After all these years of scentworking, you might wonder why I still need to practise the basics. And what are the basics of scentwork anyway? Let me explain.
The basics are those foundation skills that you learn right at the start of your scentwork journey. But that you might start to take for granted as your skills increase and improve. In time, and with practise, they become second nature. However that is precisely when you need to become more mindful and appreciative of them.
In this post I’m going to talk about one of the most fundamental aspects of scentwork: MOVEMENT.
Why do we need to move?
Movement is all about putting yourself in the best place to observe and support your dog during the search. If you stand back and stand still you achieve neither. But you have to consider your movement carefully. The last thing you want to do is impede the dog. If you get in her way or block her path you can disrupt her concentration and thus her effectiveness. It’s all too easy to inadvertently body block hides, or access to them, leaving dogs confused and handlers frustrated.
The easiest way to avoid this is to keep moving, and I’ll discuss that next. But also stay ahead of the dog. Always be thinking about where you want to go next. This forward planning will propel your body and help you stay ahead of the action. While you need to react and respond to your dog’s movements, remember that she isn’t keeping track of what or where has and has not been searched – that’s your job. By driving the search forward you can better anticipate your dogs movements and so place yourself in exactly the right spot to be of use to her.
The worst place to be is behind the dog. If you only react to where she goes you’ll both find yourselves in an ever decreasing spiral which gets you nowhere fast. Plus you can’t be of any assistance. For example, you can’t anticipate when she will need you to put a steadying hand on her harness. Instead you’d have to ask her to stop moving to allow you to move forward in order to provide the physical support that would allow her to continue to search safely. This is disruptive and wastes time and energy. So whenever you can, stay ahead, don’t fall behind.
Fluidity of movement can’t be learned in a day or a week. It comes from practise. Just like those mechanical skills I discussed a few posts back, you have to put in the time and repetition in order to be able to move with confidence, purpose and flow. Flow is a concept that I wove into another activity, Talking Dogs Rally® (TDR). And I think it illustrates well what I mean when I talk about it in relation to scentwork.
In TDR, teams comprised of a dog and a handler negotiate a series of numbered exercises that make up a course. For example, at number 1 the dog might be asked to sit, at number 2, dog and handler might slalom in and out of a row of cones, etc. At any time during the course the teams can also lose marks for flow. One way this can happen when they go off course. It’s usually easy to spot this as the courses should be designed in such a way that each sign logically and smoothly flows to the next. To go off course would mean making an awkward move or direction change. Hence they get marked down for not flowing well.
Some signs are described as flowing signs. This means that a series of manoeuvres are linked together and that the team should not stop moving at any point. This could be a spiral where the teams move around a line of 3 cones in an ever decreasing, or sometimes increasing, spiral movement. If they stop moving at any time they are marked down for flow.
When thinking about flow in Talking Dogs Scentwork®, the concept is the same. You should always be moving (with one exception) Your movement should be light – no clumping around the search area like a heavy footed giant. It should move the search forwards. And it should be purposeful. You need to know why you are moving to your left or your right or backwards. Understand what each movement is designed to achieve. For example, you want to move the dog into an area she’s not yet searched. Or you are starting a search pattern.
Moving with intention and flow will build and maintain energy. You can literally witness the energy seeping out of a search when handlers stop moving or get stuck in one spot. They stop moving, then the dog stops moving. Maintain momentum and put in the same level of energy that you want from your dog.
The exception to the rule
I mentioned that there was an exception to the ‘keep moving’ rule. And that’s when you spot your dog’s indication and ask the question ‘Have you got something?’ When you have stepped back from the dog and given her the physical and mental space to answer the question, wait. Take the time to allow her to give you her answer. Be still. Stillness is not the same as inertia. It is a positive, deliberate choice to stop moving. It has purpose.
The handler should match the dog’s pace, not the other way around. Each dog has a rhythm that works for her. If you try to speed her up or slow her down she will not work to capacity. An everyday example of this is heel work. If can be really hard for your dog if when teaching your her to walk by your side, you don’t match her pace. But once you both get in step, the whole process flows (there’s that word again) more naturally.
Same if you’re walking with another person. I’m not the speediest walker, I’m more of an ambler. But my friend Amie marches on like she’s going to be late for dinner – and Amie does not like to miss a meal! When we walk together I have to remind her to slow down a bit otherwise I can’t keep up. I increase my speed but I just can’t speed up enough to maintain her pace. She doesn’t feel comfortable dawdling, so we compromise. But we can only do that because we can explain the issue to each other and make reasonable adjustments so that we can both enjoy the walk together.
But compromise isn’t ideal, nor necessary, in scentwork. The dog’s pace is her pace. You might be thinking, ‘But my dog works at 100 miles an hour. There’s no way I can keep up with that!’ Correct. But you don’t need to keep up at all. Because you will be ahead of the action not running behind it. An easy solution if you can’t match your dog’s pace is to simply give her more to search. That way you can move at a reasonable speed (running around a search area is always best left to the dog, not the handler) and the dog can still work at pace.
Working too slowly is easiest to spot when watching the team work a directed search. Very quickly the dog will simply move around and past the handler leaving her trailing. Never be tempted to slow the dog down or prevent her from moving forward. Instead, up your pace and ask her to search in more detail.
Practise, practise, practise
The way I improve my movement and ensure that I am in the right place at the right time is to record my searches. It’s the best way to see what I’m doing and how it’s affecting the dog and the search. I sometimes realise I’ve messed up or could have moved better during the search. But I learn much much more from reviewing footage. A simple, easy way to practise the basics and improve your movement.