|by Jeff Finlay|
The concept of imprinting search skills in the SAR K9 through hunt drive is not a novel idea. It is utilized in every other scent detection discipline. However, it is not uncommon in the training process of the live find SAR K9 to see the imprinting process done through other drives, in most cases, prey drive, and just mentioning the concept of imprinting in hunt drive creates controversy between those who favor the traditionally accepted method and the hunt drive approach associated with the other scent detection disciplines and utilized by those with a background in scent detection training. The hunt drive imprinting process is far more time consuming due to the additional steps required to achieve optimum results. It is far too easy to send a victim running away from a young pup or green dog, vocalizing and enticing the dog to pursue. There is both visual and auditory stimulation, neither of which is a component of the hunt drive of the canine. Hunt drive is an olfactory drive, plain and simple.
The canid in the wild uses both prey (visual) and hunt (olfactory) in order to survive. Usually, the hunt drive is utilized to track down the prey. When in close range, this switches to prey drive, and the visual acquisition as well as the chase component come into play. In search work, however, there is no chase, no visual acquisition of the subject at the start of a search, and no high- pitched vocalization on the victim’s part to stimulate the dog. All there is, we hope, to stimulate the canine, is the scent of the victim, and the canine needs to use its nose to acquire that.
So, if we train the canine to rely on all of this stimulus, especially in the imprinting phase of the training process, and then subject the canine to an entirely different scenario, where the only stimulus that the canine has to it disposal is the scent of the victim, then this creates conflict. The canine, rather than starting out motivated in prey and switching to hunt drive at some point, has to skip the initial step, and start out in hunt.
It is a proven fact through research both in humans and canines, that when subjected to stressful situations, both revert back to the foundation of their training and react according to the way they were trained. In this case, if the canine gets into a stressful situation, as is expected to happen in the chaotic environment of a search mission, it would be expected that it revert back to its foundation training. In the case of the canine with its foundation in prey drive, it will begin to look for the victim, and rely on the presence of other prey-oriented stimulus in order to perform effectively. When none of that is present, the result will be diminished performance or completely shutting down. Displacement behaviors can also be observed as the canine attempts to cope with the stress. In the case of the canine with its foundation in hunt drive, the behaviors are quite different. Throughout the training process, the canine has learned that the only means of getting the reward is to use its nose. The lack of scent actually stimulates the canine to hunt more intensely for the presence of scent, rather than prompting displacement and other stress associated behaviors.
So, how is this done?
Well, the process to imprint human scent in hunt drive is no different from imprinting other types of scent detection training. The critical part is the first step, the scent recognition phase. When imprinting, for instance, for cadaver, the scent source is concealed in a block lined up among other blocks, all spread apart a reasonable distance. When the canine shows any behavior change indicating that it has recognized the presence of the scent, it receives immediate reward at the source of the scent. Since the scent source is inanimate, this requires the handler/trainer to have impeccable timing and good aim to ensure that the right behavior is rewarded at the right time right at the source of the scent.
With that process in mind, let us back up one step. For the live find/human scent imprinting process, let’s eliminate the need to have a reward system established, or lets just make this reward a secondary reward, and the source of the scent the primary reward. Finding this person should be the ultimate reward. Regardless of whether this person that the canine finds has anything of value to offer, the human is the reward. They are a high value reward! What this equates to is a dog that is motivated to follow human scent because the human scent source is the ultimate! This goes back to the concept of an intrinsic reward…one that doesn’t require training to have significance. It is naturally rewarding to the dog. How do we do that with humans. Plain and simple…select for high social skills with humans and build on that. Any contact with humans should be positive. Entice play behaviors, up close contact, encourage with treats, anything that the canine views as enjoyable. The canine should go crazy when it comes in contact with humans, just as it would if presented with a high value toy reward. The secondary reward system can be built at this point as well. Imprinting the significance of the reward starts with the handler but is quickly transferred to other humans. By the time the scent imprinting training process has begun, the canine has learned two things: 1) Humans are really fun to interact with and 2) The humans, who are high value to begin with, are a source of a second high value reward, for instance a kong toy, bite roll, or treats.
When that part of the process is well established, then the actual process of rewarding the scent recognition by the canine can begin. Lets see, critical factor. To eliminate the ‘visual’ stimulus, the human must be concealed. This is no different than the other scent sources being concealed.
There are many ways to conceal a person for this exercise, but I have the advantage of having access to large boxes (approximately 4 ft. W x L x H) that have doors on them for concealing people on the inside. I train with local LE on a regular basis, and these boxes are utilized to build hunt drive for building searches for patrol canines. There are 6 boxes spread out over the area the size of a soccer field. The process can be done with as few as three, but if you have access to a USPCA regulation training field, then you will have 6 to use.
I start out by having a person hide in the box with my secondary reward with them. There are vent slots cut into the bottom sides of the boxes, so there is a scent source down low. It is important that the victim be allowed to occupy the box for a short period of time to allow the scent to build up inside of the box, especially in the early stage of the process. The longer this person can stay in there, the stronger the scent. The canine is walked past each box on lead. It is important to know which box the victim is in, so that you will be prepared to observe subtle behavior changes when the canine recognizes the scent.
The instant that a behavior change is observed, the victim pops the door open (it is important that the handler approach the front of the box where the door is, and from the side opposite of the hinges to ensure that when the door opens, the canine can associate the source of the scent with the victim) and immediately rewards the canine with the secondary reinforcer and lots of play. The handler allows the victim to take the lead and run a short distance away to encourage the canine to focus on the victim and not the handler. This builds victim loyalty. In other words, there is scent commitment. Over a period of time, the length of time may be extended between the dog initially recognizing and going to the source and actually getting the reward. This victim loyalty exercise will prompt the dog to stay with the source (victim) until the behavior is reinforced. For a disaster K9, this is crucial, since many a victim will be concealed in rubble and debris and it will be necessary for the canine to stay with the scent source until the handler safely negotiates the hazards of a debris pile and marks the location for rescuers. It is not uncommon to see the canine attempt to penetrate the barrier between it and the victim or begin to vocalize out of barrier frustration. One should be careful not to overly frustrate the canine to the point that it gives up and walks away. Mild frustration will intensify the desire to access the scent source.
As the training progresses, then the introduction of the verbal cue or search command comes into play, followed by the indication. I train the indication separate from the search behavior. This is a trained indication, so it needs to be solid prior to introducing it in association with finding the victim. The indication needs to be reliable and on cue. Eventually the verbal cue will be eliminated once the association is made between the victim, reward, and the indication.
Once the training has progressed to the point where the canine is given the search command, it starts to hunt for the scent, locates the scent source, commits to it and indicates, then the exercises can be done off lead.
It is not necessary to have these boxes at your disposal to train the canine in this fashion. Having a victim set up in a wooded area, concealed behind a tree or under some brush, can produce the same results. The same applies. Casually walk the canine with the wind on lead to the general area and reward the canine when the scent source is recognized. I work the canine with the wind in order to reinforce the instant that the canine has a behavior change upon scent recognition. Later, working into the wind is appropriate.
After the initial phases of the hunt drive imprinting process is completed, the canine can be challenged with other exercises. A canine needs to commit at a scent source..not residual scent. Have your victim stay in one of the boxes for a period of time. Then have them get out of the box, close the door, and move to another box. After a short period, bring the canine out and work the boxes. If performed properly, the box that the victim initially got into but moved from( LE calls this the hot box) should spark an interest but no indication and no commitment from the canine. The canine should move to the box that conceals the victim, commit and indicate.
Another exercise is the multiple victim find. Set up several victims in the boxes. Give the canine the search command. Once it finds the first victim, commits and indicates, reward and give another command to search again. The canine should re-engage into a search behavior.
This exercise should not be done until the canine is committing and indicating solidly off lead at the scent source.
I am in favor of utilizing the run-away exercise as a motivational exercise, after the hunt drive imprinting process has been completed, and this can be done in conjunction with the boxes as well. In fact, this is the way I have seen the process started with many LE canines. The victim entices canine, displays the secondary reward, and runs to hide in one of the boxes. I usually allow the canine to see the victim run away only briefly, then turn it to face the opposite direction of the boxes to minimize the visual stimulus.
These are just a few exercises that can be utilized with various goals in mind. Remember, each training session is geared towards achieving a specific objective. Exercises are repeated several times, and the canine always wins in the end. Don’t ever be afraid to step back and make an exercise simpler if the canine has difficulties.
This method has worked for me. There are others in the field that favor the same principles but utilize other means to achieving the same results. As long as the same goal is achieved as the final product, the method by which you get there is irrelevant and depends entirely on the trainer’s personal preference.
While I am not attempting to change anyone’s current training methods, I am attempting to stimulate one’s thought processes to recognize that there is more than one way to accomplish a particular training objective. Just because a method is traditionally accepted and used doesn’t mean it is the most reliable. Many compulsion trainers have seen the light and are now using positive reinforcement methods in dog training because of the favorable results. Establishing a solid foundation in the training program using the sense that the canine is required to use the most on a search mission, we are also utilizing and further developing the strongest, most highly refined, and most accurate of the canine senses.
It makes perfect sense to me, having been involved in the K9 field since 1987, that the reason canines are utilized in scent detection work is because they have the innate ability to use their olfactory sense with far more reliability, accuracy, and sensitivity than any human or instrument can duplicate. If that is the case, then it is to our advantage to harness it, sharpen it and make the most of it. It at least warrants substantial consideration then that imprinting in hunt drive is the manner by which we start of this process.
No portion of this article may be reproduced without the permission of Jeff Finlay, SARK9TRNR@AOL.COM