Talking Dogs Scentwork®

on lead vehicle search detector Labrador

Lead in the way?

Whenever possible, I want my dogs to be off lead. Off lead allows for normal, natural movement. They can stop when they want. Sniff, move on, return to a particularly stinky spot. They can regulate their speed, choosing when to run, when to walk. It also requires them to keep an eye on me. To check in. If they lose sight of me, that is not rewarding. They might miss out on a tasty treat, a change of direction, a fun game or even permission to go for a paddle.

This is our daily life. How we work together on walks and adventures. But everything in the previous paragraph applies to scentwork too. The last thing I ever want to do is hinder or impede my dog when she is searching. An inadvertent tug of the lead can easily disrupt her flow. She may lose the scent. Or she may think that the pressure on the lead means that I don’t want her to follow the scent. Or go in a particular direction. Likewise using the lead to ‘encourage’ a dog to speed up or more often slow down can be disastrous in scentwork.

Coming up . . .

Why work on lead at all?

There are good reasons to sometimes work on lead.


The main factor is safety. For example, when searching vehicles, working on lead is pretty standard. Where there is even a slight chance of moving vehicles, keep the dog on lead. I’ve worked at ferry terminals searching lorries and cars where vehicles were moving from every direction and, as is often the case, at varying speeds. The last thing any of those drivers was thinking about was the possibility of a dog running in front of them. Even when you are searching cars for fun at home, think about where it’s parked. If you are in a driveway behind a gate then you’re probably fine to work off lead. But in a carpark or street, definitely keep your detector dog on lead.

Safety not only applies to the search team, but to the environment you are working in too. When searching vehicles you do not want paws on paint. It’s easy for your dog to scratch your car when she jumps up to follow a scent. I cringe when I see photos of dogs searching cars with their paws on the boot or door. Yes, those are potentially good spots for hiding scented articles but only if you have taught your dog to rest her paws on you as she searches. In most cases I advise against hides that encourage dogs to jump up on vehicles. Remember you’re searching for fun so use the vast number of other hides that don’t risk damaging your car.

Another potentially challenging environment is one where other animals may be present. The chance of a rabbit popping up mid search or a cat snoozing in a search area (both have happened at workshops) may be too much for your dog to handle. Scentwork is one of the very best ways of helping teach your dog to maintain focus on a desirable task. And on you. She may surprise you by ignoring potential distractions when searching. And you may surprise her by offering the chance to search in highly stimulating areas. But if you think she might break off the search to chase a critter, then working on lead is sensible.


When working your dog in area where she could accidentally scratch something, your main tool for preventing this is your guiding hand. You should always be mindful about where you place and how you move your guiding hand, but this applies even more when seeking to avoid damage. As you are moving in front of the dog, make sure your pace is appropriate and that you’re always ahead of the action, ready to suggest the next spot or area to search. However, if you have a very green dog or one who is super exuberant, working on lead gives that extra bit of protection should it be needed. Tightening the lead is a last resort but it can be useful until the dog settles and learns the rules.

Over-stimulated dogs

As mentioned above, some dogs are very full on and physical in their search style. Others quickly become over stimulated with the excitement of the task. When faced with a search area, they can get overwhelmed with the myriad of possibilities. They want to be everywhere at once. Dashing around, not working efficiently or effectively. With the handful of dogs, out of the hundreds I’ve worked with, who found it hard to centre themselves, putting the lead on has been extremely effective. Suddenly they are not able to be everywhere. Their choices are limited and almost instantly they can settle and get to work. Often after just a couple of searches on lead, it can be removed and the dog is still able to work like a detector dog not like a headless chicken.

This is not to be confused with dogs who work quickly. Speed isn’t the defining factor in whether or not the dog hits the target scent. These dogs don’t need to be on lead. I’ll talk more about speed on lead later in this post.

How to handle the lead effectively

Working your dog on a lead requires some specific skills on your part. You, the handler, 50% of the search team, must ensure that your lead handling skills are up to par. Whether you are walking a dog in a shelter, moving a dog from consulting room to cage, or competing in a canine sport, how you use the lead is a mechanical skill. Therefore it’s something to learn and to practise.

In scentwork the first rule is which hand to hold the lead with. Your guiding hand should always be free to move and guide, therefore you hold the lead in your other hand. So if you guide with your right hand, hold the lead in your left. And vice versa.


Next is the direction of travel. Whether on or off lead, you always want to be in front of your dog. But it’s even more important when working on lead as there’s little room for error. Using search patterns (learn more about these in the Essential Scentwork Skills course) you always know where you’re going, what you are going to search next. Therefore, you can maintain a continuously moving position ahead of the dog.

In many cases you will be moving backwards facing the dog (so that you don’t miss any indications) If the ground is uneven or the environment hazardous, it’s better to walk sideways to avoid tripping or falling. If you find yourself facing away from the dog or notice that the lead is being held behind you, this is a sign that you are in the incorrect position. You’ve turned away from the dog. Your lead holding arm is now behind you. But this is easy to correct, just turn back to face the dog and all will be well again.


Talking of turning, if you need to make a turn, always turn away from the dog. For example, you may be searching along a wall and you’ve worked your way along it’s length searching everything at your dog’s nose level and below. But now you need to work along the same length of wall searching along items above your dog’s nose level such as shelves or pictures or notice boards.

If you are working clockwise, using your right hand to guide and your left hand to hold the lead, the smooth way to do this is when you get to the end of the wall, turn 180 degrees to your RIGHT, walk back to the start of the wall, turn 180 degrees to your right again and you will both end up in the correct position to continue searching. As you turn right your dog can comfortably move around the turn with you without adjusting her position.

If you turn left at the end of the wall you will walk into the dog and she will have to move out of your way. And if you decide not to go back to the star of the wall but instead work back the way you came, your dog will be in front of you, with you trailing behind. This renders you pretty useless.

Remembering to turn away from your dog when she’s on lead is a good rule of thumb both inside and outside the search area. Turning away prevents paws getting trodden on and leads getting tangled.


I said earlier that I’d come back to this. ‘My dog works too fast, I can’t keep up.’ is not an uncommon thing for handlers to say. In many cases the answer is simple. You need to speed up. This advice isn’t as trite as it might first sound. When scentworking, the dog dictates the pace, not the handler.

I always think about this like walking beside someone who doesn’t walk at the same pace as me. If they walk fast and I need to speed up, all I can think about is how fast I’m going. The walk is no longer enjoyable. I may get out of breath or need to stop for a break. From my perspective, what was a pleasant walk has turned into a route march. At least I can explain my predicament to my companion and we can come to a compromise pace. This isn’t an option when I’m working my dog.

If you try to dictate the speed your dog work at by tightening the lead, all she can do is respond to the tension on the lead. It takes her out of sniffing, out of the task of locating the target scent. Whether you pull at the lead to make her speed up or restrict the lead to make her slow down, you interrupt her flow.


Instead, move faster, think faster. Solid understanding of the search patterns, the search routine, will give you an advantage. You know where to go next, so you can put yourself in the correct area before your dog. But you can’t stop moving. If you stop, boom! She’ll be ahead of you. You have to think and move at the same time. Practicing search patterns without your dog really helps with this movement. The more familiar the pattern is to you, the more the routine is ingrained, the less you have to think about it. This allows you to concentrate on pace and watching your dog.

If you’ve done all this and your dog is still working too fast for you, give her more to search. Your dog can probably search a line of 6 boxes in under 5 seconds. But if those boxes contain more boxes or are inside bags you dog has to slow down to search effectively. And believe me, dogs who work efficiently but fast are super focussed on finding the article. If you encourage them to search in more detail and this results in success for them, they very quickly learn to slow their pace without any physical intervention. Try it, you’ll be amazed!


Slow and steady should never be rushed. In fact, I’ve timed dogs with different search styles and more often than not, in a free search it takes the same time for speedy dogs and steady dogs to locate the same article in the same hide. The speedy dog might have done a couple of laps of the search area before landing on the target. While the steady dog might have covered less area but will never have to return to research anything such was the thoroughness of the initial search. So don’t pull your dog along on the lead. Slow down, work at her pace.


I do not advocate working a dog on lead in order to get her attention. Many times I’ve had handlers, usually first time scentworkers, be reticent about letting their dogs work off lead. The fear of her running to other dogs, to other people, running away, not paying attention is always greater than the reality. I would never force a handler to work their dog off lead. In most cases I’ve been privileged enough to have the trust of the handler that nothing ‘bad’ will happen if they let the dog off lead. Ocassionally we have compromised and I’ve put the dog on a long which I controlled allowing the handler to work as if the dog was off lead but with a literal safety line.

In all cases, the dogs always astound their handlers. Giving dogs the opportunity to choose to work with their handlers for a common purpose never ends badly. By providing safe, supportive environments for dog and handler, both can appreciate what the other brings to the scentwork table. And both leave with a deeper understanding. Had the dog been worked on lead, neither would have had the opportunity to take their relationship to that new level. When I ran puppy classes, it was one of the first exercises we did. Helping people understand that they could gain and maintain their puppy’s attention without having them on lead was a powerful lesson.

Handlers gain trust and earn their dog’s attention by purposeful and productive movement. It starts as simply as gesturing towards a box. The dog follows the gesture and yes! There’s the reward. Next time the handler gestures the dog understands that this had previously resulted in good times so is more likely to follow through. Dogs like hints. They like to be given a steer towards success. If handlers capitalise on this, keep moving, keep proving useful, they give the dog little option but to pay attention.

On lead search tips

The lead should always be loose. I recently read a description of the lead being the smile between dog and person. I like this, it describes the loose lead perfectly.

Don’t use too short a lead. Or too long. Regular leads are about 4-6 feet long. If you have a choice 6 feet is better. You want to be far enough away from your dog to allow free forward movement. Keeping the lead at an optimum length stops you and/or your dog getting tangled in it. It shouldn’t be trailing on the ground, or be long enough to loop under her front legs. As a general guide, work about your dog’s length in front of her. This gives her room to move but keeps you close enough to guide, support and move items to give her more access.

Personally I prefer a slightly longer lead, about 8 feet. This lets me step well back when I’m asking the question to confirm, or not, an indication. Often when working a dog on lead the handler forgets to move back, to give the dog the space, physically and emotionally, to say yay or nay when you ask the question. Stepping back takes pressure off the dog. And allows the handler to see the whole dog, not just her front end.

While we’re talking about the forgetting things when the dog is on lead, don’t forget to do a free search. Working on lead doesn’t, and shouldn’t, prevent the free search element of the search plan. Let the lead out to it’s full length, keep out of your dog’s way (stay in front) and let her move wherever she wants. When you are ready to start the directed search, you simply shorten the lead.

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In most cases, always attach the lead to the search harness. This ensures maximum freedom for your dog to move how and where she wants. Working a dog with the lead attached to a head collar is potentially problematic. Unless your lead handling skills are exemplary, you are bound to inadvertently move her head, and thus her nose. This can interrupt her flow, distract her or even put her off from sniffing. There are always exceptions to rules, but think very carefully before searching on lead on a head collar.

Long line

I’ve lots to say about working dogs on long lines so I’ll write a future post dedicated just to that.

I hope you’ve found this post useful. Now you know when to work on lead and when not. How to use the lead. And what to remember when searching on lead. Practise your lead handling skills with and without your dog. And be brave. Whenever you can, work your dog off lead.

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