Scent Work is Not the Sole Solution

“GASP!”

I know grasshopper, we’re starting this post off with a bang.

A tendency among us humans is to become incredibly focused and develop tunnel-vision when it comes to dealing with a problem. This truth oftentimes applies to how we tackle dog training issues as well. However, this micro view can cause us to make things unnecessarily challenging, if downright impossible, for our dogs and ourselves.

ADMIT IT, THERE ARE NO VACUUMS

Intellectually we all understand this truth, yet time and time and time again, we will go about our dog training as if we and our dogs existed in a sterile, perfect little bubble. If we are doing Scent Work with our dogs, all solutions will magically come within the context of Scent Work.

Listen to me closely little one: This. Is. Not. True.

If your dog is terrified of traffic noises, that fear is NOT going to suddenly dissipate at the trial that abuts a busy main stretch on a holiday weekend.

If your dog throws a conniption whenever they are in their crate, you best believe they will do the same, times ten, as you rush to the restroom during a class or trial.

If your dog is uncoordinated, unfit, or unhealthy, they are not going to miraculously turn into an Olympic-level athlete the second you start searching…just the opposite, they will likely struggle!

The list goes on and on.

None of these examples are rare. Rather, they are painfully common! Each will negatively affect your dog’s ability to tackle a search effectively, efficiently, and joyfully or cope with the realities of training or trialing. Simultaneously, none of these issues are merely “solved” by doing more searches!

“UGH! But I just want to search! I just want to trial!”

Hate to break it to you dear grasshopper, but I have even worse news to share with you.

“WHAT?!”

This same nasty little truth applies to handlers too.

“NNNNOOOOOO!”

That’s right, there likely exists a long list of facts about yourself, whether they be hang-ups, deficiencies, or unpolished skills, that are going to stand in the way of you achieving your Scent Work training and trialing goals. None of which you can “solve” by merely running more searches. These shortcomings, on your end, can make your utterly brilliant dog, the one who is a gift to the Scent Work world, be unable to reach their full potential. They will, at best, be knocked down to passable if not completely hindered from doing what they are capable of because your skills are not up-to-snuff.

DESTINATION: REALITY

With Scent Work exploding in popularity, more and more dog and handler teams are rushing forward designing searches, setting their sights of earning pretty ribbons and illustrious titles. The reality is this: all of this, from training to trialing, will require thought, dedication and yes, work, on the part of the dog and handler.

As our dog’s guardians, caretakers, and teachers, it is our duty to identify short and long-term goals and the best way to achieve them. This means breaking things down into their smallest components.

First things first: what is your relationship with your dog like right now? Are you able to play or interact with them joyfully? Do you know what motivates them or what they enjoy or like? Can you effectively use your voice, petting, toys and/or treats to reward them in a way that makes them excited and happy, so they actually think it is indeed a reward?

The answers to these questions need to be “YES” if you hope to do well in Scent Work. Your dog MUST want to search for either of you to do well. If they are merely going through the motions and doing it because you “said so”, it will ultimately fall apart. If not now, later, when the odor puzzles become exceedingly complicated, requiring amazing amounts of mental and physical effort for your dog to complete.

For many teams, time and effort must be spent identifying, utilizing, perfecting, and maximizing on rewards. How to leverage rewards to promote the best performances and efforts. How to avoid inadvertently rewarding things you are NOT looking for, such as dancing on or destroying containers, scratching up vehicles or giving up on problems and relying on the handler to solve them. These issues are commonplace in Scent Work and can absolutely be improved upon simply by learning HOW to effectively reward and breaking down what the dog THINKS they are being rewarded for!

Working to improve your own mechanic skills of getting the reward to your dog in a timely manner and then using that reward effectively is something you should practice OUTSIDE of your searches, on your own, first! This is muscle memory, plain and simple. Set yourself up to succeed before you try to do these things in the middle of class or at a trial where you are going to rack up faults.

Alright, so we have rewards down. Next, make a list about your dog and yourself regarding what skills you BOTH will need to achieve your short- and long-term goals when it comes to Scent Work. It may sound ridiculous but break this down into the smallest parts possible. Such as, what type of equipment will you be using, why and do you need to do any prep work to help you and your dog prepare?

For instance, let’s say that your dog has arthritis in their neck. Having them strain against a flat or martingale collar as they are tackling a search may not be the best idea. Okay, a body harness it is! But what kind will you use and why? Does your dog need to become acclimated to the harness to ensure it is comfortable enough for them to successfully search?

My advice is a resounding YES! There have been so many times when I see dogs hopeless distracted, and even distraught, over wearing equipment that was uncomfortable or bothersome to them. There was no way these dogs could do well in a search, as with every step they are doing full body shakes, stopping, or trying to get out of their harness. However, helping your dog become acclimated to, and be able to successfully work in, a harness has NOTHING to do with Scent Work! These “we will help you love your harness” sessions should be done as far away from odor as possible! We do not want your dog to place any sort of negative association they may have with the equipment onto the odors or the activity itself!

If your dog is wearing equipment, there is a strong likelihood you are attached to them via a leash or longline. You guessed it! You need to know how to use these things! How many searches have been hopeless upended simply because a handler is befuddled by their leash or long line?! Countless, my own included! Take the time AWAY from your searches to perfect your own mechanical skills, your dog will thank you.

We have rewards and equipment. Now let’s talk about environment.

Obviously, you want to start off teaching any new skill in the most familiar and low-distraction environment as possible. But if your long-term goals are to trial, then you need to identify what those potential environments are going to entail.

Sights. Sounds. Movement. Smells.

Do some field trips with your dog completely outside the context of Scent Work. For instance, make sure they can stay at a hotel without freaking out. Can they walk past a playground or sports field where there are a ton of the people doing strange people things? What about a place where there are other animals? Can they walk past, staying calm and paying attention to you, or is their mind completely thrown for a loop?

Assessing your dog’s ability to cope with various environments, and then coming up with a plan to help them successfully navigate those environments, should first and foremost have NOTHING to do with Scent Work! If your dog is terrified of construction noise, setting up a search immediately outside an active construction site is NOT the way to go about this!

Instead, taking the time to work with an experienced and reputable trainer to devise a desensitization program to help your dog develop the ability to build their confidence and faith in you to keep them safe is paramount. Only THEN would you work on weaving in searching, carefully and mindfully, to avoid inadvertently poisoning the game.

The environment also means environmental factors. Weather. Humidity. Uneven footing. Large areas. We’re talking about building up the dog’s physical and mental endurance and stamina. Once again, you should be doing this primarily OUTSIDE of Scent Work FIRST.

If your dog is out-of-shape or has physical injuries, is only used to waddling to the food dish and outside to potty, it is wholly unfair to expect them to tackle a vehicle search in the height of a humid summer for 5 minutes straight in a large parking lot.

Likewise, if your dog has never had to stick with a problem to resolution before without you rushing in to help them, do not expect them to be able to do so now in a Scent Work search! You need to find ways to help your dog develop mental tenacity and resiliency to keep trying without falling apart. These types of problem-solving opportunities should be done OUTSIDE of Scent Work first and then supplemented and build upon in your searches.

If your dog has behavioral issues, such as reactivity or sensitivities, you absolutely, positively need to work on these issues completely and utterly outside the context of Scent Work FIRST, and then carefully weave in searches being certain to avoid having odor become a predictor for “boogeymen”.

Don’t think I have forgotten about you though, dear grasshopper. You need to ensure you can effectively cope with the environment and that you are honest about your mental needs. If you fall apart under pressure, find ways to build up your own mental resilience outside of Scent Work, then start to incrementally build up pressure situations in your training. But do not put all your eggs in the Scent Work basket!

“WHAA! THIS SOUNDS LIKE SO MUCH WORK!”

I am not going to sugarcoat this. Being a mindful trainer and effective handler takes time and effort but will pay off in spades. But did you remember that bit about the vacuum?

“Yes…”

Great! Then hopefully in the back of your mind you are starting to see how all this time and effort will help in all aspects of your dog’s life, and yours as well.

"…”

All these skills you both are developing will apply across-the-board in all aspects of your lives. Yes, they will help in the Scent Work realm, but will also help everywhere else. Better still, with a solid foundation to build your Scent Work upon, you will start to see those very same skills FURTHER improve THANKS to Scent Work!

Meaning, you may have taken the time to improve your dog’s ability to confidently work within a given environment outside of Scent Work, and thus you determine it is time to start doing some searches there. Because you were thoughtful and mindful, your dog rocks this search! They have just illustrated to themselves that they CAN do this! This boosts their confidence…not just their “Scent Work confidence”, their overall confidence!

“Oh…wow…that is pretty cool!”

Isn’t it though! The interplay with all these various factors is truly fascinating. If we take the time to appreciate them and approach this as a journey, instead of a chore, we and our dogs will benefit greatly.

If you are looking for some resources for building specific skills, be sure to check out the following online training we offer through Scent Work University:

  • Leash Handling Skills Course with Laurel Scarioni
  • Conquering Competition Stress Webinar with Michael McManus
  • Field Trip Training on Your Own Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • Hierarchy of Behavior: What Is It and Why it Matters Webinar with Judith Guthrie
  • Lacking Problem Solving Skills - Problem Solved Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • Mindful Goal Setting Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • Search Pickles: Breaking Down the Components Webinar with Judith Guthrie
  • Scent Work for Reactive Dogs Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • Scent Work for Sensitive Dogs Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • Stretching Your Dog’s Learning Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • To Help or Not to Help, That is the Question Webinar with Judith Guthrie
  • Training to Plan; Planning to Train Webinar with Michael McManus
  • Trial Prep for Reactive Dogs Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • Trial Prep for Sensitive Dogs Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • Using Play in Scent Work Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • When Dog Odor Trumps Target Odor: Sexy Time Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • When Dog Odor Trumps Target Odor: Dogs are Scary Webinar with Dianna L. Santos
  • Field Trip Training Suggestions eBook by Dianna L. Santos
  • From Boxes to Real-Life Searches with Dianna L. Santos

You may also be interested in submitting a video to one of our instructors to review and provide feedback on or scheduling a private virtual consultation (Zoom call) with one of our instructors.

Enjoy and embrace the journey with all its twists and turns. The destination is great and all, but the journey is where is all the fun truly happens.


 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!