Recently I published a quiz and one of the questions was, “What is the biggest contributor to dogs losing focus in a search?”  I found through the answers that there is a misunderstanding of sniffing in general and what constitutes searching.  You see…  just because a dog is sniffing, doesn’t mean he’s searching!

As a Judge and AKC Official, I get to see A LOT of teams searching under stress in new environments.  Sometimes these teams struggle.  It’s very possible that most of these teams have dogs who do just fine searching at home!  The difference of course is that these dogs are now being put into strange new places and their handlers may be acting even more strangely.  Even if the trial is in a familiar place, the situation is unfamiliar.  The cause of this is stress.  Oh, the dog may very well be sniffing…  but I can pretty much guarantee you that he’s not searching!

stressed dog

Stress is one of the largest contributors to missed searches

From the results of the quiz, roughly 37% of respondents believed that focus is a misnomer in nosework because as long as the dog is sniffing, he is searching.  That’s exactly what I want to explore!

What does loss of FOCUS look like?

When a dog loses focus while searching, he may possibly be using his nose, however you will find that there aren’t any Changes of Behavior even in the presence of target odor.  The dog may take on one of several types of behavior depending on the reason for the loss of focus.

  • The dog may search more erratically.  This tends to be caused by over-arousal or over-stimulation.  In the case of dogs who are very uncomfortable with their environment, this can actually be a case where the dog is literally trying to escape and the flight response is active.
  • The dog may search more slowly than usual.  In this case, the dog may simply be overwhelmed with his environment (or handler) and is feeling highly stressed.
  • The dog may appear distracted and disinterested in searching.  This is likely due to either lack of confidence or motivation.
  • The dog may be intensely interested in the handler, rather than the search.  This is usually due to stress or a misunderstanding of the task of searching.

In all of these cases, the dog will NOT be successful until he can focus….  on the search!

The Handler has Three Heads

When the handler is feeling stress of competition, that stress truly travels down the leash!

crazy handler

Is this you at a trial? Your dog’s lack of focus may be caused by YOUR stress!

Managing your own stress will do a lot in helping your dog to remain focused.  Some of the most effective ways of managing stress are mindfulness, staying in the moment and practicing mental management.  Additionally, it’s extremely important to practice more than you trial.  Your dog will search as he is conditioned to search.  If you practice rarely, your dog’s experiences with a three-headed handler will outweigh positive experiences with a calm and relaxed handler.  Don’t underestimate the power of GOOD practice!  That means practice, ONLY In the state of mind that you want to repeat.

Acclimation, Acclimation, Acclimation

Another HUGE contributor to lack of search focus is lack of acclimation.  That basically means that the dog is uncomfortable with his environment.  Unfortunately, a key aspect to trialing in nosework is the dog has to work in a new environment with only seconds of acclimation.  Catch-22 you say?  Actually, you can train for this!  The general answer to this is that you have to train in MANY, MANY new places.

However, remember the hallmark of training… never, EVER train a stressed dog.  This is not in conflict with the fact that we need generalization in new locations.  That’s the good news!  The bad news is that you need to work on it…

So if you have a dog who is timid and scared of new places, what do you do?

The answer is acclimation… and to PRACTICE acclimation!  How can you do this, you ask?  It’s easy!!  When you go to a new location, take your dog out BEFORE you set the hide.  Just hang out!  Get bored!  Let your dog SNIFF!  When he gets bored, he will tell you that he’s ready.  THEN, put your dog away and set the hide.  You’ll find that your search is MUCH more successful.

If you are interested in learning this and other ways you can improve your dog’s performance, check out my class NW340 Four Cornerstones of Trial Preparation starting December 1st.  Find out more here: