The Distraction Zone! How to snap your dog out of it during a NW search.

May 17, 2022

It’s happened to me! My dog was searching an exterior area in his first NW3. I could not get his nose off the gravel and he didn’t find any of the hides. We came to find out we were clean in all the other searches. He had been working extremely well, earning two 1st places in other searches. This last exterior search just took him completely out of focus. If this occurs in a search with a known number of hides, you’ll time out or get talked into a false indication when you are feeling the time pressure.

Even the well prepared dog can get distracted. Nosework trials can have unlimited novel location possibilities. Novel areas have competing motivators with all the other smells, sights, sounds and possible critters. There is bound to be a location where your dog may be a little more distracted.

Determine if you have a training gap

Of course we need to go back to the training board if this is a frequent occurrence. As with any behavior, our dogs’ searching behavior needs to be generalized and taught to fluency. It’s important to work in as many novel areas as possible. The more they successfully perform in different situations, the more fluent their search-to-find-source behavior becomes.

What if this happens at a trial

When this occurs during a trial, there are a few things you can do to recover.

What you may not know is that in Nosework/Scent Work trials you can do anything except give harsh corrections. You can try to regroup by touching your dog, talking to them, asking for trick behavior, playing with them (toy or personal interaction), and even restart the search. You are only bound by the time limit of your search!

Sometimes your dog may just be momentarily distracted. Other times they could be in a complete trance and unable to snap out of it easily.

For milder distractions, you can interrupt your dog with a question. Questions get our dog’s attention. Think about all the times our dogs perk up when we phrase things as questions. In a NW swearch I will ask “Are you searching?” You can practice this on known distractions – like a pee spot or an intentional distractor. I prefer to ask the dog versus cueing them to keep searching. We want our dogs to problem solve the situation and decide to get back on task. As you practice this more, delay your interruption and see if your dog will dismiss the distractor on their own. It’s also possible there may be odor near something distracting so we don’t want to pull our dog away from a productive area. 

If your dog is in a distraction trance – one in which you just can’t seem to refocus them – you’ll need to find a way to snap them out of it. Would your dog like to play tug or do some tricks for treats? A lot of teams I work with have success with asking for some hand touches or spins. Find something that your dog values and has a history of reinforcement. 

What I found worked with my dog was personal interaction. Toys and food didn’t work. What he loves the best, is ME. He loves personal interaction and to be loved on! I tried this out in agility when he was also easily distracted with the turf and I simply got on my knees and opened up my arms to love on him. And it worked! He was then able to focus on the agility obstacles!

I only had to apply this a few times during my training and rarely encounter this distraction trance! 

Find what your dog might respond to that would snap them out of their trance!

Here is a video of interrupting my dog with some personal interaction. A dog had just freshly peed in the grass next to the search area so I wanted to use that situation to train for this. 


  1. Stacy Totten

    Hey, spot on for my JRT Dash. I will sometime go into a search, and 2 ft in, she glances at me and says “oh, not really feeling it, I’ll just critter.” We just entered our first Elite NACSW trial (so she obviously can work odor) and our second search of the day, she pulled that, and we spent 4 minutes of crittering before I could call finish. She rocked the next 2 searches, one was a 12 vehicle search in an open field. What the heck??

    • Julie Symons

      How exciting your first Elite trial! As I said – it happens to prepared dogs too and their focus can switch between searches. Good to have a plan to see if you can snap them out of that distraction trance!

  2. Susan Bates

    That was very interesting. Thank you for sharing this.