Anyone who has seen me setting out a search at a workshop knows how seriously I take it. Boxes are moved a couple of centimetres to the left or right. Baskets are moved so that they are further apart. Chairs are carefully positioned to ensure they do the job. And that’s the crux of it – every single item in the search area has a job to do. And my job as trainer is to make sure it is in the perfect spot. To design the perfect search for that team at that time.
It wasn’t until I really watched handlers placing finds at the Scent 4 – Environmentals workshop that I began to appreciate the specific skill that is setting out a search. So many elements are at play, it’s easy to get it wrong.
First and foremost is safety. I’ve seen some terrible decision making when it comes to the safety element of the search. As a delegate at scent workshop I once had to step in to dissuade another delegate from hiding the scented article behind a boiling hot urn. From his reaction, I could see that he had never even considered how safe or not searches could be. As a trainer we have a statutory duty of care to our clients. But as people we still need to care about others, both human and canine. I knew as a delegate that it wasn’t my place to give advice. But I also knew that either, or both, dog and handler could be severely injured had I not taken action.
So safety is paramount. Not just to prevent injury, but also to avoid anything that might make the dog think twice about scentwork. And this is where setting out a search can make or break the dog. Too hard and she might give up. Too easy and there’s no fun, no game. How do you determine what challenge level you should choose? Your starting point is the skill levels of the dog and of the handler.
It’s very often the case that the skill levels of dog and handler don’t match. They are the same at when they begin scentwork. But when taught well, the dog’s skills quickly move ahead of the handler’s. From that point on, the handler has to manage both her skill level and the dog’s. She needs to ensure the dog has enough challenge and that the handler doesn’t have too much. This assumes that dog and handler are starting at the same time. Often when the handler has worked with other dogs, her skills will remain at a higher level until much later in the process when once again the dog make overtake her. It’s not a competition between dog and handler. Skill levels are just a reflection of what each has learned and what each needs to know next.
Skill levels sorted, now it’s time to set goals. In my blog post at the start of June, I talked a lot about goal setting. About how I hate them and I love them. In scentwork, setting goals is what gives your search structure and purpose. The goal could be to tire your dog out on a rainy day. Or it could be to raise a particular skill level. Or it could be to go back a step to help the dog practise a skill that she’s not 100% with yet. Don’t get caught up in thinking all goals are about increasing the challenge, about pushing forward. It’s just as important to ensure that each step of the journey is solid and steady before pushing onwards and upwards.
It’s in the detail
Once you have an idea of your goal, it’s time for the detail. Do you need to create a bigger search area or a smaller one? More distractions, or fewer? Increase the scent picture or decrease it? Remember, it’s best practice to only change one element of the search at a time. You want to set your dog up for success. For example, if you are setting out a search to encourage your dog to locate finds that are above her head, do not decrease the scent picture at the same time. Do one or the other, not both. Once you’ve taught the dog to search higher, then you can decrease the scent picture.
Setting goals and then planning in detail what you need to do to reach them allows you to think more about the search from your dog’s perspective. Assuming that changing an element that is pretty inconsequential to you will have the same non-effect on the dog is to set your dog up to fail. Think about all the elements that make up the search and how each of those affects the dog and how she works. Environment, distractions, temperature, materials, time. All of these elements, and more, come together when you set up a search. The more aware you are of each element, the better your results will be.
A great way to really practise this is to work with another scentwork fan. By setting up searches for each other you learn to ask the right questions. You have to find out what the handler wants to achieve, maybe how she wants to achieve it, what she doesn’t want, what her dog finds easy or difficult, what needs to change and what needs to remain the same. This conversation allows everyone involved to make a plan. Practising this with another person allows you to learn what to ask yourself when you are working alone. When you’re with another search team, you can stand back to see the results of your pre-search planning. You can see how it works in practice. This is not always as easy when working alone. But if you set up your phone or camera to record your searches you can review how the plan went.
When I ran a Masterclass on setting the perfect search, one of the goals set was with Bev and her spaniel Purdey. Bev’s goal was to teach Purdey that she could ask for help. She’s a strong worker, and confident in finding the target scent. But the issue was that if she couldn’t access it, she wouldn’t ask Bev for help, she’d just move on to locate the next find. It was important not to negatively impact Purdey’s confidence, while simultaneously making the find tricky enough to access that she needed help.
So we set up a search using a medium sized find. She was already locating very small articles so by going up a size we ensured that she would be really confident that she had located the find. We set the hide at ground level so that there was no issues around jumping up and so that she could definitely access the find with Bev’s help. This was important because if Bev stepped in to help when Purdey asked, but then Purdey couldn’t reach the find herself, the assistance would have been fruitless and Purdey might not have asked for help again.
So we placed the find inside a plastic flower pot which was hidden under a cardboard box. You might be reading this thinking that’s a really easy find. Lots of air flow, good sized scent picture, minimal access issues. But that’s the point. For polite Purdey, moving the box in order to access whatever was beneath it was out of her comfort zone.
We also put out a couple of other finds that she could access easily. This was to maintain the balance of her asking for help when needed but still being happy and confident to get to some finds herself. The goal was not to have a dog dependent on waitress service. It was to have a dog who asked for help when she didn’t feel able to access finds herself. Ultimately, reaching this goal was the next step along the road to building Purdey’s experience and confidence to become bolder when it comes to moving objects around and rummaging to gain access.
Breaking large goals into smaller goals is often the best way to get great results. Setting out a search that allows the dog to learn the lessons ‘herself’ is what builds confidence and determination and success.
Caught on camera
The photos you see in this blog is the moment when Purdey did as we hoped she would – she located the find and when she couldn’t get to it, rather than moving on she stopped and look right at Bev. She asked for help. Bev then stepped in and moved the box up a bit. Purdey then moved in, pushing under the raised box and snuffling into the plant pot to retrieve the article. We were all delighted! And as a bonus I managed to catch it on camera.
I’ve brought the information from the Setting the Perfect Search Masterclass together now in a set of printables. These downloadable and printable information sheets are packed full of all the steps you need to start setting out well planned and designed searches for your dog. I’ve worked hard to make them easy to follow, but have also included a guide to using the charts to make doubly sure. You can get the Search Setting Solutions pack by heading over to my shop.
The skill of setting up appropriate searches for your dog is just as important as learning the skill of handling or reading your dog. So take the time to learn it, to practise it and to value it.