One of the most challenging phases that a handler goes through is the transition from always following the dog to having to clear areas more logically or thoughtfully. The phase ends up feeling a little “awkward” and the handler has a hard time trying to find that sweet spot. If they handle too much, they get in the way of their dog and miss hides (or worse, false alert). If they handle too little, they don’t cover the area completely and miss hides. Finding that sweet spot can be a challenge but is totally doable!

Knowing WHEN to add any sort of “direction” is the hard part for handlers. I find that if you OBSERVE before making any suggestions to the dog whatsoever, you will avoid the pitfall of over-handling to a great extent.

Actually, I really DON’T like the word “Direct”. In fact, I hate it. I use the “Suggest”.

What IS a “Suggestion”?

A suggestion is a mild form of direction. I prefer the word “Suggest” to “Direct”. I never want to take away the dog’s autonomy in searching. My suggestions can always be overruled in favor of odor.

When I Suggest an area to search, I am usually communicating a request to the dog to clear a general area. It’s never a “Search right here”. It’s always a “Let me know please if there is odor in this area we haven’t covered adequately.”

In this snapshot, I am stepping back in a way to communicate to Powder to clear the area in front of her which includes the chair.

When I ask a dog to clear an area, there is a clear understanding the dog is allowed to dismiss the area. It’s important to not stand square or close to the dog when making a suggestion, otherwise the dog may not feel comfortable enough to “Sniff and Dismiss”. The Sniff and Dismiss is what communicates the lack of odor.

You can see Brava “Sniff and Dismiss” as I ask her to clear a blank area.

The Suggestion MUST come after Observation

What does this mean?

There are key times when suggestions can be made… all of which require Observation:

  • When the dog is distracted
  • When the dog is NOT working odor
  • When the dog’s forward intent has backed off
  • When the dog is NOT actively searching

In the video above, I suggested Brava to enter areas and clear them because she was NOT in odor. Once she gets into odor, it’s imperative that I allow her to work the problem.

In this next clip you can see how I handled her in the same search immediately after I witnessed the Change of Behavior. She exhibits a Change of Behavior at 0:02 when she sped up. At that time I let her work at the end of her leash and I only interrupt a very brief distraction. This is NOT the time to “give suggestions”.

Brava sources a high hide on a pillar without the need for handler help.

Observation is the KEY

So you see, WHEN to make a Suggestion is critical to the success of the dog. This means that we need to turn our attention when handling into becoming Observers. We are in fact, more Observers than we are Handlers… at least we should be!

What should you be Observing?

If you can’t see when your dog encounters odor, it’s important to spend time to learn to read what your dog is telling you. This can help you to avoid costly mistakes by pulling your dog off of odor. If you struggle with this, watch your dog in slow motion. If you need instruction, I have a Self Study option in my On Line Classes page.

Monitor whether or not your dog is Actively Searching or just Traveling. When the dog is Actively Searching, the dog is in Search Focus and not focused on the Environment or the Handler, and the dog is actively engaging their vicinity. You will see Seeking Behavior.

In this clip you can see Seeking Behavior up until 0:26 when Powder shows a Change of Behavior.

Traveling is something else entirely. When a dog Travels, they are moving through the area without Seeking. In this case, they may or may not react to target odor. They are simply conveying themselves to another area. Dogs Traveling are NOT Actively Searching. You can recognize a Traveling dog because the dog typically moves in a straight line, often with speed. It’s rare to see bending of the body or any attention laterally. The head set is typically high with no stretching over the top line of the dog. When Traveling, the dog is moving, not searching.

In this example, you can see Judd traveling in order to move from one area to another. At this point I recognized the traveling and in fact it was necessary in order to cover another part of the search area! We were traveling to move through an area we had already cleared.

Becoming an Observer

As you can see, there is SO MUCH to learn to become an Observer. We only scratched the surface in this blog! This is also the reason WHY we should not worry ourselves with adding “direction” or “suggestion” to the dog until we are working a higher level and starting to Clear Spaces. Until then, we need to encourage Independence in the dog so that the Seeking Behavior can develop properly.

Like anything, becoming an Observer can’t be rushed. Study, Learn, and Watch… it will come!