Scent Work continues to grow as an activity and sport, with more and more dog and handler teams taking the plunge. However, there are plenty of us who may be embarking on the journey with their second, third, fourth and even fifth dog. The common expectation is these journeys will be easier since the handler has been through it all before and may have even enjoyed some trialing successes. Be warned: this is faulty and deceptive way of thinking that can set a team up for endless frustration and heartache.
STARTING OVER REGARDLESS OF EXPERIENCE LEVEL
The phenomenon we are talking about applies to all dog training but is especially true for teamwork-based activities such as Scent Work. A handler may have very well achieved marked success with a prior canine teammate, but this does not translate to a shortened or abbreviated journey with their new dog. If anything, there is likely to be a period of adjustment, and even struggle, as the handler comes to terms that their new teammate is just that: a new teammate and not a younger version of their prior dog.
Let’s take an example outside the context of Scent Work to help this make a bit more sense. You shared the past 14 years with a wonderful dog that played a variety of activities, went on traveling trips with you, loved visiting with friends and most of all going camping. They were well-behaved at home, even while you were at work, and were just a joy to have around. After grieving their passing, you decide to get a new puppy. There is a level of excitement as you daydream about all the fun you will have together! Then reality sets in. This bundle of joy quickly morphs into a bundle of a stress, between the chewing and nipping, potty accidents, singing the song of their people in their crate and your overall loss of sleep. When you had your friends over, the puppy jumped all over them and was just a twister of chaos! You tried going camping, but it was an utter nightmare. All of those plans you had seemingly fade away. You are frazzled, wondering where everything went wrong! Your prior dog was nothing like this, what gives?!
Yup, your 14-year-old dog was indeed a saint when compared to this brand-new-to-the-world-blank-slate of a puppy. However, you might as well be comparing apples to elephants. You seem to have blocked out that first year or two when your Mother Theresa of a dog more closely resembled your new Puppy Damien.
We cannot transplant the learning achieved by Dog A into Dog B. It simply doesn’t work that way. If it took your first dog a year to master all the skills to not only competently tackle a search but also cope with the realities of an entry-level trial, it is likely the same amount of time will be needed for your newer dog to do the same thing.
Now, you as a trainer and handler have likely learned some of the common pitfalls and how to avoid them. This knowledge is invaluable and will likely cause your journey to be a bit smoother with your new partner. However, please do not expect everything to be unicorns, rainbows, and smooth sailing. You may have done all of this before, but your new dog has not.
STEP OUT FROM YOUR OLD TEAM’S SHADOW
This is extremely difficult to do but is crucial for your new partnership to truly blossom. Perhaps when tackling large exterior searches with your prior dog they would be off-leash at first, casting out to find as many hides as possible, and then you would put them back on-leash to do more detailing. Yet when you try this approach with your newer dog it is a mess. Not only do they seem overly distracted as they bound around off-leash, trying to get them back on-leash is a hassle and then their excitement plummets when you finally do get them back on-leash, to where they are barely searching at all. What is this dog’s problem?! Nothing other than the fact they are not your prior dog.
“But we never had to do that!” is a phrase that will drag your new team down. The moment this idea enters your mind, stop, breathe, and evaluate what it really means. Instead of being disappointed, approach this as an opportunity to hone your own training chops. Maybe your prior dog was older when you organically developed the “we start off-leash and then go on-leash” approach. This means you will need to deconstruct the entire concept, figuring out what skills your new dog needs, such as learning “fun stuff” happens when we are on-leash too.
One of the most heartbreaking things to see is a new team struggle, seemingly drowning in the shadow of the “old team”. Your 1-year-old dog is not going to be as accomplished, learned or experienced as your 5-year-top titled dog, no matter how brilliant they are. Life experience and maturity alone will prevent this. Furthermore, you cannot pick up your journey where your old team left off. If you were striving to achieve your Detective or Summit title with your prior dog, you cannot do a few short searches and expect your new baby dog to step into those paws. To do so is wholly unfair.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO GROW
The fact of the matter is, our dogs will accommodate our shortcomings, especially as they age. Having a new teammate is an opportunity for you to grow as a handler and trainer. Whereas your prior dog tackled a search merely because you asked them to do so, your new dog may require that you make it fun and worth their while. This s a GOOD thing! This is your opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and improve your skills as a trainer and handler. How can you make this fun and engaging for both of you? What can you do to make this into more of a game? Does this mean you will need to figure out how to properly incorporate toys and happy verbal praise during a search…oh the horror!
Or maybe your prior dog was forgiving of your sloppy leash and long line skills whereas your new pup looks at you as though as you have three heads as you are fumbling around. This is not a shortcoming of your new teammate. It is highlighting where YOU need to shore up YOUR skills.
These are learning opportunities for us as handlers. In my opinion, this is the beauty of being a dog owner and the overall allure of dog training. The privilege to be regularly humbled, figuring out how to further improve. If we can rise to the occasion, each teammate will help us grow into a well-rounded and accomplished handler and trainer.
No matter what anyone says, Scent Work is indeed a teamwork sport. Yes, the dog should be the lead dancer, but you have a crucial role both as the trainer and handler. This fact necessitates that we do all we can to uphold our end of the bargain of being a good teammate for our dogs. This includes how we mentally approach each team. Placing unfair expectations or burdens will weigh the team down. Recognizing each partnership between dog and handler as unique, which may require individualized approaches and techniques, will help you be the teammate your dog needs you to be. Learn from each partnership, using every opportunity to improve your own skills all while celebrating those individual moments of brilliance.
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!