In this podcast, we will discuss the battle many dog trainers, instructors, handlers and owners will encounter at some point: keeping their own ego in check when it comes to training and competing with their dog. We'll delve into how this this applies specifically to Scent Work, some of the common pitfalls and how you can set your dog and yourself up to succeed.
Welcome to the Scent Work University all about Scent Work Podcast. We're so delighted that you're here. The purpose of this podcast is to discuss what the title says all things Scent Work. We're hoping that you'll find this podcast helpful. We'll answer some of the questions you may have about the activity of Scent Work.
In some of our series, we're also going to be giving you a behind-the-curtain look as far as what happens at trials, what your instructor may be going through, as well as some tips that you may have as both a competitor as well as an owner of a dog where you just want to broaden their horizons. All right. Let's get started.
I wanted to take a quick second just to introduce myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I am the Owner and the Lead Instructor for Scent Work University as well as Dog Sport University. I've been training dogs professionally since 2011. I am certified through the Karen Pryor Academy of dog training. I'm also a certified Nose Work instructor through NACSW.
In addition to training dogs professionally for a number of years, I am also privileged to be the judge and CSD coordinator with United States Canine Scent Sports which is a Scent Work competition organization that was started in 2016. We are growing very rapidly in the United States and looking to grow internationally as well.
In addition to that, I am also an AKC fully approved judge for Scent Work. I also participate in a AKC Scent Work trials as a score room person as well as a competitor. I come at this from a variety of different standpoints as not only an instructor and a professional trainer, but also as an official and a coordinator of officials and also one of the backstage people for competitions. I view Scent Work from a variety of different viewpoints. I think that it can help me in helping you have a very well-rounded approach to Scent Work. It's just a really quick rundown for me. All right. Let's get started with our podcast.
In today's podcast, we're going to be talking about a very important topic. That relates to battling your ego. This will be in the context of Scent Work and Scent Work competitions. We're coming at this from the standpoint of not only a competitor but also an instructor and even an official. This is, hopefully, going to be helpful to all those different categories of people who may be involved in the activity of Scent Work and the competition element as well.
The first thing that I wanted to really underline when we're talking about this really important topic that's almost an elephant in the room is it's crucially important for us as handlers to understand that when we are doing Scent Work competitions, we are doing this on behalf of our dogs meaning that we are the ones who sign the checks, we are the ones who bring them to the trial site, we are the ones who signed them up. Your dog isn't the one making these decisions. You are.
As such, it's really important for us to understand that we hold a lot of responsibility as the teammate in how we conduct ourselves and how we hold ourselves together mentally and how we cope with the competition stressors overall. This is why battling your ego is a really important thing that I don't think too many people give enough credence to. The fact of the matter is almost everyone is going to reach this point at some point in their competition career where you may have been very lucky in the beginning parts of your training.
This is pretty common where in the lower levels, you're getting guesses left and right, you're getting lots of cues and lots of pretty ribbons and everything is fabulous. Then, suddenly, it all comes to a screeching halt. You get your first no or maybe you get a couple of no's. Now, you're not getting cues. Particularly, if you're working with a group of friends or if you're working with classmates who may also be trialing at the same time, maybe they got a yes where you got a no or you happen to see colleagues or friends going out and saying like, "Oh, I got this awesome title and, oh, we did this." Then, you see other posts like I got the first ever yada-yada.
This is where the human brain starts getting involved in really negative ways. It starts weaving in all these insecurities, self-worth issues, and questions about, well, now, I need to get this cue not because I'm trying to make memories with my dog, not because I'm trying to test my training, not because I'm trying to have a good time with my dog because I need this because this shows that I'm a good person. This shows that I'm a good trainer. This shows that I'm a good competitor. This shows that I'm a good dog honor.
That shift is something that almost everyone will go through in some point of their competition career. It's crucial that you recognize it as early as you can. Then, get the car back on the road because if you stay on that path, it's going to diminish the quality and the fun of the activity. You are going to diminish your ability to be a very good teammate to your dog. You could actually be putting both of you into situations that you're not ready for.
You could be discounting the importance of actually training and practicing. You could just be taking away all the fun. You could actually be making it miserable for both yourself and dog. The point of this podcast is to touch upon some of these hot topic issues that can be really uncomfortable for some of us to talk about, but is very crucial for us to realize and to understand that if you're going through this, I've been through it. Almost every competitor at some point has. You just have to recognize it and then figure out how you can get back on track.
One of the ways that we can help ourselves as competitors is we can have a really honest discussion as to why it is that we're competing in the first place. For me, personally, I am a horrible sore loser. It's really bad. When I was a child, I would play a lot of card games with my family. I was very young. They were all experienced and more often than not, I would lose. In the beginning, I would throw fits. I mean it was terrible. It's really bad. I didn't like the way that felt. I completely swapped it. I put it on its head. I would throw games on purpose because I felt like I had a little element of control. Then, it didn't make me feel so bad. That's not really a great coping mechanism for it. It would have just been better to learn not to be a sore loser, but that's how I dealt with it.
Knowing that when I came into the dog sport realm, I avoided it as long as I could. I really did. I was a professional trainer for a while. I would just say, "Oh, my dog isn't appropriate and whatever." My first Doberman was fairly ... he was dog aggressive. He was not dog reactive. He was dog aggressive. They're like, "Oh, we can have you. We could lend you our dog." I was like, "Oh, no. That's okay."
But in the back of my mind, I was like, "I don't want to do this, because I don't want to feel that way." I know at some point I'm not going to do well. I don't want to feel a little gross about it. It did fall into it with my new Dobie who is wonderful. He's extraordinarily talented. He makes me look like I know what I'm doing.
I remember our first real competition thing that we were doing consistently was Barn Hunt. He was fabulous. I mean he was just spectacular. As with most sports, the lower levels, it's not that they're easy, but you're able to go along. You're able to accrue a lot of Q's fairly quickly. We did that. It felt great. I was like, "Oh, look at the pretty little ribbon and oh look he gets a little couple letters after his name." How exciting.
But I was just thinking, "Oh it's not that big of a deal like, oh, we're just having fun." That's what I would try to convince myself where in the back of my mind, I was waiting for that ever-present this was all going to fall apart at some point. Sure enough, we entered into a senior class. It was the first time that we got it a "No". I came out of the ring. We held our party. Everything was fine. I was like, "Okay." Well, just no biggie. Whatever else, also realizing that senior for barn hunt is one of the hardest elements to go into from the lower levels.
It's a big jump from open to senior basically. Then we went back for our second run. We got another "No". I can honestly tell you that second run I was so stuck in my head about that first run. I wasn't reading my dog. I wasn't going along the ring the way that was supposed to. I was distracted. I was so stressed. It affected our ability to do it. Then, I just started making mistakes left and right. I wouldn't practice anymore. Then, we just show up for trial. Then, lo and behold, we would get another no.
It was a nightmare. It was just awful. The whole time I'm sitting there going I can't believe this. I teach barn hunt. I can't have "No's" which is a ridiculous statement because the last time I checked I'm not a robot. I am a person who has flaws, who makes mistakes. I am not perfect by any stretch.
It started snowballing from there. I finally caught myself when I wasn't going to practice anymore. I wasn't able to teach because my neck and my back issues acted up, but I wasn't even taking him just to have fun. We went for months, almost six months, without doing any Barn Hunt, one of his favorite activities ever, simply because I was all caught up in the, ,well, we don't have our senior title. I was like, "Who cares?" Last time I checked, like no one's knocking on my door saying, "Santos, why don't you have your senior title?" No one cares.
It was something I had to go through. I just had to really sit down and evaluate and say, "Okay. Look. My dog loves this activity." It's a very big jump from open to senior. You have to be more present as a teammate when you're doing this. I need to not be all hung up. The fact that we got some "No's", "No's" that we earned really. I earned. He did his job. He found all the rats. I just never called them.
While this isn't specifically for Scent Work, I'm hoping that I can demonstrate that this happens to everyone that at some point in your competition career, you're going to get a no. Particularly in the realm of Scent Work, a lot of times when we call false alerts, it's because of us. It's because of the handler. We convinced the dog of, "Oh, look, I'm staring at this chair." The dog is like, "Well, there's no odor there." But maybe when I play this of a game, I don't know, maybe you change your game, but you really like it when I sit. I'm going to sit here. I'm going to look for my cookie.
Then, we get all flustered and mad. Then, we try to blame the dog when actually they were just cuing off of us. It's really crucially important for us as handlers to understand the importance and the weight that we hold as a teammate. That means we have to have our head screwed on right when we are actually going in to compete.
Now, I can hear you saying, "Okay. Well, that's all fine and dandy." But what about what other people think? I don't want to readily admit it, but I really do care what other people think. Particularly all the instructors and the other officials out there raising their hands like, yeah, there's no way that I can show my face if my dog can't get X title. No one's going to want to learn with me anymore. No one's going to take my classes. No one's going to be at my business. I need to be up on my game. I need to be perfect at all times.
I understand the concern. I truly do. There were times where I was like, "Oh, I just …" It's a good thing that my neck and my back went out because I can't teach barn hunt anymore. One of my students are like, "What?" I'm like, "Well, I haven't gotten these titles. Clearly, I have no idea what I'm doing." She's like, "Of course. You do. What are you talking about?" We saw your run. He was having so much fun. He found the rats. Then, we learned from you that we need to not do that, that we need to understand our importance as handlers.
That doesn't mean that you shouldn't be an instructor anymore, but that's something that a lot of people go through where they're pushing themselves and they're pushing their dogs in this attempt to be perfect so that they can maintain their ability to hold on to their clients because they feel as though if I falter even a little bit, then, everyone's going to leave me.
A shout out to all of my fellow instructors and officials. Your students more often than not are not just with you because of what you achieve. That may have been how they found you, to be blunt, but it's really the connection that you make with them. By showing that you aren't perfect, you're actually helping them because it's setting realistic expectations. I cannot tell you how heartbreaking it is to see students come to me for brand-new, never had them before. They've been struggling and really falling apart as a team with them and themselves in their dog because they see all these posts.
They're always so lofty on social media. We've only been training for two seconds, but now, we have the highest title and blah-blah-blah-blah. They're trying to emulate that as much as they can. Sure enough, it doesn't work. Sure enough, there's a lot of problems that come along with it.
Now, they're just at their wit's end. They go, "I don't know what to do. I don't know what's wrong with me. I don't know what's wrong with my dog," which is heartbreaking. There's nothing wrong with either one of them. Everyone learns differently, and everyone has a different way of approaching things which is fine. There's nothing wrong with that.
For my fellow instructors and officials, if you have a student who's with you right now and they are showing progress, they actually can see that paying you their money and you are helping them and they're happy with that, it's the human connection that you're making with them. They're not just going to abandon you because you went to a trial and maybe didn't queue and everything.
It feels like that at the time, I understand, but it's not true. We need to as professionals remind ourselves of that because we're putting all the undue pressure on ourselves, but I can tell you that that does bleed over to our students that if we're putting that high almost unattainable expectation on ourselves, we are then transferring that to our students which is entirely unfair.
On the same wavelength is the idea of always wanting to be the first. Now that AKC Scent Work is available for people to enter into trials which is fabulous, more trialing opportunities, more opportunities people play is great, but now, there's this mad rush. I want to be the first to get this title. I want to be the first to get that title.
Personally, I think that is a fool's errand. It's not to talk down on people who do that. If you do that, but you do it consciously and you recognize that if something was happening in your training that you needed to address first. If it wasn't going along the way that you wanted to, then, it's not going to be the end of the world than I guess.
But, often times, none of those considerations are being made. I would urge people instead to always ask themselves why are you competing. Why are you doing this in the first place? Why are you spending your money? Why are you getting up so early on a weekend? Why are you calling around all this stuff in your car so you can have it set up at the trial site? Why are you doing all this training in preparation? Why are you travelling to the trial site? Why are you going through all the stress that just comes along with trialing? What is the purpose?
At the end of the day, you really should include I like doing this with my dog. If that's not part of the equation, then, maybe you want to re-evaluate things and figure out where things went awry, and how you might be able to fix it.
One of the biggest ways that the ego can really get in the way of you as a competitor is trying to keep up appearances that everything that you do is perfect. This is where you can get into a competition of keeping up with the Jones'. This is where you will see trends spread like a wildfire. It doesn't mean necessarily that that trend was good, but someone sees someone else do something. Then, they start doing it. It just goes from there. This is where we have the show-me thing went from coast to coast in record time.
It is the bane of almost every single official's existence like stop your dog has already told you where it is. Why are you saying show me? The same thing where you may have someone who is watching an official maybe do a debrief at a trial where they're going over, well, this was a particular owner problem. This is what we were expecting. This is what we saw. Here, I'll give you this small little tip that is extraordinarily contextual to this type of odor problem, but now the everyone is doing it for everything.
It's something that we really want to be mindful of that just because someone else does it doesn't mean that that applies to you and your dog. It doesn't mean that if you don't do it, that you're somehow wrong. In the same vein of trying to keep up appearance as an appearing as though everything is perfect.
All that's going to do is cause you to get really stressed out when things do go left. For anyone who has competed at any period of time at a summer trial, you know that things go left all the time. Our trials are notorious for having things happen. I give a lot of props to the people who host and the people who officiate and the people who volunteer who keep things running so smoothly for the competitors, but, oftentimes, in the back-end, there's a lot stuff going on that was not planned.
But even for yourself as a competitor, how many times have one of you walked up to the start line? You have this whole plan. Maybe, it's a venue where they allow walk first. You're like, "Okay. I know that this is the way this search area is all designed. We're going to come up to the start line. We're going to be there for X number of seconds. I'm going to check my little wind flag. I have taped to my belt. Then, we are going to go left. Then, we're going to do a pattern over here. Then, if he doesn't check this out of this, I'll make sure we go there."
That's your plan. You have it down to a science. You've read all the articles. You've listened to all the podcast. You're like, "This is what we're going to do. It's going to be great." You walk up to the start line. You look down. There is no flag on your belt. It's blown off in the wind. You didn't even realize. Great. You don't know where the wind is going. Okay. Fine. Well, we'll figure it out.
Then, you are getting yourself all ready. You realize that your long line is horrendously tangled. I mean it is a knot. Now, you're sitting there and you're scrambling and trying to get your long line all out of knots. You're all frazzled. Now, you don't remember was I going to go left or was I going to go right? That whole time your dog is standing there at the start line going, "Yeah, the height is right across from us, whenever you're ready." But you're not paying attention to your dog. You're thinking about how you can keep appearances. You can look like the awesome handler that you know that you are.
You get your long line all untangled. You give your cue for your dog to search. They try to go straight. You decide to go right. You're dragging your dog along with you. They're like, "Okay. Then, maybe we don't want to today." You're doing a pattern and the dog is like, "It's not here. I told you it's way over there."
You're asking them to check over and over again. They're like, "I'm telling you, man, it's not over here. Whenever you're ready for me to tell you where it is, you just let me know." You skip the whole part across from the start line because you want to do a pattern on the other side. You're doing your pattern over there. You're doing all these lovely Vanna White's. You're doing all these movements. You're giving your dog line. You're stepping back in. You're doing all this wonderful stuff.
The whole time, your dog is like, "I mean I can sniff this if you want, but there's nothing here." Then, finally, you get across from the start line and the dog gives you a beautiful alert. Now, you are circling behind them. You're checking their line. You're doing all this stuff. The dog as you're standing like, "I don't know how many times I need to tell you this." They walk off. They gave you this beautiful indication. Now, you're doing all this to check.
They leave. They're like, "Oh no." Today, you're going through your mind I don't know if they showed any interest anywhere else. They really showed interest there, but I wasn't done checking. Oh, maybe we didn’t check their thresholds. Now, you go over to the threshold. Now, you get your 30-second warning.
Now, you're really stressed out. It's like, "Oh my goodness." Your dog is really investigating in this corner. Lo and behold, that's where another dog had peed before. This is an exterior search. You're looking at it. You're like, "Oh wow. They're looking really hard at it. Okay. Okay." Then, you start seeing the back-end swinging, like oh that's not that kind of looking. You urge them back on. You have like 10 seconds to find this thing now.
You urge your dog to go back to where the hide really is. They go. They give it a very slight indication. They're like "Yeah. For the 15th time, here it is. Do you want to maybe give me a cookie now?" You go, "Alert." The judge who is like losing their mind on the inside goes, "Yes." You go in in your reward. That's best case scenario.
That whole time you are sitting there stuck in your head going, "Why is this so hard?" Then, you get the scoresheet back from the judge. It's ticked off trust your dog. Give your dog more space. Don't direct your dog so much. I mean I want to talk about how you being stuck in your head has negatively affected your search and on the feedback that you get which is totally fair is now only going to feed into your need to try to control the search even more.
This is really bad cycle that just goes on and on and on. Let's take the same exact scenario. You do a walk-through. You have an idea. Then, you just take a breath. You're like, "Okay." This is what I think that we should do if my dog has not shown any signs that they've actually found the odor yet. Then, we will need to do these things, but my dog is the lead dancer They're the ones with the no's.
You come up. You realize that your wind flag is gone. Don't worry. If it's windy enough, just hold out a part of your long line and see which way it goes. If you have longer hair, just take a piece of your hair out and see which way it goes. If you're really that worried about it, close your eyes and just try to figure out where the wind is going if you can.
Breathe through untangling your long line. Chitchat with the judge or yourself to actually talk because talking will actually force you to breathe which is a good thing. Once it's all untangled, take a nice deep breath. Hold your dog at the start line. Then, watch their head. See where their head is actually pointed. You may have thought, "Oh, well, this whole part of the search area looks really super interesting. They must have put a hide over there."
But the dog's head is pointing ahead of you, then, let them go straight. When your dog has actually shown an indication, know that even if you've trained a final alert response, it's very common for dogs to not give that final response behavior at a trial because you're stressed which they can detect which can cause them to be a little stressed, but if you know from reading your dog that they're in odor, don't ask them to confirm it 20 times because they're probably going to leave.
Then, what are you going to do? For me, personally, I would rather call alert and trust my dog and get the ever dreaded no than to not trust my dog and force them to fall somewhere else. It's just a consideration for people to keep in mind as far as a possibility. But I'm hoping that you can see the difference between those two examples. Their real-life examples, they happen all the time.
I've been in that situation where I walk up to a start line and everything is cool as a cucumber. I'm getting ready to switch my long way over. It is just a ball in my hand. I'm like, "Oh, it's like extension cord." You look at them wrong and they're tangled.
In that moment, I feel as an instructor, well, I'm just a complete failure as a human being because my line is tangled. Now, I'm holding up the whole trial and, oh, everyone's going to hate me. It's just terrible. None of that is true. My long line is tangled. Who cares? Just take two seconds and untangle it and go from there, but these are the kinds of things that we have to keep in mind as competitors.
There is a definite added stressor when you are either an instructor or an official. It just comes as a nature of the beast which means you have to be even more conscious of it. You have to work that much harder against it.
One of the things that I noticed with competitors, myself included, is they are getting wrapped up in trying to be perfect. They don't have to be. There is an absolute desire to meet all the requirements and a need to meet all the requirements for the level that you're competing in. As you go up the levels, there's an expectation that handlers are going to clean up their handling such as you won't be dropping treats in the search area, such as you won't drop your leash in the search area, such as you'll have good leash handling skills at that point.
You won't pull your dog inadvertently off of odor. Those sorts of things are tests of precision of being able to have some tact and skills under your belt. That's a whole purpose of having those in the upper levels of competition, but that doesn't mean that if you were to go feed your dog and little known to you, you fed one treat to their mouths, but there was another little piece stuck on your finger and you fell on the ground that you were now a failure as a person.
These things happen. For me, personally, I was at a trial recently with my dog, I think, the last couple of months. He was working his exterior space. Everything was great. He found his hide. Wonderful. I called alert. They said yes. Fabulous. I feed him. As I'm going to put my hand into the treat pouch and out, it flings the treat right at the hide.
I'm an official with this organization. I'm like just give me a, picked up my treat. I gave it to my dog. It happens. Being human and not being perfect is okay. Having a good sense of humor helps a lot. It's just something that I really had to improve my motor skills. I had to maybe look at the type of treats I was feeding. Maybe, the types of treats I was feeding were more prone to getting stuck on my hands and then falling out as I was trying to rush into feed.
That's where being truly prepared comes into play. I find it to be extraordinarily unfair to the dogs, a level of expectation on them when we are trying to reach a certain pinnacle of our training. If we haven't put in the preparation for ourselves, that's a really convoluted way of saying if I'm not putting in the time to improve my leash handling skills to ensure that my motor skills are good, to ensure that I could actually read my dog, to ensure that I can actually break down a search area to know, okay, we have gone here, here and here, but not there, to know that, okay, what is it that I need to do as the team meet of this partnership to help my dog if they need it?
When do I need to step in? When do we need to step out? All those different factors as far as being a handler is entirely unfair if I haven't practiced any of that. If I don't possess any of those skills and I'm putting 100% of the onus on the dog where I could actually be inhibiting their ability to do their job, that's just not fair. That's coupled with the fact that you're putting so much weight on your need to get this cue, need the title. Then, you have to put the time in. You have to put the preparation in.
I've talked about this in my blog previously where there needs to be a balance with how often you're competing and how much you're actually practicing. I know firsthand lives are crazy. There's so few hours in the day. All of us are doing a million things at once, but if you're going to be competing particularly regularly, that means that you should be practicing regularly. I'm not talking about hours a day, but you should be doing this fairly regularly. You should be honing your skills. It's not you can't then be upset if your dog doesn't perform well, if you're not putting in the time to improve yourself.
This is where having the realization that you don't have to be perfect, but that still means that you do have to practice. That's a hard thing for a lot of people to comprehend that if you realize that there are things that your dog is doing in their training that you need to work on, such as let's say that they are having difficulty with corner highs or they're having difficulty with threshold highs. We're very easy to go into dog trainer like, "Okay. Well, , we can do this and that and the other thing in order to practice for that. Perfect.
But, then, if you're also viewing your videos and you notice that you're crowding your dog or you're constantly fiddling with your leash or you're never getting to the entire search area because you're not covering the whole search area, that means that you also need to do things as the handler to improve your skills. I hope that makes sense that while you do not need to weave in your own self-worth with the fact of whether you cue or not because you shouldn't do that.
If you don't cue, it's simply information on what you need to do with your training going forward. That being said, that information more likely than not is going to apply not only to your dog but to yourself as a handler as well.
If you do notice that there's something you need to work on, that doesn't mean that you're terrible. It doesn’t mean that you're the worst. It doesn't mean you should give it up. It doesn't mean that you should quit if you're an instructor or an official. It just means you have to work on something which isn't bad. It's the practicing and the playing of the game at home which should be the most important part to the whole thing. You are having this opportunity to play this really great game with your dog.
If you can improve your relationship with them by improving your skills along the way, that's a win-win. That's not a bad thing. I hope that makes sense that while I don't want anyone wrapping up their self-worth as far as whether they get a cue or not at a trial, that doesn't mean that you then get to throw away your responsibility as the handler. You do still need to have your skills as fine-tuned as you can at the level that you're competing with. If you're brand-new as a novice, I do not expect you to have the same handling skills as someone who's competing at the elite level.
It's just not. The same thing goes for all dog sports. You're not expecting someone at rally novice A to do the same thing as someone who's doing their arch competition for competition obedience. It's just not the same, but that doesn't mean also that the person who's competing at the highest level then just gets to use an excuse why they shouldn't also hone their skills.
I hope that makes sense and understanding that if you're really hitting up a wall for your training where you're frustrated all the time, the dog seems really losing their enthusiasm for the game, everything seems just monumentally difficult, it very well could be that your ego is getting in the way that it is clouding your judgment as far as viewing what actually needs to be worked on both on the dog side and your own.
Then, it could be causing you to destroy the reason why you want to compete in the first place. I'll end by sharing a wonderful thought that a colleague shared with me which I can't take any credit for. This is not mine at any point, but it is brilliant. She said that she goes into every single trial when she goes into it and when she leaves. How am I going to have fun today is how she goes into it. Then, when she ends did I have fun today. How brilliant is that because that is the whole point of doing this.
This is a game. While earning titles and earning ribbons is fabulous and the accomplishments can be really quite amazing and really someone to be respected, that's not the end all and be all of everything. It's the fun that you're having with your dog. It's the memories that you're creating with them because they're not with us long enough. That's the more important piece to this.
Make sure that when you are doing any type of competition, but particularly with Scent Work that you are doing it for the right reasons and that you are having fun. How are you going to have fun at this trial? When the trial is over, did you actually have fun? Those are two really great tests that you can give yourself to make sure that you're just on the right track.
I hope you find this podcast helpful. It's touching upon some really hot button topics that I don't think are talked about enough, but I'm hoping that they can help you as you continue in your Scent Work career particularly if you're competing. Thank you so much for listening. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.