Search Patterns have been on my mind lately.  The interesting thing about it is that it’s not about IF you need a Search Pattern, it’s about WHEN.  But we will get to that…  Search Patterns as a whole have their roots in professional detection.  In our competitions, we frequently have judges who have either handled and / or trained K9’s in a variety of working disciplines.  We often hear comments about “Search Pattern”, and when we are newer to the sport, it can seem contradictory to what we are taught by our instructors.  This confusion continues until we may, or may not, reach the highest levels of the sport.  I utilize what I call a “Soft Pattern” and have done so since starting the Elite level.  At the Summit League level, the need for this is even stronger and has probably contributed to my recent trend of mostly on lead searching.

But what about Search Patterns?  Why and when do we need them and why are they a big deal?

A customs agent searches with a trained working K9

Why Search Patterns are Used in Professional K9 Handling

In the Professional world, search patterns are used extensively.  The pattern may be particular to the handler, but there is consistency nonetheless. Pros are taught from Day 1 to start thinking “pattern”.  In some cases, always having a pattern could help a handler be believable and reliable in Court.  In some cases, it may actually be for safety reasons.  There is a real difference between Professional Detection and Competitive Detection. The pros have to find EVERYTHING and finding everything is usually more important than specific time constraints.  I don’t think a professional handler has ever been told that they had exactly 2:30 to clear a set of bleachers!  That said, A LOT rests on the fact that they have to be as accurate as possible.  Then there’s the fact that Bad Guys tend to not hide their contraband in ways that support the dog or in effort to provide a fun and reinforcing search for the dog!  Where we might find a very volatile Birch hide in a truck hitch, Bad Guys might be wrapping that bit of cocaine up as air tight as possible and hiding it in the most difficult to locate part of the vehicle!

Volatility Matters

In Competitive Detection, we are searching fro Essential Oils.  We are searching for a substance that is MEANT to be fragrant.  It’s the reason why people diffuse essential oils into the house.  They smell good!  They are also very easy to get into the atmosphere.  Essential oils are what we call, volatile compounds.  This means that it takes a LOT of atmospheric pressure keep those scent molecules from exploding into the air.  Volatile compounds are VERY easily diffused into the environment.  We use them because they are relatively safe, easy to use and inexpensive.  (This is the case with the exception of some countries that use Hydrosols in Competitive Detection.  In these cases, essential oil makes up a very small fraction of the compound.). The point is that essential oils burst onto the search area with very little waiting and without atmospheric influences.  Dogs of all breeds and drive levels can easily recognize and respond to scent cones developed from essential oils.  In fact, your nosework dog can easily enter a room and know INSTANTLY if there is a hide to be found!  In Professional Detection, this may not be the case.

Professional working K9’s are often looking for low volatility substances or substances that have been packaged in attempt to control their volatility.  The Bad Guys actually don’t want the dogs to be successful!  This has a huge impact on the size of the scent cone that the dogs might be looking for.  This is also one reason why drive levels and resilience are SO important to the working K9.  Keep in mind that they work very hard to find very little…  where our competitive dogs work very little to find quite a lot.

So without a pattern, the working K9 would waste a lot of energy and not be as successful.


Essential oils are highly volatile and readily diffuse into the atmosphere

So why are Competitive Detection Handlers NOT taught Search Patterns from Day 1?

The answer to this question is multi-part.  We have already addressed the volatility aspect.  Our dogs do not have to work hard to find a scent cone. When your dog can walk into a room and know that there is odor, WHY would you impose a Search Pattern?  The quick answer to that is that you wouldn’t.  That would be a mistake assuming that you knew that there was only one hide to find.

The other aspect is that our competition dogs are PETS first and foremost.  This means that they were bred (either on purpose or not) to be companions and NOT to be working K9’s.  Even selectively bred sport dogs have been bred for a quality that we all love, biddability.  Basically that means that we value a dog that listens to us and cares about our perspectives. These are exactly the opposite qualities that you will see in many working K9’s.  A working detection dog will be independent and will care about the reward first and foremost.  They are bred for these qualities and are selected based on their drives.  Often times these dogs don’t even have a sense of self preservation!  What this means is that they are less influenced by social cues than our competition dogs.

Let’s talk about social cues for a minute.  Did you know that your dog will actually IGNORE his sense of smell in preference for your body language?  It’s true!  There have been countless studies on this and the impact on the working K9.  Depending on your dog’s genetics and upbringing, there may be some variability but I guarantee you that your dog DOES care what you think!

From the perspective of competition dogs, if we were to start educating new competitive handlers with search patterns with their pet dogs we would have a flurry of missed hides and false alerts.  Your trainer doesn’t impose them because you BOTH need to learn some independence.  It’s essential to first build independence BEFORE you can build teamwork.

Moving Up the Levels

As the Competitive Detection teams move up the levels, the need for a search pattern changes.  The reasons include: the introduction of unknown number of hides, larger search areas and tighter times.  As we move up the levels, these aspect change and the demands on the search team become more and more complicated.

With known number of hides, meaning searches where you know how many hides there are, the team is probably at a level where the search areas are relatively small.  Essentially in this type of search, the team is simply looking for a known number of scent cones and goes from hide to hide.  It’s a bit like canine bumper cars where the dog basically needs to just bump into the next scent cone.  At this level, complexity has only just started to become an issue.  Speed matters, and the handler is more competitive without a search pattern in smaller areas.

As the team moves up the levels, unknown number of hides are introduced.

With unknown number of hides, all of a sudden, the team has to clear an area!  This is actually the first time that a team actually CLEARS an area.  To do that AND be competitive, the team needs to have a systematic way of understanding what has been searched and what hasn’t been covered, all in a short time period!  It’s my theory that this is the leading cause of the waitlist backlog in NW3.  It’s all about Learning Curve!  If you are missing hides, LOOK HERE!

Then as the team continues to advance, search areas get larger and more complicated.  At the Elite level, tremendous pressure is put on the search team to clear areas in tight times.  All of a sudden, the search areas are 2 to 4 times larger and there are no real guidelines in terms of max number of hides or hide height.  This is where is gets fun.

Fast forward to Summit League…  Now the teams are getting closer to “real” detection.  This marks the shift from working very little and finding quite a lot to working very hard and finding very little.  At Summit League, the teams are required to clear vast areas with perhaps little to no odor, and often with an amazing amount of distraction, all on a short timeline.  Search Pattern here is critical, so long as it is in balance with the fact that we are working with volatile substances.

Let’s Look at Some Examples

Here’s an example of a KNOWN number search where search pattern is less important.  This is a Summit League search where we KNEW that there were only 3 hides.  Of course, in Summit League fashion, there were also 12 food and toy distractions!  You can see in this case, I let Judd work this out my bumping into scent cones. He came in First in this search.  His success was dictated by odor obedience and the ability to ignore distractions.  You can see that in this case I follow him and let him seek out his scent cones.

Contrast this search with a container search with unknown number of hides.  This is an Elite search with a large number of distractions and an unknown number of hides.  Judd effectively clears the search.  We did miss the first white box on the threshold.  In hindsight I should have re-cleared the threshold knowing that his arousal was higher at that point.  In this case, I DO search pattern my search, BECAUSE there are an unknown number of hides.

Here’s an example of an Elite search with Judd where there were unknown number of hides.  Here, search pattern was more important.  In this case, I “Soft Pattern” by covering the search area in sections.  I rely heavily on Judd’s understanding of converging odor and his concept of not returning to already found hides.  There is an element of Strategy here.  You can see that I know that there is a hide at the red table (which was made more difficult due to temperature differentials).  Because of time constraints I opted to leave it and come back to it.  Once we came back and sourced that hide, I was confident in calling Finish.  You can see though that at the Elite level, the dog still doesn’t have to work that hard to find odor, however time constraints, search area complexity and scent puzzles come heavily into play.

For my last example, I would like to share a typical Stamina Search at Summit League.  Here we were asked to clear a large area and stabling area that was recently used for sheep.  Although most of the solid waste had been removed, there is an extensive amount of soiled straw and sheep shearing wool in the area.  In this large area, there were 3 hides.  We effectively found only 1, which was pretty much par for the course in this search.  We missed an inaccessible hide in the center portion of the stabling area and he was in odor when I called Finish (I opted to leave the hide as opposed to timing out).  In this case, we had time to cover everything ONCE.  You can imagine that just following your dog would have double or tripled the search time, especially given the extensive amount of distraction.


Consider a “Soft Pattern” when there are unknown number of hides

To wrap this up, I’d like to conclude by suggesting that handlers start to think about the search area in terms of sections and to do what I call “Soft Patterning” of the search area.  In a Soft Pattern, the handler covers the search area in sections while remaining true to the volatile nature of essential oils.  Because of the volatile nature, you can quickly clear areas and move on with confidence.  If you find no Change of Behavior, odds are, the area is clear.  Move on then!

At the same time, remember that search patterns are a BALANCE.  If your dog gives you a Change of Behavior, LISTEN to it.  NEVER compromise a hide in favor of a search pattern… remember that power of your social cues!