In this, my third blog in the series on search themes, I’m going to talk about search factors. These are some of the specific factors and choices you can make when planning your searches. Each has it’s own pros and cons, depending on your goals. Your dog might not be ready for inaccessible finds or outdoor searches. But she might well be able to start increasing search duration or number of finds. Selecting the right type of search will always benefit your scentwork. So let’s see what you can factor in.
This is where I recommend you always start when beginning to learn scentwork. Working indoors allows you to control the environment much more than working outdoors. Depending on where you’re working, you can often control temperature. Not just by adjusting the thermostat, but by opening or closing windows and doors. You can limit the distractions so that you don’t get people or animals wandering through your search area when you least expect, or want.
For most of us, the first indoor venue we work in is our home. Many of my dogs have learned about their target scent and conducted their first searches in my living room. You don’t need lots of space. You don’t need lots of specialist equipment. Talking Dogs Scentwork® doesn’t require you to have anything more than a scented article, edible or not. That’s it! So working at home will provide all you need.
Choose your moment
When you start scentwork, try to do it at a time when the children aren’t running around or scattering toys left and right. If you’re lucky enough to work from home, you might be able to sneak some scentwork in during the day. But even if there’s lots going on, if you can find a room, maybe the bedroom, and have that to yourself and your dog for 15 minutes, you can start scentworking.
Of course if you have access to other indoor spaces, that’s a bonus. You may be able to use a village hall, or a friend’s house, or even your place of work. Over the last 10 years I’ve searched offices, business units, factories and workshops. So chat with your friends and family to see if they have an indoor area you can use.
Obviously, working outdoors is the opposite to working indoors in terms of environmental control. While you have no control of the weather you can pick your timing. As I discussed in the outdoor themes search blog, different weather provides different challenges. So choose the challenge level that’s appropriate for you and your dog.
If you have a garden, you can stop strangers walking through the area. If you are working in a public area, you have to make provision for that possibility. Ensure you’ve taught a great recall and that you can call your dog back to you should an unsuspecting fellow user walk her dog through your search area. Or you could work your dog in a long line, but that’s a skill in itself.
You might be working on lead if you’re searching vehicles or in a place where there are vehicles around. Big car parks can be great for off the cuff searches. Place some finds around the perimeter, in vegetation or on signs or fences and off you go.
Animals can be an issue depending on where you are working outdoors. Even in your garden the neighbourhood cats might want to get involved. I know my own cat can’t resist getting in amongst the search – especially when the finds are cheesy! So think about what you might encounter when you are outdoors and how that might affect your search.
Working in familiar areas can be confidence boosting. This is especially evident with dogs who are anxious about playing anywhere except home. For these dogs, teaching two target scents can work really well. Edible targets when away from home. Non-edible when at home. Scentwork and the pleasure it brings can build really strong reward histories. So much so that often dogs can learn to play in unfamiliar areas when that play is linked to scentwork.
Beware of familiar becoming humdrum or predictable. If your dog automatically goes to specific points in the room before starting to search the whole area, you know that you have been placing finds in the same hides over and over again. Mix things up. Use articles made of different materials. Hide them in new places. Add or remove different distractions. Be inventive.
Familiar is fabulous for teaching new skills and practising old. When working in a familiar area you and your dog can concentrate on the task at hand much more than when you are somewhere new. So if you want to improve concentration for directed searches, or increase duration or change the scent picture, familiar areas are great places to start.
Unfamiliar can be exciting, energising. But they can also be worrisome or unsettling. How they are viewed is down to the individual dog. If you can help your dog feel supported and safe, these concerns can be fleeting. But if they have a long history of feeling fearful in new areas, or just certain new areas, you must be sensitive to that. It may be that your dog is afraid of sudden loud noises that they associate with a particular field. Of that she feels a bit wrong-footed (or -pawed) when she’s somewhere new. If this is your dog, you might well find that scentwork can help.
By offering her the opportunity to engage in an activity that she already understands and knows, in an area where she’s not feeling 100%, you can help change her mental and emotional response. Or at the very least learn some coping strategies. I can’t tell you how often I had dogs come to workshops who were worried about new dogs, anxious about flooring, or doors banging or voices echoing around the hall. Scentwork trumped every one of their fears with all being able to happily and successfully search by the end of the day. Of course, as the trainer I worked hard to make the area as safe as possible for them. But without scentwork, their focus would have remained on their fears.
For the go getters, the happy go lucky and the downright reckless, unfamiliar environments are super exciting. Especially when they are being actively encouraged to use their noses. You’ve brought them somewhere new and you want them to investigate? Imagine the bliss! Before bringing your dog in, make sure you safety check the area. Get familiar with it yourself in order to give your dog the freedom, and boundaries, to go exploring.
A known search is where the handler knows where the scented article has been hidden. In some types of scentwork, this is mandatory. For example, when teaching a passive indication the handler needs to know when the dog should be indicating.
But known searches must be used with care. Even when trying to work as though you don’t know the find’s location, it’s extremely difficult not to react. Many studies have shown that if the handler thinks she knows the hide, she will influence the dog, overtly or inadvertently. In my workshops it’s always easy to spot which handlers have helpers at home to hide articles for them, and which do it themselves. The latter are never as confident in identifying indications and are often too busy looking for the find themselves to concentrate fully on their dogs.
Known searches do have their place though. You need to know where the find is if you are working on solving a specific issue. For example, if the dog repeatedly fails to indicate, the handier needs to discover why. Knowing where the find is located let’s the handler watch for tiny changes in body language that can show that the dog is uncomfortable, worried, unsure. The find could be buried inside too many layers, or the scent picture could be too small. Perhaps the dog prefers the search over the reward for finding the article. In this case it’s not in her interest to tell the handler when she’s found it. Unless the handler knows where the find is, she can’t successfully address the problem.
All searches are blind for the dog. When we talk about blind searches we are actually referring to double blind searches. Neither dog nor handler know where the target scent has been hidden. In my experience, the best handling comes from blind searches. Right from the outset, the handler has to work with the dog, observing her closely to spot her indications. She can’t influence the dog, for good or ill, and so the dog learns to be confident in her own abilities rather than relying on the handler to tell her when the scent is.
All my workshop starter searches are blind. Actually all the searches in my workshops are blind. None of the handlers know where I’ve hidden the scented article. But they do all know that I am there to support both them and their dog. Having a helper to place the articles is the ideal situation. But – that helper has to listen to the handler’s guidance on where to place, and where not to place, the article. Or in the case of a trainer being the helper, she has to understand what the team needs in every search in order to set suitable hides. And once the search begins, the helper needs to watch. It’s no good asking your friend to hide something and then she leaves the room. You need her to be there to clarify, confirm or coax you towards the hide should you have questions.
Professional handlers spend their careers engaging in blind searches. I can confirm that the rush you get when your dog hits a find is always glorious. And interestingly, when scent working for fun, the rush is the same. Whether my dog was finding kilos of cocaine or a few specs of cannabis, my endorphin boost was the same. And it’s the same now when she finds an old catnip scented sock. I love it. I’ve taught many canine activities over the years, but never do I hear so many squeals of joy and laughter than when I teach scentwork. In fact sometimes when teaching in large outdoor venues, I keep track of how the teams are faring just by standing still and listening for whoops.
Blind searches are essential to quality scentwork. Without them the handler will mess up the dog’s natural skill and learned reactions. And will always be uncertain about how efficient and effective the team actually is.
As I mentioned, all my searches as a professional handler were blind. Sadly, the majority were also blank. This means that there was nothing for us to find. But we lived in hope and occasionally we did actually find what we were looking for – illegally imported drugs. They key to working blank searches is that you always assume there is something to find and work accordingly. If you know there’s nothing out, then you are likely to be less detailed in your search. You might miss or skip sections of the area. And just search in a sloppier manner.
You can avoid this by having a helper put the finds out for you. Say you’re going to do a series of searches. As for one, or more, of them to be blank. Most importantly, the helper shouldn’t tell you which ones have finds and which ones are blank. That way, you’ll treat them the same and be equally diligent in both.
Blank not empty
Sometimes folks get in a muddle about blank searches. They think that the dog should always find something. And I agree. But blank searches don’t mean that the dog gets nothing. Instead, you, the handler, can choose when she should find something. If you want to increase search duration, you could search a blank area, quickly putting an article out if you feel the dog is flagging or has worked hard and deserves a reward. Or at a time set just past her usual search duration. Or perhaps you want to practise your search patterns and finding the article too soon makes you lose your place in the plan. You can place the find when you are ready.
So blank searches simply mean at some point in the search there will be nothing to find. But the dog will always find something. Don’t be predictable, e.g. always hide something right at the ned or right at the start of the search. Change the timing so that the only thing that is predictable is that your dog will have at least one find during the search. And what about my Custom’s detector dog, what happened when there was nothing to find? Simple – I put a find out for him after I’d cleared the area. Blank, but not empty.
Number of finds
When I start scent working, I begin by putting out one find. As the team’s confidence and skills grow, I gradually increase the number. Persuading the dog to work on after locating that first find can sometimes be tricky. She’s found what she was looking for, so why are you asking her to search again? This is one of those ‘trust your handler’ moments in scentwork. If your dog has been tricked by you in the past, she is likely to be suspicious and perhaps reluctant to resume the search. But if you have a trusting relationship. she is much more likely to take the chance that there will be more to find. By giving you the benefit of the doubt, and by you knowing that there’s another find out there, she will be justly rewarded for searching on.
If your dog is searching for edible finds, such as cheese, sometimes it can be easier to put out multiple finds at an earlier stage. Because the search isn’t being interrupted as much by a game – the dog simply eats the cheese – it’s easier to continue the flow of the search to locate more finds.
When searching for multiple finds, don’t play as vigorously as usual with the first or second finds. You don’t want to make the dog tired or to pant when there’s still areas to be cleared (searched) By saving the big game til the end you avoid this problem.
Make sure not to hide finds too close together. This can make the scent pictures mingle and cause confusion about which way to go. I’d suggest one find per 2m circle is a good rule of thumb. So don’t place a find closer than about 2m in any direction to another find. That way you use the whole area and don’t confuse the dog. After all, in an operational search, once the section of the search area is identified as containing the target odour, the handler, or assistant, searches that whole section to ensure all targets are retrieved/identified.
And don’t go crazy with the number of finds. Don’t saturate the area with finds unless you are working on a specific goal, e.g. you really want to push duration, perhaps going over the 30 minute mark. And of course the size of the area itself is a limiting factor given than you don’t want to hide them beside each other. Usually between 1-5 finds is sufficient.
Number of layers
This is all about adjusting the scent picture. The more obstacles for the scent to negotiate to reach the dog, the more challenge you can build. For example, it might easier for a dog to find the article in a cardboard box (1 layer) than in a bag inside a cardboard box (2 layers). Or an article in a plastic bottle inside a wooden box placed in a suitcase (3 layers).
Think carefully about the materials you are using to make your layers and how well, or not, they absorb scent and allow scent to move. In the examples above, a cheap cardboard box and a cotton bag would make a good amount of scent available to the dog. Whereas if the plastic bottle was sealed, the wooden box was lacquered and the suitcase made of polycarbonate (think Samsonite) there would be very little opportunity for the scent to escape. There are always ways to mitigate tricky materials, such as leaving the article in for a long time and/or increasing the size of the article. But as a general rule, these types of material are challenging.
Layering is a great way to decrease the scent picture. But it’s also a wonderful way to increase the fun. If your dog can rip through a few boxes in order to access the find, happy days! This depends on your dog, some are too polite to rip and bite. For those dogs, sniffing deeply through a pile a clothes could be a much more satisfying find.
Keep track of how many layers, and what they are, so that you can be conscious of what your dog finds fun, or challenging or impossible. Take notes, keep records, don’t guess. The dog will always spot patterns of behaviour before you. Keeping notes will help keep you ahead of the game.
Increasing how long your searches last isn’t only about prolonging the fun. It requires you and your dog to concentrate for longer. Concentration is needed to facilitate the logical progress of the search. And to ensure that you are working together as a team throughout the whole search rather than intermittently. I regularly worked my drug detector spaniel for 40 minute searches, followed by 40 minutes rest, then another search and rest, and so on throughout the shift. These days, I find myself exhausted after about 25 minutes such is the effort and concentration.
Always time your searches as it’s nigh on impossible to guess how long you’ve ben searching. You (can/should) get so engrossed in what you’re doing that time flies by. So either set a stopwatch or note down the start and finish times of your searches. Then you’ll discover how long your average search lasts. And how long your dog can work comfortably and at what point she starts to lose concentration. Once you know that, you can more accurately plan how to stretch the time so that you can work for longer.
As ever, if you are increasing duration, decrease or at least maintain the other search factors such as layers, environment and article type.
The one extra thing you can increase is the number of finds. But be careful, don’t assume that longer searches require more finds. More finds = more rewards = more energy spent not searching. Sometimes blank searches can actually produce longer searches. So think about what would work best for your dog.
Like us, some days we are on our game. While on others it’s an achievement just to get out of bed. Our dogs are similar. Recently my little dog Ettie had a poorly stomach. When we went for our walk, she simply stood still while the other dogs ran ahead. She didn’t feel like a walk. So we went back home. Dogs can tell us what they want, what they need. We just have to be willing to listen. So if you want to set up a longer search, but your dog maxes out at 10 minutes, stop there. You can work on increasing duration tomorrow.
You can change the size, material and condition of the articles you scent up. Different materials soak up different amounts of scent. The basic rule is that soft and squidgy soaks up more than hard and shiny. So a soft toy (mouse) will soak up more than a tin. The more porous the article the more scent it can hold. Wood can hold more than stone. Unless the wood was varnished – in which case they might hold similar amounts.
Often when first scented up, different materials will hold a similar amount of scent. A group of us in the TDS Members’ Club did an experiment where we scented up a stone, a metal spanner, a plastic lid and a piece of wood. Each was hidden in a search. Without exception, all the dogs found all the articles with equal ease. But the longer the articles were left out the harder it became to find some of them. Most notably the spanner lost more of it’s scent than any of the other materials. Scent was sitting on the surface of this article, while it had soaked into others, or got caught in the uneven surfaces.
Consider too the size of the article. Imagine how big the scent picture would be if you scented up a whole T-shirt versus one strip of the T-shirt. A whole shoe compared with just the tongue.
Bear in mind that when you change the article, the dog might not be keen to play with it. Nobody wants to play with a metal spanner. And you definitely don’t want your dog to catch stones, even scented ones. Be ready to swap the scented article for something that the dog will want to play with. My preference is to swap it for a scented toy. So swap a scented chunk of wood for a scented mouse. This helps maintain the association between scent and reward.
But you can swap for an unscented toy. Perhaps a specific toy that your dog only gets at searches. Or one that she loves more than any other toy in the world. It’s easier to keep an unscented toy on you during searches, ready to be swapped. But if you have a helper or you can keep a scented article close by, that would always be my preference.
As you and your dog become more competent scentworkers, you’ll want to start making the hides progressively challenging. One way to do this is to make the finds inaccessible for the dog. This means that your dog can find them but not retrieve or eat them without assistance. One of the great joys of this is that the dog spots the scent and then the handler has to wait, support and act when the dog pinpoints the exact hide.
Balance is crucial in most activities, and working these hides is no different. You need to encourage the dog, help with the drive in, think about access and safety and when the time is right, step in to help expose the article/cheese for the dog to win. Stepping in too quickly means that you are not allowing her the necessary time, and fun, to work her way to the exact spot of the hide.
When done correctly, you should be able to put your hand right on the find. This is because you have followed the dog and carefully noted when shown the sweet spot. Inaccessible finds help build skill. The dog learns to find smaller scent pictures. And to search in unusual or unexpected places so that she learns that everywhere could be a hide. And when done well, she learns to have confidence that you will always support her. Plus you learn to trust your dog. You really learn what the indications are. Which in turn allows you spot them earlier and have confidence in what you’re seeing.
Often inaccessible hides are inaccessible as a result of your risk assessment – it’s too risky to ask the dog to jump onto a surface or put her paws or nose between structures that could move and trap or scare her. Always think ‘Safety First!’ before deciding on each hide. Look at all the possible ways your dog might try to access it. And if it’s not safe, don’t use it.
Don’t rush the dog – stand well back (if safe), watch, learn and quietly encourage her to keep searching to pinpoint the find.
When you are sure you know where the find is located, let the dog see you access it and allow her to pull it from the hide rather than taking it out and presenting it to her. Removing the find and giving it to the dog does little to help reinforce what the scent told the dog, i.e. that the reward was where she thought it was, or to build confidence for future hides.
As the handler, if you’re not sure that the dog can access the find, ask your helper ‘Is this accessible for my dog?’ If you are the helper, tell the handler that the find/s is/are inaccessible at the start of the search or when the dog begins to indicate on the hide. There’s nothing worse than driving a dog in to get a find she physically cannot access.
You can use small articles (if safe to do so with your dog) to put into small spaces.
If your dog has trouble locating the exact hide, help her by conducting a detailed directed search together of the approximate area. Don’t leave your dog hanging, especially if she has asked for help.
So many ideas, so little time!
So there it is. 12 factors to consider when planning your searches. Added to the previous indoor and outdoor search themes ideas, you now have 60 elements to use. Mix and match them to get the best results. You might want to choose the indoor themes for February, cork and bottles, and combine them with number of layers or in an unfamiliar area. Or take the outdoor themes of hills and hollows and combine them with inaccessible hides or article types. Use the three printable worksheets together and you will stay busy all year.