Think of a beautiful ballroom dance—there is someone who takes the lead and someone who responds to that dancer’s movements or cues. Many activities and sports we participate in with our dogs work the same way. One part of the team leads—or gives cues—and the other part of the team responds and follows through in reaction to those cues. In competition obedience, a dog must master many skills including heel, sit, stay, and take specific jumps. In agility, a dog must take direction from the human handler in order to run through a complex sequence of obstacles. Behaviors must be performed quickly and accurately. In freestyle, dogs must be able to move in many different directions with and without their human partner. Behaviors must be executed accurately and may be relatively simple or lengthy chained behaviors. In all of these those sports, the handler is the leader or initiator, and the dog is the follower or responder. Regardless of their roles, both members of the team are equally and vitally important.
In nose work, the roles change a bit—but nonetheless, both members of the team remain important to a successful outcome. The dog leads the search and the handler supports the dog. This doesn’t mean the handler is invisible or ineffective. What it means is that a handler must be able to read the dog’s behavior, understand wind currents, how odor works, and how dogs solve problems that are presented by a particular hide. On top of that, the handler needs to ensure that search areas are completely covered and all hides (or no hides at all) are found.
A dog participating in nose work isn’t ignoring the handler. It’s quite the opposite. The dog is constantly communicating to the handler and the handler is making certain decisions according to that information. In fact, the handler is so much in the dog’s thoughts that we, as handlers, need to make extra sure that our body language doesn’t give the dog unintended information. Just as in agility, an arm waved in the wrong direction may send a dog off course. In nose work that same wave could convince a dog to search in an unproductive area—or, worse, to give a false alert.
A good nose work team—just as any good agility, obedience, or freestyle team—is a joy to watch. It’s a give-and-take relationship: each part of the team responds to the other. Both sides know their respective roles and best of all each team member truly respects the other.
When a dog thoroughly understands the role he plays in nose work, he understands when the game is on. Just as dog doesn’t usually initiate heeling patterns or freestyle routines around the house, a dog understands when he is supposed to be searching. There are many contextual cues as well as verbal ones that dogs understand signal the beginning of a specific activity. The harnesses, collars (or lack of those things) as well as the special equipment used in a sport all let the dog know when an activity is taking place.
It is true that dogs use their noses every day regardless of what they are doing, but searching for specific odors is an activity that dogs play when they understand that it is time to do just that. And that information, as with all dog sports, comes from the dog’s handler.
Leading and following are not roles that are set in stone. A good leader knows when it’s time to follow. If anything were to be said about the journey you take with your dog in nose work, it’s that perhaps you are working with your dog on a very primal, wordless level. You and your dog are working together in a constant flow of communication, a lovely give and take. It’s a relationship that builds trust and tightens bonds. Whether you are coming to nose work as your first dog sport or your third, nose work will strengthen the bond you have with your dog—and that’s something that will be beneficial to both of you no matter what you choose to enjoy doing with your dog.