Dog’s Eye View: Toolbox of handler behaviors or handler toolbox of behaviors?
September 8, 2017
This summer we had an amazing three days of workshops with Jason Heng, a certifying official for the National Association of Canine Scent Work, as well as a certified nose work instructor. In the past four years, he has participated in 75 nose work trials as a competitor. He is now an instructor for K9 nose work enthusiasts across the country, as well as a certifying official for K9 nose work trials. He has earned top titles with three different dogs.
Teams from Montana, Wyoming, Utah and other cities in Colorado participated in our event held at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Craig. It brings to mind the difference between training a dog to do what we want and learning from the dog how we can be a good search partner. It's an amazing journey to step back and use our observation skills to read our dogs' behavior, while searching for the source of scent we want him to find.
In obedience training, we are teaching the dog to sit, lie down, stay, walk on a loose leash etc. This would be the handler toolbox of behaviors. We request (or command) the dog to do each of these behaviors. If the request is followed by non-compliance, the dog, in one way or another, feels our disapproval. They learn to read us very quickly and can sense or scent our displeasure. This is in response to the techniques we have used to teach them. So, our handler toolbox of behaviors contains many daily conversations with our dog. "Come here," "get off the couch," "leave the cat alone," and "get down" are examples of these conversations. Through the course of months and years, our dogs learn that, when we speak, things happen.
Welcome in the toolbox of handler behaviors. This includes management and how we use our body language to communicate with the dog. Stepping in or stepping back communicates forward motion or retreat. An example of this might be stepping in front of your dog to block access to something you don't want him to do, such as bolting out the door. That specific handler behavior communicates to the dog more clearly than any form of verbal reprimand. When we use this behavior, it should always be followed up with — yes, you guessed it — what you'd rather have your dog do instead. Let's say, sit and stay until released.
In our scent detection teamwork, this same handler behavior could signal the dog to search a bit longer in a certain area or, by backing up, would allow the dog access to an area that has not yet been searched. In nose work, it's a delicate balance of understanding the dog's communication when he's found the scent trail versus casting to acquire the scent we want him to find.
Our understanding and communication builds great teamwork, and, as handlers, we learn to let go of our role as director and become a student in our dog's classroom of how he understands scent. Once we begin to take that secondary role and allow our dog the freedom to search, it becomes a dance like no other. The toolbox of handler behaviors is an ongoing awakening into canine olfaction and understanding. Jason did a great job of articulating our role as students of our dogs.
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Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with more than 30 years of experience. She has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, as well as Certified Nose Work Instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC here in Northwest Colorado.