The most dangerous word in the sport of Nosework is the word “control”. It’s a word that effectively puts a hard stop in the dog’s ability to move up the levels. It’s also something that handlers have a hard time giving up. Some of you may have come from other sports where Handler Focus is a necessity. Some of you may have seen TV and movies showing K9’s and seeing very handler driven searches and think “WOW, that looks cool.” These feelings are pretty normal and expected!

In Nosework, we talk about the word “independence” and we speak of how the sport is “dog driven”. These are two words or phrases that can be integrated into how we train.

A dog searching independently is a dog who is actively seeking odor without requiring instruction from the handler.

Why is that?

When we start training in Nosework, we are exposed to small search areas and single hides. Our searches are fairly uncomplicated and the hide may be mostly on objects. It can be enticing to just want to steer and direct your dog through the search area. Eventually your dog will indicate!

But… sooner or later, you will be introduced to much larger search areas and your times will get TIGHT. Directing your dog through the search area becomes a physical impossibility, especially if you have a less driven or physically slower dog. Now what?

In competition I’ve had to clear areas as large as about 2 acres in about 7:00 with unknown number of hides (no maximum or minimum) and no hide parameters in terms of height or accessibility.

Here’s a really cool clip from a recent training session with my 2 year old, Brava. I placed a single high hide in a pavilion and then encouraged her to search a large unproductive space before getting to the pavilion as a part of her training exercise. Brava works entirely independently and finds the hide in about 2:00 in a HUGE area! This search would not have been possible if I had not encouraged Brava to search independently from Day 1 of her education.

This is a training session incorporating a single high hide and a large unproductive area. At this point in Brava’s career, she had earned two NW3 titles in two tries, one of which was Overall Pronounced!

This is where Independence comes into play

If at the very beginning, my dog understands a single concept… I am golden…

What is that concept?

To seek a scent cone and drive to target odor.

That’s it. Seriously. That’s all it is.

So if I empower my dog to go and seek from the very start of training, I have given him the greatest tool that he will need if we want to progress past the beginning levels successfully. This means that the dog takes the initiative. He knows that this is his SOLE responsibility in the search. And, as my dog’s skills advance, this independent drive to source also builds… and it’s a beautiful sight to see!

This means that I do very little, if any, directing and guiding at the lower levels. I introduce some direction later in the dog’s career. We will get to that shortly.

There are some huge benefits to this approach to train beyond future competitive success!

I could go on and on about how independence is critical to the competitive dog because of the time pressure on the team and the increased complexity of the search areas. Trust me. Seriously, trust me.

I would be completely remiss though if I didn’t talk about why training Independence is so critical to The Dog.

Do you remember how I used the word “empower” earlier? I used that word very, very intentionally. Mirriam-Webster defines the word empower as:

to promote the self-actualization or influence of

Benefit to The Dog:

When we allow the dog to go out and seek the target odor without influence, we empower the dog… we self-actualize the dog. Now think about what empowerment does to the low confidence dog? Honestly, the results make me pretty teary eyed, because there is not much more out there more beautiful than seeing a previously timid dog take on a novel search area and totally kill it.

Here’s a clip from Why’s NW2. This is a dog who initially in training could not search 3 boxes in his front yard. Fast forward to this trial… he traveled from New Jersey to Colorado, competed at 7,700 feet, and earned his titled with Overall Pronounced! THIS is an “Empowered Dog”!

Benefit to the Handler:

There is a huge boon to the handler as well! Just think how confident YOU will feel if you can trust your dog to say “I’ve got this”? The feeling of stepping to the start line with a partner who is ALL IN and who drives the search is one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever felt. If Judd says “nothing here”… I trust him… and you know what? He’s almost always correct! I also trust him to say “hey wait…. I think there’s more here.” There’s no way we would have that relationship if independence wasn’t nurtured in his education from the very start.

Do I ever Direct?

You bet! I definitely do some direction in my searches. Remember that when we DO direct in a search, we are asserting our opinion. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who had an opinion about EVERYTHING? How did that make you feel?

Sure, I have an opinion in a search. My opinion though is restricted to just a couple of things:

  • I know the boundaries of the search area, my dog does not.
  • Understandably, we may need to re-cover sections based on observations I’ve made of my dog or because the complexity of the area means we may have missed something.
  • There might be a more logical flow to the search that we might want to follow in order to be able to cover the whole area in the time allowed (you see, my dog isn’t privy to knowing the total allowable search time!)
  • Hmmm…. that’s about it.

Notice that I didn’t mention anything about objects. So my direction is restricted to encouraging my dog into areas or sections or by suggesting a logical flow of the search area. Both of these needs become more critical when we consider unknown number of hides and larger search areas.

The Key is BALANCE

The trouble that we get into, is not in using “control” or expressing “independence”, and it occurs when we swing the pendulum too far one direction or the other. There ARE times when the handler needs to assert him or herself. BALANCE is the key!

How do we know HOW to Balance?

Here there is a bit of an art to it, but if you follow some general guidelines you should be in good shape.

  • Think of directing rather as making a “suggestion” than giving “direction”
  • Encourage a dog into an area with an open hand and a step forward, then make sure you get back and allow the dog to do his job!
  • If your dog is actively working, breathe in and out, THEN decide if you still need to make a suggestion! This is usually when the dog gets into odor… and is usually the point at which I’ve seen MANY handlers directly the dog away from odor!
  • Use directing as a LAST RESORT. It should be a tool, not a method. Once you turn it into a method, you have disempowered your dog.

Here’s a short video clip showing part of a search where I direct Judd. You will see me use his name and then take a step towards a whiteboard… and then step back! Watch how Judd “sniffs and dismisses” the area and we move on.

This is clip from a NACSW Elite level search. The search parameters were unknown number, 3:30 to clear the large community room.

So where do we start?

We start by allowing our dogs to search. If you have a long history of over-influencing your dog, you might want to spend some time extricating yourself from the search. Perhaps try working much more extensively off leash or work farther away from your dog.

No matter how experienced you are, searching for food or a toy can be helpful. Folks that know me, know that I try to have a full toolbox. I tend to use tools as tools rather than making a tool a method. This means that I apply what the specific dog needs, depending on the needs of the dog. Sometimes I might see a very advanced dog who struggles with something like independence. Search for food? Isn’t that for beginners? Nope. It’s actually just a fun game! And guess what? It doesn’t mean you are going backwards, and it doesn’t mean you will mess up your dog on distractions. When I do food searches with advanced dogs, I change the context so that it becomes just a fun enriching game!

I promise you…

Enhancing your dog’s independence will make your dog a better search dog. I promise you that not only will your dog have a stronger future in this sport, but you will also build a more confident, happy partner.

Interested in learning more?

I have a class (NW480) that covers this topic extensively starting August 1. Hope to see you there!