Have you ever searched so hard for something but couldn’t find it, only for someone else to walk into the room and show you that what you were looking for was right in front of you? So frustrating, right? The harder you look, the more you don’t see what you’re looking for.
I experienced this during a recent trip. If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’ll know that I was up in Scotland. I dread the interminable drive back down South. But this time, the drive seemed fast and smooth. The sun was shining, I was listening to a great book (Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling) and the traffic was light and free flowing. Despite sitting at a comfortable 60mph, we seemed to arrive at Gretna within minutes of leaving Loch Lomond. The rest of the journey unfolded in the same vein. Until we reached Peterborough.
12 miles from home
Twelve miles from home, over the sound of the audio book I heard a sudden rumble. Instantly I recognised the sound and looked for somewhere safe to pull over. My fears were confirmed when seconds later I watched my hubcap spinning into the air and felt the steering pull – the van had a blow-out. I was on a busy parkway (dual carriageway for those of you outside of Peterborough, the home of a million parkways) with no hard shoulder available. Luckily I was near a slip road so I pulled onto it. Sadly, I the van couldn’t make it all the way up the slip road onto safer ground, so I tucked it in at the wide entrance to the slip and hit the hazards button.
I don’t know if you’ve ever broken down when you have your dogs in the car? This has happened to me a number of times over the years. No surprise with all the driving I do. I’m pretty good in an emergency. But everything is heightened by the fear of my dogs getting hurt. The first thing I did was get my dogs out of the van.
As always in these breakdown situations, the most valuable cue is stay. A solid stay stops my dogs from pushing their way out of the van with the expectation of a wonderful new walking venue. It lets me open cage doors to attach leads and fit harnesses safe in the knowledge that nobody will move to get out until I give the word. All three leads gripped tightly in my hand, I gave the release cue and we quickly headed for the hard shoulder and away from the van.
Check your equipment
Negotiating the crash barrier wasn’t easy. Yes, all the dogs could get under it but the fear of dropping a lead as I climbed over was very real. The small dogs didn’t want to come with me. Why? Because the verge consisted of nettles and brambles and they didn’t want to be stung. I lifted Ettie and pulled Ella to a tiny nettle free clearing. Sometimes needs must.
As I pulled Ella through, I was reminded of the importance of having a well fitted harness and/or collar. The thought of her slipping out of her collar on this fast moving road was terrifying. She had done just that a couple of days before so I had made a point of adjusting her collar – thank goodness. Having said that, I’d put her in her harness before exiting the vehicle as I had no idea how long it would take for help to come. Maybe I’d have to walk up the slipway or through the wooded verge so harnesses for the small dogs was a no-brainer.
Next, I called Amie to come and get the dogs. That was my priority – get them out of danger. Having made the dogs as safe as I could, and arranged for them to be collected, now I could focus on getting the van fixed. As a good feminist, I can of course change a tyre. But I wasn’t sure if the wheel itself had been damaged as I rolled onto the sliproad. So I called the breakdown service. After some frustrating communication issues with a call handler who didn’t appreciate how hard it was to hear his voice while I was on the side of a busy road, he arranged recovery.
Move away from the van
No sooner had I ended the call than Amie arrived. Highlighting the luck of breaking down at the tail end of my 400+ miles journey, it was a relief to load the girls into her car and watch her drive them home to safety. Now all I had to do was wait for the mechanic to arrive. Oh, and as he kindly said when he called to let me know his ETA ‘Try not to get killed’.
With those comforting words pinging around my head, I climbed further up the bankment and away from the van. Honestly, watching the speed of vehicles exiting the parkway was horrifying. If I’d been armed with a speed gun I could have collected enough fines enough to fund a new vehicle for the traffic cops. I counted two near misses as drivers not fully engaged with reading the road came perilously close to colliding with my stationary van. Sobering and scary.
A mere 30 minutes from blow out to backup and my dogs were safe and my wheel was being changed.
‘Do you have the tool to release your spare tyre?’ asked the mechanic.
‘Yes, I’ll get it for you’ I confidently replied.
It was a standing joke when I was in Customs that it was just as well I had a dog as without it I’d never find anything. And so I was reminded of this as I searched fruitlessly for the tool. I knew that the jack, wrench and associated tools were in the van. But could I find them? They were in a long black canvas bag – I could see it in my mind’s eye. But search as I might, I couldn’t find it.
In frustration I called Amie who calmly told me it was in the van behind the driver’s seat. ‘No, I’ve looked there!’ I said with some degree of exasperation. I hung up and searched again. This time, the velro’d bag sitting behind the driver’s seat, the bag that I’d pushed out of the way and even opened was clear for me to see. Ripping it open – again – I saw the jack and the wrench and the tool that I was looking for. Right there. Clear as day.
There’s a term for the phenomenon of not being able to see something right in front of you – scotoma. This is “a visual inability to see an aspect of reality”. All mammals have a physical scotoma, more commonly referred to as a blind spot. “There is no direct conscious awareness of visual scotomas. They are simply regions of reduced information within the visual field.” But we also have psychological scotomas. Our brains can’t override our perception or our belief. If we believe we can’t see it, we can’t see it.
Looking without seeing
I’ve observed this behaviour many times when teaching scentwork. The dog clearly and overtly indicates on a find. But the handler doesn’t believe that there could be anything hidden there and so fails to acknowledge the indication. Once the search has ended, I’ve often asked the handler if they saw the indication. Most of the time they report that they didn’t see it. Sometimes they said they saw a change in the dog’s behaviour but didn’t think it was an indication. When shown video footage of the search the handlers were always surprised to witness the unequivocal indication and wondered how they could have possibly missed or misinterpreted it.
Power of belief
Belief is a powerful force. Lack of belief can have tragic consequences. Potential goes unfulfilled and lack of self-worth is fuelled by the self fulfilling nature of lack of self-belief. On a less spiritual level, if you don’t believe that the target scent could have been hidden on a ‘blank’ wall, hard floor, transparent container, you close down all possibility of successfully locating it. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen handlers move their dogs away from the target, no matter what the dog does.
Dogs who have confidence in the task and in their ability and understanding of the task simply move on to search for the next target. For others who don’t possess such positive beliefs, being asked to move away from a target can be confusing and undermining. The dog could be thinking ‘Maybe the handler doesn’t want to know about this scent now? What scent do they want to know about? I don’t know what to do.’ Whatever they are actually thinking, the result can be that the dog stops indicating on the target scent. Or in the worst case, shuts down and can’t continue to search.
The cure for this is simple. Believe that everything and everywhere is a possible hide. Ignore your eyes, your cognitive biases, your assumptions. Open yourself up to the possibility that the dog is right. That you’ve actually taught her to indicate on a specific scent and that she is doing just that. I’m lucky to have the experience of finding drugs in all sorts of weird places. The creativity of drug smugglers never ceases to amaze me. Concealments inside fruit, on fabric, behind double skins in containers and suitcases and fuel tanks all taught me to keep an open mind and to trust my dog.
And that’s all you need to do – use the power of belief to maintain non-judgemental observations that allow you to see what the dog is telling you. As soon as you try to second guess the dog you are doomed to failure. Instead, let the dog do what you taught her and believe her when she indicates.
And so, having finally located the ‘missing’ tool, my wheel was changed and I once again started out for home. My dogs were safe. I was safe. The wheel wasn’t damaged and the tyre had been successfully changed. I’d been reminded of the importance of teaching stay and of having well fitted equipment for my girls. And I was grateful for the support of Amie. And for the healing properties of a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee waiting for me when I eventually walked through my front door.
I would be fascinated to discover if you’ve ever failed to find something that was right in front of you. Maybe hit ‘Like’ under this blog on the website so we cab see just how many people have experienced this too. Or add your example to the comments so we can all feel better about our own scotoma incidents!