It’s true. Our dogs don’t have to find every hide. I still see people struggling with this concept and others embracing the idea to call it and review/recover. It’s quite liberating to abort a search! If I look back on my years of training sessions I can probably count the # of times my dog really struggled and could not find a hide … really it’s not, or should not be, that many times … because we should take that information, evaluate the situation and set our dog up for success by changing the setup or going back a step and then slowly add back in the challenges.

Below is an excerpt from one of my FDSA Nosework Coaching and Key Concepts lectures. This is a course I co-teach with Melissa Chandler where 5 other key concepts are covered.

Simply put, it’s better to end a search than to show your dog where the hide is or prolong the search time which can result in a stressed dog. Our dogs are quick to pick up on our cues and will realize we know where the hides are and able to help them get their reward. Once they know/think we can help, they will ask! And when it gets stressful at a trial that is what they will default to. We never want them to know we know where the hide is. We can’t emphasize this enough. We want them to “drive” the search and grow as independent searchers. Have it be your goal that your dog truly believes they can find every hide even if they don’t. If you help them or continue searching past the point of their ability, then they will begin to lose confidence and odor will lose value.

If your dog is showing a change in behavior/interest in an area, it’s also your job to notice that and respond like you would in a trial/blind search .. to have them check again, maybe high or low or across from where they showed interest (in case of pooling). It’s OK to recheck and re-direct if you noticed your dog noticing odor. It’s the times your dog is not picking up any odor that you would not think otherwise to recheck an area.

Factors that would make sense to end a search:

  1. Dog is over threshold – too distracted to work, or showing stress signs. Are you constantly redirecting them to keep searching?
  2. You are starting to restrict your dog to a smaller area near the hide (helping them).
  3. You have covered the area thoroughly – checked each box, cleared all areas, gone both clockwise and counter clockwise and your dog is just not picking up odor.
  4. Time limit reached. Determine a time limit appropriate for your dog/search. Determine the average time it takes for your dog to find a hide and add 30 seconds.

You will begin to understand when it makes sense to make that call. Liberate yourself from thinking they MUST find every hide. And when you end your search, do so happily. You can give an effort cookie, ideally after leaving the search area or back at your “car”/home base.

How can we respond to and avoid searches that are too difficult?

Common hide placements that can be troublesome: high hides, ground hides, not enough aging or hides where odor is sucked away. Some hide placements may make it very difficult to catch odor or the dog has to be right on top of it, or work it away from source back to source (letting dog leave search area, etc).  We all should be using our smoke devices (smoke matches, smoke pens, wizard stick) more often to help understand why our dogs could not find a hide. It will provide valuable information to your training progression and really help with future hide placements. The Certifying Officials (in NACSW) are excellent at hide placement and likely will have considered these types of challenges based on the environment. They also run a “dog in white” and will adjust/change the hide if it was proven that the scent dynamics were too challenging. They really try to be fair and set doable hides so we should do the same thing too!

How do we go about this in our training sessions? We want to get better at hide placements, be aware of the possibility of needing to end a search, know when it is time to make that call, feel comfortable in doing so and have a plan if you do end a search.

A good plan is to set up an easy, confidence building search at every training session to run at the end. Sometimes it seems people don’t want to setup fun and easy searches. Dogs really LOVE that! Not every search needs to be sexy!

Situations when you may need to run an easy search at the end:

  • Working in a novel area.
  • Using newer odor/combo odor.
  • Using new qtip holder/container.
  • Setting up a more challenging search.
  • Working on new hide placement locations.
  • In all cases really … 🙂

Whether it becomes a recovery search, putting a deposit into your odor bank, a search following a blank room or after clearing an area of no other hides (NW3 situation) – it’s a good plan to have!

From the Dog’s point of view

Each concept builds on the previous one. If you insist your dog find all the hides … help/show your dog where the hide is … keep searching beyond the point of effectiveness … then it will be very hard to act like you don’t know where the hides are. This will lead to less confidence and more nerves when trialing for both you and your dog.  I have not seen dogs get worse by ending a search but I have seen dogs lose confidence and start to stress when we prolong the search and help them. Also, if there is a consistent history of helping our dogs it can lead to talking our dogs into alerting when we are nervous and pointing and crowding. As well as they will start to look to us for help instead of driving the search.

It’s all about being consistent in our relationship and communication with a scenting dog. They search, we follow, they tell us things for us to read and it’s up to us how we react and respond. We should not complicate this “dance” with showing or guiding, instead we focus on setting up appropriate challenges to build confidence and success. Keep in mind that we are also dealing with environmental factors that may be out of our control and often out of our understanding (scent dynamics). You can also think of it in this way … in nature, dogs will not always find/catch their prey or the object of their hunt (squirrel, etc). I don’t see this being demotivating – as long as we manage it well with sensible training sessions and stay positive and cheerful! Do your dogs quit chasing squirrels and rabbits because they don’t catch them :)?

Salvaging a Search

It’s also possible to salvage a search.  If you realize pretty quickly that the search is not going well … due to an environmental distraction or dog’s demeanor, you can call it early WHEN THEIR NOSE IS AT SOURCE but not indicating (or as close as they can for an inaccessible). A good example is when using a new non-box container and the scent dynamics are different/more difficult for your dog to pick up odor. I will often call it early on these new containers to build confidence and then require clear indication/duration in future searches. Or you can modify the search area for success – moving something out of the way or move the hide (without the dog seeing you make a change) so that your dog is more likely to find it.


  • It’s not taboo to abort a search.
  • We hope there aren’t many aborts in your future! We are not looking to be abort happy, just saying it is okay when appropriate.
  • If you can salvage a search by moving the hide or slightly adjusting the setup without compromising future criteria, try that.
  • Have it be your goal that your dog truly believes they can find every hide (even if they don’t!). If you show them or search for too long they will begin to think they can’t do this!
  • Have a plan if you abort – decide on factors that make you feel you need to abort, have a final easy search, use effort cookies
  • Evaluate what may have caused the difficulty and make some adjustments to hide placements (more accessible odor, further away from distractors, etc). Go back a step and build back up slowly to more challenging hide placements.