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?