In this series of blogs, of which this is Part 1 of 4, I’m looking at the factors that can screw up your searches. The ‘little’ things that can affect your searches and undermine your dog. Not considering them is akin to self sabotage as they can all be avoided. In this first part I’m going to look at factors under the heading of Wellbeing. I’ll explain each factor, discussing why it’s an issue. And supply the fix to help you successfully prevent or fix it.
Coming up . . .
Working with a full bladder or bowels can be distracting and uncomfortable for your dog. It can result in lack of concentration. And often results in the dog toileting in the search area. This is a big no-no. Obviously if this was a professional search, it would be deemed very unprofessional. Peeing or pooing on a plane, in a ship’s cabin, in the airport or in a private house is not acceptable. However, when searching for pleasure, you don’t want your dog to feel uncomfortable. And if the area is to be searched by another dog or if a different search is going to be set up in the same area, the elimination spot can be a distraction. As well as a prompt for other dogs to toilet in the same area.
The best fix is to teach your dog to go to the toilet on cue. I first learned about this many, many years ago when I puppy walked for Guide Dogs. It had never occurred to me that this was a behaviour that you could put on cue. Since then, all my dogs have been taught to toilet on cue. I don’t really think of myself being an impatient person, but my cue words for this behaviour tell another story. When I want my girls to go to the toilet I say ‘Hurry up’ for a pee and ‘Quick quick’ for a poo.
This is a useful skill to teach both for scentwork and for daily life. Use if before going on a journey in the car or public transport. Use it when you need to collect a sample for the vet. Use it before going to areas where they shouldn’t toilet, e.g. inside a shopping centre. Or when you just need them to get a move on so you can all go to bed.
Easy to teach
It’s super easy to teach. You can start when you’re toilet training your puppy. After eating, sleeping or playing, pups will generally need to toilet. Therefore you can anticipate that the behaviour you want is about to occur. Just before your pup pees or poops, as you see her adopt the relevant position, say your cue word. As she finishes, reward her with a treat, praise or game. With adult dogs, you can do the same but it generally take a little longer. As before, begin by choosing times when you know they need to toilet, e.g. first thing in the morning or at the start of a walk. Then simply say the cue just before they begin and reward just as they finish.
Once they associate the word, or cue, with the behaviour you can strengthen the response by saying it right before an activity they love. Obviously you need to be pretty sure that they need to pee. If they don’t and they understand the cue, you might see them go through the motions (pardon the pun!) Both Cherry and Ella will do pretend pees by squatting. When Cherry was learning to search, she would often pee in excitement when she found the scented article. So I taught her that if she pee’d on cue I’d reward her with the article. Then I moved the goal posts by starting the search as soon as she pee’d. Which then transitioned to me not starting the search unless she’d had a wee. If you’re doing several searches in a row, it’s unreasonable to expect that your dog needs to toilet before each one, but I often give my dogs the opportunity just in case.
Giving your dog the opportunity to toilet before a search is key. Even if you’ve not taught her to toilet on cue, you can still walk her to a grassy area. Or walk him past a tree or post. It’s a simple but thoughtful act that allows your dog to work comfortably rather than being preoccupied with ‘needing to go!’
Overworking your dog is not cool. ‘Just one more search’ can often mean one search too many. And if your dog is tired, mentally and/or physically, you can do more harm than good. If you ask her to keep working when she’s fatigued your dog is more likely to miss finds, get frustrated and lose confidence and motivation. In turn, this can affect her relationship with you as it links back to trust. If she can’t trust you to put her needs first, she might not be able to trust you in other areas. I understand that she’s not thinking this and projecting it forward. However, her behaviour and your behaviour are linked. If she pairs her fatigue with your insistence to search you’ve started down a slippery slope.
Tired dogs are also more likely to get hurt. Tiredness can more easily lead to trips, strains and slips. In so many ways, dogs are not that different than us. We are more likely to make mistakes and missteps when we are tired. Your dog is just the same. Further, if your dog loves scentwork and finds it hugely exciting and rewarding, or if she becomes anxious when she’s not finding the target, when she’s tired but tries to push on, she releases more adrenalin. This stress hormone does nothing to enhance the experience of searching nor the effectiveness.
Not just physical
Fatigue isn’t just physical. Think of the mental side of scentwork. It’s well known that mental workouts such as scentwork, can be extremely tiring. Many of us have witnessed this first hand when our dogs were first learning to sniff. Short searches of only a few minutes at most would often result in dogs sleeping soundly during workshops and after training sessions at home. Can you even imagine a two minute walk causing such fatigue?! So pay attention to your dog’s physical and mental energy banks.
Get into the habit of timing your searches. This way you can log the duration of each search and more easily figure out when she’s getting tired. You can use my Search Tracker https://scentwork.com/product/search-tracker/ to keep a record of your searches, super useful for many aspects of your team’s performance. By understanding when she is getting tired, rather than just guessing, you can stop before she hits that point. Or if you want to increase search duration, you can start to push past it in a gradual and methodical manner. For example, if you see her searching comfortably for 2 minutes, you could stretch the next search to 2 minutes 10 seconds, ideally finishing with a quick find in that 10 second extension. Guessing is rarely a good training strategy. Much better, and more effective, to have a clear understanding of her actual limits.
Bear in mind that searching for 2 minutes in a quiet room won’t be the same as searching for 2 minutes outdoors or over rough ground. (I’ll talk more about how the environment can affect performance in future posts in this series.) But having a basic benchmark time will be a huge help in knowing when to rest.
How do you know if your dog is tired?
Body language to watch for includes slowing down, panting, asking for more support e.g. checking in with you more often, giving up on the search, breaking away from directed searches or picking up random items. If your dog is usually reliable in returning finds to you, you may see her not returning the find to you. Instead she might take it elsewhere or lie down. She doesn’t want to play or do any more so this is a nice clear sign that she is tired. You may see one or more of these signs. If you do, wrap the search up quickly and rest your your dog.
Young dogs and senior dogs will need more frequent and longer rest periods than fit, healthy adults. Dogs with physical challenges will also need more rests as they will be working harder physically, e.g. dog with a limb missing, and/or mentally, e.g. dogs with sight loss.
When dogs become dehydrated, their olfactory effectiveness is diminished. That nose and all it’s parts, internal as well as external, need to stay lubricated in order to work well. All that sniffing heats and dries the nose and nasal passages. They need water to maintain function. The brain also needs to be well hydrated in order to work efficiently. It needs water to help remove toxins and waste. To help regulate temperature. And to maintain energy and cognitive processes. In the long term, lack of hydration can lead to break down of cartilage leading to joint pain and restricted mobility.
I often hear handlers say ‘Oh, she doesn’t need a drink.’ Or ‘She only drinks at home/from her own bowl.’ But once in sniffing mode, you may find this changes. Even on cold days, scentwork will make dogs thirsty. You can read more about working in heat and cold in part 2 of this blog.
This is the easiest fix of all – take water with you on every search. A collapsable water bowl that you can clip onto a water bottle is super useful. And lightweight. Super useful if you are carrying a bed, scentwork tin, poo bags, etc.
Have water available at every search. I like to leave the water bowl just outside the search area. This makes it handy for the dog to reach before, during and after searching. And stops me tripping over it. Allow, even encourage, your dog to take breaks during searches to have a drink. Obviously you’ll need more water and more water breaks in warm environments and during warm weather. But as I mentioned before, even on cold days, provide your dog with a freshly filled water bowl. I’ve seen dogs searching in the snow panting almost as much as they would on a warm summer’s day.
Asking your dog to search at a skill level above the one that she is comfortable and proficient with is a super fast way to screw up your searches. Likewise, if you as the handler are faced with a search above your skill and experience, you’ll not perform well and will be a much less effective teammate. If both members of the team are asked to conduct searches that neither are equipped for, then you have a big disaster on your hands.
What do I mean by skill levels?
In Talking Dogs Scentwork®, if you are working your way through the courses, online or in person, in the logical order in which I designed them, you will never experience this issue. However, often when you try to practise the skills learned in workshops or online, your ‘helper’ can easily, and usually inadvertently, derail you. Say you’ve just been learning how to do directed searches and your helper sets out a search with densely populated perimeters, it’s unlikely that either you or your dog will have built up the required search stamina and concentration to the search them effectively and/or efficiently. Or if you’ve never worked outdoors and suddenly your helper announces that they’ve hidden the find in the garden as it was nice day. Maybe you decide to hide something high up when your dog has never worked at height. None of these factors are insurmountable, but you need to build up to them. My Essential Scentwork Skills course is a great place to start increasing your team’s skill set.
I’ve included skills under the Wellbeing section because trying to push your dog past where she’s comfortable or confident causes stress. As with so many of the other factors, confidence and trust risk being eroded. And the benefits to doing scentwork together are easily undermined by thoughtless jumps in teaching/learning. Hopping around from search to search without having a logical progressive plan is poor practice, pure and simple.
As a side note, I see this type of issue most often in scentwork scenarios where the handler is a bystander leaving the dog to do all the work. When the handler isn’t a vital component of the search team, they never get to experience what it’s like to be part of a the search. Therefore it’s easier for them to make assumptions about what the dog can and cannot do. The school of ‘all dogs know how to sniff’ and so ‘don’t need to be taught scentwork!’ is one of the main culprits here.
Skills can also apply to the physical or mental skills that a dog may or may not have. Some dogs may not be able to work at height due to illness, age or anxiety. In these cases, hiding something high up needs to be done with great thought and care. Hanging a find off a door handler may be high enough for one dog, too high for another, but not high enough for one with no issues. Looking at skill levels isn’t about limiting the scope or challenge of a search. It’s about understanding how to adapt it to best suit each particular team, at a particular time.
I’ve already hinted at the fix. Working methodically and mindfully is the fix. Don’t jump around from area to area, find to find. Instead, map out your path. Add elements one at a time. Don’t add new elements until all the previous ones have been understood and practised. Neither your nor your dog need to have mastered them. But you need to have experienced them, learned how to approach them and practised them. Once you both feel confident that you understand how to deal with them, then you can add another layer of challenge or element of change to your searches.
When adding a new element of skill to a search, taking the rest of the search elements back a skill level can be a great way to build expertise and confidence. For example, if I’ve been hiding fabric finds and want to introduce finds of different materials, I might make them bigger and easier to locate. Bigger scent pictures and faster finds can boost your dog’s confidence. Even though the find wasn’t quite what she expected, there’s not doubt that it smells of the target scent and she can easily access it to fetch it out. Once she’s practised that, you can begin to work towards reducing the size or making them less accessible (remember, not both, not at the same time).
Be super specific when asking folks to help you place finds. Maybe show them 5 hides and ask them to choose one. That way you know the hide will be at a suitable skill level but you won’t know which one of the 5 it is.
Handler’s skill level
Finally, think about your skill level too, not just your dog’s. Are you up to speed with how to conduct a longer search, more detailed, perhaps one outdoors or on something you’ve never searched before? Make sure you’ve done your homework and have practised the required skills to level up. Did you know that you can practise many search skills without your dog? I talk about this more in Part 4 of this series.
I always recommend that handlers plan searches wherever they go. Whether doing the weekly shop, waiting to collect the children from school or going to the cinema. Think about how you would plan to search these areas. Go through the various search patterns in your head. Or in person if you’re alone or not worried about people watching your walk (backwards) around the area with your imaginary dog. Practise using your guiding hand. Risk assess the area. Really look at how scent could move in each area and what factors could affect it. All this work will pay huge dividends when you are back working together with your dog. Instead of becoming preoccupied with aspects you could have been practising alone, you can go into automatic pilot with them. This let’s you concentrate on supporting and observing your dog.
In my next blog I’ll go through the next set of potential search factors and their fixes. This time I’ll be looking at those associated with Environment. Part 3 will be dedicated to Distractions. And part 4 to Handler.
If you want to refer to all the factors and fixes included in these blogs in one handy reference, I’ve produced a downloadable booklet for you. It even includes my new Factors & Fixes infographics too (which you can buy separately). You can get them from my shop or from Detector Dog School today.