Monday, January 19, 2009

25D Training Distractions with the Scent Wheel

Once your dog has a clear understanding of what her job is (alerting to the presence of a scent) on the scent wheel, it is time to start introducing scent-based distractions. This helps the dog to clarify what she is searching for and what she should ignore. 

Training scent distractions early gives the trainer an idea of what those distractions might be, the degree that they will be distracting and how long it might take to train distractions in the real world.

If your dog is a food hound or has a history of eating food off the floor, or has a history of chasing certain animals (like cats etc) these will be more challenging for her and take longer to train her to ignore as you must build her drive for the target scent enough to overcome the distraction (or use the distraction as a reward as in using the Premack Principle).

You can start training searching for the scent vial in other containers (boxes, shoes etc) at the same time but during different training sessions. Don't use distractions in these until after you have introduced them on the scent wheel first as the scent wheel gives you more control over interaction with the distraction. You want to avoid bad habits right from the start. 

For the purposes of this article, a vial is the small container that hold the distraction scent and alert scent. The container is the receptacle attached to the scent wheel that vials are placed into.  

Make a List of 10-15 Low, Medium and High Level Distractions. 
Obviously use only items that you can safely handle due to your allergies. Choose items that are scent-based and can fit in your vials and that will prove to be distractions to your dog in the environments she will later do allergy or MCS alerts. 

If you come up with other things that are distracting to your dog (kong, ball, chips in a bag, garbage, people, other dogs etc) keep a separate list for those as they will come in handy later when you start training in real world scent detections.

For Lucy in the videos, these are:

Low Level Distractions:
baking powder (start with one that is completely of no interest to your dog)
garlic powder (Interestingly, Lucy showed zero interest in this. Maybe because I don't feed her any foods with it in it.)
Oxo (beef flavoring)

Medium Level Distractions:
mashed potatoes
frozen pea (with the lid off she wanted to eat it)
bread (or pancake, plain omelette)
dried rabbit poop
coffee grounds

High Level Distractions:
cooked real meat (chicken, turkey, beef etc)
other dog's urine

Also brainstorm a few aversives the dog might encounter in the environment. Train these so the dog knows to ignore these as well. This also gives you an idea of how the dog will behavior when she encounters these. Watch her nose, tail and overall body language.

Possibly Aversive Distractions:
orange juice
vinegar (dilute to start)
citronella (dilute to start)

Making a Distraction Vial
Place a small amount of the distraction in a new vial and make a small hole in the lid. You can enlarge the hole or replace the lid with screening as your dog is successfully ignoring it. Label the bottom of the vial so you know what is in it. 

I use masking tape and ink pen and make sure the label is small enough not to be seen when in the training wheel container. Place a piece of tape with a word written on it on your alert scent vial exactly the same as your distraction scent containers (so the dog can't use the presence or absence of tape and ink to determine which is the scent and which is the distraction-Yes, dog noses are that good!)

Introducing the Distraction:
One Distraction at a Time

Place distraction in container next to the scent. Place both directly in front of your dog. Ignore any interaction with the distraction and wait for the dog to indicate the correct scent. Click and reward. Practice this until the dog ignores the distraction at least 8 times out of 10. 

If the dog shows too much interest in the distraction (noses, paws, licks etc), or succeeds less than 5 times out of 10, remove it and problem solve (see number 4. under Tips below). 

Other than the first low level distraction scent, if the dog ignores a scent from the start (shows zero interest in such as the garlic powder for Lucy), try adding a bit of water to allow the scent to better disperse. If the dog still shows zero interest, it can be removed from your distraction collection as it is not likely a distraction to your dog. 

Change Distraction Position
Move the distraction scent one container away from the alert scent. Re-train. 

Move it two away. Retrain etc. 

Change the position of the distraction periodically when training so the dog doesn't learn it's position. Ideally, the only vial the dog should show interest in is the alert scent vial you are currently training.

Two or More Distractions at a Time:

When your dog has successfully trained through a variety of scents at the lowest level, place varying combinations of two in the wheel. Then three, etc until the wheel is filled with distractions and one correct scent to indicate. Click and reward only the correct scent indication.

Train through the medium level distractions one at a time, and then combine in pairs, threes etc.

Next train high level distractions, same approach.

Next train aversives, same approach. 

Training Tips:

1. Use a reward that has at least slightly higher value to your dog than the distraction so it keeps her interest.

2. Make sure the reward you use does not have the same scent as the distraction (i.e. avoid using the same or similar rewards such as a sausage as a distraction and hot dogs as a reward).

3. Be careful to choose scents that you don't mind if the dog ignores at a later time. For example, know the allergy list of the person your are training for and make sure to avoid training any of those as a distraction. If the person is allergic to nuts, do not use nuts as a distraction.

4. If your dog has trouble at any level, make it easier for her to succeed. That may mean: 
*decreasing the intensity of the distraction smell (by diluting it, placing less in the vial, making a smaller hole in the vial etc) 
*frozen, partly thawed, fresh
*choosing a similar but easier distraction (for example-garlic powder and beef are two elements of hotdogs that can be trained separately before being combined)
* alternating between presenting the alert scent with the distraction scent so the dog is reminded between of the scent she is looking for.
*increasing the value of the reward 
This is where your knowledge of your dog's preferences and your creativity come in handy.

5. Label each distraction vial on the bottom and keep for raining in other environments. Only place what is labelled in each vial to avoid cross-contamination. Empty and clean each vial if you are not going to use it for a few days to prevent mold etc.