As handlers, we are quite attentive and focused to what happens within a search itself as the dog is working to solve the various odor puzzles, and for good reason! However, what about when we are approaching the start line, or have successfully found all the hides, shouldn’t we be concerned about those events as well? In my humble opinion, the answer is a resounding, “Yes, yes we should”.
STARTING OFF ON THE RIGHT FOOT
Approaching a start line is an art and must be customized from dog-to-dog. However, one thing is consistent across the board: HOW you approach, and cross a start line, will indeed set the tone for the rest of the search.
If you are distracting your dog, you are denying them the golden opportunity to get a whiff of the odor and determine where it may be coming from. If you are fumbling with your equipment (leash or long line, fussing with your timer, air flow flag and so on), you are inserting stress and disorganization right at the jump! If you are being dragged to the search area and are flummoxed, or simply embarrassed as the judge and others are looking on, this is not the best headspace to be in before starting your search. Neither would your dog do well if they were bombarded by triggers, reacting to every single one, as they were approaching the start line. Doing so would result in your dog either being so over-the-moon aroused they quite literally cannot focus on searching, or were completely and utterly terrified or shutdown that the thought of searching is the furthest thing from their mind.
See, what happens before you even start searching does indeed matter!
Also, HOW you cross the start line can make all the difference in the world. If you are holding the dog at your side, you could be inadvertently blocking them from accessing odor at the threshold that is on the other side of you. Likewise, if you step off immediately behind your dog as they cross the start line, you may "socially push" them through the threshold right pass a hide that could be there. If your long line is tangled and you accidentally jerk on it as your dog starts to search, they could consider this to be a correction! Each of these examples are common occurrences that negatively affect the search and may even cause a team to miss a hide.
But wait, there’s more! How you position yourself, and your dog, to the start line itself is also a factor to consider. If you are too close to the start line, your dog’s nose may very well be crossing it before you were ready to release them to search. That means your time is starting WAY before you thought it was...trust me, I speak from experience. However, if you are too far away from the start line, your dog may try to circumvent those dreaded start line cones altogether to follow odor, thus resulting in your frantic attempt to redirect them, interrupting the entire flow of the search!
With all these potential issues before you even start searching, what is a handler to do?! Collect data by videoing your searches. Be certain to capture your approach to the search, not just the search itself. Your goal: determine what is happening now, what is working and what needs to be changed or adjusted.
For instance, if your dog is gung-ho to play the game and are practically dragging you to the search area, we do not necessarily want to curb their enthusiasm. We want them to love the game! But at the same point, we need to ensure you are safe (there is no tripping, falling or dying in Scent Work!) and not stressing yourself out. Perhaps doing some exercises completely outside the context of Scent Work would be a good idea. Building a brand-new routine where the dog can walk with you, not in heel position per say, but not dragging you either, while still maintaining their focus on what is ahead. Once this routine was solid, you can start using it in your Scent Work training sessions as well.
For those dogs who are struggling with triggers, address them outside the context of Scent Work first. Help the dog develop the skills needed to better deal and cope with these triggers all with the plan of incorporating them in your Scent Work training sessions later.
Hone your own skills as a handler, be it how you can handle your leash or long line, the type of treats and treat pouch you use or practicing how to use other equipment such as the timer or air flow flag. Ensure you are well-versed in handling these tools in an effective and efficient manner. It is common to place all the responsibility on the dog, but we as handlers need to ensure our own skills are solid as well. Do not cost your team Qs for failure to step up as a handler!