Let me stress that Scent Work is a truly incredible activity. It taps into an innate instinct. It provides a much needed mental and physical outlet for our canine companions. And, as a sport, it is open to "reactive" dogs. However, this also means we must advocate for our dogs, always.
"Oh geez, here we go again…what are you talking about NOW Santos?"
As our dog's caretakers and guardians, we must always, always, look for ways to keep them safe. Not that the world is out to get them, but things can happen. An example would be if you were crossing a busy street with your dog. Advocating for your dog would be looking both ways before crossing, and having them on-leash. You would not simply allow them frolic on their own and hope for the best as they dart in and out of traffic.
So how can we go about being a good advocate within the context of Scent Work, particularly when we are trialing?
Know your dog. Truly, ask yourself: are they ready to trial, both training-wise and behaviorally? Simply because the sport is open to "reactive" dogs doesn't mean your dog will automatically be able to cope with everything that goes on at a Scent Work trial. If they flatten themselves on the ground at the sight of another person at home, why will this be magically better at a trial? Do they lunge and bark at the end of their leash to other dogs or people while out on a walk to the point where they are choking themselves? Why would this be any different at a trial? Wouldn't it be better to work on these behavioral aspects separately before you began trialing? Building your dog's confidence and getting them comfortable before throwing them into a trial should be a must. Jumping in too early can be alluring, but trust me, the ribbons and titles will still be there. If you go too quickly, you can set your dog back behaviorally, or worse. Trials are stressful and trying. We must ensure our dogs have the skills to work in these environments. And yes, it is indeed possible that your dog will never be able to go a trial, and that is absolutely and positively okay. Continue to play this great game at home and know that it is improving their overall quality of life; that is far more valuable than any ribbon or title.
Distance is your friend. Dogs LOVE Scent Work. As in, love, love, love Scent Work! Many dogs find Scent Work to be a high-value activity that they are not too keen on sharing with others. With that in mind, it is not a far-fetched idea that a dog who is coming out of a search area, who is on an adrenaline high, will be more likely to tell off other dogs who are nearby. Basically a, "How DARE you have the audacity of going for MY hide!" The solution? Distance. Keep your distance from all other dogs and people at a trial. Use a short leash to keep your dog near you as you are going from your dog's crate to the potty area to the staging area to the search area and back again. Switch them to the opposite side of your body if you do have to pass another dog. Practice focus games that are laced with rewards and reinforcement so you can get back to your staging area safely. In the potty area or the parking lot? Practice the 6′ space rule. Dogs should either be hunting in the search areas or focused on their people, not socializing or playing with other dogs.
Avoid doggie socialization. Again, Scent Work is a high-value activity and trials can be stress-laden. Even dogs who live with one another, or know each other very well, can snark at one another in this type of situation. Now add in the fact that another 20, 30, 40, 50 or 70 other dogs are at that very same trial! This is a pressure-cooker nightmare scenario that can get out of hand really quickly. How can you avoid this? Use your time at the trial to bond with your dog. Keep them away from the other dogs, meaning that you are following the 6′ rule, and avoid nose-to-nose interactions. If your dog has a doggie friend, let them socialize and play away from the trial…like on another day altogether. Your goal at this Scent Work trial is to have your dog focused on odor so you get your Q and ribbon…why would you then get them all distracted by playing with their doggie friend beforehand?
Use red bandannas to advertise the need for space. Let me stress, red bandannas should not, I repeat, should NOT be seen as a scarlet letter. These bandannas are merely information. It is an easy way for everyone to see that this dog and handler team need a bit more space. And this can be for a variety of reasons. The dog is reactive. The dog is fearful. The dog just came off of an injury. The dog is battling cancer and this is their final trial, so the owner wants them to be able to focus on having fun and not be bombarded with people sending their best wishes. Whatever the reason, a red bandanna is a good reminder to everyone, from fellow competitors to trial staff, volunteers, photographers and videographers, to give this team more space.
Treat EVERY dog as if they have a red bandanna. Again, understand dog behavior. We are asking A LOT of our canine companions at these Scent Work trials. These trials are difficult on so many levels, and can be pressure cookers in the stress department. Keep you and your dog safe by keeping your distance from other dog and handler teams.
"It sounds like you want me and my (reactive, fearful, enter other descriptor) dog to be ostracized from the trial!"
Nothing could be further from the truth. I have worked during the entirety of my professional dog training career specializing in helping fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs. This includes helping their owners. I want you and your dog to have a meaningful and safe experience. But this will include practicing good management and knowing a) if trialing will really be a good idea for you and your dog, and b) understanding what you can do to ensure you are not backsliding in your behavioral training simply because you are trialing.
I have been in your shoes. My first Doberboy was aggressive, not reactive, rather wanting-to-kill-all-other-dogs level of aggressive. He was not a candidate to trial, yet I still naively entered him into an ORT. He did so well at that event, and I honestly think it as all due to the wonderful trial hosts who conducted this trial exquisitely well. They would walk reactive dogs to and from the search area. They ensured there was sufficient space between all the teams. They communicated to all the competitors the need for the dogs to be crated in their cars and to avoid dog-to-dog interactions…and the competitors were all completely fine with this! With upwards of 15 reactive dogs at this ORT (out of a total 35 dogs or so), there was not one single incident. That is an amazing feat that took a group effort to achieve.
However, there was a serious downside to our attending this ORT…I set my boy back in his behavior modification training. What had quite literally taken us years to obtain, I had squandered and thrown away in one single day. It took me several months to get him back to where he was. Even though he never exploded or reacted at the ORT itself, he was stressed to the nines and paid a heavy price. No ribbon or title is worth that. I had, for all intents and purposes, failed my dog. I was not his advocate. I let my ego get the better of me. Be better than I was, don't fail your pup. If that means NOT trialing, then play the Scent Work game at home. If that means following the suggestions above so they are not practicing their reactive or fearful behavior, then do that.
"That's all fine and dandy, but I don't have a (reactive, fearful, other descriptor) dog, so this doesn't apply to me."
Not so fast.
ALL of us have to advocate for our dogs. So, if you are at a Scent Work trial and you see lots of people allowing their dogs to play or go nose-to-nose in the parking lot or potty area, no one is following the 6′ rule and there is lots of barking, lunging and other unnerving events going on…in my opinion, it is your responsibility, as your dog's advocate, to pull your dog from that trial. Personally, I would rather give a donation to a club and scratch my dog to ensure that they were safe, than push my luck. My current Doberboy is NOTreactive. He is the most wonderful, stable and social sweet dog you have ever met. Why would I throw all of that away simply to attempt to earn some ribbon or title? So, if I were in this situation with my boy, you better believe that I would at the very least talk to the Trial Chairperson about my concerns, or would pack up and leave.
"You've made me nervous now…"
I'm not trying to make you nervous or upset, rather talk plainly about the realities of this activity. If you are unnerved at all, volunteer at a trial for the venue you are interested in competing with (ex. an AKC Scent Work trial, a NACSW trial, an USCSS trial, etc.). Perhaps volunteer for a few trials across several venues to see if you would be more comfortable playing with one venue over another. See how trial hosts are conducting the event. Notice what you would do if you were there with your dog. Would you be comfortable? Would you be able to focus on the task at-hand, or would you constantly be trying to ward off bad things from happening? Do your research before taking the plunge. Doing so can greatly help you and your dog in the end focus on having FUN, instead of dealing with really horrible fallout and the potential of negative consequences.
At the end of the day, you must look after your own dog. Will they be successful in this given situation, or are you setting them up for failure? I know these are tough questions and a touchy subject, but our dogs deserve nothing less.
Do you have a sensitive or reactive dog? You may want to check out our two latest webinars: Scent Work for Sensitive Dogs and Scent Work for Reactive Dogs. We cover how Scent Work trials can be challenging for these dogs in particular, how you can better prepare them and tips for both owners and instructors who are working with these dogs.
Author: Dianna L. Santos, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, CNWI
Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U, Dog Sport University and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU, DSU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.
In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!