There is a cruel side effect to becoming more experienced and familiar with an activity. The shine and glow of said activity fades into a dull routine. The same is absolutely true with Scent Work and I implore you to do everything within your power to try to avoid this from happening to you.
Don't Forget, Our Dogs are Amazing
You and I cannot do what our dogs can do. Try as we might, we would fail miserably if we were tasked to find any odor using our sense of smell alone. For all the wonders of technology, even our mechanical creations pale in comparison to the truly incredible feats our dogs are naturally capable of.
Yet time and time again, you will see handlers, trainers, instructors and trial officials alike take all of this for granted.
"Sure the dog was working their heart out to sort out a complex odor puzzle...but they didn't do it as quickly as I would have liked."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, the dog worked that inaccessible hide, but that is what they are SUPPOSED to do, what is the big deal?!"
"I don't care what they do before they give me their trained alert. That is the only part that matters."
Just sit back for a moment and really think about what these types of statements are really saying, "I am not impressed by my dog AND they are not doing it well enough for me and my criteria."
Worst still, it likely also means that this person no longer sees or experiences the magic of Scent Work. That's right, I said magic. Your dog is a magician, being able to detect invisible-to-us odor plumes and molecules, deduce how they are interacting within a space AND still get to source. They can do this naturally, without any help from us. It's amazing...yet experienced people take this for granted with a shrug of the shoulders.
To Be Numb is To Be Dumb
If we numb ourselves to the wonders of what our dogs do, we prevent ourselves from continuing to learn and grow as the human part of the equation. You are placing a barrier around your mind when you do this! Right before you is the world's best expert in all things odor and you are essentially sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling "BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH" as they are trying to share their amazing knowledge with you.
If the roles were swapped, we wouldn't need our dogs at all! We could go around and point out the hides ourselves. But that is not what Scent Work is all about. It is about allowing the DOG to be the lead dancer and for us to offer a supportive role while being mesmerized by how amazing they are.
How to Maintain Your Awe
There are real and tangible ways you can maintain your sense of awe when doing Scent Work with your dog, regardless if you are doing this for fun or are a serious competitor:
Be ready to watch and learn. When you set-up a practice session, you should absolutely have a plan of what it is you are working on and how you expect the search to go. However, be ready to set those expectations on the sideline once your dog starts to work. Remember that we are merely GUESSING what odor is doing. Our dogs tell us what it is ACTUALLY doing at a given point in time. Don't squander this amazing learning opportunity by being stuck in your own expectations and head. Watch and learn.
See how you can improve. Everyone can be better. Better handlers. Better search area designers. Better instructors. Better trainers. Better teammates. So every time you step to the line with your dog, be in practice or at a trial, do so while thinking, "How can I improve?". Not just how your dog can improve, how can YOU improve? What can YOU do better? Not in a demeaning, "I am terrible" sort of way. But an excited, "I cannot wait to see what I can learn now!" way.
Allow the dog to talk to you. Hear what the dog has to say. Are they enjoying the game or has it shifted into a boring or stressful job? Are they able to sort out the problem or did you jump too many steps ahead? Are they urging you to give them more space and time? Are they convinced they can do it of you just let them? Listen to your dog. Watch what they are telling you. About how you are designing your searches, how the practice sessions are constructed, how YOU are handling yourself. Listen to what they are saying and make adjustments if necessary.
Do not dominate the conversation. This part is hard. As we get more experienced and comfortable doing something, we want to project our knowledge! But this can cause us to dominate the conversation with our dog. What do I mean? It can mean that we start taking over the search more. It can mean that we are harping on certain odor puzzles or set-ups when our dog has clearly said they get it. It can mean that we discount what our dog is telling us about working a given problem because "we know better" - such as preventing the dog to go outside the search area boundaries to chase the odor cone slightly to work their way back to source. The dog knows that they NEED to do this to efficiently get to source, yet we KNOW the search area boundaries...so we dominate the conversation and prevent our dog from doing their job. Worst still, we start saying things like, "Ugh, get to work!" or "Stop getting distracted" or "The hides are all on THIS side of the boundary flags, dog! Good thing I am here!"
The moment you are bored watching a dog do Scent Work is the moment you need to reevaluate how you are approaching this. I have been watching dogs do Scent Work for close to 10 years and it never gets old. I tear up when I see older, scared or reactive dogs go from being unsure about the game to being absolute rock stars. I marvel the same whether watching an experienced dog is tackle a challenging search or a brand new dog is running their very first search. Strive to do the same. Doing so will greatly benefit the relationship you have with your dog and improve your training overall.
So stay in awe of the your dog. They are truly incredible and we are beyond lucky and fortunate that they share their amazing gifts with us.
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!