This is part 2 of my series of 4 blogs where I look at the factors that can screw up your searches. The ‘little’ things that can affect your searches and undermine your dog. Pre-warned is pre-armed. So learning about them now will help you recognise them and fix them before any damage is done. In this second part I’m going to look at factors under the headings of Environment. 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 . . .
If you are planning on searching on hot days, you need to think about how to set your dog up for success. The hotter the dog gets, the less concentration she will use on the search. This is because the body will be looking for ways to cool itself more than searching for a specific scent.
But since dogs don’t have sweat glands, panting is the main way that dogs can cool themselves. And panting is not ideal when scent working. The dog inhales the scent in order to process it, i.e. figure out if it’s the target scent or not. But dogs cannot sniff (air goes in) and pant (air goes out) at the same time. Therefore the panting will cause a decrease in sniffing rate making her less efficient. She will be working just as hard, but she will be less effective than if she wasn’t panting.
In addition to the dog (and handler) feeling the heat, think about what might be hot in the environment itself. How hot is the ground under-paw? Are the objects that you want the dog to search hot? Is the heater off? But is it still hot? What about that car exhaust? Or the plastic garden chairs? You never want to risk your dog getting burnt paws, nose or anything else.
If you are searching hot weather, try to choose the times of day when it is cooler. Early morning or late evening searches might be more manageable. You can also select search areas that are shaded so that the team isn’t working under direct sunlight. Work along the shaded areas of buildings. Or under the canopy of trees. Woodland can be much cooler than open land and provide a myriad of hides and challenges.
Consider also the type of searches to do in these conditions. Water searches can be an ideal option. Or even frozen water searches. (Learn how to do both these searches in my Water Searches course)
Short searches are usually best as they give more opportunity to have breaks for the team to cool down and rehydrate. They also help avoid frustration or error that can be caused by lack of concentration. If you’re finding that an issue, set up simple free searches rather than those that require the intense concentration of directed searches.
What about using cool coats?
The jury is still out on how effective these can be. In this blog by an American veterinarian, Kate, she concludes that yes, the jury is still out and more work needs to be done, but that vests that allow evaporative cooling to take place work better than the old style cooling coats that you soak in water. In one study the cool coat actually increased the dogs’ temperatures. While the vests that allow for evaporation helped some dogs cool down faster than if they weren’t wearing them. Overall, the case for using cooling vests and coats is still sketchy. I don’t use them on my dogs. But since I have some from when they first came out, I have soaked and offered them as cool places to lie. But I have never had a dog who took up the offer!
Instead I have cool, not iced, water freely available. I set them up in a shaded spot, either natural shade or using reflective sheets. And, when possible make sure there’s a through flow of air. For example, I can open both sides of my van which lets any air move through rather than trapping it and so heating it. My perfect set up is the van with one side door fully open and the one facing the sun either closed or just ajar. Back doors are open, as are the cab windows. I’ll often fix a large reflective sheet over the back doors to let the air flow but keep the sun out. And I’ll have a silver screen cover over the windscreen. You can also get temperature gauges that alert you if it rises (or falls) to a particular temperature. And portable fans can be a great option too. Some attach directly to the crate, some are free standing. They can be battery powered, run off the cigarette lighter or an external electrical source.
Variations of this can be done with most vehicles as long as your dog is secure inside, i.e. in a crate or behind a barrier. I’ve been out in the USA in some of the hottest places I’ve ever visited and seen just how surprisingly effective these set-ups can be. When you have little choice but to be out and about with your dogs during long periods or seasons of hot weather, they really can do the job.
Whatever set up you go for, having a cool place for your dog (and you) to return to after a search is a huge benefit.
It goes without saying but I will say it anyway. I’d never leave my dogs unsupervised in hot conditions. Not only are both they and the vehicle at risk of being stolen, but conditions can change quickly. The perfect shaded spot can soon turn into the hottest spot if you’re not paying attention.
As for knowing if the heaters are on or still hot, or if the car exhaust hasn’t cooled yet, these can, and should, all be addressed during the pre-search safety check. You should know the answers to all these questions before the dog even gets into the search area. Learn how to conduct a safety check in my course Essential Scentwork Skills https://detectordog.co.uk/p/essential-scentwork-skills
Working in the cold is actually less potentially problematic than working in heat. But still, it can have issues. Cold wet noses tend to dry up when scentworking in snow or hard frost. All that inhalation dries up nasal passage in the most ideal of conditions. That holds true for working in very cold conditions too. So don’t assume that cold conditions doesn’t mean your dog needs to hydrate.
Cold will affect each dog differently. This usually comes down to coat type. My little Ettie with her thin coat gets so much colder than Ella with her thick coat. Both are terriers, but their coats are completely different. Pads can be affected too. Working on ice can dry them out causing them to crack. Watch out too for additions to the ice, usually put down by people to help thaw it. Salt and grit can be super painful if your dog has cracked pads – think eating salt and vinegar crisps when you’ve got chapped lips. Licking and ingesting salt and other de-icing agents can be very harmful to your dog too so take care when working in cold areas where people need to move around. Rinse paws in warm water whenever you can.
Take care too of yourself. Slipping over in ice is no fun!
Science of snowy searches
A recent study (2023) found that scent detection in cold conditions could affect the ability of dogs to detect their target scents. To a degree, I agree. But in this experiment I don’t think the dogs’ ability was the issue. Science seeks to standardise testing in order to make comparisons. But when it comes to scentwork, standardisation only goes so far. You must adapt to the conditions. Once you understand the protocols and systems, you have to adapt them in order to maintain efficacy.
The colder the environment, the less scent molecules move. They stay close together and so produce smaller scent pictures. Less pluming means fewer target molecules floating around in the air for your dog to find. However, when they do hit that target scent, wow is it strong. Since the molecules have stuck together rather than dissipating into the air, the target scent is intense. When the target is found, the dog is invariably closer to the hide than they would be when working in hot environments where the scent travels more. This means that directed searches are key. The dog needs to work in a detailed manner in order to hit the scent. There’s less chance of her getting a whiff as she runs past so she needs to work with concentration and precision.
Except . . . if can be hard to place finds in cold weather, such as snow and frost. Your tracks will lead the dog to the hide. The disturbance in the snow will be like a beacon calling them from afar. Some of the fastest searches I’ve seen have been in snowy conditions. It’s different if the find was hidden before the snow fell. Then you have to go back to that precise, deliberate search style. But making hides challenging in fresh snow is super tricky.
As ever, the safe check will alert you to some cold weather issues. This is the time to identify ice spots, check if any substances have been put onto the ice and take a note of areas to avoid, e.g. frozen ponds. Once searching, think carefully about your body language and hand gestures. A careless gesture could inadvertently invite your dog to step onto a frozen pond that they don’t realise is actually water rather than solid ground. Dogs falling through ice is a really nasty accident which can result in human as well as canine fatalities. So make sure your risk assessment is thorough and your handling during the search precise.
It might seem obvious, but if your dog gets cold, put a coat on her. Searching in a coat is perfectly sensible as long as you think about where you ask your dog to go. It’s all too easy for the coat to get caught on items in the search area. Squeezing between objects might not be as straightforward as usual. See if you can move things to facilitate her free movement. Or look for alternative ways to access areas, e.g. sniff from both ends of a ‘corridor’ rather than trying to squeeze through it.
The coat mustn’t restrict your dog’s movement. Watch out for coats that come down over the front of her forelegs. Ella has a stiff woollen coat that does this. While it’s super warm it’s more suitable for when she’s resting than exercising. I like the fleece coats that wick away moisture from the body, such as the rightly popular Equafleece. They don’t hinder movement and if your dog starts to get too hot while she’s working, this helps prevent her from overheating. I can’t tell you how often I’ve started a search in the cold wearing a jacket, jumper, shirt and finished with just the shirt. Movement produces heat so be aware of this when your dog is working.
I think it’s even more important for the dog to wear a coat after she’s finished searching. This is when her temperature can drop quickly. Best practice is to put a cosy coat on once she’s finished searching. My dogs have 2 Equafleeces for this very reason. One to wear when out and about, and another one to change into to keep them warm while they rest or we travel. If you have to wait outdoors for your turn to search, your dog might need to wear two coats, especially if there’s a freezing wind. Putting a wind cheater coat over the fleece coat is a great fix. When it’s your dog’s turn to search, take the wind cheater off so she can just work in her fleecy coat.
The simple fix for working on ice is not to! In the UK at least, this is rarely a big issue. If it’s too slippery for you to walk on, it’s not safe to search on. You might find some frozen puddles in your search area so be mindful of them as you’re working. If you think you might forget about them in the heat of the search, place a cone or similar on them to help stop you stepping on the them.
So how to place finds without leaving tracks in the snow? Unless you’ve a hoverboard this is going to be an issue. My work around is to add more tracks. Rather than leaving one track the leads from outside the search area directly to the hides, make lots of ‘false’ tracks all over the area. This helps stop the dog from assuming that your tracks will lead to the finds. Instead she has to concentrate on locating the target scent rather than being led up the garden path by yours.
Of course, if you’re super organised and know that snow is coming, you can place the finds before the fall. Just ensure you (or your helper) have made a note of exactly where the hide is. Search areas can look very different when covered in snow, so note taking is even more important in changing conditions.
If your dog has never searched in the snow before, make sure to make the first find or two fast and easy. If you are layering finds, e.g. a scented article inside a box, inside a bag inside a container, think about how the temperature affects each material. And so how much access the dog is likely to have to the scent. Check out my Scent 101 Infographics Set for more info on this.
Noisy search areas can be stressful and difficult. If the noise is constant, your dog might not be able to hear you. Loud music, tannoys, constant car noise call all be stressful. If it’s sporadic, like bird scarers or fireworks, it might be startling. It might come with physical factors, vibrations along the ground. Think of a train rumbling along the tracks or swishing past at speed. Or it might just be somebody watching TV with the sound up loud. Or a dog barking. Whatever the sound, your dog will have her own thoughts and reactions to it. From extreme fear and anxiety to nonchalance and disinterest, observe and learn how your dog responds to different sounds.
Think about your reaction too. I find it almost impossible to concentrate on a search if my own dog is whinging in the background. Often the sound is barely audible to anyone else, but to me it’s all consuming. However, if a delegate’s dog is whinging, it doesn’t bother me at all. Some sounds are triggering to one handler but not to another. And some sounds are difficult for one dog but not to another.
If you already know that your dog struggles with certain sounds, you can plan ahead. You can simply avoid setting up searches when you know the sound will be there. Or if you want to help your dog work through that sound, you can do the opposite. Careful setting of searches can be really effective in helping your dog experience difficult triggers in a different way. If your dog is deep into a search, the trigger can fall into the background in terms of importance and relevance. The dog might hear the train but is busy searching for her target scent. The search is more important to her so while she experiences the sound it doesn’t get the same level of her attention. This way, not only is the sound less triggering, but it is also paired with something that she finds pleasurable. Of course, you must do this with care so that the pairing doesn’t work in the opposite way, i.e. she associates searching with something scary. You can help avoid this by putting out a quick find as the sound arrives. This boosts the good feelings even more, whether you’re playing with the scented article or having fun with food finds. If your routine is to swap the scented article for a food reward, you can boost that too by playing food ‘games’. Find out more about boosting the power of food rewards in my course Support Skills https://detectordog.co.uk/p/supportskills
It’s often less fun to work in noisy environments. It’s stressful for you and your dog. And requires much more concentration so is more tiring. But sometimes you’ve no choice. The area you’ve selected has unexpected roadworks outside. Or someone is busy using a drill. Or cutting grass. In these situations, I recommend limiting the duration of the searches. Use the noise as an additional challenge. A new skill for your team to acquire. As per usual, when you add a new challenge or skill you should either maintain or even drop the challenge of the other aspects of the search. This could mean a shorter search, less layering of the find, bigger scent pictures, etc.
In Part 3 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: Distractions. And part 4 to Handler. If you missed Part 1 on Wellbeing, just click here to read it.
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 printable too. Perfect to help your remember each factor and it’s fix. Or to print out to give to your clients to help support what you’re teaching them in class. You can get it from my shop or from Detector Dog School today.