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“It may take many voices for people to hear the same message.”-Rasheed Ogunlaru

It thrills me with the attention pouring out from handlers reading the Sternberg-Zinn book Dog-Driven Search. It is no secret I have been a Sternberg-Zinn disciple since early on when Winnie and I came upon the teaching duo and the work they do online. Presenting their ideas and theories in online forums, webinars, plus the encouraging energy I have received when I’ve met them at trials, has been an inspiration.

The Sternberg-Zinn collaboration has always been a balance of ideas that address many a broad aspect of the canine-human relationship. Their recent work with dog-driven concepts is proving to be no exception and the followup support they offer is well conceived. It is so important that we are our dogs’ best advocates, and this book offers a glimpse into what that looks like when we engage in the sport of K9 detection/nose work. In conversing with scent-work compadres and trainers, I have noticed some division regarding the overall philosophy. I feel compelled to offer my two-cents worth of support for us handlers.

One of the anchoring concepts, the Bank of Joy, is an analogy we can grasp. Pretending our dogs have a tank that we can fill or empty, like a savings account, we must keep it balanced. We can tell when a dog is happy or let down, but we are not always sure why. We can try to see the reasons, but there are too many factors that either deposit or withdraw from the account that are difficult to track. Sometimes it isn’t even about nose work or our handling.

Over time, I observed a team transition from full-speed to a slow amble after introducing a new dog into the home environment. It had nothing to do with nose work, but that is where the change in the dog’s behavior was most obvious. Using this as an example, a handler can focus for a while on nothing but deposits. Easy, one hide searches with big rewards and much celebrating and playing after. Plus, more one-on-one time throughout each day. And more cuddles if your dog is into that.

This worked when the handler recognized the slowdown of enthusiasm and after ruling out anything physical, they hypothesized that the recent addition to the pack was the reason, but what can we do if we don’t find a reason? The same thing.

Another corner stone of the Sternberg-Zinn method of Dog-Driven searching is the Happy Exit theory. Imagine what you look like on the walk back to your car after a search. No matter what happens in a search, no matter the outcome, try to look the same. Nobody in the parking lot should be able to tell whether your search was good or bad. We should be upbeat and engaged with our dogs, not just marching side by side. This is tough to sell to our dogs as they read our feelings. It isn’t enough to entertain happy thoughts and fake a smile, our dogs can tell when we’re putting them on.

Recently, a compadre and I experienced both our dogs peeing during a practice search. This has happened often to team Winnie. I’m embarrassed to admit Winnie is an obsessive marker, and I did as I usually do, a sharp “no” while she is in the act, then an abrupt exit from the search area.

The team I was practicing with hadn’t had the opportunity to build a response to such an incident. I’m proud to say, “team anonymous” doesn’t mark in the search area very often like Winnie does. The handler noticed a subsequent change in her dog’s energy the next few times she practiced nose work after that day. Her dog was sensitive to the abrupt exit from the search area and though the handler didn’t reprimand her teammate, they simply left the search, her dog was really affected.

Luckily, the dog was back to her normal energy not long after the event. Getting lots of reinforcement, with many searches that were not about the sniffing but about ending with a happy exit, the handler was committed to the idea and didn’t pretend to be happy. She was just as overjoyed as was the dog to play their way back to the car after every search.

These are two of the millions of ways we can overdraw without even realizing it. Overdraws happen. Prevention is not even possible. Just as we don’t expect our dogs to be perfect, we also can’t think we have to catch every withdrawal before it happens. While I love Dana and Sue, and I live and operate using their teachings, I also know that we as handlers try so hard and want to do everything right, but that is not possible. Doing the best we can, though, is.

Everyone has their heart in the right place. We don’t want to make mistakes. Now we feel the burden of guilt when reading the Dog-Driven Search book, thinking, “I’ve been doing it all wrong.” We lament and resolve to do better. Setting off with all these new exercises and drills, hoping we can do exactly what is being presented, we are bound and determined to become better handlers until… “I tired their advice, and it’s not working.” We beseech our comrades on support forums and discuss and deliberate among classmates. We brainstorm all the while beating up on ourselves.

Fear not, my fellow nose enthusiasts. We are on the right track. It is not all dog driven, and it is not all handler controlled. Somewhere between filling our dogs’ bank accounts and happy exits is the fulcrum that balances the relationship. Nose work is a partnership. Achieving a framework of communication requires time and understanding. We can support our dogs as much by giving subtle body language suggestions as by giving them agency to make choices. An all-or-nothing approach is not what anyone is teaching. Our dogs want us to cut ourselves a break.

Winnie dreams of a handler who forgives themself.

Within the pages of the Dog-Driven Search book are ideas, theories and examples of one way to do nose work. Apply what works for your dog, your team, but include other ideas to balance it. Don’t throw away what you’ve built thinking you must do everything included in the book in order to succeed.

Keep trying to improve by watching and listening to what others say and do, but don’t rush out and change everything. Make minor adjustments here and there, change your mindset and expectations. All the joyful moments we have with our dogs in between the concepts and ideas taught to us is where happiness will be found. And if you need sympathy, support and encouragement, read the book I wrote. If The Dog Driven Search is a book that supports the dog, A Little Dog’s Adventures in a Big Dog’s World is a good way to balance it out with support for us handlers.

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