Scent Work Is The Best

That’s right, I said it. Scent Work is the best dog sport there is. Hands…or paws…down.

The dog has the ability to be a dog! What a concept!

To be successful, a handler must appreciate how brilliant their dog truly is.

Handlers learn to LISTEN to their dogs, to appreciate their quiet way of communicating their thoughts, while witnessing them work out incredibly difficult odor problems.

Ever think Scent Work is “easy”? Great, then you should have no problem finding a hot dog I hide in your living room. Oh, did I mention that you will be blindfolded, walking on your hands and knees with all the windows open and fans on, while someone who is hovering over you is chattering at you non-stop with, “Find it honey, come on, you can do it, hurry up, what is the problem, it is right there!”. Yeah, not so easy is it?

As far as a competitive sport, Scent Work (generally speaking) is a supportive community. Given that reactive, deaf, blind and amputee dogs are welcomed with open arms has a great deal to do with that fact. People are just as excited when the scared dog walked on a slick interior search area for the first time as when a team earns their highest-level title. Accomplishments are seen as that, accomplishments.

Then there is the fact that your dog never has to age out of this sport. They can do Scent Work forever. As long as their nose works, they can play. How awesome is that?!

While ribbons and titles are great, it is the GAME of Scent Work that is truly awe-inspiring. How it can strengthen a relationship and bond between dog and handler. How it can help curb behavioral problems. How it can be just the right outlet your dog needs.

So yeah, Scent Work is the best dog sport out there. Hands, and paws, down.

Want to learn more about Scent Work? Check out Scent Work University today!


Going for Q’s or Placements…What’s Better?

Months of training and preparing under your belt, you are ready to begin competing. You review the requirements for the level you are entering, ensuring you and your dog are truly ready. 

The day is finally here. The morning of, you practice the routine you came up with to help keep you composed, present and level-headed. After all, you need to be a good teammate for your dog. It pays off. You tackle each search as a team, acing each search and hearing the glorious, “Yes” reply to each of your “Alert” calls. You celebrated with your dog after each search, knowing how incredibly fortunate you are to have them as your partner. You are excited, relieved and just plain happy! Safely tucking them in their crate to chew a special treat you bought them, you head up to the gathering where they will hand out the human rewards.

Your name is included with those fellow competitors who also successfully completed their searches. Proud of your teamwork, you trot up to receive your Q ribbons, a proud smile on your lips. The future is looking mighty bright and promising  for your future Scent Work competition journey. Officially bitten by the trialing bug, you cannot wait to see when you can enter your next trial! 

Practically floating, you notice the trial host suddenly seems to shift gears as they note the REAL excitement is yet to come: the placements. Being your first trial, you are intrigued. They call out names and search times for the fastest four teams in each individual search, some of which are mind-numbingly fast! Under 30 seconds, under 20 seconds, under 10 seconds …under 5 seconds even! These competitors receive beautiful ribbons…far prettier than your mere Q ribbons, which begin to lose their luster…

The trial officially ends with awarding the High in Trial award for the best team of the day. You are awe-struck by the truly gorgeous reward they hand out. This ribbon is huge! A glorious representation of a glorious accomplishment. You tuck your Q ribbons in your coat pocket. 

Everyone hoots and cheers for this competitor. They are indeed the best of the day.  

Heading back to the car, a seed borrows it’s way into the far reaches of your mind: you want to be part of that “elite crowd”. You want to earn the big beautiful ribbons. You want to earn a High in Trial.

So, is there anything inherently wrong with that? Absolutely not.

“Then it is settled, High in Trial placements are indeed far superior to qualifying runs!”

Now, I didn’t say that either.

There is no set rule for this. As with all things dog training-related, it has to be individualized for what will work best for you and your dog. And, the wrong choice can go terribly badly for both of you.

Let me give you a personal example. My personal approach to trialing in any dog sport is to test my training and teamwork against the standard of that particular competition venue at that particular level. Another way of putting it is this: can we pass the test? That is my focus: the requirement set by the level of competition for the sport we are competing in. I am not interested in truly “competing” with other people for placements. No, my approach is to compete against myself and my own training. Should we happen to place, awesome, what a great surprise! But the Q is all that matters to me. This means when my name is called for qualifying runs, I excitedly “WOOHOO!” the whole time I am trotting up to collect my prize, and loudly “WOOHOO” all the way back to my spot in the crowd. Do people look perplexed that I am so excited over a simple Q ribbon? Yup. Does that matter one iota to me? Nope.

“Ooookkkaaayyyy…so, people who do like placements are…wrong?”

No. That approach simply works for them.

“For the love of…Santos…what is the point?!”

The point is there is no better. Trialing is an individual journey. It will change from person-to-person and even dog-to-dog. There may be a dog who has been struggling for months to brave slippery floors, and suddenly conquers their fears and kills that interior search. No ribbon can properly capture the feeling of watching your dog be brave, trust that you will keep them safe and put in an incredible effort to work that space. You may have another dog who is awesomely talented and you want to showcase their skills. Two different dogs, two different goals, two different approaches.

My rule of thumb is this: if the handler and dog are having fun and enjoying themselves, then all is well. If they are stressed out, shutdown, frustrated or grumpy, well, that is a sign something is amiss.

Since all of this is a journey, it may change and shift over time. And that is okay.

What are your thoughts? How do you approach competing in Scent Work with your dog?

More Trialing Opportunities!…and How That’s a Problem

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?

… 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”.

Teaching Scent Work…Anyone Can Do THAT!…Right?

Perhaps you are an instructor who has been training dogs and teaching classes for a few years. You likely have heard about Scent Work and may have even played the game with your own dog. The benefits of Scent Work are plainly obvious, so why shouldn’t YOU offer it to YOUR students? It cannot be that hard…right?

I will be the first to admit teaching and training Scent Work is far from brain surgery…but the same can be said for all dog training. If one really sits down and breaks down what it is they want to teach the dog, they can come up with a plan.

Scent Work, however, does offer it’s own unique challenges for instructors. Many of which are overlooked by instructors taking the plunge for the first time.

For instance, why are you offering this in the first place? That is not meant to sound snarky. Rather, it is an honest question because it will affect who comes into your class. Those students will arrive based on how you pitch and promote the course…but what if their expectations and desires are not at all in-line with what you will, and can, offer them? What will you do then?

The giant elephant in the room of course is the odor itself. Which odors will you use? When will you the odor? And how? Why are you doing it that way? What if things go left?

“Wait, things can go LEFT?! This is just Scent Work…what can possibly go left?!” 

Trust me, things can go badly quickly on a number of fronts.

Then we get to the safety factor…reactive dogs are welcomed with open arms in the sport of Scent Work, which could very well be the reason your class fills in the first place. Do you have a background in working with “reactive” dogs? Can you properly ascertain what that really means when someone fills out your registration form? In other words, when the dog walks in the door, can you tell if they are reserved and simply need some space, or if they are over-the-top and YOU need to keep a safe radius to prevent having a “dog-dome-meets-your-nose” situation? Or does “reactive” really mean the dog would like to eat other people and dogs? And if it is latter, what on earth are you going to do to deal with that?!

These are just a few of the considerations instructors oftentimes overlook when they take on teaching Scent Work. And that doesn’t even touch upon the competitive element to the sport…

Now, all THAT being said, Scent Work is an outstanding activity that I quite honestly believe ALL dogs should participate in (I refer you to my first blog post, Scent Work Is the Best). So the more dogs playing Scent Work the better. But as instructors, we need to take steps to ensure we are meeting the needs of the dogs and their handlers.

If you are not running for the hills, consider checking out the Teaching Scent Work Webinar where we go over in detail some of these considerations, and provide links for programs that can help you obtain the knowledge and background necessary to be a great Scent Work instructor.

Happy Training!