Dog trains man

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hovawarts To The Rescue

This week I turn my blog over to Caroline Dunn - dog trainer, Search and Rescue handler, and Hovawart enthusiast - to provide us with a peek in the exciting world of scent and how you and your dog can do nose work too.

Venka, the Search and Rescue Hovawart, courtesy of MindYourDog
How did I get involved with Search and Rescue (SAR) and the wonderful world of nose work? Well, it all started with a Hovawart. A hov… what!? I hear you say. No, nothing to do with the famous school for witches and wizards. Although I think I may have been struck by a spell for luck the day I came across this rare German breed.

The Hovawart is a versatile general-purpose working dog from Germany, calm in the house but full of energy outdoors. They have been known since the middle age as faithful protectors of their families, watching the livestock and their master’s property, while also being excellent at tracking criminals.

Venka, courtesy of MindYourDog
Ours is called Venka. She has been working as an operational lowland SAR dog since she qualified with NSARDA in 2007. Many people have met our bouncy girl. She will lean on you for a cuddle at any opportunity. But nobody really knows Venka until they have seen her searching. Working with a Hovawart is a fantastic experience. It is all about respect and teamwork. They work with you, not for you. They have an excellent understanding of their task, great focus, but still retain a sense of initiative.

A lot of SAR handlers work border collies, some have spaniels or labradors. We have no reason to envy them. Hovawarts are amazing working dogs. To be fair though, many canines have the potential to be great for the job. Most of the breeds from the gundog, pastoral and working groups could do it, apart from those at the very end of the scale in term of size and weight. Having said that, I knew a SAR Newfoundland and once he had picked up scent, he was unstoppable. Mongrels don’t have to stay on the "back bench" either. We have a fantastic rescued boy called Red currently training in our unit, who is believed to be a collie x staffie. I will be very surprised if he does not pass with flying colours before the end of the year.

You may wonder what SAR dogs do exactly. Most use a technique called air scenting to find vulnerable missing people. They analyse scent that is being carried in the air. Many elements such as temperature, wind and terrain will affect how scent travel and a real partnership between the dogs and their handlers is necessary to ensure success. The dogs cover vast area off the lead, following directional commands from their handler and constantly checking and reviewing scent. Once they identify human scent, they will pinpoint the source, alert their handler, usually by a bark, before taking them to the location of the person.

You don’t have to join a SAR unit to have fun with your dog though. Getting started with scent work is easy. Here is a simple and fool proof method to teach a basic game at home, without any special equipment and whichever breed your dog is. You will only need a helper to get you started.

Start in a closed room, hold your dog and ask your helper to show them a "prize" such as a dog biscuit or a favourite toy. If needed, they may tease by shaking it in front of your dog's nose and talking to them in an exciting manner. Then, they should place the prize just out of sight, for instance behind a box or a piece of furniture, and take a few steps back. Release your dog saying "go search". As they have seen where the prize was placed, they should go straight to it. When they do, praise them. Play with them for a short time if the prize was a toy. Repeat this once or twice, not necessarily with the prize in the same place.

The next step is slightly different.  Your helper should still place the prize just out of sight. But then, instead of releasing your dog, either cover their eyes or turn them towards you so they can’t see what is happening. Your helper should then as quietly as possible move the prize a little further. Keep it simple at first, the prize should be on the floor and within a relatively short distance. When you release your dog - remember to say "go search" - they should go straight to the place where they think the prize is. They will be surprised that it is not where they though and start searching. Unless the dog stops searching or looks too confused, don’t repeat the command. I see many people who think they are encouraging their dog, while they are actually distracting them. SAR dog handlers direct their dogs during searches, but they also know when to shut up and let their dog work. Well, have you ever try to concentrate on something while your colleague is speaking loudly on the phone or your teenager has put the volume up on their stereo? And dogs are not always a lot better at multi-tasking than men… come on guys, you know you can't talk while you're shaving!

Coming back to our scent game, once you have done this a few times in different locations in the room, your dog should not need to see the helper place the prize to a "dummy" location first. Instead, cover your dog's eyes or turn them towards you from the start, have your helper hide the prize and then send your dog with a "Go search". Always use the same cue when releasing the dog.

The dog will very shortly understand the game enough so that you won’t need a helper anymore, simply place your dog in one room, close the door and hide the prize in the next room. Open the door saying "Go search" and watch your dog go.

Then the limit to how far you take this game is only your imagination, you can make your dog search one room, the whole house, the garden, the dog park… If you do not always use the same prize, then make sure that the dog is shown it first and has a chance to sniff it. Otherwise, you may be surprised what your dog will find for you!

There are many more scent games you can play with your dog. Air scenting is just one aspect, then there is trailing, tracking, scent discrimination, etc… Why not check if your local club offers any scent activities or join a nose work boot camp? All dogs love scent work, it is suitable for all size and breed. Learn the techniques and take your relationship with your dog to a whole new level. People who have dogs who always seem to want to do more will get the added benefit of finally finding an activity that will tire their dog out. Scent games can even help with dogs who bark or get destructive when bored.

About Caroline Dunn
Caroline lives in Kent with her family and their hovawarts. She is the head trainer at Mind Your Dog, where she create happy relationships between pet dogs and their owners. Caroline and her husband James are also members of NSARDA Cantech, a charity which provides SAR dog teams to assist in locating vulnerable missing people.

For more information about Search & Rescue dogs visit the NSARDA and the Air scenting search dogs websites.

For more information about Mind your Dog events, including their scent workshops, visit the Mind Your Dog website or follow Caroline on Twitter.

This story was first published on Safe Pets UK.


  1. Those Hovawarts are something else! (I loved your reference to the school of witches and wizards, Caroline -- the first thing that came to my mind when I first started reading this blog). Your Venka is a lovely and talented girl; thanks for sharing the story of all the good that she does, and the fun that you can have with her in similar ways.

  2. Beautiful dogs. I love the idea of the partnership, it is always such a treat to experience working dogs in such a way. I've never thought to play a scent game with my dog, she just eats the food as fast as she sees it! But she loves to play, so I will take your suggestion and give it a try. Thank you for the great interview.

  3. @Edie
    Such a shame there will come no more Harry Potter books, they missed such an opportunity, as in: "The Hovawart, Guardian of Hogwarts". It could be a new series :)

    Great you want to give it a try. The fun of scent games is shared by all dogs, I am sure Kelly will love it!

  4. We've tried doing a little scent work with our border collie, Lilly, but only simple things like identifying the scented item from the non-scented ones (which I'm sure for dogs is all relative). A former boss does SAR, with a team of people. Sometimes they called in dogs too, but he used to complain that the dogs made them walk hither and yon. ;o)

  5. I have to admit, I had no idea about Hovawarts until reading your blog, Leo. They now fascinate me. And thanks to Caroline's description, that is only more so! A big thank you for this explanation of how us "non-trainers" can begin scent work with our own dogs. I am in awe of what Caroline and Venka do in SAR!

  6. There should totally be a Hovawarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. (Leo, I agree that J.K. Rowling missed an opportunity there!)

    This was a really interesting post - I would never have thought that teaching a dog to search would start with such a simple game.

  7. My dad had beagles that he hunted rabbits with when I was a kid. I remember getting a new puppy and to get him interested in tracking dad would tie a steak bone to a string and have us kids drag it around the yard - making it easy at first and then harder and harder as the pup got more experience. At the end of the trail we always left some kind of great treat. It didn't take long for that pup to really enjoy tracking. It's not something I've ever tried with my German Shepherd or Shar-pei, but I have no idea why! I'm sure they'd enjoy it - and I think the Shar-pei would excel. He really has a good nose.

  8. Thanks for all the nice comments guys, and thanks Leo for letting me loose on your blog. I'm honoured.
    So, who has tried the scent game? How did you get on? The trick is to make it really easy at first and increase the difficulty progressively. I'd love to hear how you get on.

  9. Thanks for your blog and for introducing me to the scent game. My rescue dog is not very motivated to "work," so this will be interesting to try out!

  10. Ha! My hound taught my Newf to track via scent and now the Newf is hot on the trail of any squirrel that crosses our dog yard. I love that any breed can take to this, but really, I love that people and dogs do this work for the benefit of those in need. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  11. You are most welcome Caroline. Like the other commenters I am in awe of what you SAR handlers and your dogs can do, for such a good and important cause.

  12. Thank you, Caroline, for such a clear description of nose work. I loved the diagram with the scent molecules in the air.

    When I do simple nose work games with my Golden, Honey, I'm amazed at her focus and how deliberate her search is. It gives me a whole new appreciation for the amazing canine nose.

  13. I love playing search games like these with my dog. They are great to play indoors when the weather is bad and they often tire her out after only a short time. Who knew I was actually teaching her something as well? Thanks for the great post. I am going to have to see what other games are out there that we can play.

  14. Nice post Caroline! I actually did not know that a SAR dog was sniffing the scent from the air. I actually thought the followed the scent on the ground, so I learned something new today!

    I also love your easy explanation of how to play search games with your dog. I'm going to give this a try with my Lab, Daisy.

    I can only imagine what it must feel like to work with a SAR dog, but I imagine it's rewarding. You mentioned that your work with SAR was through Venka, but how did you know it was something you wanted to do?


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