Talking Dogs Scentwork®

pay attention

Are you paying attention? Why, and how, to be more mindful of your dog.

Are you paying attention? What is your dog doing right now? Do you know? Perhaps she’s in the room with you snoozing by your side just like my terrier girls? Or perhaps she’s taken herself off to bed in another room like my lab? If you have other folks at home with you, she could be with them and so you don’t actually know what she’s doing. Unfortunately, too many people don’t know what their dog is doing, even when they are right there with them. Being attentive is an active choice and to become good at it, you need to practise. Really observing your dog, not just watching her, is one of the most important and transferable skills you’ll learn in scentwork. 

Coming up . . .

Stressful reminder

I was reminded of this whilst waiting at the vets. Ettie had a follow up appointment and the poor vet was running late. Our practice is inside a large pet shop. As we sat in the waiting area on the first floor of the store, I could see the whole pet shop laid out before me. I could see the front door and all the customers arriving, browsing and leaving. And I can’t tell you how stressful this was!

Watching non-trainers with their dogs is rarely fun. (TBH, this applies to watching some trainers too, but I’ll leave that for another post!) One of the few upsides to COVID was that veterinary patients had to wait in cars rather than waiting rooms. But today, I was trapped in the biggest waiting room ever. “So why was is stressful” I hear you ask? In a nutshell, it was witnessing the disconnect between dogs and their people.

How would it feel?

Before I go any further, imagine you had to watch somebody doing your job when they have zero skills or experience of it. I’d bet good money that you would find it uncomfortable and be itching to intervene to show them how to do it properly. Or more efficiently. Maybe just to do it better. Now imagine that you have a whole warehouse full of those people muddling along. Next, imagine knowing how to help and support those people to be better able to do the job – but not being able to help. That is where the stress comes in. 

New pup

One customer arrived at the automatic doors with his very young English Bulldog puppy. Putting aside my instant and ever present question when I see brachy dogs (brachycephalic meaning short nosed or flat faced, commonly used to describe dogs with ‘squashed’ faces such as English and French Bulldogs) of ‘Why did you choose a dog who has deliberately bred to be deformed?’(you can read more on my thoughts on this in a previous post) And further wondering where in his research of the breed he though “Yes, let’s make sure he’s docked too.’ Putting all those judgements aside, I watched this man taking his little pup out for his first trip to the pet shop. 

That he was in the pet shop with his puppy made my heart melt. He wanted to care for his little bully, and buy him all he could ever want. Once he’d negotiated the whoosh of the doors, which luckily stayed open most of the time as other customers bustled in and out, he met his first big challenge – another dog. An excited poodle mix bounced onto the pup. Pup tried to back away but was prevented from moving by a stack of shopping baskets and by his person who tightened the lead. Now he was trapped. The boy with the poodle mix kept moving forward, allowing his dog to keep jumping and sniffing and interacting with the puppy. The man with the puppy maintained the tight lead and watched as his pup was subjected to the attentions of the other dog. 

Stay out of it!

By now I was positively sweating, almost holding on to my chair in an effort not to run down the stairs to help the puppy. But the situation was none of my business. It had nothing to do with me. Hand on heart, I can’t say that if I’d already been down there beside the pup that I wouldn’t have intervened. But I wasn’t, so I stayed put. 

Not my business

Eventually the poodle mix left the shop and the pup could continue on his way. Except that this was a big new place, scary things could happen there, as he’d already discovered, and the floor was slippery. But that was to the man’s advantage as he was able to slide his pup along the floor by pulling on the lead. After a mix of sliding and stumbling along, they eventually made it to their destination – the toy aisle. I watched as the man tried to find a toy that his puppy would like. He took toy after toy off the shelf and squeaked it and/or shook it at his puppy. The pup ignored them all. 

What the man didn’t see was that as he was selecting toys from the upper shelf, the pup had time to investigate those on the lower shelf. Each time the man tried to engage the pup with a toy, he distracted him from choosing his own toy from the accessible offerings. Had he been paying attention to his puppy he’d have been able to see his puppy’s preferences. 

And that’s the crux of this example. The whole trip to the store could have been very different had the man been mindful of his puppy. The pup’s body language was really good, really clear. And you didn’t have to be an expert to understand much of what the pup was saying. Backing away from something means the same for most mammals. It’s a way to increase distance. To make time to assess the situation to decide if it’s safe to move closer, to interact. But folks often don’t notice this even in human-human interactions. If somebody moves into my space, i.e. moves closer to me than I’m comfortable with, I will move back to increase the distance between me and them. But often, the person again decreases the space oblivious to my reason for moving. 

Decide to be attentive

Paying attention to body language isn’t difficult, but it must be an active decision. The person might have been distracted and thought the queue was moving forward and that’s why I’d moved. Or they could have been more comfortable than I was when it comes to standing close to strangers. With the pandemic I do think that people are more aware of social distancing than ever before. Is this to do with health or with reading each other’s body language though? I’d guess the former. 

As the puppy backed away from the other other dog, the man could have allowed the pup free movement. He might then have discovered that if given space and time, the pup may well have chosen to move forward to interact with the friendly dog. But he was never given that option. Maybe (almost definitely) the man didn’t know what to do in the the situation. If he had taken a moment to really look at what his puppy was doing and think about why he might have been doing that, he may well have figured out that he should let his puppy back off. 

Be mindful

In many situations, all it takes is mindfulness. Observe. Be aware. Be thoughtful. Put yourself in the same situation to see how you’d feel. If the boy with the dog had jumped on the man with the pup I wonder if he’d have stood still and allowed him to paw, push and jostle him? Would he have felt comfortable with this interaction? Would it have been something he’d hope would happen with the next person he saw or would he have avoided similar interactions in future? 

Observing dogs is my passion. And puzzling as it may be to me, I do acknowledge that not everyone shares this fascination. However, if you have charge of an animal, it is your responsibility to care for it. This means putting in some work to learn their language. It requires effort to stay alert and aware of how different environments and situations could or do impact your charge. The only downside to this is that once you do start paying attention, you see miscommunication and disconnect all around you. And that is distressing. But it’s the price you pay for working on having a wonderful relationship with your dog. 

Vital communication

I see this in scentwork all the time. It’s part of what we do when we work together with our dogs for common cause. The whole search is a two way conversation, played out mostly with body language by both parties. Not paying attention to your search dog is to let her down, to fail to fulfil your side of the partnership. So often it’s that fleeting moment when the handler turns away from the dog that she indicates and the moment, and target, is lost. Failing to respond to an indication can confuse the dog. ‘Maybe my handler doesn’t want to know about the scent after all?’ Or in the worst case ‘Maybe I’m not looking for the correct scent, I’m not sure what I’m doing’

Observation is also about safety. Maintaining safety and security in the search area by getting ready if the dog is about to jump onto something. Maintaining security by letting the dog know you’ve always got her back, will always be there to support her mentally as well as physically. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my Masterclass courses on handling skills and indication identification. Both will help open your eyes to just how much communication occurs during a search. And how vital it is that you both see it and know how to respond to it. The Masterclasses help you do all that.


Being mindful of human body language and communication signals is just as important for the dog as for us. If the dog doesn’t pay attention to what we are saying she might never access part of the search area and so may not locate the find. It might mean that she expends all her energy before the search is complete and so may inadvertently limit the number of finds. Without learning to observe us during searches, and practising that skill, the dog will be a less efficient and successful scentworker. And vice versa. 

Let’s up our game

So let’s up our game and really pay attention to our dogs, especially when out and about. Let’s help them have wonderfully positive interactions with other people and dogs and places – on their terms. Let her back off. Don’t let her invade other’s spaces. Support her with your voice and with treats and touch to help reinforce great interactions and avoid and/or repair negative ones. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert, you just have to pay attention!

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