Trials and Tribulations of Being a Dog Handler

Updated: Sep 2

We oftentimes overlook how challenging it is to be a handler in any dog sport, Scent Work included. Essentially, handlers must learn all there is to know about the sport, internalize it, utterly understand all those concepts, and then teach those very same concepts and skills to their dog – an alien species – while identifying whether their dog is doing well or struggling and take that information to adjust along the way.

Basically, dog handlers must learn and teach at the very same time. It is a tall order! Thus, we should be more open to how challenging being a dog handler can truly be while cultivating ways for handlers to rise to meet this challenge.


If I were to task you with learning quantum mechanics right now and then immediately turn around and teach it to someone else, who you barely knew, so that they could take the test for you and pass with flying colors, you would look at me as if I were crazy. Yet, that is what dog training is oftentimes like.

An instructor will give directions to a dog handler and they are, in turn, expected to translate that into something actionable for their dog to do, a behavior or action that is being tested. Ideally, this behavior or action will be flawless the very first time, or at least that is the apparent expectation.

On its face this is ridiculous, and I am saying that as an instructor!

“But, if my instructor demonstrates something, I can just copy them. It will be fine!”

Demonstrations indeed have their place and can be effective but will only get you so far. Every dog and handler are individuals and together they make up a unique team. There may exist some type of intricate detail that would only apply to that specific dog, that specific handler or that specific team as a unit that is not addressed in the demonstration. Thus, merely mimicking what an instructor demonstrates may lead said specific team astray.

In my opinion, handlers must understand not only the “how” to do something, but the “when” and most importantly the “why”. Translation: handlers should have a solid understanding of a concept before trying to teach their dog about that very same concept.

As an example, let’s say that I tasked a handler with setting up an exterior search with 2 hides where 1 hide is elevated, and the other hide is inaccessible. Oh, and the search must be done on-leash. From this simple exercise, what does the handler need to know?

· What would be considered an exterior search and why?

· What is the size of the search area and why?

· What is the composition of the search area and why?

· Where should the boundaries be and why?

· Where should the start line be and why?

· What are the potential weather and environmental factors and how will they play a role (wind, humidity, etc.)?

· What types of hide should the handler use (food, paired odor, or target odor) and why?

· What would be considered an elevated hide and how high should that hide be and why?

· Could an elevated hide also be an inaccessible hide, why or why not?

· What would be considered an inaccessible hide and why?

· What canine body behavior are they looking for to illustrate their dog found the hide and why?

· How does the handler expect their dog will tackle the search and why?

· What signs or signals would the dog be giving to illustrate they are rising to the challenge, struggling, or falling apart?

· Does the handler know how to handle a leash or long line while searching?

· How will the handler use the leash or long line during the search?

“I need to know all of that to run a search with my dog?!”