Talking Dogs Scentwork®

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Factors and fixes aka How not to screw up your search! Part 3/4

This is part 3 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. Identifying and fixing factors that screw up your scentwork is all part of the process. In this third part I’m going to look at factors under the heading of Environment: Distraction. 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 . . .


The factor

The presence of animals during searches can be very distracting. If you’ve learned scentwork at in person workshops, your dog is likely to be used to working with other dogs around. If you’ve learned at a Talking Dogs Scentwork® workshop, your dog will have also learned that they are safe when they search, even with other dogs in the room or near the search area if working outdoors.

This is super important. The fear of another dog running up to her can be highly aversive. If this happens when she’s searching, she may associate searching with unwelcome encounters and so be loath to search in the presence of other dogs. It may be that your dog was concerned that the intruding dog would steal the scented article from her. Or, in perhaps the best case scenario, that other dogs meant stop playing one game (searching) and start playing another (wrestling or chasing). I suggest this isn’t such a bad scenario only because it’s a positive and welcome interruption for the dog rather than one that produces anxiety or fear. But whatever the result, it won’t help your scentwork.

Other species

But what if the intruder is a cat? Or a rabbit? What if the area smells strongly of deer or birds? Whether the animal is actually present at the time of the search or not, their scent can compete with the task in hand, i.e. searching for the target scent. The distraction of following up an alternative exciting scent can easily take over your search. Especially if your dog has experience of chasing the critter to which the scent belongs. One of my favourite search venues had a high number of rabbits (and the odd cat or two) and it was always interesting to see how the dogs coped with this additional challenge.

The fix

In class or workshop, the easy fix is to ensure that all dogs not searching are on lead. The search area should be a distance away from where everyone is sitting as they wait their turn to search. I advise dogs who are vocal, or who would be uncomfortable if the working dog approached them mid search, to sit at the back of the waiting group. This positions them furthest away from the off lead scentworker. For some dogs, I ask all dogs to leave the area. This helps worried dogs feel safe enough to learn.

As their scentwork confidence grows, little by little we introduce the other dogs to the environment. Starting with the quiet, calm dogs I can then build to those who move around more or may be a little vocal. It never fails to amaze me just how quickly a dog can go from being reactive to other dogs to ignoring them as they happily search the area. The combination of managing other dogs and the confidence built through scentwork is truly powerful.

You can use these same principals if you are working with friends or even in public. Ensure the other dogs are far enough away not to trigger your dog. Build confidence through scentwork. Gradually move appropriate dogs closer. Leave those who are too vocal or excitable in the car or another room til it’s their turn to work.

Wild animals

Scentwork is actually a great solution to some unwanted behaviours around other animals. For example your dog might want to chase the deer in the wood. Instead of shouting ‘Stop!’ or ‘Come here!’, ‘Find it!’ can be a better option. Here’s how. Teach your dog to search for the target scent in the woods. Start on lead with short directed searches. Quick searches with easy finds. Then move on to free searches on a long line. The link between these searches is that the finds are always close to you. Or at least no further than the length of the long line. By repeating and practising these searches your dog will learn that the finds aren’t miles off into the woods. They are always close to you. So instead of running farther from you she will only want to work that set distance away.

Next, toss out a quick find behind or to the side of you as you walk through the woods. The idea is that the dog doesn’t see the find going out. She’s just having a nice walk. Suddenly you call ‘Find it!’ and gesture behind or to the side in the general direction of where you tossed the find. The first time you do this your dog will be surprised. A scentwork search was the last thing she was expecting. Bonus! Seeing your gesture, she should follow it and get a quick find. These quick, unexpected searches can be practised on or off lead, depending on how much control you have of your dog in different areas.

Domestic animals

I also like to do scentwork in areas where I know there are sheep or cows. I never hide anything on the fence lines of the fields that contain the animals. So if the fence was on my right, I’d hide the scented article to my left. These searches are always on lead for both the safety of my dog and the livestock.

By associating the presence of any animal with scentwork, I am teaching the dog to pay attention to me, not the animals. Me and the options that come with paying attention to me are always rewarding, fun and pleasurable. The animals are not part of that so their importance or excitement or threat diminishes. That doesn’t mean that I take any chances when walking near livestock. It just means than my dogs aren’t as excited about them.

I’ve combined all 4 Factors & Fixes blogs in to a new ebook, which includes the new Factors & Fixes infographics set


The factor

Some of the messiest searches I’ve done as a professional drug detector dog handler were on planes. I don’t think I’ve ever searched a plane that wasn’t littered with food debris. From gravy spilled onto seats and chair backs to potatoes squished onto the floor. Half eaten sandwiches crammed into seat pockets and pretzels scattered in the aisle. I’ve seen it all.

Food can be a huge distraction to dogs. You might not be searching a plane buffet, but you might encounter left over fast food on the pavement or in the park. Or dead fish discarded on the riverbank. Or tonight’s meal prep sitting on the kitchen counter. Irresistible treats for your dog to scoff faster than you can react. This can not only be disgusting – who wants a dog with dead fish breath?! – but it can be dangerous. The fish could still have a hook and or line in it. Mouldy bread can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, seizures and even death. And if your dog has allergies, snacking on found food can have all sorts of nasty repercussions.

The fix

You might be surprised to discover that my detector dog never ate any of the ‘delicious’ buffet left by plane passengers. He was in search mode. All he cared about were his target scents. Nothing else mattered to him. The only time he was ever slightly distracted by food was when we searched cargo ships carrying sugar. Everything was sticky and sweet. So I gave him a pass on the odd lick as he searched these floating confections!

As I’ve mentioned time and again, the safety check in your first opportunity to spot food in the search area. If it’s on the ground you may want to pick it up (use a poo bag) and dispose of it. But it might be a bin or a plate of biscuits on the counter. I’d push the plate to the back of the counter and if the bin was particularly stinky I might remove it. But if you’re working at an outdoor venue and the bins are big or heavy, that’s not an option.


You have a choice to make:

  1. Is it a potential nuisance that you fear could derail your search?
  2. Do you want to use the food as a challenge for your dog to work around?
  1. Nuisance

Simply remove what you can and work around what you can’t. This could mean body blocking a bin. Or making sure to gesture to the floor instead of up to a counter. Be mindful in your handling. And if there’s just too much temptation and you can’t search somewhere else, work your dog on lead to enhance your mindful blocking and gesturing.

  1. Challenge

If your dog is an experienced scentworker, food many already have lost it’s status when searching. This is true even for dogs who’s target scent is cheese (or any other edible find). When teaching scentwork to new teams I stress the importance of choosing a specific cheese and sticking to that. It shouldn’t be kept in your treat bag along with the sausages and kibble. It should have it’s own container just as catnip finds have theirs. This is to ensure that your dog is searching for a specific target. Not just random food – they can definitely do that without our help. Dogs searching for cheese finds can, and do, ignore other foods in the search area because they are not associated with searching or with the rewards that searching brings. You’ll know how good dogs are at discriminating between different scents. And how good they are at understanding what is rewarding and what is not. So don’t be worried that if you teach your dog to search for cheese she will start searching and scrounging for food at every turn. She won’t.

Getting started

If you are just starting to introduce the challenge of working around food and food scents, a great way to begin is to use cardboard boxes that contained food. Empty cereal or biscuit boxes. Plastic tubs that once held chocolates. Boxes that were used to ship dog biscuits. As an aside, I avoid all these foodie boxes when I first teach scentwork. I only introduce them once the dog understands the game and can find the target scent. I make sure not to hide the scented article in any of the food boxes to start with. I don’t want to take the chance that the dog starts getting interested in the box because of the food scent and then discover that the target is in there. I don’t want to associate the food scent with the target scent. Instead I aim to teach the dog that the food scent is of zero importance. Once I’m happy with that, I can place the scented article in anything, whether it smells of food or not. It’s just an other box/object. No more or less important than anything else in there.

This gradual introduction can be helpful to the handler too. Differentiating between interest and indication can be tricky at first. (Find out all about this in my Masterclass: Indications )You’re still learning how to read your dog so it’s easy to encourage your dog to get the find when in fact she’s just interested in a box that smells of biscuits. This mistake can lead to all sorts of miscommunication. Therefore knowing that the find will not be hidden in a food box allows the handler to observe how the dog behaves around those boxes without fear of confusion.


The factor

People can be pests! But more often than not, they don’t mean to be disruptive. I’ve had searches where folks have worked through the search area as we’re working. Or have gone off piste when I’ve given them instructions on how to hide the scented article for me. Or have tried to have a conversation while I’m working.

Working in public areas is the most problematic. In private spaces you have much more control of where and when people will have access to the search area. But if you’re working in a car park or public park, or in fields, or in urban areas such as retail parks and streets, you have zero control. You can’t cordon off places or tell folks they can’t park, walk, cycle while you’re working.


Not only are people distracting, especially if you have a super sociable dog. But they are hazards. You can bump into them. Your dog can be startled by them. They can be startled by your dog. They can disturb the scent picture by moving through it or even by accidentally moving the hide. Little children can be knocked over. People can drop litter or food waste. Folks on mobility scooters or with prams can be unnerving for your dog. So many hazards.

set of 3 scentwork infographics
Now available: ‘How not to screw up your searches’ infographics set. Perfect as a scentwork trainer resource or for personal use at home.

The fix

If you can, work with a friend. Having an extra pair of eyes when you’re working public areas is a real help. They can warn you when somebody is approaching. Having this early warning system in place allows you to concentrate on your dog and the search rather than worrying too much about what’s happening outside your search bubble. It also gives you time to pause the search and ensure that your dog is close by and under control until the person has moved away from where you’re working.

In very busy areas, I advise working your dog on lead. By their very nature, on lead searches require you to be closer to your dog. This proximity allows you to body block any unwanted interactions between your dog and strangers. And keeps your dog safe from unexpected or sudden hazards, e.g. somebody suddenly exiting from a doorway.

You can use people as extra challenges, but I only advise this when they are at a safe distance. For example, you might search in a park close where other users are enjoying the facilities. But choose an area far enough away that your dog can still see, hear and smell them without danger of physical interaction. You could have stooges walk through the search area to see if/how much that serves to distract or disrupt your search.

Real life

But outside of training scenarios, working when other folks are around is generally best avoided. People are unpredictable. As a Customs handler I learned this all too fast. I’ve had passengers run towards and away from my detector dog. Folks have tried to distract my dog by calling him or trying to pet him mid-search. Colleagues have had people trying to kick their dog. When the reason for searching with your dog is to increase your bond, enhance your relationship and build confidence and skills, there is no need to add risk to your searches.

Next time

In my next blog I’ll go through the final set of potential search factors and their fixes. This time I’ll be looking at those associated with the Handler. If you missed Part 1 Wellbeing and Part 2 Environment just follow the links to catch up.

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 infographic set too. A colourful aide memoire to keep your scentwork team on track. Print it out as poster for your fridge or for your training room wall. You can get it from my shop or from Detector Dog School today.

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