I currently have a flock of eager students who are anticipating their first ORT (Odor Recognition Test) this fall. All of them have been with me since foundation classes, tossing meaty treats in boxes, and now they are fine tuning the look of a Trained Formal Response on birch, anise and clove. They have learned the hard way not to crowd their dogs. They can analyze the flow of odor based on wind direction, moisture in the air and sun on concrete. And they are appropriately quiet during the searches and truly amazed at the sniffing skills of their team mates. Seemingly ready for the test, no? Seemingly – but I continue to worry about them. Why?
Because. We are big-headed upright bi-pedals who talk too much. We overthink. We want evidence and explanations. Our noses have shrunk over time and been replaced with a hefty knuckle of brain matter that we feed every second with data. Questions matter to us. That’s how we survive.
So while our team mate casts his nose into the air and then circles and fringes before becoming still, we miss the moment because we “can’t see the hide.” We can’t help ourselves. Our eyes are essential survival tools, far sharper than our dogs’. It’s a logical stretch for us to accept that the dog has found something we can’t see. Even if we are participating in a sport called Scenting or K9 Nose Work!
Here are some simple suggestions to help curb our overachieving brains and quiet our minds so that we can really, really see what our dogs are telling us.
Watch your dog’s head. Or put another way, move your head in the direction of your dog’s head. Literally. The nose that matters is attached to the front of your dog. It is doing the heavy lifting. Short of avoiding falling boulders or an approaching train, there really isn’t much more for you to be looking at, is there? I have gathered actual data on this (“Ooooh, data!” says Brain). One poor client was diligently following her dog and only turned her head three times. And those were the three times her dog put her nose on the hide. Like clockwork.
- We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can also hunt with our dogs and listen at the same time or talk at the same time. We don’t have to stop and look at the person who is talking (like that pesky instructor). And if we respond to said pesky instructor, we can move our lips and project without looking away from the job at hand.
- Lose the “But What If…?” No qualifying allowed! Make sure questions involve tangible information. It doesn’t do you or your dog any good to extrapolate as to 17 different scenarios when the only scenario that matters is the one you are currently trying to solve. Ron Gaunt, one of the founders of K9 Nose Work, famously used to say “That’s a human question…”
- Back Off! Look at your proximity to your scenting dog. Now take one giant step back. That’s probably a good distance to allow your dog to work whatever odor puzzle she’s working.
Any time you are physically close to your dog, you are asking her to make a choice between watching and interpreting you and actually following odor. As elite dog handler Sara Owings explains it, “Do you know what you are marking when you step forward?” Most dogs early in the game do not have a true final alert, so if you move towards them with your hand in your treat bag, you are essentially telling them the hunt is done. When they lift their head to wait for the treat, you are pulling them off the source. If you are right, great! Congratulations! If you are not, you now have a confused dog.
- Accept the fact that you don’t know. You just don’t. Sorry! Fallacious reasoning is just that, it’s based on a fallacy. You may think the dog is wasting time by wandering off to that other box, or jumping up on that wall or nosing around in the bushes. You may think you are being a good steward of time if you pull them away to go look elsewhere, but what if you are wrong? You may have cut the delicate thread of odor leading to the source. Why? Because you thought you knew better. Sigh.
OK. I know it’s not easy. Perhaps we should just strap ourselves into straight jackets, duct tape our mouths shut and arm ourselves with Flexi leads. But I’m not ready to go there yet. I think the simple maxims of less is more, trust your dog and it’s the odor, stupid might suffice. And I’ll be the one standing in the background over thinking every search of every student during that upcoming ORT.