I have been training search dogs for years. I am Canine Training Director for my search team and have trained wilderness air scent dogs, cadaver dogs and trailing dogs. All of the work is volunteer and we respond when we get called out by state and local police. Oftentimes we are second tier to police dogs and we are called out when they have not located the missing person, so the searches don’t happen as often as we would like. We have the luxury of lots of training and after searches we are able to go back to training to fix any issues that might happen in the real world. In training we have control over the hides (human remains or subjects). Generally either we or someone accompanying us know where the hides are and if the dog alerts elsewhere we don’t reinforce the behavior and if they alert correctly there is a big party. But when out on bed bug detection jobs, there is often no immediate feedback. My bed bug dog alerts and I treat or not. Later I may find out if there was in fact a source or hide, but the delay could be hours or days. And many working dogs work a number of jobs a day and on consecutive days so squeezing in corrective training can be difficult. I have three certified dogs; a live find dog, a cadaver dog and a bed bug dog. I find that handling my bed bug dog is the most challenging because of the aforementioned issues. If I reward her for a false alert (every working dog falses at times) then extinguishing that behavior will be more difficult. But if I don’t have immediate feedback on whether there are bed bugs or not, I can’t withhold the reward. If I am withholding rewards until I actually get visual confirmation my dog will stop alerting for me.
In training you can watch your dog and observe her body language when she is sourcing a hide as well as when she is falsing. Get to know your dog. You know where you have put the hides (bed bugs) so if the dog falses, what is his body language? What are you doing to elicit the false? Tape your sessions or have an experienced person watch you. I have a group of handlers that I train with. They give me feedback and make suggestions. Regardless of how many years you’ve done this, feedback is always valuable, even from a less experienced person. It’s a fresh set of eyes. Single blinds (you don’t know where the hides are but another person who is present does) are valuable so you don’t unconsciously cue your dog. I just learned that my bed bug dog sometimes licks her lips when she’s made the find in addition to her sit alert. I also train to commit to scent so if she makes a find she stays seated with it, regardless of what I do. If I keep walking she stays. Another behavior is sourcing. When your dog comes into scent, generally she will spend time sniffing to find the exact location of the scent. That’s another behavioral indication of commitment to source (the bed bug in our case).
I constantly work distractions. When we go out on inspections we run into distractions and challenges every time. Hopefully you’ve proofed your dog off of the many distractions but when you’re inspecting people’s homes and other facilities there is always a new challenge. Sometimes a scent can be close to the scent you work. Carpet beetles can be close to bed bug scent and I have gotten carpet beetles to proof off of with my dog. I also proof off of dead bed bugs as we do lots of post treatment inspections and there are generally dead bed bugs. We don’t care about dead bed bugs and I can’t have my dog alerting on them, we only care about live bed bugs. So my dog knows there is no reward for dead bed bugs. I reinforce that training periodically with her so she doesn’t forget.
Having a certified dog doesn’t mean you’ve arrived. I’ve had search people tell me that their dog has never falsed. I always wonder how they know that unless they have never been on a real search and they have always known the location of the hide. But that’s not real life. I have also had bed bug handlers tell me they only reward their dog when they get visual confirmation. But we bed bug dog handlers know that we are only called in when there are all the signs (bites) but our clients can’t find the bed bugs. We also oftentimes can’t get visual confirmation after an alert. The dogs’ noses are sensitive and they are able to find a hidden bed bug in a location that is impossible to see (between floor boards for example). I’ve asked those handlers how often they get visual confirmation and they say ‘not very often’. I have to wonder if their dogs are always telling them about their finds. Why bother if there is no reward?
Bed Bugs continue to be a problem and bed bug detection dogs are widely used to detect them. “These specially trained canines are boast a 97% accurate in finding live infestations. This is compared to only the 30% accuracy of humans with visual detection.” (http://www.bedbugs.org/dogs/) Increasingly more clients are requesting dogs to find an infestation. We as handlers need to ensure that our canine partners are being honest with us about finding the problem. Set up your bed bug dog training for success.
The last three searches that I did with my canine were heavy infestations. My bed bug dog’s alert is a sit. She will detail an area and determine the location of the heaviest scent and do her alert. I noticed on the third search my bed bug detection dog alerted on two beds and some bins under one of the beds. But when she got to a sofa, she jumped up and sat. I didn’t believe her since I saw no sourcing behavior prior to the alert decision. We knew that the house was infested and the owner adamantly wanted the entire house treated so no harm done. But on my way home I stopped at the local hardware store and did a search with no alerts. I wasn’t satisfied because the hardware store is a very different picture than a house.
I trust my dog so I immediately wanted to test her on a sofa where I knew there were no bed bugs. Later that day I asked my neighbor if I could search her house. My bed bug dog had never been in this house so I drove there just as I would in a search, put on my food pouch and leashed her up with her long lead. No alerts until we got to one of her sofas. Sure enough, same lack of sourcing behavior, she jumped up and sat. I ignored it but waited her out and we moved ahead. No alerts on the rest of the house. We went back to the sitting room, same sofa, and she searched it and no alert. She realized that she couldn’t get away with it. The next day I went to another neighbor’s house, no alerts including the sofa. My neighbor then hid two vials single blind (I didn’t know where they were) and my dog did two beautiful finds (but I asked my neighbor not to put them on the sofa).
I am taking any false alerts very seriously. I can’t afford to have her false alerting and lose confidence in her. Any false alerts and she is crated for a short time, prior to continuing training. As soon as she false alerts I pick her up and taking her immediately to her crate. No conversation. I am glad that I know her well enough and that I picked up on the behavior immediately. If we only trained our dogs and did no real life searches we could avoid any poor performance but our working dogs are in unknown situations and we need to observe them and know them well enough so we can address problems immediately. The only way to get to know your dog is to observe your dog in a training environment where you know exactly where the hides are.
You can incorporate some training into your work, but since you don’t know where the bed bugs are or not you need to keep up with your training. The Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Detector Guidelines (SWGDOG) has studied and set guidelines for training requirements of a working dog. According to SWGDOG a canine team shall complete a minimum of sixteen (16) hours of training per month to maintain and improve the proficiency level of the team. These guidelines are followed by law enforcement and used in court when cases arise relating to detection dogs. The handler should be keeping a regular training log. It’s essential to keep your dog honest. You need to understand your dog’s body language to determine if there actually are bed bugs in the alerted location. The only way to reinforce accurate detection is regular training.
If I’m out on a long search with no bed bugs I notice my dog’s detailing getting sloppy. I need to periodically introduce a vial into longer searches to ensure focus and to keep it fun for her. Conversely the problem of heavy infestations where the dog starts to realize that she can alert and get fed. Hey, this is easy! But if you notice a behavior change, she may be playing you. I will do more negative searches in training after working heavy infestations so my dog builds her nose time with no finds. And if there are no bed bugs in a long search I will put out a number of vials in training to reinforce her detailing behavior. If she expects to find something there she is going to check for it. I will address this in an upcoming post.
We have begun an Interdisciplinary Working Detection Dog Group since these issues are similar in all detection working dogs. Please contact me if you are a handler and interested in participating. We have handlers in human remains detection, narcotics, vapor wake and nose work as well as bed bugs.