The Value of Proofing

Proofing is dog trainer’s lingo for setting up an exercise where a dog has choices and the hope is if your training was good he or she will choose correctly. In the world of medical detection dogs the proofing is done fairly early in the process of the scent association conditioning. In the beginning of my Super Sniffer™ program I have the scent contained in an easy to hold metal tin. I am using this deliberately as a visual cue to the dog, but I am not rewarding the dog for looking at it, bumping it with his nose, pawing at it, or licking at it. I am only rewarding when the dog sniffs the tin. This concept is easy for the dog to figure out and one reason it is so successful with so many different types of dogs, including breeds you don’t commonly think of as working dogs. After enough repetitions of the sniff and reward, the whole exercise is becoming a conditioned response. The dog is learning when he sniffs the tin he will get a nice food reward and praise. What needs to happen however for us to be successful in detector work is something different. The dog needs to figure out it is the presence of the odor inside the tin that we are really rewarding for. In order to connect the dots here for the canine mind we set up a simple exercise, which we often refer to as proofing against visual cues.

Take two sniffer tins (or whatever container you are using) that are identical and make sure one of them is clean and new and has never had any scent material in or near it. The other tin will contain your target odor. I scratch on the back of the tin with the target odor a large X so I will not mix up the tins and reward the dog for sniffing the wrong tin. Now hold both tins out for the dog to see. A lot of the dogs will go to the closest tin, which for our example we will say is a blank. They sniff it and then sit. False sitting like this is very common at first. This behavior tells you the dog is thinking, “I sniff the tin, I sit and I get fed.” If you do nothing he will in due time get up and go to the other tin and do exactly the same thing. This time you reward him. Now the dog is thinking, “Hmmm, I got food for sniffing that tin, wonder what was different about it?” After a few more times they soon figure out “OK I get it, it is the tin with the funny smelling stuff that I get rewarded for” and they will not waste any more time on the other tins there after.

Another way of proofing the dog to test the understanding is to set up a test using 4 similar objects such as new paint cans. The cans should be set up in a circle. Circles are important with the testing so the dog has the option of going around again and again if need be and sniff each can again until he makes up his mind which one is the target odor. When you have many similar objects and the target odor is in one, you are forcing the dog to choose by smell which one is correct. The other cans may contain materials that are present where the dog is normally working. For a diabetes alert dog these samples would be saliva samples collected from non diabetics whose blood glucose readings are outside the range the dog is trained to alert on. In a set up like this the dog is being proofed that he will not alert to the cotton collection material or saliva, only to the presence of the diabetic odor.

During certification testing there is one additional step to this type of proofing exercise, it is called a double blind test. The term comes from the fact that neither the tester or the person taking the test know which container has the diabetic sample in it. The only person who knows is the third party person setting up the samples. In this situation when the tester asks the dog team to come in and indicate which can contains the diabetic sample there is no way the tester or the handler of the dog can cue the dog, only the dog and his nose will be able to detect which sample is the diabetic sample. When the dog indicates the sample, the tester can look at the bottom of the tin to see if it has the X mark scratched on it, indicating the dog alerted to the correct sample. This is the only fair and acceptable way to test a dog’s understanding of the odor it is required to alert on. This method of double blind testing is commonly used in all fields of science. Unfortunately, for a diabetic alert dog, this is a bit abstract compared to his real job of alerting on people; but for testing purposes there is no way to control people’s glucose levels to make the test reproducible and uniform for all to take using people, instead of cans and scent samples.

handler working dog on a scent wheel

This Labrador is indicating to his handler which can contains the sample he was trained to alert on.

The value to the handler and trainer of proofing comes in the form of knowing without question the dog completely understands the scent he is suppose to alert on. To hear a discussion about double blind testing at a recent medical alert dog workshop visit my You Tube page at this link.

The Mooing of Sage

I think there is a clause somewhere in the agreement when you sign up to be a dog trainer that says something about training “at your own risk”.  I never took that too seriously, I mean really, what is so risky about raising and training cute chubby Labrador puppies to be service dogs?

The challenge when raising and training a service puppy is to give them as much exposure to sights, sounds, and new experiences as you can conjure.  You want your dog to be rock solid under all circumstances by the time he or she is placed with their partner.  In the course of any day I am always on the lookout for new training opportunities. If you ask some of the local people who know me in the areas I train, I am sure they would readily tell you I am just crazy. Now I admit sometimes in my enthusiasm to find new things I find myself wondering if I am not a bit too creative but in the end I do have dogs that are rock solid.  So I figure it is worth the extra effort that I go to for them.  After a few sessions with me most of my puppies have figured out it is better to just lie down and wait until I get tired or quit.  They seem to figure the game out early on and get amusement from watching me try all these new things to get them excited.

The Enivob’s have had a successful dairy farm in our county for over 60 years and it is quite an operation. They milk over a 100 head of registered Holstein cows, large black and white beauties, in a very modern, mechanized setup. Eddie, the son who runs the farm since his daddy retired, was kind enough to allow me to train in his pasture near the barns when the cows were inside milking. He just shook his head when I told him I would be doing obedience training in the field with my puppy Sage. Now for those of you who are city folk you need to know that cow pastures have one thing that is almost irresistible to a puppy and that is cow patties.  So if you want to know just how solid your puppy is on her obedience you need to provide the ultimate in distractions. Sage was excited to be someplace new in the country, I think she was getting tired of the city noises and stinky smells. The first thing she did as I fiddled with the gate to the pasture was to stop and inhale all those glorious aromas of cow manure. You could see her eyes starting to glaze over with thoughts of rolling in this marvelous perfume. What would all the dogs back home think? Why they would be so jealous of my new perfume. I hated to interrupt Sage’s daydream but we were here to work.  She was a bit reluctant at first to have to leave the thought of saturating herself with this glorious glop but soon we were working our little routine and she was paying attention nicely to me.

Image black and white dairy cow face

Dairy Cow wanting to know who is in her field

Technology is a wonderful thing, I have always felt we are fortunate to have so many things that make our lives easier than generations before us had. I for one, use the alarm feature on my watch to keep me on schedule. This is a great feature especially when you are in a cow pasture controlled by mechanisms that release the herd into the pasture on a regular schedule. Cows don’t have watches, but I can assure you their appetites tell them when it is time to be released so they can chow down on the lush grasses we were working in.  Normally my watch will go off 30 minutes before the cows are released which gives me plenty of time to get back to my car. Today the battery in my watch died and of course I was so engrossed in training I did not realize what was happening at first.

Sage and I had just finished a very nice return to heel position and I was in the process of hugging her and telling her what a smart and wonderful puppy she was when I realized we were totally surrounded by a battalion of half ton mooing ladies. The largest one, whom I assumed was the leader, was the boldest and stretched forward to get a better sniff of us.  To Sage’s credit she did not panic which really helped. The last thing I wanted was to be in the middle of a stampede.  Since I grew up on a dairy farm I knew that cows are more curious than mean, so I just sat down next to my puppy and tried to reassure Sage they would go away once they were satisfied who we were.  She trusted me so she sat very still; either that or she was so scared she was frozen with terror. In any case, after a few minutes I got up slowly, and we walked out of the pasture with all the cows trailing behind us.

I have to admit I was happy to get to the other side of the fence.  Sage looked up at me as I closed the gate like I was crazy, she knew from talking to visiting dogs at the kennel, that people don’t normally spend the afternoon in a cow pasture. Well that might be, but I know she is cow proofed so if she ends up partnered with a dairy farmer there will be no worries.