Indication and Dog Body Languages

The dictionary term , ‘indication’ it’s a sign, a pointer to something else.

The inspiration for me to write this article was my own trials and tribulations as a novice scent work handler and dog team in trying to gain a passive indication from my exuberant young Flat-coated Retriever. I was desperately trying to achieve funky freeze, a sturdy sit or a steadfast down indication. Being new to the sport at the time this challenge literally made my brain ache in how to channel my very spirted young dog whom desired nothing more than to please me by searching inside any closed box to retrieve the item and bring it back to me. Now, retrieving the item can be utilized in scent work training but she wanted to retrieve the actual scented swatch within the item. Box and plastic trashing prevailed!

I needed to retrain a behaviour from her in response to the cue of the clove odour. This may prove more difficult with a breed type that has a very high instinctual drive to retrieve and for myself and my dog there was now a lot of reward history there within the search regime. With not only the joy of the search but the end behaviour of pawing which had steadily got worse due to the reinforcement.

You may have a dog that naturally indicates, this is great news! mark and reward what you see, add a little duration each time and bingo a lovely indication. Or, your dog may bark, use its paws, mouth or both to tell you it has found the odour. Your dog may look back at you or be the dog that gives such a fleeting indication that it is hardly noticeable. Whatever your indication story is, on commencing your scent work journey I feel it’s important not to get too overwhelmed with it to the detriment of the early stages of odour obedience and confidence building. You and your dog have found a great activity to do together so let’s keep it fun.

For scent work handlers an indication is a learnt sign from our dog that it has located the source of the said odour. There are various types of indications which are termed as passive and active. Active indication including pawing, retrieving, nosing, barking (barking is not an indication I would generally promote) but it is an indication, nonetheless. More passive indications include a freeze, sit, down, nose on, or chin rest. In a true passive indication, the dog does not touch the area the odour is.

In operational detector dog’s passive and active indications are both used dependent on the type of search. Dogs that have an active indication can be used to locate concealed odours and can be very driven dogs that can cover large areas and work well in locating and indicating finds at varying height levels. Passive indications are used more widely now in the professional capacity for searching people, drugs, money, explosives or crime scenes therefore the dog is not permitted to touch the source of the odour due to cross contamination.

To train a passive indication we are looking to chain a series of behaviors together. The odour is the cue for the behaviour response. Just as you would say ‘sit’ and your dog then sits, the clove is saying for example, ‘freeze on me’. No verbal cues are required.

As our companion dogs are not going to be used in professional capacity we want them to enjoy the experience, have fun and maintain a drive to participate in the activity. A passive indication is what we would all desire to see from our dogs and long term once this communication has been mastered it is a lot less frustrating for you and your dog. For most of us with pet dogs they will not offer an indication easily without us applying indication training unless they are a breed with the innate sense of pointing and staring at the source of the odour naturally, the owner has a head start here.

Scent work for companion dogs is a relatively new dog sport for pet dog owners and most of us didn’t seek a breed of puppy purposely to be a scent work dog. We also have a history already established of how our dog communicates to us. When we have responded to these communications and the dog has been rewarded that behavior communication is learnt and repeated as it’s chosen way to communicate to us.

A few examples
• A bark at the door to go outside to toilet, the door is opened
• Using paws at the door to go outside and toilet, the door is opened
• Jump up for attention and receives a stroke
• Stares or barks at the dog food cupboard or treat tin and receives a food reward
• Use of paws, barking, nose pushes for touch and affection and then receives attention of a praise or play

I remember when my dog was a youngster and her treat ball would get stuck under the coffee table, we used to leave her to work out how to reach it herself. With her long gangly legs she would manoeuver like a gymnast and be very dexterous with her paws in scooping it out quickly. We would laugh and congratulate her for being a clever girl. Woah that use of her paws to signal she wanted to get to something came back to haunt me! This type of learnt communication history our dogs have used in the past can affect what indication our dog initially gives on commencing on the scent work journey.

Odour obedience and indication training are two differing aspects in scent work training. Odour obedience is all about working with your dog with the early cues to commence and finish a search. For your dog to recognize the odour, to build confidence with correct marking and rewarding. As well as training to ignore distractions, staying in the search area or returning promptly. It is about growing endurance and advancing on with different search criteria from that very first box to more complex searches of additional items, varying heights, distraction odours, new odours and environmental weather influences.
Indication training is an operant training method. The dog shows a behaviour whether naturally or on cue and gets rewarded for it. If it is not the behaviour we want to see, we don’t deliver the marker or reward. If there is an indication behaviour which we don’t want to see, we must devise a re-training plan of what behaviour we do want from our dog. This is an exercise done separately to your practical searches and then working on combining the two gradually.

When first starting out in scent work what did you see your dog naturally do when it recognized the scent? it would most likely to have been whatever communication it has used before that has gained the desired response from you or you may have seen an instinctive behaviour surface. As you progress you can work on stand-alone indication exercises and reward the correct choice of behaviour that you are working towards seeing, this will start with a sniff and gradually move to shaping and adding duration and stillness in microseconds at a time until you achieve a freeze. Or you may only reward a sit or a down position for your dog’s indication to the odour.

Teamwork is the essence of becoming a great handler your dog’s nose is uber great and he knows the art of scenting well but he will need your help in assisting. If you see signs your dog is struggling or has missed areas or items, then subtle guiding with hand gestures or body positioning to ensure the search area is covered is the part the handler plays. After all it is only you that knows the exact criteria of the search area for your dog to search and you need to communicate this to your dog.

Knowing your dog’s search style and physical abilities is paramount. Your dog’s changing body languages are your first indications that he is ’on to something’. By hovering back from your dog and moving slowly to get a side on view of your dog’s body position gives you a better view of the changes taking place as your dog investigates, latches onto the odour and works the scent picture to the odour source.

If your position to gain this view is in front of where your dog is, this can mean your body mass is moving the air direction and interfering with the scent picture your dog is following. Try to stay out of the direction your dog is going and heading towards but still gain a side view of your dog. When dogs are speedy searchers this can be more difficult so standing well back helps you keep out of the way but still enables a clear view of the entire dog.
Your dog’s tail position can change and the upper body especially the shoulders can appear more rigid as your dog concentrates hard on the exact location of the odour. Note the speed of your dog’s movement and how this alters throughout the search especially on picking up the scent and seeking the exact location. (Video footage is a great help to you here!) Some dogs slow down whereas others speed up. A head turn (termed as a knock) with your dog doubling back to the location of the odour is a big clue that it is close, so is the ‘hook’ head, which is when your dog’s head bends underneath an item to locate the source of the odour.

Mouth positions can become closed when nearing the odour allowing the nose to work more efficiently and the breathing becomes more rapid and noisy as the odour is moistened and transferred to the dog’s complex olfactory system to assimilate the scent and spark the memory neuron receptors. Nose positions can go high in the air which can signal that the dog is trying to locate and latch on to the odour and to then work it back to the source.
Knowing these body languages is equally important to the actual indication. The two work together hand in glove. When you have repeatedly witnessed your dog’s searching style and you are very sure when your dog is at the source then look at what behaviour your dog offers you next. If you have pretrained an indication, then await that behaviour and mark and reward. If you have not yet done any separate training in this area or you have only reached a certain stage in shaping your indication, see what your dog offers. It might not be exactly what you want at the time, but it is their indication to you which should be acknowledged to maintain your dog’s confidence in the activity.

I have found if you ignore these signals early on in your training and are waiting for a more firm indication from your dog then this is when frustration sets in, either trashing, false alerts or even worse a complete disinterest in doing the activity at all, your dog just simply doesn’t know what you want it to do. Therefore, it is advised to work on more indication training separately making it a fun and enjoyable activity and then you can bring it into your search training and mark the smallest link evident to your indication training and build up from there.

With the use of pieces of scent work equipment that you have utilized in indication training these items can then be bought into the search criteria as this will help your dog transfer the learnt behaviour. In your indication training use different items, different heights and within different areas and slowly add distraction. When changing locations or adding the distraction element be mindful that the duration of the indication you have achieved prior will likely lessen and will need to be built up again.

My advice to you is be kind to yourself and to your dog. Look to work on your dog’s natural indication utilizing their individual energy level and instincts either by enhancing it or simmering it down.

Within my classes I cover indication training prior to the searching element. I find this gives the handler an insight into what they are looking to mark and achieve with their dog. The dog then has a better communication choice to make in the actual search as they then know what behaviour to form on the cue of the desired odour. Even if fleeting the duration of the indication can then be built on.

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Happy sniffing









Mandy is a Scentwork Uk Trainer. For more information about Scentwork Uk or to locate a trainer in your area visit their website