Photo of Joe Richardson and Rocky with intense focus on the start line of a container search at a Sniff Alberta UKC nosework match

The Handler’s Role

When you take lessons in the scent detection lab, you are the handler and the instructor is the trainer. This blog focusses on the role of the handler.

Once your dog is comfortable in the new environment, he will appear more focussed and we’ll begin your searches.

The instructor will begin by offering your dog a taste test. It’s crucial to remember that the reward is what the dog finds rewarding. It’s not what you think your dog should eat. If your dog is not enthusiastic about the reward in this highly distracting environment, or spits out the food, the food you chose is not rewarding. We must find a very high value food reward for your individual dog on this day.

Once we confirm the food is rewarding, you’ll bring your dog close to the start line and hold him back while the instructor teases him with the food. We want him to strain forward at the leash.

When the instructor bangs the food bowl on the floor, let your dog surge ahead and reward himself by getting the food.

Follow your dog. Whether training or competing, the handler’s job is to follow her dog. You can’t find the target odor as fast as your dog, so don’t try to “help” your dog. Let him do his job.

Don’t call your dog’s name (it’s a distracting cue to pay attention to you). Remember we want the dog to be irresistibly drawn to the odor. Your dog should not be paying attention to you when he is searching for target odor. The dog can’t work effectively while looking at his handler. Dog should NOT look at handler during search or indication. (Handlers should avoid direct eye contact, which cues obedience to the handler, NOT obedience to odor.) Don’t talk to your dog until he has received his rewards and you’re getting ready for the next search.

Follow your dog. If you aren’t behind your dog’s butt, you probably aren’t following. Leave enough space between you and the boxes being searched so you don’t impede the dog’s path. Depending on the size of the dog, leave 1-2 feet of space between you and the boxes so he can get close to the boxes.

If your dog leaves source, follow your dog. The only time you really use the leash is to ensure the dog doesn’t leave the search area. We never correct the dog while searching, but will hold the leash tight enough that he can’t get more than a few feet outside the search area. This means holding the leash, never popping or jerking the leash. While the dog is in the search area, you should allow the dog to pull ahead of you so there will be tension on the leash when the dog is performing his job! (That’s why we prefer a buckle collar or harness to signal to the dog that it is okay to pull on the leash during searches.)

Never stop moving your feet. Even if you’re shifting your feet from side to side while you stand in the same location, keep moving. (This way you can’t accidentally teach your dog that you walk to the target odor together and that’s where you stop. Finding the odor is the dog’s job, from day 1.) Over time, moving your feet becomes a habit.

The instructor will set up several searches, and each time the dog finds the food bowl, he will be rewarded several times.

When your turn is done say “all done” and/or show a hand signal, so the dog knows he’s not working any more. Now obedience to odor is done and you can interact with your dog. Ideally, spend a few minutes with your dog to offer a reward event/play and potty. For example, my dog performs multiple searches, receives food rewards for every find, then when his work is done, I give him his stuffed toy. I tell him how great he is and we both enjoy running outside together for peeing and sniffing for a few minutes, while he carries his toy throughout. This reward event takes minutes, far more rewarding then a 1 second neutral “good dog” and we both look forward to it. Crate your dog in your vehicle so he can rest until his next turn.


Ask a question or leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: