Few things frustrate trainers more than problems with scent articles, possibly because it can be quite hard to reconcile the fact that dogs have incredible noses with the inability to select one correct option from eight wrong ones.  Regardless, scent article training gives some handlers regular grief, and all handlers will encounter issues of one type or another as they go forward with their training, so let’s look at it.

A friend recently asked me how I would handle this scenario:

“My dog is usually excellent at scent articles.  She can work a full pile perfectly even under distraction, but if she makes an error and brings me the wrong one, then she will consistently fail after that error  She won’t even try!   She’ll check a couple, grab whatever is closest and return – slowly and with a poor attitude.   Until now, when she brings me the wrong one, I’ve simply sent her back to try again yet this is the result!   I was thinking about  taking it from her without treats or praise and moving on to something else.  What do you think?”

As I read that, the things that stand out for me are: 1) The dog knows how to do the work and is consistently reliable and 2) after failure, the dog won’t even try, in spite of the availability of cookies for success and the lack of any harshness from the handler.

In combination, that suggests a dog that 1) understands the work, 2) has relatively mild drive for the reinforcers, and 3) shows very little ability to withstand “being wrong”. In other words, a more fragile performance dog.

I will maintain a dog’s confidence, sureness and love of working above all else, especially if a dog has less drive for either the classic reinforcers or for the work itself.  So in the case of this dog – I’d reward her wrong choice.

Yes, you read that correctly.  I would stand quietly, take the article in a formal fashion and reward.  This one time.

Then I’d go find something else to do.  Anything, but not the articles.

In a few minutes I’d try again.  Set up a full pile and work the exercise.  What happens now?

If the dog generally works correctly and with confidence then she will do what she has been rewarded for doing hundreds or thousands of times; she will bring back the correct article with a good attitude and we all get on with our lives.  There’s no reason to make a problem when there isn’t one.  Mistakes happen, to people too!  And some dogs (like some people) experience a lot of anxiety and pressure when they make an error.  Since being able to breathe through your nose and relax is part of doing any scent work, the last thing you want to do is send a stressed dog back to the pile again.

By giving the dog a cookie, you erase any doubt that she might be having about her abilities.  No problem.  Just reward and move on.

And if after your short break she goes out and gets the wrong article again?  That’s an odd thing in a dog that understands the exercise and is well trained – to fail twice.  So you have two choices:

1) reward the dog (yes again) and do not repeat the exercise for a few days.  I am aware that some of you might have to give the articles to a neighbor to ensure YOUR cooperation, so do what you need to do, but do not repeat this exercise for a few days.  If there is a minor medical issue such as a cold causing the challenge or simply some weird brain confusion that we’ll never understand, then that gives the dog a bit of time to move past it.


2) break the scent article exercise out of it’s formal mode and go back to working on it at a foundation level.  What you do would really depend on how it was trained in the first place.  For me, that would mean returning to my bedroom and sitting on the floor next to the pile of articles, working quickly and rapidly to get in a bunch of repetitions in a short time.

And then go out and try it again in another week or so.  As you read above, the dog is a reliable worker under most circumstances, so a bit of specific practice away from formal ring training will reinforce for her what “correct” is.  You’d be amazed how effective this is.

SO…why did I give the dog a cookie for being wrong?  Why not just silently move on?

Because if you with hold your approval from a fragile dog then your dog will develop a crack in their self confidence.  And the next time your dog is returning from the pile to you standing formally (as you will in the ring) they will begin to worry.  Have they done it right?  Are you pleased?  Are they wrong? Should they go back and double check?   It doesn’t even matter if they are holding the correct choice in their mouth; if your dog is fragile then they will worry, because that is what fragile dogs do.  Worry.

If you have hundreds or thousands of repetitions of correct work then a couple of free cookies simply does not matter; it won’t even register.  Behaviors are taught over days, weeks and months but confidence in a fragile dog?  That takes years to develop and minutes to shatter.  Don’t mess with it.

And what if you have a sturdy dog?  Or a higher drive dog that truly works for that cookie and will stay in the game to get it?  The ‘un-worrier’ dog?

Then do whatever you want.  Dogs that don’t worry or sweat over their errors are not the focus on this blog.  Those dogs can be sent back to the pile without allowing them to finish or you can take the article and send them back directly.  It won’t matter.

Train the dog in front of you.  My personal choice is to maintain self confidence and love of work, because I want to enter the ring with a dog that thinks I love them always and that they can do no wrong.  I find that if the dog thinks I believe that, then they will work hard to show me how right I am.