Most dogs don't automatically make an overt indication to you, letting you know they have found a rat. If it were that easy, we'd all have plenty of titles and the sport would be less challenging. Instead, most dogs need some help, through training, to learn what is expected of him/her and to fine tune his/her indication skills.
When it comes to indications, however, there is one huge mistake that can derail your progress, and that is:
Inconsistency! This is by far the biggest mistake I notice when training. One minute the handler may reward the dog for pawing at the tube, the next the handler may reward the dog for merely pausing longer while sniffing the tube, and yet another time might reward the dog for merely coming back to the general area of the tube after having left it.
What this does, is confuse the dog. The dog no longer knows what is expected of him/her, but worse (for the handler), it tells the dog that it's okay to do almost anything as a form of indication, which really means the handler will be relying on a wild guess when it comes time to enter the ring.
Why does this happen?
Dogs are notorious for doing the bare minimum for a reward. If a dog doesn't have to do anything at all and will still get rewarded, he/she won't do anything! similarly, if a dog can do something easier than what is asked of him/her and still get a treat, he/she will do what is easiest! Give a dog a treat before you ask him/her to react, and you will find that he/she might not perform at all. The same goes for indications, if you reward the dog for an easier, less obvious, or perhaps no indication at all, he/she will continue to take the easy way out.
As for the handler, sometimes it's merely lack of awareness (the handler might not realize that they have just rewarded nothing, or maybe rewarded more than one form of indication), other times, however, it appears to correlate with a certain sense of frustration (if the dog isn't performing to the handler's expectations) or a sense of hurry (if it's not happening fast enough) and yet other-times it appears to be just a very strong desire to get a positive indication (the handler will accept anything so as to call it a success). Ultimately, it all comes down to one thing, the handler lowers the standard, at which point the dog lowers himself to meet that lowered expectation, and now the dog has just been trained to not indicate.
How to fix it? Start from square one and go slowly! Go all the way back to a rat in a tube, or a rat in a cage, and positively reward the desired indication. If it has been a long time since your dog has given a strong indication you might have to go through the gradual indication process where the dog starts by simply nearing the tube and you reward, then you encourage until the dog touches the tube, and you reward, and then you require them to touch the tube and nudge it, and then reward etc. until you have worked up to the exact indication you want your dog to perform when you are in the ring. It may take time, so be willing to go slowly!
Once you have your dog performing the exact indication you want your dog to perform in the ring, name it! This is a step commonly missed, which lends to frustration in training later on (more on that in another blog post!). When you reward it, continue to name it, with a "good ____," example: "good touch" or "good getit" etc. And most importantly hold onto that standard! Only reward, from here on out, when the dog performs the correct indication you have already trained him to do.
(Pictured Above: Our own Katey Scarlet during a RATI course)
There are different types of indications like, barking, laying a head on the tube, pawing, mouthing the tube, sniffing and looking at you and waiting for you to pick it up, etc., all of those are strong indications. The actual indication your dog does, however, will depend on your dog's natural inclination, as well as on how you interpret his/her communication. Whatever works for you and your dog as a team is fine! But it has to be consistent, so you can recognize it when you are competing in the ring, and that consistency starts with you as a handler and when and how you reward your dog!