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Ep. 10: Patience, Grasshopper

In this episode, we discuss the need for all Scent Work enthusiasts - whether they are interested in competition or not - to practice a bit more patience. Doing so will ensure your dog has the skills they need to be successful in this game...and will also ensure that YOU have the skills needed to be the best handler possible!

Podcast Episode

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the All About Scent Work podcast. In this podcast we talk about all things Scent Work which include training tips, what your instructor or trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode we're going to be talking about the importance of being patient when we're training Scent Work whether we're interested in doing it for fun or for if we're interested in doing it for competition.

Before we start diving into the episode, let me do a very quick introduction on myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the owner and lead instructor for both Scent Work University and Dog Sport University. These are online dog training platforms. They are designed to provide high quality instruction as well as flexibility and convenience so that you'll be able to access these dog training resources regardless of where you're located. So without further ado, let's dive into the podcast.

In this podcast episode what I'm hoping that we can understand as a community is the importance of being patient as far as it comes to dog training overall, but particularly with Scent Work. I do think that there is a tendency within this one specialty of dog training that tends to force people, or invite people rather, to try to rush. There's a couple of different reasons for that, but within this podcast episode I'm just hoping to outline the importance of actually taking your time, of ensuring that your dog understands some core material, and core skills are mastered, that you have mastered some skills, and how it is you can actually design your training so it's not just a simple rush to the end goal.

To start off with I just want to talk about why it is that I think, in my opinion, that Scent Work as an activity invites people to rush, and the reason is that Scent Work as a whole is trying to highlight how amazing our dogs are, and being able to use their nose to find very specific types of odors.

For Scent Work as a competition they're going to be finding things such as birch, anise or clove. That within itself is a very sexy and alluring thing that I could take my dog and I can have them go find something that doesn't normally mean anything to them whatsoever, and to most of the public, birch, anise or clove doesn't mean anything either. So you can whip out your little tin that has a scented Q-Tip in, and say, "My dog is going to find this, and I'm going to hide it somewhere in the house. And they go, "Really? Why?" And I go, "Oh, just wait." So you hide it. You have the dog search for it, and then everyone's oohing and aahing because that's pretty impressive. Why on earth would your dog find birch? I don't even know what birch is if I'm not involved in Scent Work.

Just by design being able to have that super reinforcing activity of being able to show off how brilliant your dog is, that tends to make people want to rush because you realize how cool that is, to show that off to other people or to just do it yourself, you want to be able to do that right away. There are lots of dogs that would benefit from having a foundation laid out in a different way, or maybe they're only searching for food, and I hate framing it that way because it's the same exact thing. Searching for a hot dog, scenting wise is the same thing as searching for birch, but as human beings we put a lot more weight in searching for birch.

One of the things I always try to tell my students whenever they start bringing these things up of, "I've been on primary for a little bit, and now I want to go on to a target odor. I want to do it yesterday. Why can't we go on to a target odor? What's the delay?" Blah, blah, blah. It's okay. I understand what you're saying. I can understand the allure, but are you saying that you think finding a hot dog or a treat is less impressive than finding birch? And they will begrudgingly say yes once you drag it out of them.

I say, "Okay, if that's the case, then you should be able to find a hot dog within a space that I've hidden somewhere. So I want you to put a blindfold on, get down on all fours and find that hot dog where I hid it just using your nose." And they look at me like I'm a little crazy, but that's basically what we're saying when we make that argument. They're like, "Oh yes, so my dog can find a hot dog, but they could be finding birch, and birch is so much better." That's not true. The only difference is that we're trying to teach our dog that birch has value. That's the difference between the two, but the actual ability to scent is the same whether or not your dog is finding hot dogs or birch.

I'm hoping with this example we can understand that just a premise, as an activity, it's almost baked in from a human perspective that we would tend to rush, because we want to show everyone how brilliant our dog is that they can go out and find these target odors.

And there very well may be a situation where your dog would benefit if they were following the K9 Nose Work Training method which I use where they start off with primary, that it would be better for them to find primary for a certain period of time to build up other skills before they ever started finding a target odor. That is again a school of thought as far as how it is that you would train. I would argue there are some dogs, particularly those who are lower on the confidence scale, where you would definitely want to go the primary route because you don't want the dog to potentially be frightened by a particular exercise or something, and then associate that fear with birch. That would be bad.

I'm hoping that you can see with just this introductory part of this podcast with how the activity is almost framed and design invites us to rush, and we have to be mindful of that and fight that urge as much as we can.

One of the things that I would urge people to do when they're thinking about these kinds of things is how is it that you can develop a solid foundation for your dog so they could actually be successful in Scent Work, and let me just put this out there, not just for competition. I think that it's just as valuable for someone to avoid rushing if they only wanted to play the game for fun as the person who is also interested in doing competition down the line. To me those are exactly the same. Those people should have the same concerns.

So with that being said, how is it that you can develop a solid foundation for your dog where you're not rushing them, where you are actually, positively certain that they understand what it is they need to do. And a lot of this is understanding that your dog has to develop skills, but so do you.

For myself personally with how I teach Scent Work using the K9 Nose Work Training Method through NACSW is we are designing search areas where we are always manipulating the environment. We're never trying to manipulate the dog. That's never the goal. So you're always changing the picture that you're presenting to present a different skillset for the dog to master. It's understanding that you are not teaching the dog how to sniff. You're not going up to the dog and saying, "Okay, use your nostril in this way, and then process it that way in your brain, and then do this with it." Of course not. That's not what Scent Work is.

Scent Work is literally presenting different odor pictures to our dogs, and then giving them the time and the space to work those out, because quite honestly we are only guessing as human beings how these odor trails actually work. Our dogs are the experts. We're just trying to give them an opportunity to say, "Here's a funky odor picture, can you work that out?" That's all this is, but you have to give your dog the opportunity to do that. And there are definitely things you can do to manipulate the environment to make that problem easier in the beginning, and then progressively make it a little bit more complicated, but it's understanding that you can even do that piece. That's very important when you're training. You don't have to present your dog with inaccessible hides the very first time you're ever doing Scent Work with them. That would be unfair. What is the goal in doing that? What are you trying to teach your dog? That they can't get to the thing that you're trying to make rewarding? That doesn't make sense.

So for us when we're designing our training plans or our approaches, again, whether we're interested in just doing it for fun or for competition, how is it that we're actually developing the skills for the dog so that they can be successful and they actually understand what it is we want them to do? At the same time understanding that this entire process is not just focused on the dog. You are a very important part of this.

The way that I design my training is so that, particularly in the beginning, the handlers are an observer where we're trying to build as much independence and confidence in the dog as possible so they're going out and they are searching. But the handler is still doing an active role of watching, of watching and learning from their own dog. They're picking up on cues that the dog is giving off, when the dog first detects odor, when the dog is chasing odor, and when the dog has found odor, when the dog is actively working, when the dog could be asking for help, when the dog is getting stressed. All that is really important, and if you rush ahead and you have no idea what any of that looks like, and you were interested in competition, that's going to be a really big problem.

Then another level to those skills is as far as a handler, obviously handling a long line or a leash is a huge skill that you need to be able to master. Knowing what to do with your own body, even if your dog is working off leash, how are you not inhibiting their search? How are you supporting them throughout the search? How can you remind them to go to different parts of the search area without taking over the search? Because if you do too much, with a lot of dogs, they'll just say, "Okay, you with the thumbs, you go find the hide. Let me know when you found it, and then I'll eat a cookie. That sounds good."

So if you're constantly doing check, check, check, check, check, a lot of dogs will just be like, "Okay, just let me know when you find it, and then you can pay me, and then we'll be good." You wouldn't want that. That's not the goal.

I'm hoping that we can understand as a community that both you and your dog have to do a tremendous amount of learning in order to do well. You both have to build a lot of skills in order to do well. As a handler you also have to realize how it is you can set these things up. How are you designing your exercises? How are you splitting this up so they are in incremental steps, that you're not throwing your dog into the deep end of the pool, that you're not turning off their excitement and their joy for the game?

All of this is actually pretty complicated, and it takes time to do. I hope that makes a little more sense as far as the need for developing these solid foundation behaviors, and that rushing ahead, you could absolutely get a list done in three weeks and enter into a lower level trial and potentially do well. People have done it. I've heard of it. I've also seen those very same people maybe squeak by at the next level, and then fall apart at the higher levels because they don't have the skills. They and their dogs simply don't have the skills that they need, and then they languish at those upper levels. The dog learns to hate the game. The person isn't particularly happy, and it's just a mess. All because they said, "But I wanted to get there within three weeks." Why? What happens in three weeks? Do you turn into a pumpkin and you're not allowed to do Scent Work any more?

I understand the allure. I really do, from taking a step back and from listening to my students from over the course of all the years I've been doing Scent Work, on the East Coast of the United States originally, and now on the West Coast of the United States. It's all the same where people want to be able to showcase both themselves and their dogs. They don't want to be wasting time. They don't want to just be spinning their wheels which is completely understandable. I'm not asking that you stay at a given level and don't ever progress. I'm not asking that you don't set goals and try to work towards them. Just the opposite. I'm just asking that those goals be realistic.

To use a completely different dog sport analogy, competition obedience. You wouldn't expect a 12 week old puppy that you've been working with for a week to then enter a trial and earn their OTCH which is their highest level of competition obedience title as possible within AKC. That would be ridiculous. No one in their right mind would ever think that that would happen. They also wouldn't think it would be possible in three weeks. A lot of people would argue you wouldn't be able to do that within a year or two or maybe even three. These things take time. These are very specific skills. This is testing both your dog's ability to work with a variety of different factors, not to mention just learning how to work on hides and odor problems, but being able to work within the environment, being able to work with a variety of different stressors.

Then you have all of your skills too. A lot of people think that this is just simply dog-centric. That the handler doesn't play a role at all, and that's not true. That's a misnomer. You do have skills that you have to develop. You have to be able to listen to your dog. You have to be able to read what it is that they're doing within that space. You also have to know that you're not frankly, screwing them up, that where you are within the space is not inhibiting them from actually finding the hide, that you're not making it impossible for them to be successful. That's a pretty big involvement.

So I hope that we can have a better understanding just as a community that speed should not be the metric. The metric should be whether or not the dog and the handler have obtained the necessarily skills. And I do not think as an instructor myself that I've perfected the way of relaying that to my students. I think it's gotten better over the years, but I don't think that I've perfected it yet, because I'll still get questions from students who say, "Oh, when do we get to do X or Y or Z?" It's like, "You just started this class two weeks ago. It's going to take you time."

I try to be as forthcoming as I can where if anyone who takes my Introduction to Scent Work Class, I say, "Look, if you are interested in competition, as a general rule, I try to tell people it's going to take you six to eight months of training to be ready to to into your very first trial," which I would urge people to do an ORT because they can be extraordinarily informational to tell if your dog would be comfortable in a trial environment. Can they actually search within a trial environment? Can you search in a trial environment?

It's good information to have, and then you probably would be able to enter into the other levels of competition for the other competition organizations, but you would be ready to do that. You wouldn't just be getting in by the skin of your teeth. You wouldn't just be squeaking by. You would actually be confident in your skills at that time point, and that's generally speaking. Are there people who could do it faster? Sure. Are there people who would take longer? Of course, and it shouldn't matter at the end of the day. But I just try to let people know as a general rule, that the timeframe you should think of, but it's a common question that I still receive.

Again, the point is podcast is at least to help people start thinking about the importance of being patient, but I'm not claiming as an instructor that I've found the perfect way of relaying that even to my own students. We try to remind everyone that this will take time and that this is a process and everything else. And again, I think I've improved over time and over the years, but I don't think I've perfected the message just yet. If anyone else has any ideas of how to say stuff, then by all means, please share, but as a general rule, being more patient is extraordinarily helpful, particularly when we're talking about Scent Work.

One of the things that a student recently asked me, "When do we get to do target odors?" Because again, I start using primary, and would lay out and, "Okay, this is how we do it. We do it for six weeks for a primary." If your dog has any kind of confidence issues, if they're a little bit on the shyer side, if you've made a lot of adjustments for them in this first foundation class, their first introduction to Scent Work, then I would urge them to stay on the foundation path where we keep them on primary as we continue to introduce them to other skills.

If your dog doesn't have any confidence issues, if they're loving the game, they didn't have to make a lot of adjustments, then generally speaking then they can go on to the target odor path. So it's six weeks on primary regardless, and then you figure out which fork in the road you would want to take that would be best for your dog. And they were okay with that for about three weeks and then week four is "Okay, when do we do target odors?" It's like, "Okay, we have to finish this class first, and then we have to assess where your dog is."

They finished that first class and it was perfect, and then they went into the birch class and their dog was doing well. Their dog didn't have any confidence issues. They didn't need a lot of adjustments for the exercises. Their dog was actually loving the game, was doing really, really well.

So then they went to what I call the Introducing Birch Course, and again, dog was doing great. And the question was, "Okay, when are we going to teach alerts?" Again, we are literally just introducing the concept of birch to this dog. I said, "Okay, the way that I teach this is we will be using pairing, meaning that there will be a hide out within the space, and we're going to have a treat with that hide so the dog can self-reward, and they can make the association that birch is actually valuable." They will then say, "Okay, but when are we going to teach alerts?" It's like, "We have to teach that birch is valuable first, and then we need to introduce them to all these various odor puzzles and odor problems." The way I start is primarily with containers and interior searches first. Then we should introduce them to the other elements, for my purposes, it's exteriors and vehicles.

If they were interested in doing things like AKC, then we can talk about buried hides or handler discrimination down the road, but teach your dogs the skills first. Then worry about an alert behavior, even if you need it at that point. I would argue that nine times out of 10 you don't because you can read your dog at that point really well, and your dog probably developed a natural alert behavior that you haven't taught which tends to work out pretty well.

Again, that's all about preference and training ideas and schools of thought which is completely fine. It could be a discussion for another time, but that's the way that I train. And this client was like, "Okay." The next week, "When do we teach alert behaviors?" And I was like, "I'm not certain how else to put this to you, that your dog is learning skills right now." So finally the way I framed it was, "Okay, do you have children?" This client said "Yes." I said, "Okay, perfect. How old are they?" "Oh, I have a two year old and I have a six year old." I'm like, "Okay. You think that your two year old is pretty smart, right?" They're like, "Oh they're great, perfect." I'm like, "So can I put them into a college course and expect them to pass a physics' exam?"

She said, "No." The client said, "No." I'm like, "Why not?" "Because they're two." And I said, "Exactly, but are you interested in them doing something like physics down the line or some kind of higher science? They would be able to get a really good job, and maybe be a doctor or something." And the client said, "Of course. I would love for them to be a scientist or something, but they're two years old. They're learning walking and talking a small amount. They're not ready for physics."

I said, "Exactly, and that's where your dog is too." It seemed to kind of click in the brain like, "Oh I need to take my time with my dog." It's not that I think badly about this client. I don't. I understand the allure of trying to get to the end result now, but it's understanding that the dog actually has to understand the skill.

Let me provide you with another example of where in my group classes this would typically be an issue, elevation hides. The way that I teach elevation hides, I actually introduce the concept in my very first class, meaning the very first type of class that someone would take, first timer, so the introduction to Scent Work class. We typically introduce it around week three or four when I was teaching this in person. And the way that I would introduce it is I would have ... Again, we're just using food ... I would have that within a box, and it would be either on top of a empty box, so start off with a very small amount of elevation, or it would be on top of a chair. And there's an empty box facing that item on the floor, so in theory, the odor flows from the elevation hide, collects in the empty box, so the dog can come up and smell the empty box and go, "Ooh, I smell odor, but there's nothing actually in here", and ideally they lift their head up and can catch the odor, kind of work their way back up to that elevated hide.

So it seems to work pretty well to introduce the concept of elevated hides to the dogs. However, elevation odor hides are actually pretty tricky. It's a difficult odor problem for dogs to work out.

As a general rule for my in-person dog training classes, when I was doing Scent Work, this would be the week that the individual dog runs would take the longest because they'd be trying to work out these elevated hides. And this was also the week where the students would get the most frustrated. It's still early in their process of learning all about Scent Work. They can see, plain as day, where the hide is. They don't understand why it takes the dog so long, and when you are the one on the floor, and everyone else is watching you, 10 seconds feels like 10 hours. So they get fidgety. They get frustrated. They do a lot of huffing and puffing, and not understanding why it is that it's taking so long for their dog to find the hide. So we would always have to have a nice big discussion beforehand. Just know that your dog's may take a little bit more time to do this. All I want you to do is breath, step back, allow your dog to work it out, and I'll be narrating to you the various things that I see.

For this one particular client with this one particular dog, came out, dog was working. There was two hides in the search area. They found their other hide very, very easily, and they came up and started working the elevation problem. This dog worked for five minutes straight, and that client, the human client, was beside themselves. They were not a happy camper. They were stressed. They wanted so badly to just step in and tap the box or something. And the only reason I allowed that dog to work that long, because it is a very long time to be working on a problem, is that dog never gave up. They never showed any signs that they were stressed. They were not worried about it at all. They knew roughly where the odor was, but they just could not figure out where it was, but when they did, it was this huge light bulb moment for this dog.

At the end of the run everyone gives a nice, big round of applause to the person who ran. They are not happy at all because they're comparing themselves with their other classmates, which they've already forgotten their classmates may have taken a minute and a half or two minutes to find the hide, but they took five whole minutes. It was just, that's a travesty.

We wrapped the class up, and that person sent me an email immediately that night. They were very upset. They thought that this was clearly evidence that their dog has no idea what they're doing, and they just don't feel they're progressing as well, and yada, yada, yada. I write back, and I'm like, "Seriously, your dog actually did really well. These are the high points. Your dog never gave up. Your dog was persistent. Your dog was showing persistence while they were doing this. Those are all really great qualities, and they found it out and they figured it out in the end."

"These are some adjustments that you can do when you're practicing at home. Definitely keep me posted, and if you have any more questions," and they wrote back, and they weren't having any of it. So then we had a telephone conversation about it, trying to talk this person off the ledge. I said, "Just take tomorrow off from any kind of Scent Work so it's not quite such a thing, and then do some of the adjustments and things we talked about, and by all means, let me know. But again, from my perspective, your dog actually did really well."

Fast forward to the following week. We're moving on to different types of skills, but we're going to be folding in our elevation hides as well. A couple of other students went. Their dogs did very nicely. They all did very well. This other student gets her turn. She comes out with her dog. There were three hides within the search area. There was one elevation hide, one typical hide or introductory hide, and then we also had a different problem that we were posing. Her dog had the fastest run out of everyone. And the look on her face was priceless because she was convinced that her dog was the worst of everyone, and she just wanted to get this done, and she wanted to move on, and she just didn't understand, and "Why is this taking so long?" Five days. Five days, she went from her dog is the worst thing ever to her dog was the fastest of that class.

The reason I like to share this example is what she had done even though she was upset is she'd taken my advice, and she had broken up the exercises she was doing at home. So it was just about elevation when she was doing one of her repetitions. She started with a smaller elevation, and she immediately followed up with a recovery search. So the dog would figure it out, and then the dog would get a really easy recovery search, and then a really huge party.

She got to the point where the elevation was the same height as we had had in class by the end of her practice week. Because she had taken this skill that clearly her dog struggled with, and figuring it out which again is typical, but it could potentially be a weakness for this dog, she broke it up into small pieces. She gave her dog the opportunity and the time to work it out, and sure enough her dog did.

Now just suppose that was what she wanted to do, and she kept saying in our conversations before she finally relented and said, "Okay, I'll do it this way, and if it doesn't work, I'm going to do what I want to do." She wanted to go and present the dog the box. She wanted to say, "I'm just going to tap it. I'm just going to point to the box to get him up there so that they find it faster because I can't have them taking five minutes." And my argument was, "Why not?" This is a learning problem. This is a learning moment. Allow your dog to do the learning.

I would argue, if she had stepped in every single time to point out to the dog where the box was, the dog wouldn't have developed the skills of figuring out that problem, and sure, if we had developed the class so that we weren't still testing elevation hides, and we had just moved on to the next skill, she could have said, "Oh yep, nope, we've found elevated hides. Everything's fine." And in theory, she could keep going on in her training, potentially could go compete, and then sure enough, her dog doesn't know how to work on elevation hide.

Again, I like to include this example because it's a very common theme of I know where the hide is as the handler. I know what the answer is to the question when we're training. It feels like an eternity when my dog is trying to figure that out, and it can be extraordinarily frustrating as the person to take a back seat to the dog, and allow them to do that learning, to allow them to take the lead, and not be quite so involved. In my opinion that's where people start getting into trouble. Allow the dog to do that learning. You can then finesse things once they actually have cemented the skills, but they need the skills first.

I hope that makes sense that it's a very common thing that I've seen again across the country on both coasts. When it comes to Scent Work, people tend to rush a lot, and the dogs are actually pretty smart. The dogs are able to kind of put two and two together, but the more complicated you get, the more problematic that becomes because they need to have a foundation, understanding of these skills to be successful. And that will be exponentially more difficult for you and you'll have gaping holes in your training if you rush through.

I hope you found this podcast somewhat helpful. If there's anything I would love to see happen within this Scent Work community is just for all of us to take just a little bit of a step back, and to have some more patience with our dogs to really enjoy the journey a bit more, and not be so worried about the end result. And this is not just for people who are interested in competition, this also applies for people who are just looking to do things for fun with their dogs. It's really all about the learning itself. It's about the journey. I know that sounds very cliché, but it is true. All those little practice sessions should be the thing that you look forward to more than anything. And whether or not you're competing or you're showing off for your family and friends, that's the cherry on top, but it's the actual individual training sessions that are important.

Thanks so much for joining us. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.