In the activity and sport of K9 Nose Work, the dog needs to be a leader and the handler must be supportive of the dog's independent, odor driven efforts. What you do from the time you get your dog from the crate through the first 20 seconds of a nose work search may determine the outcome for that search, and may even have a lasting effect on your dog's desire to express his independence to hunt in future searches. Giving careful thought to the cumulative effect of every interaction you have with your dog in the context of nose work searching will help you better understand and appreciate the roles that dog and human should fulfill in a successful nose work search.
The Pre-Search Routine - Success in nose work really starts before the sniffing. If your dog is going to be a leader, make independent decisions, and stay focused and motivated, he needs to have a way to prepare himself to put these skills into action.
No two pre-search routines need be alike to be effective, but most routines include the following:
Interaction/Excitement - You're about to get your dog out of his crate to do something fun! Let him know this with your body language, vocal intonations, petting or play. If your dog is eager and excited to leave the crate to search, you're on the right track.
Special Gear - Many handlers use specific collars, harnesses, and leashes for the different activities they enjoy with their dogs. For most dogs, this is a very effective way to cue the dog to prepare to do a specific task. If you're going to use special gear for nose work, just remember to remove the gear when you want your dog to relax and be done searching or expecting to search.
Maintaining Readiness from Point A to B... or D - You've got your dog excited, happy and suited up with the proper gear, and now you may have to wait at one or more points on the way to the search area. Having a plan to keep your dog's energy level from spiking too high or flattening out is crucial if you want your dog to give his all once he crosses that start line. Think of an idling car in traffic - the engine isn't off, and it's ready to rev up at the push of the pedal. Can you picture how you'd keep your dog idling while waiting to search?!
At the Start Line - Every dog is different, but in general, a dog with an effective pre-search routine is expectantly searching long before we ever 'ask' him to search. And this is a good thing. A confident dog in control of his environment isn't going to wait for his handler to start sniffing in the presence of odor.
So, with a confident, eager dog at the start line of a search, who should be in control and how should you enter the search area?
Like so many things in the nose work world, it depends. If your goal is to facilitate your dog's ability to be a leader in the search, then you'll seek out ways to do this and evaluate the effectiveness of those ways based on how focused and successful your dog is from the start line. Jason Heng, CNWI, wrote a great piece regarding start lines and how we consider them in relation to the dog's understanding of when a search starts. Click here to read that post.
Deciding to Cross the Start Line - You should use your dog as the determining factor for when to start a search. If your dog appears to be in a focused, ready state, it's time to search. This could mean you wait 10 seconds at the start line, or it could mean as you approach the search area, you keep right on walking over that start line.
While it's easy to develop a start line routine, think about being flexible and observing your dog. Routine is very helpful away from the search area, but once you approach the place where there's odor to be found, your dog should hold final say over the best course of action.
Search Commands - Think about the above paragraphs and how a command fits into an activity where the dog is in the leadership role. If your command is reinforcing what the dog already plans to do independently, then it can be quite helpful, but if your routine has always been that your dog seems a bit lacking in focus and purpose and you use a command to get him going, then it might be necessary to work on your dog's independence as well as the pre-search routine.
And, for probably 99% of the nose work population, there really is little need for your dog to be in an obedient position and/or focusing on you when you give your command. Again, considering the task at hand, it should be more desirable to have a dog obedient to odor and focused on the environment, than to have focus on the handler.
Entering the Search Area as Handler - You've approached the search area, done whatever you think best supports your dog's readiness to focus on finding odor, you've released your dog to search and now the clock is ticking.
In the first seconds of the search, you can choose to remain still and stay at the start line, follow your dog's path and match his pace, or take your own path at your own pace. A few factors will limit your options for any given search:
On/Off-Leash & Leash Length - If your dog is off-leash, you have much more freedom to stay put or move, and similarly, your dog has much more freedom to work the environment. If your dog is on-leash, the length of the leash determines how much freedom the two of you have to move independently.
Lines of Sight Within the Environment - If your dog disappears from your view within seconds of starting the search, you'll most likely have to follow him, or risk missing his alert behavior.
Distance Between Start Line and Searchable Items - For vehicle and container searches, your searchable items may be set back from the start line, in which case, you must move on with your dog. As to how closely you follow your dog, that's still in your control.
The First 20 Seconds of A Search - You've worked your way from crate to start line and the dog has crossed that start line, maybe you have, too. Already, seconds have passed. Have you noticed your dog's nose curve back toward his shoulder as he trots forward and you trot right along behind him? Did his nose drop to the base of a signpost in the grass and start investigating - and did your "pee alarm" go off, prompting you to move him on? Did your dog seem like he chose his path to the vehicles or containers, and picked which way to go, or were you employing a "let's start with this one" strategy?
So many things can happen in the first seconds of a search that will impact the likelihood of a team's success, and most of them can be evaluated for their impact on the dog's ability to remain in control of the search.
Think about a dog searching off-leash for primary reward in a controlled environment, and picture the confidence, independence, and leadership that dog exhibits as he seeks out what is his to possess and consume or play with. The dog is in control. The dog uses the environment to solve the odor problem and locate the source.
Now think about a dog searching on-leash at his first Odor Recognition Test (ORT). The environment is somewhat controlled. The dog is confident and independent. The search begins. Within a few seconds the dog decides to move off to the right, beyond the two rows of boxes, and the handler uses the leash to direct the dog back onto the boxes. Something profound happened here. The dog had control of the search, then the handler took control. What happens with each subsequent effort on the dog's part to take back control? Will the dog continue to assert his independence and seek out his answers from the environment, or will he turn his focus to the handler and try to figure out what it is that the handler wants from him in the search?
The dog's independence and confidence in the search are not infinite. It's more like fuel tanks that can be depleted through extended efforts to problem solve in the environment. When the handler does not recognize and support the dog's independent decision making in the search, this is like springing a leak in the confidence fuel tank. Remember, the dog wants to do what he believes will bring a reward. While the dog may have strong odor obedience, that may not trump a difficult search challenge and a handler who is not supporting the dog's odor driven agenda. If the dog is getting feedback from the handler that essentially tells him, "no, not that way" or "I don't believe you", then it's likely the dog will do something that seems more in line with what he thinks the handler wants.
Watch for Key Signals From the Dog - Within the first 20 seconds of a search, if you've got proper distance from your dog and can see him well, you can often spot subtle signs revealing his odor driven intentions in the search.
The sniffing a dog does at the start line indicates the presence of odor or the dog's expectation that checking in the environment will reveal the presence of odor.
Once the dog starts moving, dropping or turning the head, or changing pace and/or direction rapidly are signs that the dog is encountering odor. Do not be so quick to move the team on from an area if the dog begins to show these signs.
Let the Dog Decide to Change His Mind - Some dogs are contemplative at the start of a search, some are explosive with a "run to there first, sniff for answers later" attitude. No matter what type of searcher you have, as the handler, you can choose to stay out of the way right from the start - especially at the start. Many dogs will recognize the presence of odor, process it, and want to respond to it with a behavior change. If the human gets in the way of the dog during this sequence of events, it can affect the dog's ability to act on the information he's taken from the environment. If the handler hangs back for even a few seconds, a dog who needs to make an abrupt stop and turn back towards the threshold can do so unimpeded by the handler - and, the handler is in a great position to see the dog's behavior changing, which should reinforce for the handler that the dog is in control.
If a handler moves quickly with the dog, often, the handler senses the dog is choosing a particular path, and now becomes mentally committed to that path and will not see the subtle signs from the dog that he is being compelled to change direction by odor in the environment. Even for dogs with strong odor obedience, it can be difficult to override a handler who is taking control.
Just the physical presence of the handler can be tough for the dog to work through if the handler is not supporting the dog's odor driven behavior. A handler too close to a dog who would prefer to double back and work in the opposite direction may have no clue that she is preventing the dog from exactly what she's asking the dog to do! A handler who is too far from the dog or fixed in one place too long can also create trouble in odor paradise. The dog really needs the handler to be supportive at all times.
Let the Dog Search the Environment at Least for a Few Seconds - If your dog understands the task at hand and knows to search for an odor source, you owe it to him to trust that he's focused on his job.
Container and vehicle searches are often hardest for the handler to support the dog's odor driven behavior. Handlers hate to have their dogs turn their focus away from the items that have been designated searchable. Dogs search for odor. That odor could be moving away from a container or vehicle and pooling on something that could not contain an odor source for this type of search, but that doesn't mean the dog can't search it, process the information, and navigate his way confidently back to the source of the odor. Give your dog control, be supportive, and let him do his job. He's very good at it and understands the environment in ways you never will.
In cases where the dog is given control and freedom to search his environment, but doesn't seem to stay focused on the task of finding source odor, you must determine if the dog has had the proper exposure to this type of environment, if a different approach to your training sessions is required to help the dog maintain focus, or if this was an isolated event that doesn't normally occur.
After the First 20 Seconds - While it is always important to trust your dog and give him control in the search, it is especially crucial that he feels supported by you during the early part of the search as he asserts his independence in hunting down the source odor.
If, at any time in the search, it appears to you that your dog is not staying focused on the task of finding source odor, then supporting your dog can mean taking control. For example, a dog who goes beyond the boundaries of the search area and does not appear to be working odor and actively returning to the search area, needs to be guided back to the searchable area. A dog who switches over to crittering (smelling non-target odors in the environment), may need the handler to take control - but, beware of how you handle this situation, the dog could be very near odor and corrective action could impact his desire to return to that area to find source odor.
Some search areas have lots of complexity - corners, alcoves, three dimensional objects, slopes, elevation, etc. - and the dog may be focused on finding odor, but need some assistance accessing and searching the different parts of the search area with thoroughness. Just remember, once you take control to assist the dog, it can be hard to know when to relinquish control back to the dog. Lots of practice is needed to be successful sharing control with your dog in a variety of search scenarios.
When Success is Out of the Team's Control - There will be some searches where you are supportive of the dog's independence from the start, the dog seems to be focused and driven, and everything is going well, but success will still elude the team. Every search is a learning experience, and no one search is reflective of your team's abilities.
Team Heads to a Deodorized Zone - You and your dog are in sync from moment one of searching, but for whatever reason, you end up in a part of the search area where the dog cannot catch scent. Most dogs will not fare well the longer it takes for them to catch scent. Some dogs lose focus quickly and some will continue to work hard, but become less confident in their searching.
Conditions Create Unintended Challenges - Some hides can become drastically harder as conditions change. Heat and wind are typical factors affecting the difficulty of a search, but many other things can throw the team an odor curveball. If odor becomes very hard to source due to changing conditions, don't get down on your team, just think of ways you might replicate the conditions and the hide placement to give your dog more opportunities to master the odor problem.
Distractions are Just too Distracting - You can't plan for everything. A marching band, a firing range, a parade, kids playing whiffle ball, ATVs, a dead animal, a live animal, and the list of possible distractions during a search goes on. Again, if you run into a challenge that bests you and your dog, try to turn it into a learning experience and future training experiences.
The first 20 seconds of a search won't always be make-or-break time for the team, but it's certainly time that can be well-spent to make any search more successful. With proper training and lots of experience, your dog will go to great lengths to override your bad behavior in the search! And, you will become a better teammate thanks to your dog's confident searching and clear behavior in odor. No matter where you and your dog are in training, just remember, if you want your dog to sniff to the best of his abilities, you have to respect his superior skills and do your best to be a supportive handler.
p.s. - video of teams from this year's NACSW K9NW National Invitational coming soon, as well as updates to the Shiba Experiment!