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Three-legged stool: An Analogy

There is a new book out, The Dog Driven Search, by Dana Zinn and Sue Sternberg that is creating quite the stir in the nose work arena. It thrills me that this book is bringing so many handlers into a more spiritual way of looking at the sport. Having been a Sternberg-Zinn disciple for several years, I love that their philosophy can be shared with so many more Nose Work teams in such a simple and straight forward way. It is thrilling to see som many handlers interested in learning from the authors who have so much experience, Sue as a successful handler of multiple and vastly different dogs, and Dana as a trainer as well as multi-dog handler. This book is valuable as a resource for those in the sport who want to make it fun for themselves and make it as good as it can be for the love and benefit of their dogs.

The sub-title to the book is: Handling Our Nose Work Dogs to Promote Independence, Joy and Enthusiasm. In keeping with that theme, I'd like to expand with some philosophy of my own. Picture a three-legged milking stool. One leg is communication, one is connection, and one is contact. Each leg is equally necessary for the stool to stand.

Communication. The bedrock of existence. Whether we know it, everyone and everything on this planet is in communication. How many times have you said, “I’m getting a vibe...,” or “I had a feeling...?”

Connection. The tie that binds. We can’t help but be connected. The very air we breathe connects everything on earth. Are we not all inhaling and exhaling from the same pool of air?

Contact. The physical element. To many a varied degree, we all seek contact. The metaphoric three-legged stool upon which we all sit will not stand without contact, even if its only ethereal.

While our physical bodies separate us from one another, it is our energy that, through the shared occupation of space in between, connects us. It is with energy we converse. The mountains are conversing with the trees, the ocean is conversing with the sky. Animals, reptiles, insects and even people. We are all communicating. And when we do nose work, we use these three elements.

horse and woman farm pasture
Casey and me, May11,2015. Sebastopol, CA

For me it always goes back to horses. Equines represent one of the species on earth with an incredible ability to communicate. A herd of horses are so synchronized, they regulate the rhythm of each others heartbeats. With this natural instinct, they respond as a unit to threats. Any heart, when in the presence of a horse, benefits from the equine energetic connection to the universe. The horse is a master at all three elements and an equestrian can tap into any of them but for a complete experience should capitalize on all three.

The spiritual element is the most elusive.

In building a healthy relationship, a good equestrian must tap into this flow of energy. The importance of having a working, unspoken form of communication with the horse is essential. With shear brute strength a horse can enforce their will over us by fighting or running. Without a connection, a way of communicating and a positive energy exchange, horseback riding wouldn’t exist.

Regarding nose work and the principle concepts in the Sternberg-Zinn book, the elements of my three-legged stool analogy can be applied. Dogs are not as strong as horses, although I know some dogs can knock three or four people off their feet in an instant. Dogs are also naturally more connected to us to some degree unlike horses who are instinctually more suspicious. Contact is still the bottom line.

With horses, riders are taught to have contact with the bit through the reins. They also communicate with their legs and booty. The horse can be conditioned to respond to even the lightest pressure. Contact through the reins to the horse's mouth is not the same as pulling. The rider's legs are not constantly squeezing Though light as a feather, the touch on the reins can bring the horse to a screeching halt when the rider simply closes their grip. Resting their legs a little heavy and leaning forward will encourage the horse to leap forward from a standstill if the cue is given with consitancy. Any time you have hold of the leash of your dog, you have the power to communicate as effectively as an equestrian does with their horse.

Fig. 1 the energetic communication. Fig. 2 the contact. Fig. 3 the connection.

When Winnie is pulling like in the middle picture, I try to use a half-halt on the leash to slow her down. It's a quick squeeze with my grip. In the equestrian arena, a half-halt is just that, half of a stop. It keeps the horse light on the bit. It keeps the dog light on the leash. When Winnie is sourcing like in the picture on the left, the leash is loose. I am focused on her, but haven't come to a stop. It doesn't change anything as Winnie sources the hide in the indented square in the bricks on the wall, just like a horse who has been put into a canter needs no input to stay at the pace. In the third picture, Winnie can feel me from her end of the line. She isn't moving fast or pulling, and the leash has no slack. I am keeping pace with her, ready for but not anticipating what way she'll go next. A moment of connection where each of us is aware of each other, she knows she is in charge and she is confident I am waiting for her to have 'something to say.'

When searching, the leash doesn't stay in one condition or the other, but is in constant flux. Depending upon if the dog stops abruptly after moving fast when their olfactory organ caught something to source, the leash goes slack and the handler is left scrambling to pull the loose end in. The leash is loose quite often but can quickly be brought back to taut. These transitional periods of seeming disconnect happen less and less frequently with lots of practice. Just like a dancer spends years training to become the prima-ballerina, so it takes time for a nose work team to perform a search like a choreographed routine.

Whether you are an equestrian or a dog sport enthusiast, I encourage you to find the channel wherein to communicate, contact, and connect with your partner. It is worth it. With sheer will, you can bring an animal into your world. You can force a horse, manipulate a dog, insist they communicate with you on your terms, but when you meet them in their world, it opens up a window into a whole other realm.

I'm including the video of the search from where I took the snapshots above. In it you will see me fumbling, scrambling, and getting in the way. The idea is that we get better at it with time and practice. We are all on the path to being better at following where ever our dogs will lead.

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