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.

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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!

© Stacy Barnett 2015