Challenge Builds Commitment: A Nosework Case Study

What builds more intrinsic value for you? Something that you can achieve easily or something that you have to work for?

I did a poll recently and 75% of people leaned towards more challenging scenarios as builders of value. Of course there are modifiers, and for most people it isn't an either / or, however the trend was clearly in support of more challenge vs less.

In fact, Psychology supports this!

Achievement is tied to interest… which is associated with feel-good feelings. These feel good feelings also create a strong tie to memory and retention. While not a perfect comparison, we can extrapolate this to how our dog's feel when being trained.

Seeing Challenges as Fun!

I've noticed a real difference in training retention and odor obedience when I challenge the dog versus focusing my training on something easy once the dog already understands the task.

Here Powder sources a very easy Inaccessible Due to Containment hide. It's fast and good. Her emotions are happy and all over fine. In fact, these are the positive emotions that I'm looking for when a dog first learns a new skill.

Eventually, I will want even more engagement and focus from her. In this example, I add an element of spatial problem solving. Watch Powder's tail carriage. This was FUN!!!

How Hard is Too Hard?

Of course all of this presumes that the dog is working in a confident state! That is usually where handlers are initially challenged…. How hard is too hard?

Fortunately there is a strong indicator of confidence that we can evaluate. How is your dog's motivation trending in the moment? If you see your dog's motivation start to dip, that means that confidence is also dipping. Loss of motivation is the first indication of loss of confidence.

The other area that handlers often struggle with is WHEN to make things more challenging.

Basically, I start to raise the challenge after the dog shows me happy, enthusiastic, fast achievement of the basic skill. In this case, the basic skill is settling onto a contained inaccessible hide. What I mean is that the dog finishes bracketing and shows some degree of commitment for the hide.

Here's a slow motion video that demonstrates bracketing and settling on a hide. Here Judd is working a hide in a drawer. Watch how the bracketing (back and forth sniffing) becomes an investigative process. I mark him at the moment where he settles on the hide. You can actually HEAR the settling as he blows out his nostrils! The settling is a brief pause and represents his commitment at the hide.

Going back to Powder's video, we can see that enthusiastic commitment as well! Let's watch in slow motion. At this point I can say that the hide has become "happy, enthusiastic, and fast."

Emotional States in Training

Building on and enhancing that commitment is where we can use aspects of challenging the dog. By adding challenge, we naturally increase attention and interest.

Attention is what carries the dog into utilizing their working memory and increases the likelihood that the lesson will end up stored in the dog's long-term memory. Interest is also stimulated, bringing forth positive feelings from the dog and cementing the experience as a confident, motivating experience.

Let's watch Brava's emotional shift on this same exercise.

She happily solves the hide but without fanfare and intensity when she finds the hide in the easy location. It's a solid search but not an exciting one.

You can see a clear shift in her emotional commitment to the search when I added the aspect of a spatial puzzle. The hide has now become interesting! Because the hide was interesting and more rewarding, for a dog with the basic skills, the hide has now become more educational.

So to recap, once the dog understands the skill and shows confident achievement, we can "raise criteria" and add challenges that take the educational value of the hide to the next level… building commitment.

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