“UGH! My dog is so slow!”
“I hate it that my dog will not tell me where the hides are right away!”
“Why can’t they just work those stupid interior searches, that is all we need to get our title!”
Expectations and reality can be two completely different things. When it comes to Scent Work, they can be light years away from one another. If there is one thing all handlers should strive for, in my opinion, it is this: accept the dog you have in regard to the type of hunter they are.
“Oh, so I just shouldn’t bother to try to make them better then?!”
Now, I didn’t say that.
Let’s tackle the first complaint: my dog is too slow. Okay, how are you coming up with that assessment? Too slow for what? Are they actually finding the hides?
“Santos, you know exactly what I mean! We are no where near the placements at trial, they just plod around not working, wasting time!”
Alright, do you know why?
“Yes! They are (enter stubborn, stupid, lazy, etc., etc.)!”
I doubt it.
In my time of being an instructor and trainer, one of the things I have noticed is the disconnect handlers have with observing their dogs as a whole. A better way of putting it is this: these handlers only see one part of the picture that is their dog. Instead, you need to see the ENTIRE masterpiece that is your dog, not just one little detail.
For instance, your dogs’ age, health, breed, personality, baseline confidence, training history and overall learning style are just the tip of the iceberg of the various factors that are at play at any given time. Each will play a role into whether your dog can, or cannot, be “speedy” in their search.
With that in mind, take a step back and assess YOUR dog. How old are they? What breed or mix are they? What is their personality? What is their baseline confidence? What is their training history when it comes to Scent Work (be honest now)? What is their overall learning style?
“I don’t know how to answer most of those questions! This is a waste of time!”
There you have it. It CAN be challenging for us to really tell WHO our dogs are. But, this is still a crucial part of any training puzzle. How can you reach a goal if you do not know WHO your learner REALLY is?
Let me give you an example. Sighthounds. As a grossly generalized observation, the Sighthounds I have had as students are what I call “true to odor”, in that they will follow, precisely, where the odor trail is going. Whereas other dogs may cut across it, zig zag through it or deduce, generally speaking, where it is going, especially in the beginning of their training, Sighthound breeds will follow this trail to the letter. And frustrate the daylights out of their handlers who are comparing them to their non-Sighthound classmates. An interesting nugget? In the training classes I have held, these Sighthounds were rarely wrong. Sure, it may take them a few more seconds to get to source, but they were able to get to source where other “faster” dogs may have been tripped up by a tricky odor problem.
To try to get these types of dogs to change how they are hardwired so they will suddenly work like a completely different breed of dog, that is not only unfair, it is entirely unrealistic.
“Alright, well, my complaint is a solid one. My dog will not tell me where the hides are right away! It drives me crazy at trial!”
Ah yes, the age old problem of a dog who catalogs while searching. The dog that will go into the space, work the entire search area, deduce where the hides are and THEN tell their handler. Frustrating for the handler? Absolutely! A problem within itself? Not in the least.
Let me explain.
Dogs who catalog may be doing so for any number of reasons, but oftentimes, from what I have seen, it is a strong desire to be RIGHT and a worry of being WRONG. Read that again: the dog wants desperately to be RIGHT when they TELL you about the hide. Isn’t that a good thing?
“But the time…the precious time at trial!”
Sure, let’s tackle that part. While it can FEEL as though an eternity has passed as your dog is in the process of cataloging the search area, it really isn’t that long. They are actively working, determining where all the hides are. Now, juxtapose that with a dog who is frantically ping ponging around the search area. Sure, they may tell their person about a hide or two, but they are also potentially stirring up a ton more odor, making things harder for themselves AND harder for the handler to keep track of where they have BEEN and where they still need to GO. Now, go back to the cataloger. They have done all the work for you. They then go up to each individual hide, give you a glorious alert for each, and bang, bang, bang, you’ve got your Q. In the end, your cataloger may very well be FASTER than the frantic and frenzied dog.
“Whatever…those other complaints are not my problem. My problem is my dog will not do interior searches! They must, they simply must!”
Time for some real-talk.
The titles are not going anywhere. The ribbons will still be there. There are trials aplenty.
Enjoy the journey and marvel at your dog improving their confidence to work in a space that is challenging for them AND MANY OTHER DOGS! Slippery floors are scary. They are hard to navigate. Shiny floors may appear as a bottomless pit to the dog. You are asking them to risk life and paw to go find some measly Birch…give your dog a break!
One of the things I try to stress to my students, ad nauseam, is this: your dog must feel safe in order to do any task. If they do not feel safe, they will not be able to work. It is really that simple.
“Great…now you made me feel terrible…now what I am supposed to do?”
I’m not trying to make you feel bad, but I am happy to hear that you want to put together a game plan. Increase your dog’s overall confidence. Do exercises OUTSIDE the realm of Scent Work to help them realize that shiny or slippery floors are not so scary. Go slowly. Break your training up into tiny pieces. Progress step-by-step. Do honest assessments. Notice when you are backsliding, determine why and make necessary adjustments. And most importantly, do not trial until your dog is ready. Remember: trialing is a test, not a substitute for training. You may walk in with the best of intentions, but what if you ONLY need that one Interior Q to get your title…are you certain you will not put undue pressure on your dog? Recognize that your dog may simply not be ready yet, and revel in the opportunity YOU have to PLAY the GAME with them at home, for as long as it takes, creating memories that will last a lifetime.
“Um…but what if we do that and my dog is still not where they need to trial?…I’m afraid they cannot trial…”
And we have arrived at the hardest part of this conversation. Are there dogs who simply cannot trial? Yes. No amount of training, prepping or adjustments will change that. It can be for variety of reasons. Your job, as your dog’s advocate, is to recognize who THEY are and if trialing will help or hurt their overall training progress, confidence, relationship with you and quality of life.
I speak from experience. I had one of those dogs. My first Doberboy, Zeus, was homicidal toward other dogs. No, I do not mean reactive. I mean a true murderer of other dogs if given the chance. Full outright, thankfully rare, aggression. Did he love Scent Work? Absolutely! Did he do great in class? With a TON of careful management and, sometimes pure dumb luck, yes! Was he a candidate to trial? Absolutely, positively not. Does that mean I didn’t try? Nope. Cannot say I am that perfect.
Zeus earned his ORT in all three odors. No incidents. Passed all three searches with flying colors. People who didn’t know him were quite impressed. And I went home knowing full well we dodged a major bullet. That was his last we ever trialed in anything. The risk was too high. Worst still, I set him back majorly in his behavior modification program that took us years to get to, and months of hard work to win back. By going to that ORT trial, I was setting my dog up to FAIL and FAIL miserably. All so I could say we got an ORT. No, what I needed to do was accept who my dog was, completely and totally, and resign myself to always doing what was best for HIM, even if my ego wanted to do something else.
“Jeez Santos, this got dark…”
Reality is not always unicorn and rainbows, but you can make the best of it. Recognize WHO your dog is. WHAT they need. HOW they hunt. Accept those truths and then figure out what you can do as their teammate to mold those realities into strengths. Zeus may never have been able to trial, but he was a sniffing fiend. He LOVED playing the game at home, and helped me appreciate watching a dog truly work, without the strings attached of ribbons and titles for me. Those are lessons I will never forget.
So, what is the moral of the story? Accept who your dog is and make a plan from there. You will both be far happier as a result.
What type of hunter is your dog? Who are they in regard to Scent Work and how they learn? Not sure or looking to hone your eye? You may want to check out our Reading Your Dog course to develop some of your skills to become a better teammate for your amazing little (or big) dog.