Stages of a Search - First Steps to Reading your Dog

Part of reading our dogs is understanding what we are looking at. Once we can recognize the stages of a search, we can start to recognize the changes of behavior that the dog is exhibiting. Seeing the Changes of Behavior is a key start to learning to read our dogs. Initially we may only be able to see the Alert. Eventually we learn to see a Change of Behavior…. and ultimately we learn to understand the entire behavior chain.


Searching itself is just a behavior chain. There is a start and an end. In this case the cue to search begins the chain and the Alert ends the chain. However, there are many steps in between. A savvy handler has the ability to read these steps and to understand what he or she is seeing. This is a skill like any other and is a critical skill in learning how to handle in the sport of Nosework.

In order to be able to read our dogs, we need to first know how to analyze a search. At first we may not be able to read our dogs in real time. This is normal! It’s completely normal and is one of the first Stages of Competence. However, we have a super tool at our disposal…. Video. The power of video is that we are able to review the search over and over and in slow motion if necessary. Once we learn how to read our dogs on video, we start the process of learning how to read our dogs in real time.

Let’s start this by breaking apart and analyzing a search.

In this example, we will use a very cool search done by Gacek. Gacek is a relatively advanced dog. In this video, Gacek does a beautiful search of two vehicles. There are two hides on the hot vehicle and none on the second vehicle. What is very interesting about this search is that the odor is pooling over by the wall and over the cold vehicle. Gacek works this search off leash. Off leash searches are tremendous for teaching us how to read our dogs because the handler is minimized in the equation.

First let’s watch the video in its entirety.

What did you see? Could you tell when Gacek was in odor? Could you tell when he was at source?

Now let’s watch the video narrated in its entirety.

Did you see the stages?

1. He is cued to search

2. He explores the edges of the scent cloud

3. He determines the directionality of the scent

4. He follows the scent to the vicinity of source

5. He narrows down the scent to source

6. He alerts

All of these stages can be seen as Gacek sources the first hide (the inaccessible hide on the passenger side fender) and a subset of them can be identified as he sources the second hide on the front license plate.

If we can learn to see these stages as they happen when our dogs are searching, we can make better and more successful calls in competition.

This is one of the lectures from my Trial IQ - Reading Your Dog classes starting June 1!

Making Vehicle Handling Easy

Let’s start at the very basics of handling.

I like to use a ten foot leash (both in exteriors and vehicles). Some folks prefer longer with a fast dog but I’ve found that as long as I’m quick on my feet, I can keep up (my Elite dog is fast dog). Also, with a longer leash than ten feet, you can easily get left behind and lose sight of your dog. Since I’m right handed, I put the loop over my right wrist and hold the excess with my right hand. I then use my left hand to hold the leash at the correct height (a comfortable height… you don’t want to be a human coat hanger). I feed the leash with my left hand.  Try not to raise your leash supporting hand higher than halfway between your waist height and shoulder height. 

The MOST important thing about handling is to ALWAYS KEEP THE DOG IN SIGHT. That means around corners as well. If the dog disappears around the corner of either a search area or a vehicle, and you lose sight even briefly, you might miss a change of behavior.

This can be challenging if you have an especially fast dog but it’s just as important if you have a more methodical dog. To accomplish this, step diagonally away from the corner as you round the curve. This way, you give your dog room and you can keep him in sight.

Here’s a visual of what I’m explaining.

That brings us to the second most important thing about handling. SPACE. Yup… you have to give your dog plenty of space to work. It’s really, really easy to crowd a dog after he has narrowed down the source to a general location. We see this a lot with green teams. The dog is trying to figure out where the hide is and the handler is so close that (1) the dog is more likely to just give an alert and (2) the scenting conditions are changed by your movement and presence making it harder for the dog to finish sourcing the location. The reason why handlers find it so difficult to give the dog space in vehicles is that we tend to try to hug the vehicle as well! It’s just an inclination that a lot of handlers share. The dog walks close to the vehicle and then the handler does the same. In reality, you need to be away from the vehicle and you need to give your dog a good 6 to 7 feet of room.

Another important aspect is to LET THE DOG DRIVE. What I mean by that is initially let the dog dictate where to start. Your job is to stay out of the way and remember what has been covered. In NW3, you’ll need to remember this specifically so that you can ensure that everything has been searched. If your dog started the search and you haven’t found the hide(s), then you want to take a quick check of wind direction and head downwind and check the vehicles or search area coming from that direction.  The handler's job is Clean Up Batter….  

Keep in mind that vehicles exist in 3D…. that’s 360 degrees…. If your dog shows a change of behavior, keep in mind that the hide might be on the other side of the vehicle…. is your dog showing accessible or inaccessible behavior?  This is critical!

Interested in learning more?  My Vehicles class has started enrollment for June 1 start!  It’s one of my favorite classes and I reveal how to be VERY successful in this element!

© Stacy Barnett 2015