Are you all ready for some real talk? Strap in, because here we go!
For those Scent Work enthusiasts who have been involved in the sport for a while, particularly those who were there when it first began, one of the longest standing complaints included: a lack of trialing opportunities, painfully long waitlists and an overall inability to play with your dog. Now, there is a long and involved list of reasons why this was the case, but the fact remained, from coast-to-coast in the United States more people wanted to play…and they wanted to play now!
Fast forward to 2018, and there are now upwards of eight, count them, eight trialing organizations in the United States alone! Especially with AKC now offering Scent Work trials, there seems to be Scent Work trials offered every weekend in every corner of the country. Great news, right?
Here’s the rub. Let’s say that you plan to trial with your dog every weekend for a month. You are still going to travel to some of these trials, so that means leaving at least a day early, trialing over the weekend, maybe staying at the hotel overnight on Sunday to hit the road bright and early on Monday. Oh, and you work or have a life Tuesday through Thursday.
So, when exactly are you actually training your dog?
“Oh, well my dog is great. We are all done with training.”
Yeah, about that…
We need to recognize that every single time we trial, we are lessening our training criteria. Let me give you one example: the importance of source. For me, I reward my dog as close to source as possible in training. At trial, I may only have a rough idea of where the hide is, especially if it is inaccessible. That means I could, potentially, be rewarding my dog away from source. Let’s say I repeat this consistently over a period of time. Perhaps my dog now thinks they only need to tell me where odor is, not where it is coming from.
“No, no, no,” you say, “MY dog has far superior training than that. That is not a problem.”
Okay. Maybe that is true. What about this then…what happens when you call a false alert? I mean, what does that really do to YOU? What kind of hit to your confidence does that dreaded, “No” do? Meaning not only the confidence you have in yourself, the confidence you have in your dog? If that confidence deteriorates over time…what else do you really have? The dog, after all, is the one with the nose. You are depending on them to tell you where the hide is! But if you begin to second-guess them all the time, where does that leave you as a team?
Now, compound that with a month of 2-day weekend trials where you are entered in 5 classes in each…the likelihood of you calling at least 1 false alert per trial is pretty high. So, at the bare minimum, that is 10 false alert calls in one month…10 deductions from your bank of confidence and successes you had previously built up during your training. Can you see where I am going with this?
Still, I can hear some of you saying, “I cannot believe she wants less trials!”, and that could not be further from the truth. I am delighted there are more trialing opportunities. I am elated more people can play with and create memories with their dogs. I am also incredibly concerned those very same people are not doing the amount of training that is required to prepare their dog, themselves and to ensure both can be successful now and going forward into the future.
Let me give a personal example, albeit not specifically for Scent Work, but similar enough. Competing with my dog in Barn Hunt. He loves it, is a natural and it helped that I taught Barn Hunt classes. This meant lots of practice time, a long history of making the game fun; good stuff all around. Then, I got hurt. No more instructing. No more practicing. Yet, a desire to compete remained. Suddenly our good runs morphed into something ugly and not good at all! I was calling “RAT” no where near a tube. I was not properly reading my dog. My failures began to compound, my self-confidence was in free-fall and I was falling apart as a handler. At the end of the day, I was failing my dog, and miserably. Not only that, all of this was happening in the level that can be the hardest one for teams: Senior.
This situation got so ridiculous that he had not stepped foot in a Barn Hunt practice ring for 6-months, yet I thought it would be a brilliant idea to enter him into a trial…during a cross-country trip…to trial in a strange location…on the complete opposite coast of the country…with widely different weather…all with the thought, “Oh, what the heck? We did our foundation training ages ago, he will be fine.” Well, turned out my dog was up to the task, but I wasn’t. I convinced him of a empty tube, and that was the end of the that. I have since bit the bullet and committed to actually training and practicing before we enter our next trial. This is more for me than for my dog, but it is crucial nonetheless.
“Okay Santos, so what is the point?”
Well, mainly, a plea to make certain you are training and practicing more than you are trialing. Remember that you will need those practice sessions to stay fresh and to keep all the moving parts of your performance as a team moving smoothly. It can also help you identify issues that may pop up before you enter a trial.
More trialing opportunities are wonderful. But we need to recognize that trialing is for testing our training…not a substitute for it.
Did you find this thought-provoking? Want to hear similar discussions? Stayed tuned then for our new podcast series that will start soon, “Lessons from an Imperfect Trainer”.