Human beings are an interesting species. We crave for perfection, doing a task over and over and over again to ensure it is 100% perfect. This, however, is not how dogs are wired. Using this approach in Scent Work is a surefire way to turn this fun game into something your dog dreads.
Allow me to share a real-life example of how the fun sniffy game morphed into a dull, boring and ultimately enthusiasm-killing drill in one of my in-person classes.
It was an Intro to Scent Work group class. Six-weeks of going over how to introduce the dogs to the concept of Scent Work. This class was designed to use primary (aka food) initially, and would incrementally build such skills as working out elevation and endurance searches, working independently, problem-solving and more. The focus being on having the dogs love the game and their handlers to better appreciate how brilliant their dogs were.
Week 1 goes fantastically! All the dogs and handlers are engaged and enthusiastic. They all receive some verbal tips on how they can practice with their dogs until the next class.
Week 2 and seven of the eight canine students come strutting into the classroom, eager to play their new favorite game. Their people have huge beaming smiles on their faces.
Then Student Number 8 walks in.
Rather, human student walks in dragging her dog behind her.
Shocked, I rush over and ask, "Oh my...is your pup okay?!"
"Oh, he's fine."
She tries to drag him a few more steps.
"Okay, let's not drag him..."
I place a high-value treat at his nose and try to slowly treat-magnet him to their spot. The dog looks listless. Is not really interested in the treat. He clearly does not want to be here.
The very same dog was quiet when he first started the class the prior week, but by the end, he was bright-eyed, his tail was up and wagging, and he was thoroughly engaged in the game. Now, well now he looks as though he wants to crawl into a hole and die.
We finally get the pair to their spot, with the handler oblivious that there is anything wrong with her dog.
He doesn't seem sick. No discharge. No coughing. Not limping.
He looks more like he is shutdown.
Still looking at the pair, I go into my intro spiel, and immediately check-in with everyone.
Working my way down the row, with Student 8 being the end of the row.
"Oh, they love the boxes!"
"Remember how she was a little worried last week with the boxes? She dives right in now!"
"He was so mad when I ended the game!"
"My boyfriend thought this class was a dumb...but, he saw us play at home and now he is doing the practice sessions. Oh, and this is my boyfriend." (Boyfriend sheepishly waves hello).
"They seem to really like it."
"We're practicing before we sit down for dinner or to watch a movie, and they (the dog) sleeps all the way through!"
"It's fun and easy."
All good energy. Happy people reporting about happy dogs, who are eagerly waiting inside their crates to play the sniffy game.
Then we get to Student 8 who is intently listening to everyone with a smile on her face, as her dog still looks as though he would prefer for a giant hole to open beneath him and swallow him whole.
"How did your boy do?"
Okay, that tact is not going to work.
"So, you practiced this week?"
"...Oh, everyday. That's a lot of sniffing..."
"Twice a day actually."
"'Sorry, did you say twice a day?"
"Yes, in the morning and evening for his meals."
A picture is forming in my head and a pit in my stomach.
"Alright, when you say you are practicing twice a day, everyday, for his meals, what do you mean..."
"He is searching for his meals."
"Right...when you say that..."
"He finds each kibble that I hide throughout the house. He doesn't find them as fast as I would like."
Well that explains it.
Swallowing, I look away as I ask, "So, how long would you say it takes him to find all of his kibbles each time you practice?"
"I would say about an hour, maybe a little less."
Let's put this into perspective. This dog is being asked to search, actively hunt, for at least an hour, twice a day, for each individual kibble that makes up his meals. Let that sink in.
Now I can understand why he looks the way he does.
"So, what did you do?"
As gently as possible, I explained to this student, and the entire class, the importance of not drilling their practice exercises. How she should, immediately, reconfigure her practice sessions. This meant detailed written instructions from me and breaking down the exercises into tiny small steps for him in class. It took the remainder of that 6-week class to build his enthusiasm back into the game, but we did eventually get there.
"I would never practice or train like that!"
I would sincerely hope not! This student isn't a bad person, they just misunderstood...that falls on my shoulders for not making it clear. Whenever a student is that confused, it is the instructor's fault.
That being said, are you certain you are not practicing or training too much? Maybe your sessions are not an hour-long, but are you training every day? If so, why?
"We are getting ready for trial!"
Alright. But why aren't you scheduling rest days?
"...Didn't you hear me? We're getting ready for a trial!"
I know. Even more reason to not wipe your dog out mentally or physically.
We have to remember Scent Work is mentally and physically draining on the dog. Their body temperature increases as they are scenting. There is a physiological affect that Scent Work has on them.
A human equivalent would be running 3 miles while doing calculus equations at the very same time. I'm thinking you would be just a tad bit tired afterwards.
"...So what should I do?"
I'm glad you asked. Let's go over the general routine I recommend to all of my students: utilizing warm-up searches, recovery searches and rest days.
When you are designing your practice or training session, determine what skill you are working on in that session. A particular odor puzzle? Working in a certain search element? Practicing speed searches? Maybe endurance searches? Or distance searches?
Whatever the case may be, design a search that will act as a warm-up for this "goal" exercise. Something to help your dog get into the right mental space.
"Do you have an example?"
Let's say you wanted to work on elevation hides in an exterior search area, that was your goal.
For the warm-up search, you have lots of options, but here are a few:
Do a container search in the exterior search area to ensure the dog can work in that space.
Have the elevated hides paired in the warm-up search.
Have the elevated hides paired and empty open boxes facing the hides to collect some of the odor.
The purpose being that you can a) evaluate how the dog is working at this moment (are they focused, enthusiastic, on-task, etc.), and b) get them ready for your goal exercise.
Once you have finished your "goal" exercise (in our example, the elevated hides in an exterior search area), you should then do a recovery search. This is essentially an easy win for your dog. An opportunity for them to walk away from this training session with their head held high, thinking they are the best dog ever (because they are).
"What would you recommend we do?"
There are a couple of ways you can do a recovery search. I personally like to make them super obvious and clear to the dog.
For instance, even though our goal exercise in our example was to work elevated hides in an exterior space, my recovery search may be a paired tin out in the middle of room inside. Get the dog jazzed up at the start line, release them and give them a huge jackpot when they find the hide. Then run out to do a enormous party followed by one of their favorite activities (read the Great Search? Equally Great Reward. blog post).
Then we come to those ever important rest days. These are days when you are doing no Scent Work at all.
I mean it: no formal sniffing!
Let this be a day when your dog can be a dog.
Go for a hike.
Play some ball.
Let them keep the couch warm.
But allow them to recover, do some latent learning and dream about the next time they get to play the sniffy game, thoroughly looking forward to it instead of dreading it.
"How many rest days should I have in a week?"
This is a tricky question to answer, and depends on your individual dog, what you're working on and so on.
For my personal dog, when we are practicing for fun, we will do so a maximum of three practice sessions a week, if I have my act together. Which means he gets 4 rest days a week.
If we are working on endurance drills, we will do two training sessions a day, 3 days a week. This is oftentimes because I am filming him searching for my online courses. Still, even with these serious drills, he still has 4 rest days.
If we are prepping for a trial, we will do 1 warm-up search, 1 goal search and 1 recovery search once a day for 5 days for two weeks leading up to the trial, and then NO Scent Work the two days immediately before the trial. He just gets to rest and chill over those two days, and I try to work on my own mental prep. Even prepping for a trial, he still gets 2 rest days a week.
I haven't done Scent Work 7-days a week with my dog yet, and nor would I.
Something to keep in mind is my dog is young, healthy, fit and experienced. And our sessions are pretty darn short. If we are doing a "stretching" exercise where he is really struggling to work out an odor problem, regardless of what I had planned afterwards, that gets scrapped and he gets a recovery search instead.
"Is there a way I can tell if my dog is starting to dread training?"
Yes there is.
If you are doing everything right, your dog should perk up when you start getting ready for a practice session (grabbing your long line, getting your odor together, etc.). If they are walking away, or worst still, running away, you need to reevaluate things.
The biggest tip I can provide you is this: end your sessions when your dog still wants to play.
Your dog should be saying, "I WANT TO DO THAT AGAIN! LET'S SNIFF AGAIN!"
You should respond with, "Absolutely sweetheart...we will do the sniffy game tomorrow."
Keep their enthusiasm high. Keep their love for the game intact. Keep this a game they want to play!
Do. Not. Drill. This.
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!