How to Be Mindful With Your Odor
You're training in Scent Work. You may or may not be interested in eventually competing. Working on your own, your dog is now working to find target odors. You then come across a post talking about how important it is for trial officials to be careful with their odors. You read about how trial officials should wear gloves, have other people open and close doors for them, and how they should be mindful of where they put their odor kit in regard to the search area itself…the list of all the things a trial official should do to be as careful as they can goes on and on, and on and on!
You then begin to wonder…are you being careful enough with how you are handling odor? If a trial official needs to be this incredibly careful, shouldn't you also be careful when you are working with and training your dog?
This is a fairly common question that comes up with my students. How careful do they really need to be when running their practice sessions?
Now, I am not in the business of trying to make my clients absolutely paranoid about this stuff, particularly if they are only looking to play this game for fun. That being said, there are some ways you can better help set your dog up to succeed, particularly earlier on in their training:
No matter what you are doing, have an idea of where you are going to put your hides. Even a simple walk through of your prospective search area, and ticking off in your mind: Birch there, Anise there and Clove over there is better than nothing. This will force you to think through the placement and whether you think it will work or not. Basically, this is a great way to avoid accidentally placing a hide in one spot, and then changing your mind two seconds later and moving it. Doing so would result in two hides placements, not just one.
Only set your hides once everything else in the search area is set.
Basically, the process should look like this:
You scope out your search area, determining what your boundaries will be, where your start line will be, what will be in play and where the hides will be.
Move any items, either within the search area itself or removing them from the search area entirely.
Look over your search area one more time. Do you like where the start line is? Are there any safety concerns? Do you need to move anything? Figure all of this out before you grab your hides.
Now, set your hides.
Notice that in this sequence, you are certain to move anything before you ever touch your odor.
Wear gloves when loading your tins or vessels.
Yes, I really do mean this. Otherwise, those oils will get on your hands, and then you will be spreading oil all over your search area…and anywhere else you come into contact with. Particularly for a newer or greener dog, this can make things extremely confusing for them. It would be as if your dog would say, "You liked it when I found that odor in the metal tin thingy, but when I found the odor on the wall, doorknob and entertainment center, you don't like it…why not?!"
Now, does this mean you have to wear gloves when you set the hides themselves? For training, I would say no. If you are careful, plan ahead and are not touching a ton of other stuff in the search area, you should then simply follow the next piece of advice to help set your dog up for success.
Wash your hands after you have loaded your tins or set your hides.
Again, we want to ensure we are not setting our dogs up to fail. This step ensures that you are not inadvertently spreading odor around your search area. For myself, if my tins were already loaded from a prior session (this should only be done for metal tins, since the oils can corrode plastic, and is really not ideal…don't be lazy like I can be sometimes), then I will use soap and warm water to wash my hands. If I actually loaded my odor vessels in that session, even if I was wearing gloves, I will use some white vinegar first and then wash my hands with soap and warm water.
"Okay Ms. Smartypants, what am I supposed to do when I am practicing away from my house?!"
Good question. I would suggest loading your odor vessels at home, following the suggestions above and then bringing a hand wipe you can use before running your dog. Will this be perfect? No. But, it is a lot better than not following this step, especially for a greener and more novice dog.
Wearing gloves, remove the scented q-tips from your odor vessels after your training session.This is especially important for plastic odor vessels, since the target oils can be corrosive to plastic. If you keep the q-tips in a plastic odor vessel for a prolonged period of time, it can change the actual odor your dog would be trained on. This can become problematic over time.
Periodically rinse or clean your odor vessels. In all honesty, I do this maybe once every month or so if I am on my best behavior. My approach is to use white vinegar first, rinse all the vessels with warm water, and then let them air dry (the result of which you see in the featured image). When I was still teaching in-person group training classes, I would do this more regularly, especially if we were doing a ton of pairing. Cleaning your vessels can be helpful in removing drool and allowing the metal tins in particular to last longer and avoid them from rusting out.
If you are not setting hides for a trial, it is okay to not be 100% perfect. Trial officials need to ensure they are setting fair hides. This means they cannot have any inadvertent contamination in the search area.
For most of us however, we are just practicing with our dogs. We do not need to be as careful as a trial official. However, we should still be respectful of the spaces we are practicing in and be mindful that we are not leaving any hides behind or inadvertent oil contamination. Doing either of these things would be entirely unfair to the next potential team that may choose to use the same search area in the future. See our prior posts, Ruining It for Everyone and Just Say NO Naked Q-Tips! for more details on the importance of being a good Scent Work trainer.
The main thing to keep in mind is how we handle odor could potentially affect how well our dogs understand this game. That is not to say our dogs would be unable to eventually figure it out. They are, after all, incredibly intelligent creatures who are amazing in how they can fill in the gaps of what we try to teach them. Still, if we could make their lives a little bit easier, we should.
Were you interested in learning more about handling odor and getting it ready for your practice sessions? Be sure to check out the recorded version of our Preparing and Storing Webinar.
EDIT TO ADD: It is important to keep your odor and odor vessels separate from one another. The featured image showing the tins drying after being cleaned can make it appear as though they are all stored together. They are not.
I recommend storing each odor, and corresponding odor vessels, separately within their own container or kit. Ideally, this is an air tight container of some sort. I personally use dry boxes, but other solutions will work just as well.
The three canning jars you see are as follows: the largest contains the actual vial of Birch oil, with the dropper separate from the vial itself. One of the smaller jars contains those q-tips that were prepared ahead of time using the "24-hour cooking method". The other smaller jar is for those q-tips I am currently using for practice. Once I have finished a search session, I will remove the q-tips from the odor vessels and return them into the "practice jar". These practice q-tips will typically last me roughly a month, and then I will dispose of them and begin using q-tips from the "cooking" jar. The ziplock bag is for empty Birch odor vessels.
Since I also compete in AKC Scent Work and USCSS, I have additional odor kits for those organizations. For AKC, I utilize their odor preparation method (2 drops of oil on an individual q-tip). For USCSS, I also have a kit for combo odors, where the scented q-tips themselves are still separate from one another, but the odor vessels have had combo odors within them in practice.
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!