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  • Valerie Casperite

The Importance of Observation

I’ve had the priceless experience of chatting with Ron Gaunt, one of the three NACSW founders, over a few lunches and being coached by him with a few of my dogs. To loosely quote Ron, “Be a student of the dog. Watch the dog. He’ll teach you.” Whenever I can, I read anything I can find on the topic of nose work and odor theory, but nothing beats actually watching dogs work. If you really pay attention, they’ll teach you how to be a better handler, no matter what the scent work application is.

The following is an excerpt from a chapter on water searches in the Cadaver Dog Handbook, but it is applicable to most search scenarios, especially inaccessible hide searches. The fundamentals are the same. Stand back, be quiet, and watch. Observation, observation, observation! With experience, the dog will be able to determine where the scent is strongest. With experience, you’ll be able to tell when the dog has made that decision.

As you read this excerpt, you can change the idea of “water search” to “inaccessible hides” or “pooling odor” or “trapping odor”. You’ll find the author’s advice to still be relevant.


This is one of the biggest problems handlers have. For example, the dog may be showing mild interest in something in the water. The handler sees the dog’s interest, thinks it might be an alert on the victim, and through words or body language cues the dog to increase its intensity. The handler may unconsciously be prompting the dog in his or her eagerness to get a strong positive alert. But the handler does not know what the dog is alerting on, or if the dog is alerting at all. In a training situation, you encourage the dog. In an actual search situation, let the dog do the work and make up its own mind. Be quiet and do not cue the dog! If it has had training on hidden subjects (snow, rubble, water, etc.), the dog should make the “decision” about where the scent is strongest. The handler’s job is first to observe and then to reward the dog after the dog alerts.

Water searches need to be interspersed with training sessions. That gives the dog the opportunity to earn jackpots, keeping his interest up. It gives the handler the opportunity to train the dog and observe him under controlled conditions. Observe on practices and observe on searches. Videotape the exercises and searches and go over them yourself and with others.

The more you observe yours and others’ dogs, the easier all search problems will become.”

(Koenig, M. 2000 Cadaver Dog Handbook CRC Press LLC p.162)

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