The Importance of Good Scent Work Handling Skill’s

You and your dog form a search team, so good handling skills are important to assist your dog in their efforts to locate the specific odour. In the early days of your scent work journey it is important to develop your dog’s skills by building their confidence to work independently.

You are primarily there to guide your dog into the area to be searched, stay out of your dog’s way, mark, reward timely and lavishly and to then advise your dog the search task is completed. As you progress through the levels of different search criteria’s the handling skills evolve into more targeted guidance to assist your dog’s search rather than suggestion areas.

In this article I am going to discuss the earlier stages of your scent work progression in how important handling skills are in connection with the scoring system and where points can be lost within a trial situation. Also, how some good handling can signal to the judge that you are conscious of the role you play within the team.

Firstly, let us look at the scoring system with Scentwork UK Trials. I shall use Level 1 as a simpler example.

Trial Scoring – Level 1
Four finds in four search areas at 20 points per find, 80 points therefore achievable. Three finds must be alerted correctly to qualify therefore 60 points.
For these four searches there is also 5 handling points allocated per find so 20 additional valuable handling marks to be gained to achieve the full 100 marks.
The searches are also timed with a three-minute allowance.
The handling marks play a crucial part in where you will be placed in the competition. For example, if four teams achieve all the finds then the handling marks gained will determine the place positions. So, if you have been deducted 0.25 off the 5 handling marks you will achieve 99.75, if the other three teams have no deductions you would then be placed fourth. If you and another team both have 99.75 the placing will be calculated on the fastest time.
Scores are based on the correct find in the allocated time (three minutes) and handling marks achieved. The time taken is only relevant in tie situations.
Say you have achieved the 3 of 4 finds and are sitting on 60 marks, then full handling marks of 20 can still put you and your dog at a healthy 80 points. If four people have achieved 60 marks which can be the case in first time trials at Level One, then the handling marks become vital in what qualifying position you will be placed at. Even one deduction of say 0.10 could move you down a few positions if the other three teams have achieved 80 points and you have 79.90. So, if handlers that all scored 80 points would be placed on time difference. It would not be relevant if your dog had been super speedy if you were on 79.90.

How can these precious 20 points been gained and the prevention of any deductions so you can be ace handler for our dog?

A good start always looks professional and can set you off on the right footing, so a clear precise beginning shows you as the handler in a good light from the onset and sets your dog up well for the search.
There are a few varying start options to give some pre-thought and training to and this can very much depend on your individual dog’s energy level and style and taking in your own movement capabilities. You may decide to start at a ‘sit’ or ‘stand’ and wait and move to the first article yourself and then direct your dog to the first item to be searched or you may start off from the cones with a precise arm signal which is at your dog’s eye level to the first item to be searched, or you may lead your dog over to the first area which in the case of wind direction on a vehicle search can often be beneficial.
The arm direction signal into the search is all important! Has your dog seen your signal or just felt you move forward? On many occasions I see the arm waving high in the air, way above the dog’s head or behind the dog. I advise my clients especially with small dogs that the body position should be that low you are virtually in a leg lunge into the search area.

After your good start the area’s listed below are the main areas where points are deducted and not gained in the early scent work levels, these can be found within Scentwork UK Guidelines for Level one.


** The Judge is looking for good teamwork involving good handling and systematic area coverage of the search area and this is where you gain the maximum points. We all have different challenges with our dog’s the Judge will appreciate this so look for how the handler overcomes these challenges within the guidelines.
• Points can be deducted with the handler getting in the dog’s way, blocking the dog from seeing or being able to get to the items to be searched
• The handler pulling the dog away from the hidden scented article
• The over-use of verbal correction
• The dog not quite on the source of the hidden article
• The dog swallowing the article
• The dog spending a lot of time not searching the items within the test
• The dog leaving the search area
• The dog keeps returning to the location of the scented article, this is where you good finish cue comes in
• Dog fouling in the search area (handler marks will be deducted for one incident and the ‘find’ marks will be included, in the event of repeated fouling all marks will be lost for this section)
• Excessive trashing of items (The test will be stopped, and the handler will not receive any marks for this section)
• Excessive scratching of vehicle paintwork and the judge will stop the search immediately
• The handler touching or moving items is not permitted
• In the Level One exterior search item where the handler is informed the scent is in one of three items, the handler must not steer or influence the dog or prevent the dog from investigating all the other items.

Fails – the alert is incorrect, time lapsed, harsh handling

Good Handling Practices
Assist your dog if you see they are struggling or leaving the search area by signaling them back into the area or to search an area of unsearched items but be aware of not using too much verbal communication.
Too much verbal can lead to your dog becoming confused by not recognizing the ‘key’ cue’s and to become increasingly unconfident in their abilities, it often promotes a ‘look back’ to you for constant guidance which takes them off the job in hand.
Stand back from your dog so you do not get in their way and if working on lead it may be necessary to hold the lead up high, so it doesn’t get caught under items or wheels. If you are working on or off lead you can change the option within the search if you feel it necessary.
It is permitted to gesture towards items to be searched only if your dog has missed them and needs your guidance but over pointing and steering your dog when you dog is searching independently is not a good handling skill. As your team develops onto more complicated searches at higher levels then precision pointing becomes an additional learnt skill in you developing your handling abilities. With the new criteria of a wall or flat surface being used as an alternative to a vehicle, then some more suggestive handling along the flat surface maybe required which your trainer will run through with you.

Nerves can take over our Handling Skills

In any competition there is bound to be an element of nerves. We all have them! It is possible to try and utilize this additional adrenal chemical surge to influence our behaviour in a positive not negative way. We have more heightened senses visually and more efficient movement which we can try and channel into our handling skills within those few vital minutes.
Having a plan in your mind can help with a few key words to remember, obviously we have to be ready to adapt as we go as we have another member of the partnership. For example, my plan is within a box & luggage search I try to aim to start my dog on an item of luggage as my dog can go ‘gung-ho’ into a box if that is the first item she arrives at. I also have some key words which are, ‘circle’ to walk the outer edge first. ‘Middle’ remember the middle items. ‘Flat’ remember the flat items which may be overlooked and ‘big’ to remember that larger items like suitcases have other sides which can easily be missed.

Three minutes is a long time within a search at Level 1, calling early after a few seconds when your dog may have only searched three of ten items is all too common and often leads to a false alert. Unless your dog has a very good indication and has been very much on the trial of the source take some extra time to visit the search area and come back to that article if necessary.
The other side of the coin is waiting too long to alert. Your dog keeps telling you and you are missing the signals and going around and around the area. Your dog becomes increasingly frustrated, may start false indicating, trashing or leaving the search area. Have confidence in your dog’s abilities.
These two items seem to contradict each other I know but it’s a fine line in calling too early and leaving it for far too long. You will get to know your dog’s body languages very well with time and practice and to then be able to recognize when your dog is investigating and when they are ‘on the odour’ trail and funneling down to the actual source.

If your dog goes onto a distraction smell which is more common in the outside searches act on this quickly but in a kind way, not with using a lead correction but instead using verbal upbeat tones to get your dog back into the search. If your dog is left too long, it can quickly forget the odour it was meant to be searching for. Our nerves sometimes take over here and we just don’t know what to do for the best but to pull the dog off the scent, this will result in loosing handling marks. Work on a mouth clicker or kissy noise in training to gain attention and then redirect back onto the search area.
With nerves we can hover over our dog and the item being searched, whether this be is a conscious or sub-conscious action that we may be able to see the swatch or have some vital clue. This can lead the dog to false alert as we are telling them with our body language that the find is there. By giving you dog space and moving on the spot from foot to foot ourselves is good practice for signaling to the dog to search on.
If nerves get the better of you, you can miss the vital clues of our dogs ‘hooky head’, the ‘knock’, tracking signals and the dog going under the car telling you the scent is most likely the other side.

I have discovered within the scent work journey that our human brain works in strange ways which can lend to pre-conceptions and guess work which has nothing to do with the dog’s nose but where we, the human considers the scent maybe and these preconceptions are usually wrong. Again, we need to trust in our dog’s abilities.

I was once advised there were three scents to locate in three rooms, my mind works pretty much the same as the next person I believe but without any conscious thought at the time after the first two had been located, one found in each of the first two rooms, I kept directing and influencing my dog to keep searching the third room, not believing that nothing was there. I had made the assumption in the later part of the search that there was one scent in each of the three rooms, I hadn’t been advised of that at the onset of the search but my mind had made that decision for my dog and I was not considering a blank room and a room with two scents in! These are lessons we learn along our way.

So, when you find you and your dog in front of a vehicle ready for the search don’t think just ‘wheels’ it very well might not be there, but it just might be! Go in with knowledge of where the scent will not be and watch your dog’s body languages is the very best way – no preconceptions.

Take some deep breathes, have your own pre-trial ritual and a mantra of key words and enjoy. This is for fun and we all take the best dog home with us.
For information on classes, Sniff-Away days and 1-2-1 training indoors or outdoors or online training please enquire through the contact page

Happy sniffing  Mandy

Article References: Scentwork Uk – Guidelines for Level 1 Trials / Handling Skills – By Heather Donnelly of Scentwork Uk/ A Good Start – By Heather Donnelly of Scentwork Uk/ and the invaluable advice and training from Karen Denton of Scentpals