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Applying the OODA Loop decision making to Scent Detection work.


You’ve been training for a long time. As a team, you and your dog, have spent hours, days, weeks, maybe even years training and working for this moment. You’re at the beginning of your search area. You’ve got the appropriate tools for the task; like your dog’s reward, harness or collar, right sized leash for the area or task, and any other tools you need. You start the behavior chain getting your dog ready for the search, ask the dog if it’s ready. Now what do you do?


If you’re a Police, Military, Contract, Conservation, Search and Rescue, Scent Sport, or any other type or discipline of detection handler you can identify with this. We all spend so much time training our dogs to find odor, and hopefully that odor pays, that we often forget about training the other end of the leash. As handlers our job is to support our dogs as they search. Literally they’re the ones with the nose and our job can be summed up as stay out of the way and dispense reward. Although an over simplification at its heart our job is to set them up for success and help guide them to productive search areas throughout the search. So then our ability to view search areas in the best way possible for our dogs is to improve our situational awareness. Situational awareness is a huge part of Scent/Odor detection training. One tool to help with this comes from the Military; the OODA Loop or Boyd’s Loop.


For those who don't know the O-O-D-A Loop, or Observe-Orient-Decide-Act, is a situational awareness tool used by the Military, Police, and Business to teach how to quickly process information and then act on the best information you have. The OODA Loop is a succinct representation of the natural decision cycle seen in every context.


As a Scent Work or Detection dog handler our decisions are based on observations of the evolving situation, balanced with how we perceive our dogs processing that same data. These observations are the raw information on which our decisions and actions will be based. When we walk up to the start line or beginning of our search area, we have multiple layers of data/information to process before we begin our search. Our dogs are processing tons of information as well. Many refer to this as reading our dogs.

The idea that we are reading our dogs looking for behaviors implies that we must be open to perceiving just noticeable differences (JND) in behaviors. To be able to read these JNDs we must Teach, Train, and Proof handlers’ ability to maintain situational awareness.


Prior to beginning training, we have Situational Ignorance; we don't know how to read and perceive what we see. Through teaching and training we can develop Situational Awareness and Recognition Primed Decision Making, meaning our past experience helps drive our decisions. What we want to avoid is Situational Arrogance where we think we know more than we do. One of the themes during searches at all levels is the tendency to read more into a sniffing behavior or search environment and spend to much time on one area, completely missing other productive areas.


During Trials/Searches use physical or virtual walk through as opportunities to Observe Search Areas and then orient yourself to what technique you'll use to search them. Also allow your dog a moment to adjust as they approach search area start lines. This allows your dogs to Observe their surroundings and then Orient themselves determining where to go as they cross. Dogs are item oriented and also will repeat behaviors that have a greater likelihood of encountering odor. Give them a chance to process before you search.


When we decide, we're essentially moving forward with our best hypothesis our best "educated guess" about which mental model will work.

Action is how we find out if our mental models are correct. If they are, we win the battle and complete the task; if they aren't, then we start the OODA Loop again using our newly observed data.


Remember you will go through multiple OODA loops throughout searches as the search progresses. Although you may have developed a search strategy, be prepared to adjust to new information as the search happens.

Your dog goes through OODA Loops as well, and ours affects theirs. Be open to moving to a support role as your dog processes (Observes) search area information, adjusts to that information gathering (Orients), Decides what to do with that information, and Acts. If you interfere with your dog's OODA loop, you may see confusion or frustration during a search. The dog may attempt to avoid you. Handlers should view "Changes of Behavior" as the beginning of a new loop for our dogs.


A complimentary concept to the OODA for Scent or Detection dog teams is the Winthrop Theory. In the early 1970s, a British Army officer, named Lieutenant Winthrop, wrote a thesis on Counter Terrorist Search (CTS). He theorized that you had to think like the terrorist and think how you would hide munitions.

Applying the Winthrop Theory to Trials starts with thinking like someone who has to place hides within the rules of the element. Don't waste time and effort searching areas outside logical hide locations for the element. If we are trialing in a certain element the rules restrict hide placement. Height and Depth of Hides, Number of hides, time, and Deliberate Distractions are all factors that we must know about our search before we cross the line. Remember; Certifying Officials and Judges want to recover hides. Think about where they'll hide them and how they'll observe them. Don't try to Beat the CO or Judge but, search your element with the perspective of someone who has to place hides within the rules of the element.


With that in mind, Prior to stepping across the start line, our movement cycles have begun. We may switch collars, leashes, from a collar to a harness, etc. This process primes our dogs for what's next and starts their OODA loop. This is a great opportunity as a handler to Observe the area, Orient to the wind/air flow, windows, locations of vents. You can look at the curtains in relation to vents. Are they moving? Is the fan on in the bathroom? Is there a trash can under the counter? As your dog moves from area to area your job is to ensure that all productive areas are searched, in accordance with the element rules.


Observe the space and everything in it. Don't overlook any logical presentation or productive search areas. At this step you deciding how to MANAGE the search. You're focused on developing a strategy to search the area so that you don't miss productive areas.


Orient to your surroundings. Use the Winthrop Theory (the element rules) and your training/experience to determine likely productive search areas. Understand all of the potential factors that could affect odor such as: Window: air, heat from the sun. Fridge: fan, noise, and temperature. Sink: water, temp, noise. Floors: crumbs, texture or surface of the floors. Next FOCUS on orienting yourself to what you observed.


Decide, from all of your training, experience, and understanding of the space how you will approach the search. AVOID getting lost in the sauce of too many choices.


ACT on all that incomplete data, and find out if your interruption of the search area is correct. And finally LIMIT your search time in areas so that you have time to search each effectively and efficiently.


Don't forget you're a team! You need to adjust your training and trialing styles to include drills to develop situational awareness. Also be prepared to adjust to your dog, they are processing new information and will constantly be adjusting to it.

We often forget that no matter how much we train our dogs, we need to train ourselves to support them. Concepts like OODA and the Winthrop Theory are learned and practiced through the process of training. Trial confidence is built through training competence.


“Use the first moments in study. You may miss many an opportunity for quick victory this way, but the moments of study are insurance of success. Take your time and be sure.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune

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