Managing Stress During a Search

I try to video most of my searches.  In doing so it’s amazing to see and analyze the video later because it really teaches me about my dog and his behavior while in odor and while alerting to odor.  This morning I was annotating a video on mild alerts for my NW3 Prep class that will start in October and I realized that this would make a great blog topic.  Stress has a profound impact on our dog’s abilities to search and alert on odor.

Dogs stress up or they stress down.  This means that a dog under stress will either become frantic or will shut down.  I’ve had experience training both.  Neither way makes successful searching very easy and there are different ways of dealing with this stress.  Because we do Nosework, we will always encounter situations where our dogs do not have the luxury of acclimating to the area…  that’s the very essence of a novel search.

In training, it’s best to let the dog acclimate before the search.  Often though that’s not possible and management becomes the best option.  When we manage a dog, we want the experience to be as positive as possible.  There are different methods to do this based on whether a dog stresses up or stresses down.  Please note that this is only applicable in the case of MILD STRESS.  It’s never a good idea to work a dog under extreme stress.  In the case of extreme stress the dog needs to be removed from the situation.

When a dog stresses up, false alerts are very common.  This is the case in dogs that have been both classically and operantly trained on odor.  Meaning that regardless of how you introduced your dog to odor, this case can occur quite easily with many dogs put under stress.  They start acting like “Oh my, oh my, oh my, okay…  It’s HERE!” without actually thinking through the odor and the scent cone.  The hard part about a dog that stresses in this fashion is that he can actually look happy.  It’s easy to misunderstand and to think that the dog is instead just excited to search.

This Summer I coached a very talented team who was struggling with containers.  What I immediately saw was stress regarding the element.  As soon as the dog saw containers, and the handler saw containers…  both of their stress levels rose.  The dog had a history of false alerting on containers.  Because this team was competing at NW3, there was additional stress of not knowing how many hides were in the area.  It was my goal to get them both confident and de-stressed in containers.  We worked on getting the frantic edge out of the search.  I’m very happy and proud to report that after class ended, this handler continued to work hard and ended up finishing NW3 Elite in the next three trials!  The absolutely ONLY thing holding this team back was stress.

Mia graciously agreed to let me share her video of her container search.  You can see how Boston started to get stressed after encountering the distraction.  (The search area was a small enclosed room which also contributed to Boston’s stress levels.)  She did the right thing and calmly restarted him when he got over threshold.  In the end, she was correct in calling Finish and she passed the element!  Restarting your dog is an excellent strategy for managing the dog that stresses up.  Watch how Mia is calm throughout the search.  Remaining calm when a dog stresses up is critical.

My own dog stresses down…  meaning his alerts become weaker and weaker the more stressed he becomes.  He’s more likely to show an inclination to not search an area under stress and will show fewer and weaker alerts.  The results of a stress down dog are missed hides.

Even with extensive generalization you will find in some cases, dogs will just BE nervous in certain locations.  When training it’s important to make sure that these experiences stay positive for the dog and that he is getting rewarded even for weak alerts.  It makes no sense pressing a dog for a stronger alert when he is already giving you as much as he can muster.  You run the risk of the dog leaving the hide and ultimately hurting his confidence.

Here’s a video that I took of Judd in a campground bathroom.  There are lots of strange, musty smells and he had already worked extensively in the heat.  I’ve annotated the video for you but essentially it shows a dog with normally very strong alerts exhibiting weak alerts under stress.  In the end I made sure he was successful and this certainly hasn’t hurt his confidence!  For some reason, this bathroom was scary.  I don’t know why, but it was.  My approach to dealing with stress was to accept mild alerts, reward, praise and stay calm.

In the end, the most important thing to do is to assess your dog’s mental state in a search.  Know whether your dog stresses up or stresses down and then alter your handling approach based on his stress level.  It’s also important to mention that you need to know your dog’s limits.  Sometimes a situation is just TOO stressful.  In this case it’s best to abandon the search…  yes, even in competition.  Based on the degree of stress, you have to judge whether the dog is over-faced.  It’s never a good thing to work through a situation where the dog is over-faced.  You need to be the judge of the situation and make the right choice for your dog.  Mild stress can be managed, extreme stress cannot.

In Conclusion: 

If your dog stresses up:

- Remain calm and keep your energy even

- Restart the search when the dog gets frantic

If your dog stresses down:

- Accept mild alerts

- Stay calm but make sure to reward and praise

Happy Sniffing!


© Stacy Barnett 2015