Monday, January 19, 2009

25B Allergy Alerts are Different from Narcotics Detection Behaviors

(This article is a work in progress and I will add to it as I discover more differences)

While the same general approach as narcotic detection dogs can be used to train a allergy alert dog as they are both based on finding small amounts of scent, there are some significant differences. Since there is more information about how to train narcotics and other similar search dogs, this is the comparison we look at. In contrast, Allergy Alert Dogs are in fact, quite similar to how the international border detection dogs (known as Beagle Brigade) are trained to patrol airports for agricultural goods (fruit vegetables, meat, animal products etc.)

1. The handler wants a passive alert so dog doesn't interact with allergen. Many scent detection dogs are taught to do active or aggressive alerts (pawing, digging, barking etc) near where they find the scent. Since the allergic handler does not want to risk interacting with the allergen, their dog needs to learn to indicate the location of the allergen without interacting with it.

2. A service dog needs to blend into their environment and so doesn't need the level of intensity during the search that narcotic dogs need. They can calmly go about their job on leash without running, jumping or climbing, They also must not appear intimidating to other people.

3. Using food to train instead of toys keeps the dogs calmer, which is needed for a service dog in public places. If your dog is toy driven, use a toy that has an attachment (such as a tug that hangs on your belt or a ball attached to a short handle. so you can keep the reward low key and appropriate for the setting.

4. Because they don't need the same intensity for the job and use passive alerts, a service dog can be trained using everyday objects they find in their environment.  (boxes, shoes, egg cartons, pots, rolled towels, clothing, cupboards, closets, under rugs, behind furniture etc). There is no need for specialized tools like scent training boxes, rooms with holes in walls, scent wheels etc. 

Mobility-impaired people can easily and cheaply make a scent wheel with an old wood or plastic Lazy Susan and small containers glued onto it into which other smaller containers with scent is placed.

Most service dogs can easily learn not to mouth, bite, paw or destroy light-weight containers and material. If the dog starts doing that, simply back up a step or two in training where the dog was able to do the desired behavior or only present the object briefly into the dog's reach and remove. As the dog is successful, re-introduce it in slightly longer increments. Only allow longer duration access if the dog consistently offers the desired alert behavior instead of the undesired one.  

5. Service dogs don't need the duration of scent detection used by narcotics dogs who work comparatively long shifts since a service dog will be expected to walk into the room with handler, do a room check, indicate (or not) and then either be removed from the room or relax or be available to do his other duties.

6. If there is no allergen present, the handler (due to allergies) cannot put down a sample for the dog to find and be reinforced. Even asking another person to do this puts the handler at risk. The handler could put down a safe scent (that they trained the dog on early in the training) so she can be rewarded for finding it.

7. A trainer needs to be hired periodically (3 to 4 times a year) to refresh the dog's knowledge of the allergens since the handler cannot do it. While dog's memory for scent is long (and their noses are amazing- see this link), it pays to keep it refreshed periodically with the allergens.

Other Training Tips: Related Behaviors

Avoid starting the dog with finding food such as in the new dog sport "Nose Work" where they find food in cardboard boxes. The dogs are encouraged to do active alerts and pawing, and ultimately eat the food they find. This can take much longer to retrain a dog not to use this form of indication than one who has never done this behavior.

Be careful not to train other incompatible behaviors at the same time as allergen detection: active alerts (pawing, digging, barking), retrieving, mouthing etc. Dogs tend to blend behaviors (called adduction) if the training sessions are close together in time. If the dog has a long history of retrieving, start with objects that are much too large to be retrieved and work your way down to smaller ones, only reinforcing desired behaviors. 

If you have trained similar behaviors in the past, Once the allergic alert behavior is trained, choose new cues and hand signals that are very different from previously-trained ones. For example, "Find it" to my dogs means go find the object and bring it back. For an allergic alert, I use "Sniff" or "Search" which means find the scent and do a passive indication.