charging out away from you. Stopping short like this usually gets their attention and they will return to you, at which time you reward with a nice treat and kind words. Quickly, pups will learn where the best spot is for near you. Practicing loose leash walking with the younger pups in many new areas with loads of distractions ensures they do not get so excited when going places they pull on the leash. It takes a lot of daily practice.

A group of service dogs walking down a town street

Learning to loose leash walk in town with lots of distractions

If you are training your own dog you are going to have to make the time, even if that means you make an appointment with yourself. Later when you go back to these places with a scent sample for training your dog should have enough focus so as not to miss the presence of the sample.

We also saw the dogs coming in with a wide array of equipment some of which was very ineffective. I remember when I was a youngster in my father’s workshop. He had at least 8 different types of hammers. I could not understand why so many until he explained that each one is designed for a different job. The same is true of collars, leashes and harnesses. I would not expect an owner trainer to understand the differences any more than my father expected me to understand the different types of hammers. This might be an area though where an owner handler can benefit from working with a pro trainer; they will know the equipment that is best for your dog. Be prepared to change equipment too as the dog continues to grow and develop. For puppies a well fitting buckle collar, appropriately sized 6-foot leash, and a 20-foot light line are a good start. Having a treat bag that you can snap on when you pick up the leash to take your puppy out is also something to consider when you are buying equipment. My pouch has a separate area for my clicker and treats and another zippered place for keys and pick up bags.

Speaking of pick up bags, it is important that your dog know how to eliminate on command, on a leash, or on pavement. If you are training your own dog and starting with a puppy, make sure you walk your puppy on a leash when they go outside to potty. Put the act of them doing something to a cue word, praise and treat when they are done and clearly convey to the pup that you are very pleased with them. Teaching the pup to go on surfaces other than grass is simply a matter of taking them to a new area (gravel, sand, pavement) and giving your cue word, waiting patiently then praising profusely when they finally eliminate. This will be a lifesaver many times over when you are traveling or going places where grass may be off limits or non-existent. It is a simple element easy to forget to teach.

We all felt the workshop was successful, the trainers learned new techniques, the dogs benefited from experienced hands on their leash, the owners that generously shared their dogs with us got some terrific free advise and training, the trainers got priceless feedback and knowledge on the lives diabetics and others living with chronic diseases experience, and many new friendships were made. I feel very grateful to work with such a dedicated group of trainers who really care about helping people get the best from their relationship with their working dog and to know so many dedicated owner handler trainers as well. Many of the pro trainers are diabetics or have family members that are diabetic or suffer from some other disease that has drawn them to working and training with service dogs. All of them have decades of experience in training and living with dogs. Everyone had the same goal as I do, which is to share our knowledge of dogs with those who need help with their dog. Keep up the great work everyone!