Whether we want to admit it or not, there is an inherent conflict between training and trialing when it comes to Scent Work. If we aren't careful, we could throw all of our training away as we chase after more and more trialing opportunities.
Tendency to Rush
When you can SEE the shiny object at the end of the road, you are much more likely to rush toward it! The same holds true for Scent Work when we are talking about competitions.
In the early days of this sport, there was only one competition organization and trialing opportunities were few and far between. Further complicating things, trials were oftentimes held in pockets throughout the United States. This meant if you weren't willing to travel far distances, as in passing through several states, you may not have a chance to trial at all!
Now, this situation did not make people all that happy. They wanted the opportunity to play and compete with their dogs! In an attempt to keep up wth demand, more trials were offered in more parts of the country, but Scent Work had truly exploded in popularity! It was a simple math equation: demand far outweighed supply. Thus, new competition organizations began springing up to meet this overwhelming demand. This meant more trialing opportunities finally being offered. Yay!
We now find ourselves in a situation where there are multiple Scent Work trials going on every weekend in every corner of the country with eight competition organizations in the United States alone!
Here's the rub...there is so much opportunity to trial now, people are rushing toward those shiny ribbons and titles. All at the expense of their training.
In the early days, it was common for people to train for over a year before they even considered going in to compete. The fact that traditional Scent Work trials were all or nothing helped deter people from entering before they and their dog were truly ready. Otherwise you were essentially throwing your entry fees away.
Nowadays, people are leaping into trialing after a few short weeks of training and taking a shot at earning a few Q's. Worst still, they are getting by with this approach at the lower levels. This is a problem.
Behavior that is reinforced is strengthened. This is a fact.
So, if you jammed in some training and entered the first trial you could get into, even against the advice of professional trainers and trial officials, and you STILL qualified...there is a super high probability you will do that again! Pump the breaks, slow down and train? WHY?! You were REWARDED for trialing!
We as handlers have to recognize the allure of these goals. The titles. The ribbons. The bragging rights. They can become addictive, something we obsess over and in so doing, we can make less and less ideal decisions for our dogs. Not having a solid foundation in our training is one of those poor decisions.
Training Should Not be Happening at Trials
There is no replacement for training. I mean, real, true training. Thoughtful exercises that are designed to teach, promote learning and the development of skills.
Trials do none of these things. Trials are TESTS. Trials are TESTING that the prerequisite lessons were learned and that the skills were obtained.
That being said, it is true that trials do not occur in a bubble. Therefore, there WILL be learning that takes place at a trial...oftentimes the type of learning you do NOT want to happen.
Allow me to give you an example: a search area has some line-of-sight issues, so the trial host hangs up some tarps. A common practice that works out quite well! Except, as your dog is searching and heading to source, a gust of wind comes by and dramatically moves the tarp, startling them. Now your dog cannot go back to work as they are so bothered and you time out. Little do you know, your dog has made the association of being startled with the odor...now they think Birch, Anise or Clove is scary. A nightmare scenario. All because they had never encountered a moving tarp in a controlled environment in training.
Sounds outlandish? It's not. I've witnessed this firsthand. Luckily, the handler recognized the severe reaction their dog had and was proactive in helping the dog in training to realize the odor itself was not scary. Once that was nailed down, they then had to go through very careful training set-ups to help the dog realize movement in the search area, including tarps, was normal and safe. This process took months. Months of training, not trialing.
It kills me when I see people looking for advice on social media as to whether they should go up a level or not and the responses are, "Yes! The best learning experience you will have is to go to the next level." In my opinion, this is not sound advice at all. If the person is asking if they should go up, more often than not, they shouldn't. Ideally, you should be training for the level ABOVE where you are trialing (e.g. training at the Advanced level in AKC but only competing in the Novice level). The idea that going to a trial is somehow going to prep you and your dog for that trial is, frankly, bonkers!
Now, volunteering at a trial is a completely different story. That is training for the handler; being able to see what is involved, how the searches are designed, getting ideas of what you could incorporate into your training exercises, etc. If you wanted to volunteer at a trial in a level you were considering entering, that would be great! Actually entering that level when you are probably not ready, not so much.
Truly, training and trialing are NOT the same thing and they are NOT interchangeable. Rather, training is necessary for you to be able to trial and trialing can cause your training to deteriorate over time.
When Trialing Hurts
We oftentimes forget that our journey is not a guaranteed straight line. Meaning, it is entirely possible for you and your dog to go backwards as well as forwards in your progression.
This is especially true when are talking about trialing.
Think of the juxtaposition between trialing and training. At a trial, you have control over very little. You do not set the schedule, definitely do not design the searches or odor problems, have no say over the flow or anything else. You simply go up to the staging area when it is your turn and then run the search when the officials are ready for you.
But think of all the things that can go wrong between getting your dog out of their crate and completing your search. They could get snarked at in the parking lot or near the potty area. Another competitor celebrating with their dog could steal away their attention. The bustling of volunteers and trial staff could make them unsettled at the very least.
Then you have the search itself. As I've harped about in prior posts, podcasts and webinars, you-do-not-know-where-the-hide-is! That means it is entirely possible, depending on the acceptable parameters set by the trial official, you will reward your dog when they are no-where-near-source! Or the opposite could be true: your dog could be entirely correct and in the trial official's opinion, they were not close enough (think elevated hides or inaccessible hides), so you get the dreaded, "No". In either scenario, your criteria is suffering. In the former, your dog is being rewarded for NOT getting to source and in the latter, your dog is not being rewarded when they likely should have been. Can you say problematic?!
You then have feedback. When a trial official gives you feedback, it is super challenging to not take it to heart, especially when the search did not go well. But what if that feedback or advice doesn't apply to you and your dog?! What if doing what the trial official urged you to do would utterly wreck your dog?!
Having a strong training foundation that you can rely on makes it that much easier to identify nuggets of brilliance and leave behind other feedback that wouldn't work for you and your dog. However, if you were lacking this strong training background, you may find yourself grasping to any straw that is dangled in front of you. This is a surefire why to burnout both yourself and your dog.
Training Should be the Focus
The learning. The skills. The partnership. This is what your training provides, when it is done correctly.
Knowing this, why would you ever rush into trialing?!
Because of the pretty ribbons and cool titles!
If that is the case, create incentives for your training! Be creative. Find ways to make it so that you are just as excited to TRAIN as you are COMPETE.
For some people, it is the EXPEREINCE of trialing: packing up their stuff, traveling, an excuse to stay at a hotel, socializing with friends. The fact is, you can do all of this while TRAINING too! Reward yourself and your fellow Scent Work fanatics for being dutiful with your training by scheduling a get-away at a local dog-friendly camp. Book a cabin where you will stay and find a few places where you can set-up some training search areas. Have fun prizes for each search. This can be something as straighfoward as the dog/handler teams who find the most hides in the fastest time, or you can get creative! For instance, hand out The Muddiest Searcher Award or The Pup Who Didn't Poop Award and so on.
Point being, you can create a similar trialing EXPERIENCE while still TRAINING and thus REWARDING yourself for doing the essential step of training.
Want to enter a trial? Determine how much training you and your dog would need to prepare. Then pick a trial date that will be realistic, keeping in mind that the training should be the focus. Don't go crazy. There is no reason to train 6-times a day 7-days a week. Again, this-is-a-game. Keep it lighthearted and fun. The second this becomes work, your dog is going to check out. Without your dog, you have nothing.
Keep a simple log of what you are working on. Look for gaps or missing pieces. Are you only training at home? Take a field trip! Only training in the afternoon? Schedule some early morning and early evening searches. Have you only been practicing where you set the hides? Pair up with another Scent Work friend and set-up searches for one another. Really look critically at what you are doing and how you can take these practice sessions to the next level.
That being said, avoid making everything harder all the time! Throw in a more simple search here and there to keep your dog engaged, but stretch yourself. Video the search and call out what you see your dog doing as they are working the search. Watch the video back and see if you missed anything.
The bottom line is, your training is everything. Frame it so that it is your focus with a side of competing.
Are you finding the proper balance between training and trialing?
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!