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Trusting your Independent Sniffer

Two of my students recently did spectacularly well at an NACSW Elite trial. They especially did well in a specific search that I had the privilege of watching. They were the only two teams to find all the hides (and call them). It got me thinking... what did these two teams have in skill that other teams might not have that day?

After a bunch of reflection and chatting with them, it kept coming down to both handlers being confident in their dog's independent skills to solve odor problems AND their experience with difficult searches and requiring the patience and trust in their team to work out the answer.

Here are their searches and my quick analysis of their runs:


As a coach and trainer, I push my students to build these independent skills. Allowing the dog to learn the skills to solve individual puzzles, then adding in the layers to have them solve more complex puzzles, still without the handler. Being able to stand back and watch your dog solve puzzles like this, set purposely, can build a LOT of confidence on both ends of the leash.

Knowing your dog CAN solve puzzles on their own allows you to remain observant. This gives the handler the ability to see the changes of behavior (COB) more clearly and be a supportive partner when they need it. Upper-level competition isn't ONLY about the dog, it is important for the handler to also observe and be an active participant when they need to.

Here are some examples of when a handler might need to see and react to the dog's search:

  • Moving too quickly past a corner. Either a small "mini corner" along a perimeter, or a deep inside corner that might hold odor information or an outside corner that could be critical to solving a puzzle more quickly. A handler who's observing this can slow down, rotate their body slightly to face the corner, or even present at the corner to ask the dog to go there.

  • Higher hides that spread out. Seeing when the dog is bracketing or catching odor on objects and starting to triangulate can be hard to "See", especially if you're too close. Having a dog with the skills to work independently to stay with a problem like this is important, but also is a handler to recognize the start of these COBs and has the patience to stay, or the awareness to read the edges of the odor picture and position themselves to support their dog in solving the problem.

  • Converging odor. Hides that spread out and collect odor in mutual locations can be hard to read and easy to either miss or read as an additional hide. Having a dog that can solve these puzzles is essential at the higher levels, but even more important is being able to read conflicting COBs that could happen in a specific area and be patient or ask the dog to return to that location, even after finding a hide nearby. An independent dog should return there themselves, but sometimes there's so much going on that handler support at that moment can make the difference between a puzzle solved in seconds vs. minutes.

When I think about the success of my students in that search, they both were confident in their dog being able to work off-leash. Something that can be quite nerve-wracking for some teams! I strongly believe that my 2 students built up their confidence and trust in their dogs to work off leash like that through AKC detective searches, which they both have been successful with.


NACSW trials are a test of endurance and skill, especially at the Elite level! But they also can be hard to get into and the pressure of the day can cause a lot of extra problems. Being able to practice trialing can be critical in top performances. One method to do this is with other organizations that provide similar skill challenges.

Both of my students compete in AKC Detective regularly and have learned through their struggles and challenges with these searches, how to best support THEIR dog, and when to get out of the way. This isn't easy and the relationship, communication, and trust between dog and handler doesn't come overnight. It takes many searches and experiences to build up that understanding. Neither of these dogs were superstars immediately when they competed, but both handlers worked HARD to build the skill, build the relationship. Super cool to see it all come together for such deserving teams!

How can YOU also have this success?

Building a dog that is odor-driven and able to solve puzzles independently doesn't happen overnight, but it IS a skill you can build and grow in your own team. It starts at the very beginning - can they leave you and work a simple single hide problem without you ever taking a step? Can you do that same puzzle with 5' from you to the hide? 10'? 30? 100?

Independence has many different aspects! A dog that can show independence in one aspect of scent work might also struggle with independence elsewhere... What do I mean?

Here are some examples of where your dog can build independent skills:

  1. Independent hunting - with odor present or without

  2. Layering objects - do they need to see you?

  3. Distractions - do you need to manage them?

  4. Between hides - can your dog find a hide, be rewarded, then not return to that found hide?

  5. Intelligent Disobedience / Odor Obedience - Does odor information matter more than your own handling cues?

  6. Specific hide placement skills - elevated, ground, converging, deep, inaccessible, etc.

Essentially - Can they HUNT, SOURCE, INDICATE; all without you?

I have an online class that works these skills for all levels of teams. If this is something you think you'd be interested in, it will be offered again in March 2024! It's called DRIVE ALONE. Looking forward to hopefully having you join us! If you'd like to be notified about this class when it's available for registration, sign up for my email subscription. I send out emails once a month or so to let you know about upcoming classes and often sneak in a sniffy tip too!

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