Handling Check-In: Are You Making This an Unbearable Job?
How many times have you drilled an exercise, looking for just that much more?
When you are training, how often has your dog correctly told you they found a hide, for you to simply stand there and do nothing? "They need to do something more", you may reason to yourself. Stare longer. Sit faster. Find the hide faster. Bracket less, etc, etc.
Now, having criteria is not a bad thing in and of itself. HOW you define what that criteria is, and then ensure the dog understands and can meet this criteria, that is the key to the whole thing.
More often than not, when people set criteria all the joy and fun goes right out the window. Suddenly, the sniffy game becomes super stuffy and serious. However, this is not necessary.
You can still progress in your Scent Work training and have criteria, while also smiling as your dog is working out the problem, marveling at their magic-like ability to sort out these odor puzzles and rewarding them like crazy when they are correct.
You do not earn demerits for having fun with your dog. Just the opposite.
Time and time again we see handlers conflate being serious about the activity of Scent Work with being serious while doing the activity of Scent Work!
You can be passionate about Scent Work, care about the process, progressing and doing the best you can AND still have fun with your dog!
So take a good long look at your practice sessions. Watch your videos. Do you look like you are having fun or that you are about to go into basic training camp with a superior officer about to shout drill orders at you? Because if you look like that latter, that is how your dog will feel too.
Then take a good long look at your dog. Are they looking enthusiastic and engaged? Or, are they easily distracted, looking to you for direction or just blah? If so, there is something seriously wrong. In your dog's mind, the sniffy game should be the best thing, EVER!
Perhaps you need a different tact in how you are approaching your training sessions. Thinking of them as small fun games instead of "we are doing what the professional detection dogs do".
Because let's face it...we're not! Scent Work is a GAME, nothing more, nothing less. We are not, nor should we be, training with the same intensity or frequency or urgency as agencies whose dogs are quite literally on the front lines in life-or-death situations.
Rather, we are playing a game to better bond with our dogs, to give them an outlet and to have fun. That fun may include competing for ribbons and titles, but it supposed to be fun nonetheless.
Take a step back and outline how you can adjust your practice sessions. Maybe have an instructor or friend watch you. Let them point out when you are holding your breath, when the tension is being held in your neck or shoulders, when you are scowling.
Have them set-up a fun game for you. Something that will break the cycle of seriousness and stress. Exercises based off the game classes offered by competition organizations such a United States Scent Sports or Performance Scent Dogs can be super helpful.
Get yourself laughing and smiling again. If that is a bridge too far, get yourself saying out-loud all the GOOD things your dog is doing as they are searching. This will get you breathing and noticing in real-time just how hard your dog is really trying. It will help you better appreciate your canine friend.
For some of us, we have been in the seriousness camp for so long, we will not make that connection right away. In that case, watch your video back. Listen to how may good things you noted as your were doing your search. Suddenly, the exercise you thought you had to drill into the ground to get it "perfect" doesn't seem as though it needs that much work at after all.
So, are you making Scent Work an unbearable job for your dog? If so, what can you do to fix it?