Talking Dogs Scentwork®

7 things that make lab fed up

7 things our scentwork dog wished we didn’t do! And how to avoid them.

Scentwork is teamwork. Working as part of a team requires vigilance to ensure that we are working efficiently. Checking in with our teammates and assessing our contribution is part of the process. This is no different when our teammate is a dog. Here are 7 of the most common ways that we can mess up the partnership.

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1. Physically block access

Whether working the dog in a free search or in a tight directed search, it’s all to easy to get into the wrong place at the wrong time. Inadvertently blocking the dog from access to the hide or the area of the hide is all too common. This could mean that she misses searching that area altogether. Or that she gets frustrated and so moves on. 

The solution to this is to keep moving. If we are constantly on the move, and do get into the wrong position, we will only block access for a short time, seconds. But if we come to a complete stop as we watch the dog work, the obstruction can last minutes instead of seconds.  

The second anti-blocking strategy is to plan ahead. Always thinking about where to move next helps to By anticipating where our dog will move next, we can make sure that we move out of their way. Not only that, but we drive the search forward by suggesting where the dog should search next. If we are ahead of the movement and keep moving, we cannot block the search path. 

2. Mess with her rhythm

There is nothing to be gained, and lots to lose, from trying to speed the dog up or slow her down. Interfering with the speed the dog works makes no sense. Let’s start by looking at speeding the dog up. 

What’s the hurry? Even when working a professional dog where time is of the essence, any attempt to rush the dog will result in her not searching at her best. She will miss things. May feel harassed. Very likely to feel confused. She is sniffing and working but you want her to move on to the next spot and the next and the next without having the time to finish checking each one. And so she starts to skip, to rush, to work below capacity. Which could mean that she misses more and so gets rewarded less. And ultimately is not able to perform efficiently. It doesn’t work for time pushed professionals. So it definitely doesn’t work for teams searching for the sheer pleasure of the activity.       

Slow down?

As for slowing dogs down, think about why we might want to do that. Does the dog continually push past us? Does she move around the area faster than we can keep track of? If those are the reasons for slowing her down – don’t slow her down. It’s the handler who needs to change pace and speed up. The handler needs to match the dog’s pace, not the other way around. The dog works at a pace that is comfortable and efficient for her. Mess with that and you mess with performance. 

But it may be that the dog is working fast but not working thoroughly and effectively. The only way to know this is to monitor how often she misses finds. Perhaps she takes several passes before she indicates. That is not efficient and needs to be addressed. But this is less about speed and more about accuracy. 

In this case, give her more to search. More layers, smaller scent pictures, multiple finds across specific sections of the area. Those will let her discover that if she is more thorough she will find more. And find them sooner. She will learn to adjust her own pace. Win-win!

3. Second guess her

Second guessing is bad handling. We must act on the information we observe. Not on what we hope or expect to see. A classic example of this is when the handler knows where the article has been hidden. She sees the dog close to the hide and so assumes that the dog is indicating. But the dog might be investigating, searching, without having hit the target scent yet. If the handler behaves as if the dog has indicated when she has not, the handler is telling the dog when the hide is. And so the dog might learn to move around the area, not searching properly because she is waiting for the handler to tell her when she’s at the hide. That is not scentwork. 

Any action we take that encourages the dog not to indicate is counter-productive. What happens when the team face a blind search? If the handler doesn’t know where the finds are, and the dog is waiting on the handler to give the signal, what happens then? We can see that the outcome is not good. 

On the flip side, assuming the dog cannot be indicating is equally damaging. This is often due to handler preconceptions. Assuming that the place that the dog is indicating cannot possibly be the hide is a disaster. Give the dog the benefit of the doubt and check it out. Only if you know that they is not, and has never been, a scented article in that location can you work the dog on without acknowledging the indication. Otherwise, if you ignore the indication the dog will quickly stop giving it.     

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4. Jump learning steps

Scentwork is exciting. There are so many options to play with. But don’t get overexcited and skip the steps the are needed for the dog to be successful. 

For example, if we want the dog to search for 10 minutes, but the longest she has searched is only 2 minutes, that’s a huge jump. Or if we want to clear a whole area but until now the search has stopped at the first find, she may well, and rightly, be confused. In learning, it’s always better to increase the challenge in small increments rather than huge jumps. It’s true for us and it’s true for our dogs. 

In some cases, such as in the previous examples, the dog hasn’t build up the physical and mental stamina to be able to concentrate and work efficiently over larger areas or longer times. But at other times she may not even understand what we’d like her to do. If you ask her to search a vehicle when she’s only ever searched boxes and containers in a room, she may well be puzzled. But place a scented article so that she can find it within seconds of tentative sniffing and boom, she will get the idea. Leave her to try to work it out herself without a quick find and you’ll probably get one of three results:

  1. the dog becomes frustrated and gives up
  2. she will start giving false indications
  3. she will persist and find it

There’s no reason to put the dog through needless stress. Supportive handling and a quick find is all that’s needed to prevent options 1 & 2. So let’s think about what small steps we can make in order for the dog to learn the task. And for us both to be rewarded with successful outcomes.   

5. Ignore her when she asks for help

If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, I doubt this bug bear will come as much of a surprise.

There are two aspects at play here: 

  1. we need to recognise what it looks like when our dog asks for help
  2. we need to understand how to help

Some dogs make their requests very obvious. They might high step back from whatever they need help with and give you a wide eyed appeal for help. Or they might bark. Or whine. Others are much more subtle. Maybe giving just an quick flick of their eyes. Or standing still waiting for us to mind read their request. The more we observe and understand what our dog’s actions mean, the better, and faster, we will become at recognising when she wants our help.

Stepping in when she isn’t asking for help is not helpful. We risk interfering with her sniffing, and spoiling her fun (e.g. getting the toy out of the hide) So we have to make sure we figure out when she is, and is not, asking for help. 

How to help

And how should we help? It depends on what she needs. It might be as straightforward as moving something out of her way to provide better access to the hide or search area. Or it might be helping her to search a particular spot in more detail. Giving her suggestions of where to look that she might not have considered. Sometimes she might just want permission to jump onto something. Or to pick something up. Or even to dive into a pile of boxes. She is not asking you to find the article for her, she is asking for your help and support for her to find it.     

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6. Skimp on the reward

Imagine working your socks off and then only getting to look at your payslip, not getting to spend the money. Your desire to work might start to wane. Our dogs are the same. If the instant they locate and retrieve the article they are asked to get back to work, they might start to wonder why they are working. What’s the point? 


Scentwork is rather special in that the activity itself is hugely rewarding to many dogs. While this is a wonderful bonus – the dog loves the work – it can be detrimental. If the balance between the search and the reward tips too far in either direction, the whole search will suffer. 

I have seen it multiple times. The dog adores scentwork. She will happily sniff all day long. But when she finds the target, she doesn’t regard it as a reward. No, she sees it as an interruption to her fun. She loves sniffing more than the reward. So rather than risk these pesky rewards (which I should say are no longer rewards because she no longer sees them as that) stopping her from sniffing, she doesn’t indicate that she has found the target. Instead she sails past the find even though she has located them. 

Play like a dog!

When our dogs find the scented articles, the game needs to be fulsome, generous and genuine. Whether your dog gets to play with the find or is rewarded with food, you can enhance to payoff. My custom’s dog Ash used to love to be chased. So it wasn’t an unusual sight at Glasgow Airport to see me running around a cargo shed chasing my drug detector dog. Find what your dog loves to do, how she likes to play and figure out how to use that as your reward. Be it playing food circuits with dogs who prefer treats over toys. Or tug/chase/tease games with your toy oriented dog. 

Bear in mind that in TDS we are working with all dogs, not just those who have been specially selected for scentwork. In my experience all dogs love to sniff. But not all dogs love scentwork so much that they are willing to do it for free! So whatever you do, don’t skimp on the rewards!     

7. Ask her to search the same area again and again

This is usually a result of lack of confidence on the handler’s part. I saw the issue most vividly when I ran my first Handler Accreditation workshops. During these workshops the search teams are asked to clear search areas. They don’t know how many finds I’ve put out and so have to satisfy themselves that they have searched the whole area thoroughly before stopping the search and declaring the area clear, i.e. there are no more finds to locate. 

On that first workshop, every handler asked their dog to re-search areas again and again. At some point every dog stopped working and looked directly at their handler. And the handlers’ response? They asked they dog to continue working and bless them, every dog did as they were asked. Even though they had clearly shown their handler that there was nothing more to find. 

Time limits

From that point on, I’ve assigned time limits to the searches at these workshops. This stops the handlers asking the dogs to search the same area multiple times and encourages good, detailed searching on the first directed search. It was understandable that the handlers at the first workshop didn’t want to miss anything. But it was both heartbreaking to see every dog tell her handler there was nothing there, and then heartwarming to see them search again because their teammate had asked them to. 

While timed searches have fixed the issue at this workshop, the fix isn’t always so easy. It requires confident handling and a deal of self control. If we are detailed in our directed searches, re-searching isn’t necessary. If we discover that we are missing lots of finds in our directeds, that means we are not being detailed. It’s often an issue I see at workshops. Handlers searching along a perimeter, thinking they are doing a thorough search when in fact they are skipping sections all the way along. 

So we have to trust our dog when she tells us that there is nothing left to find. But we must combine that with comprehensive and close attention to detail when we are conducting our directed searches.  


So there it is. 7 things our scentwork dogs wished we didn’t do. And how to avoid them. I hope this helps you be a better teammate. And helps your dog to concentrate on scent working rather than worrying about what you are doing!

You can read more about how to avoid training mistakes in my previous blog post.

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