A heartbreaking trend I've encountered throughout my professional dog training career is dog owners desperately wanting their dogs to be something they are not. The older dog to be spry again. The shy dog to be without any self-preservation. The reserved dog to suddenly go head-first into any given situation without a care. The careful and methodical dog to turn into a Tasmanian devil of activity. This is a surefire way to remove all the joy from any activity you are doing with your dog, especially Scent Work.
Build Skills, Not a New Dog
I'm the first one to say that training can, and should, be used to help dogs develop new skills. However, this is entirely different from building a new dog.
Our dogs are not computers where we can simply swap out motherboards or RAM and suddenly get an upgraded version. That is not how it works!
Yet, I've had plenty of clients over the years who want their geriatric and arthritic dogs to clear a large exterior search area in less then 1-minute flat in the middle of summer. Basically, they want their dog to be something they are not. It has nothing to do with the dog's sniffing prowess or talent. They are amazing hunters! They are simply not as fast as some dogs half their age.
These situations in particular kill me, because the time these people are wasting in vain trying to make their canine friend search faster and faster could be used to better appreciate the limited time they have left with their dog. Instead, they are frustrated that they are consistently placing 5th or 6th place at trial. No matter that their dog worked their heart and body out and DID earn 5th or 6th place out of at least 25 dogs, if not many more. It was still a failure in their eyes. If that is not heartbreaking, I don't know what is.
Now, I'm not saying that you shouldn't want to consistently improve the skills of both yourself and your dog, of course you should. But a healthy dose of reality helps too.
Part of the rush for people to morph their dogs into something they are not is the desire to trial and acquire those coveted titles and ribbons.
Let me breakdown for you why this is problematic with an example:
A young reserved and shy dog has been training in Scent Work for a year, the focus being on building their overall confidence and independent hunting. The training is not designed to try to change who the dog is. Rather the goal is to show the dog, 1. their person will always keep them safe, 2. they CAN do these exercises, and 3. they will be heavily rewarded for doing so. Crucially, the training program has been designed to set the dog up to succeed, not to over face them, and to give the handler the tools to step in to help their dog if needed.
Over the course of that year, this dog who was quite literally worried about everything is now going on short field trips with their person and successfully completing small searches. A success story by all accounts! That is until the person starts talking with other Scent Work friends. They wonder why they are not trialing yet. Training for a full year...what is taking so long?! The dog just has to go out there and work! The trainer is clearly holding them back or something.
Are those friends wrong? In my opinion, yes.
Am I saying this dog is barred from ever trialing? No, of course not. But, instead of jumping all over this owner for taking their time, these friends should be recognizing and celebrating the owner's restraint! The honoring of what their personal dog needs.
The dog in this example needed time, patience and understanding. There is also a likelihood they will never be ready to trial without shutting down or falling apart, which would remove trialing from the table of options. And here's the thing: THAT-IS-OKAY.
Trialing is not the end-all-and-be-all of Scent Work. That may sound controversial, but it is the truth. Trialing is only a part of the picture, and an optional one at that.
Playing the game of Scent Work and leveraging it to improve the overall quality of your dog's life and the relationship you have with them are the real benefits of Scent Work.
No title will ever be able to encapsulate the fact that the dog in this example now feels more comfortable in their own skin. But pushing that very same dog to trial before they are ready could undermine all of that progress and shatter the relationship to pieces.
You Don't Need a Professional Dog
For some reason, when I've had this discussion over the years people will make the leap that they must then go out and get a professional-level dog to do Scent Work. This could not be further from the truth.
I'll never forget one instance when a person, upon learning I had a Doberman, asked if he was a European Dobe or not. I said he was a rescue, and this person went on and on about how glad they were they imported their current European Dobe puppy who was going to be a working machine. Better than their other "non-working Dobe" was.
How sad is that? I mean, I guess if you care about titles and placements it can be frustrating if you are not obtaining them with your current dog, but to just discount this other dog because they were not of "working" stock is depressing.
Let's be blunt: we are not going out and finding bad guys, drugs, bombs or missing people. We're playing a game, a sport. An activity quite literally every single dog with a functioning nose can do. Not every dog will be successful, or even be comfortable, to trial, but that doesn't mean that you need to rush out and get a professional dog to do this sport. If you think that, you've missed the point.
Scent Work was designed to give all dogs an outlet. To help improve their quality of life. Particularly to help shelter dogs who may otherwise be deteriorating in their kennels.
So you do not need to magically transform your dog into one that can work from 9 to 5 out in the field to play Scent Work or to compete.
What you do need to do is recognize who your dog is, what their skills, strengths and weaknesses are and how you can work on those.
You also need a good dose of pragmatism and reality.
Trialing may not be a good option for you, your dog or both of you. If that is the case, then please do not trial. Play the game at home or go on fun field trips if that would appropriate. Doing so doesn't make you or your dog lesser than. It makes you a good advocate for your dog. And I would gladly tip my hat to you.
If trialing is a good option for you and your dog, create realistic goals and set out a plan on how you can obtain them. Ensure your training is designed to build the skills of both your dog and you as a handler, and is not trying to make you both into something you are not.
The more we can embrace and celebrate who our dogs are, the better of a time we will have.
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!