My goodness, we haven't even started yet!
"I don't WANT to think! I just want my dog to DO!"
I understand your reservation, and will not lie to you and say this is an easy thing to do at first, but it will pay off in the end.
There, there. You can do this.
So, what does being a "thinking trainer" entail, you may ask? Well, it means that you are not blindly going through your training journey with your dog. Rather, you are consciously aware of how complicated this can all be. You are actively making decisions based upon data, not emotions, all while being flexible enough to pivot and adjust when things get out of balance...and they will get out of balance at some point.
"All of that sounds boring, hard and makes my head hurt. I just want my dog to find odor!"
Okay, you want your dog to find odor. How will you go about showing them that Birch, Anise or Clove are meaningful to them and that you want them to find those odors?
"Ummm, I will reward them for finding it..."
Don't be so unsure of yourself!
Alright, so you will create a reward history every time your dog finds a Birch hide, let's say. How are you going to do that?
"...I will give them a treat when they find it."
That sounds good to me! As you progress, you will want to introduce some more advanced hide problems, right?
"Yes! Elevation is important!"
Perfect. So you are rewarding your dog for finding elevated hides by giving them a treat when they find it. So far so good?
Since you said elevated hides are important, you are doing a bunch of them for a few weeks and your dog is doing very well.
"Right, and no boring thinking stuff yet!"
Yeah, about that...what happens when you set a ground hide since you heard a classmate ran into that odor problem at a trial and you want to be prepared? When you run your dog, they keep looking up, even offering indications or guesses that the odor must be elevated. What do you do then?
Well, if we had a way to look back over the prior weeks of your training, you would be able to see the weight of importance you were placing on elevated hides. If you were coupling this with viewing your practice videos, you may have seen that your dog was starting to assume that odor was always going to be up. If you were aware, present and mindful, you may have pivoted to ensure that your dog didn't have an imbalanced assumption about what the game is all about.
"I don't like this..."
Again, being a thinking trainer is not easy, especially in the beginning. However, notice at no point did I say that you or your dog were WRONG! You concentrated on elevated hides. Your dog learned what elevated hides were, that they were quite rewarding and that they happen...a lot.
"But you said we were imbalanced!"
Yes, but that is not the same thing as being wrong.
In this make-believe scenario, you had placed a great deal of emphasis on elevated hides. You, in essence, made a decision. There are consequences to every decision we make as handlers and trainers, especially since we are working with an alien species! Consequences are neither good or bad, they are merely results of the decisions or actions we make.
As a thinking trainer, we need to recognize these consequences and determine if they are within the realm of our short and long-term goals (yes, you should be identifying those as well) or if they are deviating away from what we are trying to do. Pivoting may indeed be necessary. Flexibility is a good thing, not a bad thing. But none of this is possible if we are just blindly throwing hides around a search area all willy nilly!
"Sigh. I am not sure I know how do any of this..."
Well, you are in luck.
We are extremely fortunate to have highly experienced instructors and trainers partnering with us. Utilize their expertise!
Here are some ways you can do that:
Submit a video for review: This can be a training or trialing video. Ask your chosen instructor to tell you what they see, what is working, what is not working and partner with you to put a training plan together.
Private video consultation: Reserve a virtual consultation where an instructor can help you flesh out what your short- and long-term goals are and identify some ways that you can achieve them.
Take the Now What Do I Do? Course with Judith Guthrie: Jump headfirst into learning how to be a thinking trainer. See the benefits of identifying hierarchy of behavior, logging your training, fighting mental fatigue and more in this 6-week course.
Again, shifting from a passive participant to an actively engaged thinking trainer can be challenging and trying at first. But, if you do this, you will see a massive improvement in your Scent Work training and performance overall. Give it a try, you will thank me later.
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!