One of the most powerful things that a handler can learn is how to effectively use body pressure. Handling is at its core, communication. That’s all it is. And when a dog searches, he is communicating to the handler 100% of the time. A savvy and experienced handler can not only interpret that constant stream of canine communication, but he or she can also communicate with the dog through the use of body pressure.

This is actually one of the most natural forms of communication that we can utilize. All we have to do is to watch dog’s nearest relatives, the wolf, hunt bison. Do yourself a favor and do some YouTube searching on BBC videos of wolves hunting bison. It’s really quite fascinating.

Wolves pressuring Bison to run… their only chance of making a kill is when bison are on the run because bison tend to stand their ground and are extremely dangerous head to head.

You will find that wolves pressure the bison into running. When a bison is standing still, they are formidable. They will fight back. In fact I was recently at Yellowstone and I saw a bison who was skinny and weak from a long winter, with wounds on all four legs. No doubt he was subject to attack by Yellowstone’s wolves and was able to survive (for the moment) due to pressure back on the wolves.

What does this mean for our searching dogs?

This translates to our searching dogs in the application and release of pressure as a communication mechanism. The key is that we need to make sure that when we apply or relieve pressure that we do so ON PURPOSE. Oftentimes, handlers apply pressure without knowing it and are left not understanding why their dog missed a hide or false alerted.

When we apply pressure we tend to do so in the following ways:

  • Stepping in towards the dog
  • Facing the dog squarely
  • Leaning over, especially on the start line
  • Standing in the vicinity of where the dog is trying to search

All of these applications of pressure have repercussions. We will find in handling that it is normally better to relieve pressure than to apply it. When we relieve pressure on the dog, he can source more quickly, effectively and precisely. The dog’s confidence will increase. He will work more independently and his shift to handler focus will decrease.

When we add pressure, we communicate to the dog where to search and often, accidentally, we cue the dog into a false alert. You see, our dogs truly do care what we think and they actually don’t realize that you, the handler, can’t smell the hide! Your pressure can actually tell the dog, “alert right here please”.

There are three parts of the search where the handler tends to apply pressure unwittingly… (1) at the start line, (2) when the handler believes the dog is in odor, and (3) when asking the dog to find another hide. Pressure during these phases of the search will have different types of fallout.

If we apply pressure on the start line by leaning over the dog (or sometimes just by asking the dog to sit at the start line), we shift the focus from the search onto the handler. This affects the dog’s ability to engage immediately in the search and may cause a missed threshold hide.

When we apply pressure by starting to step in if we believe the dog is in odor, we can either push the dog off of odor or we can force a premature alert resulting in fringe call… or if the dog wasn’t actually in odor, we risk a Finely Tuned False Alert!

Lastly, if we step into the dog in order to move them on to another hide, this pressure shifts focus onto the handler. That shift disrupts the flow of the search and the dog may struggle to resume searching. This can actually increase the likelihood that the dog will return to an already found hide due to the break in the sequence of flow.

So how do we relieve pressure?

Let’s start with the start line…

When you stand at the start line, keep good posture. This doesn’t mean standing straight up. It does mean not slouching over the dog. It’s ideal if you can start with the dog slightly ahead of you, in a stand, while holding the harness. When you are in this posture, it’s easy to simply “release” the dog into the search area.

In order to relieve pressure on the start line, have good posture and think “release” into the search area.

The second more typical time when a handler applies pressure is when he or she thinks that the dog is in odor. This may happen even if the handler does not generally crowd the dog. Often the handler is trying to get in closer to see the dog or generally anxious to deliver the reward. Although well meaning, this may not go well if the dog is working pooling odor. It may go even worse if the handler conjured a change of behavior in their own minds!

In order to avoid the false alert, a good rule of thumb is simply to take a step back when your dog is sourcing. I try to do a single step. More steps than that, if applied habitually in the same exact manner can backfire and actually work like a cue to the dog! A single foot back can be enough. (I do often tell people to “take two steps back”… knowing that that will probably translate into a single step!)

In this clip, you can see that Judd is working pooling odor. Had I stepped in prematurely, it’s possible I may have called the wrong chair. Notice that when Judd sources the correct chair, I take a step back.

Lastly, we can minimize the pressure that we apply when we ask the dog to find the next hide. Rather than step into your dog, consider stepping back and rotating. The maneuver will look a little like a Front Cross in Agility! I find this to be the most supportive manner to move the dog along. It relieves pressure and it provides all important FLOW.

In this clip, after finding a successful hide with Why, I ask him to find another using a motion that resembles a “Front Cross” in Agility.

Bottom line

When we use pressure during handling, we are communicating to our dogs, like it or not. Understanding how to effectively release pressure can help you to avoid making costly mistakes!

This blog is Sample Lecture from my new class starting August 1 at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Please feel free to check out the syllabus for:

NW480: Searching Strategies: a Roadmap to Success