Off leash searching can either be incredible or it can be a complete formula for distraction. Although it LOOKS simple, easy, and straightforward it is anything but. Off leash handling requires two magic ingredients: Independence and Odor Obedience.

Brava sources a high hide during a training session conducted off leash and under voice control.

A dog that works independently and that values odor over distractions is the key to searching off leash. If you have one of these and not the other… well, you will be searching in a less than effective manner!

When we start a dog on odor, the ability to allow the dog to work unfettered is a core component to building hunt drive. Often for Nosework dogs, this is done in the safety of a small enclosed space. Because the search areas tend to be small, the dog’s chances for success are high. It’s easy to build beautiful odor obedience with such a high chance for success and when distraction levels are easily controllable.

As the dog starts to work in novel locations, the opportunity to work off leash drops

Once the dog has learned basic odor obedience, we can take searching on the road and into novel areas. Whether the dog is searching for odor, paired odor, or “primary”, the challenges are the same. Novel locations tend NOT to be off leash appropriate. At the same time, the need for the team to work novel areas increases. Between the location and the size of the search areas, most teams transition to working primarily on leash.

While working primarily on leash, a Nosework team receiving quality instruction will be able to maintain a dog driven and effective approach to searching. The dog will learn to ignore distractions and the value of odor increases. The opportunity to practice off leash generally decreases dramatically.

With the drop in opportunity, on leash effectiveness out paces the development of off leash fluency

On leash effectiveness out paces off leash fluency as the team comes together and starts to move up the levels by simple virtue of practiced history. The handler learns quickly that the key to focused searches in new places is practicing frequently in new places. If they do their homework correctly, searching in new places becomes even more valuable to the dog than searching known locations. This balance is a core component in developing bullet proof odor obedience.… and Odor Obedience is King.

The ability to choose the suspended hide above her head over the broken bags of dog food on the pallet behind her in a novel location bodes well for Powder’s future as a successful competition dog.

Even our competitions emphasize On Leash searching!

As the dog moves up the levels, a majority of searches in competition will be required to be On Leash. Of course, the reason for this is safety. It’s essential that the teams are protected from danger. Our sporting detection dogs do this with us for fun and relationship building. We are not saving lives and are therefore not required to put our dogs into potential peril. The ratio of searches where off leash is an option is low as the dog works through NW3 and edges their way to Elite.

Odor Obedience may be King but every good King (or Queen!) needs a Right Hand trusted Advisor. In the world of sport detection, that role is played by Independence. Without Independence, the dog is unable to focus on the task of searching and regardless of Odor Obedience, hides will be missed.

Building Independence requires working at a distance from the handler.

Because we tend to need to work on leash, the criticality of developing Independence pushes most handlers to work their dogs on long lines. I personally use a 15 foot line on my three Labradors. When the focus is off the handler, the dog is able to pay more attention to the odor at hand.

Prize working at the end of my 15 foot lead during a recent training session.

For the most part, you can get away with primarily On Leash searches until Summit

NW3 areas are all going to be coverable on leash in the amount of time given. Even Elite searches are generally given ample time for coverage. The game changes at Summit. Summit generally means larger search area and less odor. Not only does your dog have to maintain focus through large areas without encountering odor (Odor Obedience), but they also have to move expediently through the search area without being fettered by the handler (Independence). Like it or not, we are highly influential to our dogs when searching on leash. Our proximity and body location in a search can easily keep a dog from moving through the search area fluidly, even if we ARE searching on a 15 foot lead!

These are screen shots of two recent Summit trial debriefs. Each photo is only a portion of the search area.

Looking at the recent walkthrough videos for recent Summit trials on will give you an idea of the sheer size of the search areas at this level. Keep in mind that time actually tends to get tighter. The search area on the upper photo had parameters of 5 hides (known number) and 4:00 to search (Emmitsburg, MD Summit). The search area in the lower photo had parameters of 5:00 and an unknown number of hides (Gunnison, CO).

Dogs who CAN effectively work Off Leash will be at an advantage in these sorts of search areas with these sorts of time pressures.

Don’t Forget a Good Recall!

To search effectively Off Leash, your dog needs Odor Obedience and Independence… with a healthy dash of Good Recall Skills.

Although not working odor in this situation, I have put a lot of work into developing Off Leash recalls with my girls. This gives me comfort when we are Off Leash “for real”.

Good Recall Skills give the handler comfort in maintaining connection with the dog while Off Leash. Now imagine bringing that comfort in connection to a search where you are at an advantage to work Off Leash? That’s kind of special.

The Bottom Line

If your aspirations include working at the highest level of effectiveness at the highest level of the sport, the ability to work Off Leash will benefit you. To work Off Leash and not get hung up in distractions, your dog needs Odor Obedience. If you want to work Off Leash and have focus on the search and full, expedient coverage of the area, you need Independence. There is no time like the present to start building those skills (just make sure you do it safely!)