Talking Dogs Scentwork®

Uma searches the fence

Scentwork Fencework. How a simple fence can improve your scentwork expertise.

After a couple of false starts, today is fence day! Every person reading this who lives with a dog knows that a fence is not just a fence. Fences give us confidence that our dog can’t get out without us. It gives them freedom to be in the garden or outside space off lead. It can bring security and privacy. Non-doggy folks just don’t get how important secure fencing is for us doggy families. But on top of that, have you considered just how useful fences can be for scentwork? Let’s have a dig into scentwork fencework!

Directed searches

Back when I first started teaching scentwork, I often used fences to teach directed searches. This is a core skill.(Learn all about it in the Essential Scentwork Skills course.) Once the dog has been taught which scent to search for, it’s a technique that is used in every search. Key to learning this skill is relevance. The handler has to prove their relevance to the dog. Random gestures here and there are quickly dismissed or ignored. Dogs are smart. They understand that if the handler is not contributing value to the search, there’s little point in taking notice of what they’re doing. However, if there is a strong possibility of finding the target in an area that the handler has suggested the dog looks, bingo! The handler has now become relevant.

This is very different to the handler telling the dog the location of the find. This is a common misunderstanding of the technique. Without the directed search the whole search can become inefficient, random, time consuming and frustrating. Part of the handler’s job is to ensure that the whole area has been thoroughly searched. Without guidance of where to search the dog can easily search the same section multiple times. This is a poor use of energy and concentration and can result in the area not being fully cleared. 

Opportunities

The directed search opens up opportunities for the dog to search in areas that she might not have considered. Such as underfoot and overhead. It can give permission to move under objects and jump onto surfaces. And it means that both members of the search team are working together to identify possible hides.

Using a fence to teach the skill of searching thoroughly once, i.e. no re-searches, is a clever use of boundaries. For example, by sticking cheese at various heights along a stretch of fence, or wall, the team can work along the area. The dog is using her nose but the handler is using her eyes. This means that she can see where the cheese has been stuck and gesture near it. Sweeping the hand in front and past the cheese encourages the dogs (who has been taught to search for cheese scent) to move in a similar way. Moving along the area the dog dog sees the hand gesture and moves behind it hitting the scent and locating the find. The next time the handler gestures the dog is more likely to watch and respond because of the previous success in taking note of what the handler is doing.

Fence search with Cherry
Look at Cherry’s eyes – she’s keeping track of what I’m doing

Planning

You can place non edible finds along a fence too but it takes a little more planning. And you might be restricted by the type of fence. For example, you might have an overlapping wood style which lets you squeeze small, flat finds behind and between the planks. Or a trellis where you can hang hides from hooks or pegs. You can do the same with wire fences. Jam the tail of a scentwork mouse under the wire for the dog to find and pull off. Or peg finds onto the wires at different heights to encourage the dog to search high and low.

Fences are wonderful for encouraging the dog to stand up on her hind legs, stretching to get a high find. And with most areas of scentwork, the easiest and most efficient way to teach a dog to search in particular spots is to hide something there. If the first time you ask your dog to search high, she locates the target, she will be highly motivated to search high again. Both when you suggest it and on her own (more on this later). But if she jumps up when you gesture high but she never finds anything there, she won’t see any reason to follow your lead. 

Go low

And the same applies to low hides. Fence posts planted in grass can make wonderfully surprising hides. A scented article at the base of a post, concealed in the grass, leaves or soil, gives the dog every reason to search low. Or a piece of cheese squashed onto the bottom of wood or at the side of the post (rather than on the front) can make searches much more interesting. 

Varying the heights of your finds along the fence will encourage the dog to move up and down in a vertical zigzag motion. This ensures the whole fence is searched thoroughly without having to go along it multiple times. However, if you’ve got a small dog, searching along the fence at nose height and below is the vertical zigzag. Then search the top of the fence down to the nose height mark using the lift and sniff method of holding your dog. (You can find out more about this technique in the Increasing the Challenge course.)

By using a set length of fence or wall, you can increase the level of concentration needed from the dog, and yourself, without having to work a bigger area. Add multiple finds to keep your dog working and motivated. Several short but intense fenceline searches are just as satisfying for learner teams as a small free search. 

Ted targets the fence post
Ted finds the target on this fence post

Senior scentworkers

I’ve found that these fence searches are really lovely for senior search dogs who might have limited mobility or health issues. The variety of height of finds ensures the search stays interesting. Focusing on the mental rather than physical parts of the search is a wonderful way to help senior dogs gain new skills. Or practise old skills. And the pleasure they derive from these searches can increase confidence that may have been lost through age or ill health.

The same goes for dogs of all ages who have sight and/or hearing issues. By giving them a clear, finite area to work they can quickly learn how to work more independently. Thus dispelling another myth that directed searches restrict the dog, making them dependent on the handler. Nothing could be further from the fact. Teaching dogs skills that enhance confidence, expand possibilities and promote teamwork is something that benefits all dogs, in and out of scentwork. 

New environments

When you are out and about, fences can be super helpful in allowing you to place finds in unfamiliar environments. Once your dog has searched a few fences, she will quickly learn that wherever she is, be it a car park, a public park, fields, woodland or streets, it is always worth searching them. They can be helpful for the handler too as it’s easy to hide the find and then forget where you’ve put it. Fences can be useful markers to help us avoid that. 

And while you may be thinking, ‘well, isn’t the dog’s job to find the target?’ If the handler starts the search too far away or in the wrong direction, the search area may be too big and the search too long for the dog to be successful. On the other hand, if you know the general area but have forgotten the exact location, it can be a way of setting up a (double) blind search without having a helper!    

Black Friday

Experienced scentworkers only

Once your dog is a confident, experienced scentworker, you can make the finds, and the scent picture, smaller. You can even smear a little of the scent on the fence so that there’s no article, just scent. Make sure that if you do this, you have a secondary aid (i.e. a scented find) in your pocket ready to toss to your dog when she hits the target spot.

Another option for more experienced dogs is to place scented articles along the fence along with unscented articles. These must be clean articles that have never been used in previous searches. And have never been scented up or near the target scent. This can help the dog practise indicating on only the scent and not on actual articles. For example, dogs who are used to searching for scentwork mice can become confused if non scented mice are in the search area. If your dog picks them up it’s an indication that you’ve not varied the type of articles soon enough or often enough. This is also a good way to hone your observational skills. Can you really tell when your dog is indicating on a scented mouse rather than just picking any old mouse?

Similarly, you can use articles onto which you have deliberately applied non-target scent. You can do this to help your dog discriminate between target and non-target scent. And to help her work past interesting or distracting scents.

Tips

  1. Don’t push the article under or through the fence so that access is lost.
  2. Don’t hide on fence posts or areas where the dog toilets or where other dogs cock their legs.
  3. Place the first find at nose height. Make sure you are catering to the dog you’re working, i.e. appropriate to the height of the individual dog.
  4. If working with scented and unscented/non-target scented articles, it is essential that you know which is which. If working blind using a helper, they must quickly confirm scented or not, target or not. This helps you avoid reacting inappropriately and confusing the dog.
  5. When working with multiple finds, the dog may detect the scent of finds further along the fence rather than just the section she is currently working. If this happens, always allow the dog to follow her nose to whichever spot along the boundary that she finds scent. Make a mental note of where she broke off from the directed search to skip along the fence to a target. That way, once she’s located that target, you can turn away from the fence and restart the search from the place where she broke off. This ensures that the whole area you’ve set for the search is fully searched.

I hope I’ve given you lots of ideas and options for incorporating fencework into your scentwork. Happy sniffing! 

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