This is Part 4 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. Knowing how to fix factors is a powerful skill. In this final part I’m going to look at factors under the heading of Handler. I’ll explain each factor, discussing why it’s an issue. And then supply the fix to help you successfully avoid it. If you’ve missed the other parts, just click the links to go to them: Part 1 – Wellbeing , Part 2 – Environment and Part 3 – Environment: Distractions.
Coming up . . .
This is when the handler is far from the dog – too far. Often this handler isn’t even in the search area. Instead they are hovering around outside contributing nothing to the search. This behaviour leaves the dog in the lurch. If she jumps up onto an object, and then jumps down, nobody is there to steady her, to make sure she has a clean, soft landing. If she slips or falls, she’s on her own. I recently watched a video posted by a proud handler. He never appeared in the video, it was just the dog working alone. The search area was great, but the number of hazards were alarming. I saw the dog jump onto and off a workbench full of tools. I watched him teetering on top of unstable rolls 5 feet tall. And finally jumping off them. The dog was great. But no handler should put their dog in such danger.
With invisible handlers nobody is there to carry out the search plan. This makes for an erratic, random and inefficient search. The dog will have no guidance and so won’t be aware of where she’s already searched or where hasn’t been searched at all. In turn, this inefficiency can mean that the dog tires before she ever gets to the hide. All her energy and concentration has been used up before she’s been able to clear the area. (Clearing the area is when the whole search area has been thoroughly and comprehensively searched and the team can declare that there are no more finds to locate.)
Worse than all that, invisible handlers put all the responsibility of the search onto the dog. They’ve changed the game from a team activity where they work and support each other to one where the dog works completely alone. This often results in one of two outcomes:
The dog becomes completely self employed and pays zero attention to the handler. Nothing the handler can do or say can influence, assist or manage the dog. Just as teamwork, trust and understanding during a search transfers to the non-scentwork behaviours, so does going self employed. The dog learns that the handler has nothing to add. So why pay them any attention at all. The dog learns to work alone, no matter what the handler wants. And heaven help you if you want to work your self employed dog on lead. She’ll be rushing ahead of you, pushing past you and probably getting frustrated at both you and that pesky lead.
The dog feels the stress, the pressure of working alone. The game isn’t as much fun any more. Instead of feeling pleasure when the handler asks the dog to start searching, the dog feels anxiety. She can become reluctant to search. Confidence can fall. The relationship with the handler suffers because the dog is feeling stressed but the handler is doing nothing to alleviate that stress. Finding the target can move from a reward to a relief. A relief that the activity is over now that the target has been found. The desire for relief can prompt the dog to make false indications, to try picking things up on the off chance that the invisible handler will deliver the reward and end the activity. How miserable.
And how wasteful. Unless your dog happens to be super creative, she will run out of ideas of places to search. She might not think to search above her head. Or under her paws. She might not know to put her nose to areas with more access to air, such as door jams or suitcase seams. Encountering new potential hides together is an opportunity. An opportunity to expand your team’s skills. Not exploiting those opportunities is a waste. How is she to learn about those unexpected, surprising spaces if not guided by you when she first encounters them?
The fix is to be an active participant in the search. The handler’s role is every bit as important as the dog’s role. First and foremost, you are there to ensure the dog is safe at all times. You’ve risk assessed the area before the search started, so why would you not continue to keep your dog’s safety as top priority during the search? Better to be there to put a supportive hand on her harness. Or provide a knee to balance on. Or assist in moving objects in order to provide better access.
The whole reason for choosing scentwork as an activity is to enjoy it with your dog. You’re not a bystander, an observer. You are part of the activity. This mutually enjoyable game is when you learn about each other. You learn what each other needs. When to support your dog. When to encourage her. When to give her space. When to guide. Whether your dog requires physical or emotional assistance, you are there to provide it. This builds trust. Confidence. Confidence not only that you will be there for her, but confidence in her own abilities. Yes, your read that right. You build confidence, resilience and curiosity by making her feel safe and supported. Not by cheering from the bleachers.
You’ve heard of helicopter parenting haven’t you? This is where parents pay excessive attention to every aspect of their child’s life. They’re always hovering (hence the name). They are overprotective to the point of doing something for the child rather than letting them try and fail. They are stifling and smothering and do more harm than good.
The helicopter handler does the same. For a start they are usually too close to the dog when she’s working. Physical proximity can be overbearing, off-putting. I’ve seen many a dog give up when they can’t shake the handler off. It’s too hard work to be trying move naturally when somebody is in your space, always in your way.
The classic helicopter handler move is to get into the hides before the dog. The dog indicates and before she has a chance to see if she’s correct, the handler has moved in, past the dog, and is rummaging through the boxes looking for the scented article. This gives the dog zero chance and is the opposite of rewarding. They are punishing the dog for indicating by denying her the find. Smart dogs realise that there’s no point in indicating any more and so the whole scentwork activity deteriorates.
If the handler does let the dog access the hide herself, she can still screw things up by not letting the dog get into the hide and then retrieve the article. Imagine the scented toy is inside a box which is inside another box which is inside a paper bag. The dog puts her face into the bag to get to the toy. But the handler steps in, opens the bag, shakes out the boxes and opens each one until the toy is revealed. The dog has just been denied the fun of shaking the bag herself, of snuffling into the boxes and pawing or ripping them open. In effect, this teaches the dog to ask for waitress service. The dog shows the location of the hide, then waits for the handler to deliver the scented article to her. The smaller the scent picture or the trickier the hide, the more this can become an issue. The indication can be vague and the motivation to get more specific, i.e. identify the exact box rather than a collection of items, will be low.
The root of helicopter handling is often that the handler wants to help the dog. They don’t want the dog to fail. But the very outcome they are hoping to avoid is made more likely by interfering with the search.
Let the dog play her part in the search while you play yours. Your role is to keep your dog safe, ensure all parts of the search area has been searched and to respond appropriately to your dog’s behaviour, be that her indication, her asking for support or even stopping the search to give her a drink or toilet break. Your role is not to search for the target. That is her role. So if you’re digging through boxes to find the scented article, you might as well leave the dog in the car.
The easiest fix is to stay at least two steps away from your dog. You want to be far enough to not get in her way. But close enough so that you can step in if she needs assistance. Really observe her as she works. Looks for the signs that she is asking for help. For some dogs that could mean a quick glance back at the handler. For others they might come to a complete stop and wait for help. If you spot your dog asking for help, think about how best to help her rather than jumping straight in. Does she need some verbal reassurance that it’s OK to dig into the box? Or is physical assistance required to move or open something? Once you’ve helped, step away again to allow your dog to continue on. Don’t take over. Whenever possible, let your dog finish what she started.
In the previous factor, I talked about getting in the dog’s way. About how helicopter handlers can be over bearing and off putting. I also talked about invisible handlers not even being in the search area. The effect of being in the wrong place at the wrong time cannot be overstated. From body blocking and stopping the dog from searching certain areas, to being behind the action and making zero contribution to the search, being in the wrong place can make or break the success of a search.
Confidence can be fragile. If you are behind the action, behind the dog, it’s so much easier to miss fleeting indications, those little signs that the dog might have picked up a whiff of the target scent. If you miss that, the dog might interpret that as the indication not being worth following up or investigating further. That might have been the only chance in the search for you to find the target. Similarly, inadvertently blocking the dog from getting close to the target can result in her avoiding that particular area in the belief that it’s not relevant.
It could go the other way. The confident self employed dog successfully locates the more obvious hides. But when it comes to smaller scent pictures and sneakier hides, that’s when working alone doesn’t serve her so well. Frustration can creep in. Or the dog can simply stop searching, confident in her belief that there’s nothing else to find. When you try to engage with her to continue the search, because your assistance has been unreliable, she may well struggle to understand why she should listen to you.
The fix is to plan your search. It’s so much easier to be in the right place at the right time if you plot out and know where you are going next. Using routine search patterns in an order that you follow on every search, you can successfully plan your searches. (You can learn all about search patters in my Essential Scentwork Skills course.) This planning has nothing to do with working rigidly, making your dog follow a set of strict rules. What it does is give your search structure. The movement is still fluid, still responsive to the dog. If she hits the target scent at any point, you go with it. But having a planned route through the search will free up your brain. You can concentrate on supporting your dog and looking for indications. Way more efficient that trying to figure out where you should be and what you still need to search and what’s already been cleared.
Planning also helps you stay ahead of your dog, ahead of the action. When you are in front of your dog you can assist her as you go, moving objects and helping her onto and off structures. She can see you at all times. And you can see her, especially that vital nose. If you’re in front you can better spot indications. And it’s way easier to move aside if you’re in danger of getting in her way when she suddenly changes direction or needs to move past you.
Make sure you match your pace to hers. Don’t try to slow her down or speed her up. Instead, find a balance so that you are working in harmony.
Practise searching areas without your dog. Go through the motions of each search pattern so that you get used to working in front of your invisible dog, of knowing which direction to move in (this changes depending on which hand you use as your guiding hand) and getting the rhythm of each pattern set in your memory so that they become second nature. I’ve produced a series of helpful infographics to help you see where you should be during each stage of the search.
Thoughtlessly spreading the target scent around the search area can be super confusing for your dog. Lots of spots where she hits the scent but there is no find can be particularly upsetting during the early stages of learning scentwork. Later, when your dog is more experienced, you can reward her for hitting the scent even in places your didn’t think it would be. But this can be confusing for you, the handler. You know you didn’t hide anything there. And yet your dog is indicating. Do you assume she’s correct and the scent is there? Or do you over-ride her since you know you didn’t place a find there? Do you risk rewarding nothing? Or do you risk ignoring a valid indication?
Contamination is easy
It’s super easy to contaminate objects. All it takes is for the hand that was holding the find to touch a box or a bag and boom, you’ve transferred the target scent. Or to leave your scent tin in the search area while you’re placing the finds. That tin will be contaminated all over the outside as you repeatedly open it to remove a scented article and close it again. Very hard not to contaminate it. Or to try to place a find into a hide only to discover that it doesn’t fit. You move on and place it an another more appropriate spot. But both the rejected hide and the new hide will smell of the target scent.
The same applies to used items. If you’ve hidden the target in a particular container in search 1, remove it for search 2. I only reuse containers if I intend to use it as a hide. For example, if I’ve used a box for one dog and she’s managed to remove the find without damaging or slobbering on it, I can use the same box as a hide for another dog. But if the dog is searching for edible finds, I won’t do that. I’ll only ever use it once as the chance of additional contamination is super high. The dog has likely licked the cheese off resulting in a soggy and stinky box.
Keep your hands clean. Washing your hands is always the best option. But if you can’t get to a sink anti-bacterial gel will do the job. I try to have one clean hand and one contaminated hand when I’m placing finds. I’m a right handed scentworker. That means that my right hand is my guiding hand. So that’s the hand I try to keep clean. The left hand is the one I use to hold and place the finds. For example, I can open a box with my right hand, place the find inside with my left, then close the box with my right. This prevents any additional spreading of the target scent to the outside of the box.
Be mindful about where you open your scentwork tin. I never open it inside a search area. The second you take that lid off a puff of scent escapes and starts moving around the search area. It’s always better to do this outside the search area and then carry the individual items in. Think about where to leave the tin and any used finds during your search. Never inside the area. Ideally a little bit away from the area too so that your dog isn’t drawn out of the designated area.
Remove used containers from the search area. Keep used items away from unused items to help prevent contamination. This also allows you to easily select items to include in your next search knowing that they are free of contamination. Or that they need to be reused as a hide. When I travel to and from venues I place clean items in one area of the van and used, washable items in another. It just helps reduce the level of contamination. Any washable items can be washed in hot soapy water and then carefully rinsed with boiling water and left to dry.
Nobody is perfect
I hope you’ve found this series of blogs useful. Being aware of potential problem factors, or spotting them when you review footage of your searches, is the first step to fixing them. As you’ve seen, so many have straightforward fixes. Everyone, including me, has fallen foul of at least one of these factors. Key to developing our skills is recognising when we mess up and knowing how to prevent it happening in future searches. No team is perfect. And while I don’t believe in striving for perfection (I’m a reformed perfectionist!) we can strive to do our best, for ourselves and for our dogs.
Remember, if you’ve enjoyed these blogs and want to be able to refer back or share the information, you can get my Factors & Fixes printable infographic set or the booklet that includes all 4 blog parts plus the infographic.