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Ep. 16: Aging Dogs and Scent Work

It can be difficult to think about, but all of our dogs are aging. As they do, we need to be careful and mindful of what we are asking them to do in regards to all of their activities. This includes Scent Work and is especially true when we are competing with our dogs. 

In this podcast episode, we discuss some of those considerations, the way certain competition organizations are designed to encourage competitors to make good decisions on behalf of their dogs as well as how we can better design our training exercises to keep our dogs in the game and not in conflict.

Podcast Episode

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcast, where we talk about all things Scent Work. In this episode we're going to be talking about the importance of realizing the variety of choices that you have as far as competing with your dog in Scent Work, particularly as they continue to age. Before we start diving into the podcast itself, let me just do a very quick introduction for myself.

My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the Owner and Lead instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sport University and Family Dog University. These are online dog training platforms designed to provide high quality instruction to as many dog owners as possible. We quite literally have a client base worldwide and the whole premise is to provide you training regardless of where you may be located. So there may not be a trainer or training facility in your area, but with our online courses, seminars and webinars, you can still obtain the training that you're looking for.

Scent Work University in particular focuses on Scent Work, so we provide a variety of online courses. They're split between skill courses and sport courses to help you from first getting started in Scent Work to developing your skills in Scent Work, to maybe getting ready to compete. We also provide webinars, we try to schedule at least two or three a month and these focus on very particular and specific topics. We also provide podcast episodes like what we have today as well as a regularly updated blog. So now that you know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the episode.

One of the biggest privileges that I've had in my Scent Work career as far as a professional is when I was involved as a staff member for United States Canine Scent Sports, and during that time I had a couple of different things that I would do as far as what my role was, what it was that I did within the organization, but one of those roles was writing up some of the rules, not creating rules, but making it so that it would actually make sense if you read the rule book.

One of the great things I loved about the organization was the flexibility it allowed handlers to make the right choices for their dogs. And what I mean by that is you weren't forced into a system where you always had to go up, meaning that if you started at the bottom level and you and your dog past that level, you then were forced to go up into the next level above it.

Instead, you had the flexibility to go up and down whenever and how often that you wanted. You could enter any level that you like and you actually were allowed and were encouraged to continue receiving titles and accolades at all those different levels. And I think that this is such an important point, particularly when we're talking about the explosion of popularity of Scent Work, which is a wonderful, fantastic thing, which I'm very, very happy about. But a lot of people are coming into Scent Work now having also competed and trained and loved and played a variety of different of the dog sports for oftentimes a number of years with their dogs. And they're coming into Scent Work because maybe they no longer can do agility for instance, because now maybe their dog has a little bit of arthritis. Maybe their bodies just physically can't take it anymore, so they're looking for something that's maybe not as physically taxing, but they still want to be able to do something and have fun with their dogs, but that also means that probably their dog is upper up in their age. They already may have some physical or health issues that are just normal for an aging dog.

When you combine all of that with someone who may already be fairly competitive, you then have almost a recipe baked in for disaster if you're not careful where they may want to push both themselves and their dogs to the point where they're going at the very highest levels of competition because they want to get those accolades. They're used to competing at a high level, if they've done other dog sports for any length of time, and it almost forces them to start making bad decisions on behalf of their dog because they're not taking into account the fact that their dog is getting really old. And I think it's difficult for us to remember where our dogs used to be when they were younger and where are they may be now.

So the one thing that I really loved about the United States Canine Scent Sports was, again, this flexibility of allowing and also encouraging handlers to take a step back and say, "Okay, look, I could go on to the master level, the highest level that they offer. I qualify to do that level, but do I need to do that level? Is it a requirement for me?" Meaning is it actually a good match for me and my dog? Maybe we're at the point where my dog needs to have easier searches. Maybe we'll do one master trial every couple of months, but most of the time we enter at intermediate or maybe senior, which is still a lower level. And I think that that is a wonderful premise, an option to offer to handlers so that they can make better decisions for their dogs. And it's something that I think people really struggle with because it's viewed as going backwards. It's viewed as something that you shouldn't be doing. And I think it's just the opposite.

My dog just turned six and I completely missed his birthday. I felt so bad and he's a doberman. So there are just realities to all of this and I need to keep in mind. He acts exactly the same as he always has. I used to call him before I realized that he turned six. He was five-years-old going on five months. Well, now he's six-years-old going on six months, but there's just realities to this. He's a large breed, he's a large dog and dobermans aren't very healthy even though he comes from a really great line, really good breeding. We've done all our health testing and everything else. There's just realities to all of this.

So I need to be mindful of what it is that we're doing. So, for instance, he really likes playing just baby agility was me in the yard every now and again, those jump heights aren't any higher than 18 and oftentimes are lower than that. He's a big dog. He "should" if we were competing, be jumping 24, 22. I'm not going to do that because he's six years old and I don't want him to be injured even though we're never going to compete in agility. I don't want him to potentially injure himself when we're just playing. And he already has very little self preservation as it is, and I call him my bubble wrap dog for a reason. But the reason I'm bringing this up is it could be very difficult for us to keep in mind that our dogs aren't robots, that our dogs are actually aging and things are changing for them physically. And it can be hard to kind of wrap all that up and really internalize it, particularly when it comes to Scent Work.

So there are a number of things that could be affecting your dog's proficiency at doing sent work, their ability to do it well as they continue to age. For instance, maybe your dog is taking some other medications for other things that are occurring just as they normally age. There are some medications that could actually negatively affect your dog's ability to sent well, so it could physically be harder for them to sniff for them to actually be able to follow a order trail. So that's something to keep in mind. But then you just have the fact that Scent Work is still at the core of it, even though it's not racing around in agility course or doing a really long track or doing distort or anything like that, it's still something that has a physical effect on the dog and that it increases their body temperature and all of that stuff.

But it's also really mentally draining because they have to be able to follow and sort out and do whatever magic they do in their brains of being able to follow their odor trail. That's exhausting. And if you are 92 years old trying to work out a quantum physics problem, it's really exhausting, and that's what this is like for our dogs as they continue to age.

So if particularly you're involved in the competition side of things where you're trialing with your dog, I would urge you if you were one of my clients, to look into the types of options like what you have with the United States Canines Scent Sports where you're able to choose which level you want to go into and it could again very well be that you have a goal of obtaining a certain title or whatever the case may be, let's say at the highest level and you want to keep your dog in the game. Maybe both yourself and your dog enjoy going to trials. It's a very important part of your life and it's something that you do with your dog, but you also don't want to burn them out.

So maybe instead of having all those trials be the highest level trials, if you have the option, maybe they could be the lowest level trials where you can still have all that social aspect of being with your fellow friends going through the experience. It's still an experience. You're still not training because training is different than trialing, but you're still keeping everything fresh. You're still doing stuff. It could still be fun for both you and your dog, but you're also not burning them out by asking them to do the highest level searches all the time. So so that's something that I think people should consider as far as something that is a possibility.

Are there other organizations that allow you to do that? Yes, and absolutely do your research. Absolutely know what it is that that competition or organization what their rules and regulations are. If there's an organization that doesn't allow you to do that, where basically it is a linear thing, you just have to go forward and you can't go back. It doesn't mean that organization is bad. That doesn't mean that organization doesn't care about you or your dog. It's just the way that they've organized the way that they do things and that's perfectly fine.

The reason I bring up USCC is, first of all, I used to work with them, but second of all is because it's an idea that I think again, helps people make better choices for their dogs. And this is another way that you would be able to maybe broaden your horizons as far as where you play, where you may be able to be addressing certain needs in different places. What I mean by that is let's say that you primarily compete with NACSW, right? And with NACSW for their classical trials there, their normal, everything that people think of as far as trials or NW1s, NW2s, NW3s, it's a linear progression. You don't go to your NW1, NW2 and then go back to your NW1. It literally goes in a straight line.

So let's say that that's your main path for competing and maybe now you're working on your Elite. There's nothing to say that you wouldn't also be able to play with an organization at USCSS maybe in between when you can get into those Elite trials so that you can still have the experiences with your dog of trialing, again, if both you and your dog enjoy it. It allows your dog to be really super successful. It allows you to be really super successful and then you can still also go for your Elite NACSW.

So I hope that makes sense that you can have as much flexibility in how you approach this as you want. And I appreciate the fact that there are organizations like USCSS that bake in their flexibility and how they have designed their organization. Again, does it mean the other organizations that may not have that are wrong? Of course not, but if there's ways that we can help as a community remind ourselves that we as our dogs, owners and advocates need to be making good decisions for them throughout the entirety of their lives and to be reminded that their needs are going to change as they continue to age. That's an important thing for us to just kind of remind ourselves of and it's not to make anyone sad, it's not to be fatalist or anything, it's just to be realistic. It's just to be pragmatic about it and to ensure that we're not falling into a trap of expecting our dog to do the same thing at 12 that they were doing a two. That's just not fair most of the time.

Are there dogs who are 12 that act the same way they did when they're two? Of course there are, but even in those situations, I would almost bet that the 12 year old dog is still struggling to do the things that they used to do when they were two and if you weren't careful, you may be pushing them to do things that quite honestly is very difficult for them to do. They want to be able to do it. They have the desire to do it, but they physically just may not be able to do it as well. And I know personally I would never want to put my dog into that kind of conflict. Not Knowingly. And I don't think other people would either if they thought about it, but a lot of this happens slowly.

Again, like I said, my dog had his birthday. I was like, "Oh my God, you're six now." It was just a little bit of like a panic. I was like, "What happened to my baby?" But we have to keep mindful of these things and when you're doing scent work, it can be a little harder for us to keep that in mind. It's a little bit easier for people to wrap their heads around it in terms of something like agility where maybe the dog is running the core slower or maybe you can just tell they're a little bit stiffer after they run or when they get up to do their run or whatnot. Like, okay, maybe we need to bring the jumps down, or maybe we're not doing as many contacts, or maybe we're just doing shorter sequences or whatever. It's a little bit harder for Scent Work because it's not as high octane.

You may just known as that your dog is searching slower or you may notice that your dog is taking longer to get to hides or they're taking longer to source out a problem or maybe they're just showing more signs of being distracted that you think is distracted when actually it could be exhaustion, it can be soreness, it could stress, it could also just be burnout.

So the last thing I just want to wrap this episode up with is even if you aren't competing, but especially if you are competing, you definitely always want to keep in mind as you're continuing to work with your dog is the possibility that they are getting burned out and understanding that regardless of the organization that you may be competing with, the entire point of levels as far as levels of competition is to present an increased difficulty of problem to the dog. That means inherently is going to be harder the higher up the levels you go, and depending on the organization, there may be huge jumps from one level to the other. Some of the really higher levels are like, my goodness me. It's just like blow your mind kind of level of difficulty, and it's real tip to the hat for the dog and the handlers who are able to compete at those levels and do well.

However, it's important to keep in mind that all these skills and the training and the ability to get there is very important. Meaning basically that you have to train, you have to develop all those things, but if that's the only thing that you're doing in that you're only going forward as far as your training is concerned, so you're only focusing on ahead, right? I only want to work towards doing Summit in NACSW or detective in AKC or whatever the case may be, regardless of the organization. I want to prepare and I want to compete and do well at the highest level. That's a fair thing to say, but if all of your training and all of your trialing is that everything is hard all the time, then you pair that with the fact that as you're continuing your journey, your dog is aging.

This is a recipe for disaster in that your dog is physically and just as a body, as a little creature, life is getting harder for them because they're getting older and on top of that all the training is harder and all the trials are harder. Everything is hard. Then you have your experience as a handler where there's going to be more stress, there's going to be more pressure and everything else.

So what does all this mean? Does it mean that you shouldn't be going towards any of these higher levels? Of course not. All I'm urging for is to have a little bit of interval training introduced where maybe you split things up. So let's say for instance you were working again in NACSW towards an Elite or maybe even a Summit. So you're trying to work on let's say much larger search areas, these huge sprawling places that you'll see in the Summit videos. Break down what it is that you and your dog would need to do in order to do that one element well.

So if it's a giant space and you have eight minutes to find four hides, that's going to require you being efficient in your searching, having a great deal of endurance for both you and your dog. Being able to properly read what's going on in the space, understanding how you can split the space up so that you're able to cover it within the time limit. Know that you've covered as much as you can. Being able to read your dog. There's all these different things that you have to break up so that you'd be able to do this well.

Figure out a way that you would be able to work on some of those elements in some training sessions and then in other training sessions you're working on something a whole of a lot easier. So it's not always difficult, it doesn't always have to be so challenging because otherwise what happens is that you're going to bake in a burnout effect for your dog where they're just going to be exhausted, they're going to feel yucky. They may start making mistakes then you're going to get frustrated because obviously that's probably going to be happening because you're training and practicing to actually go to trial and lo and behold, the trials only a month from now and all of a sudden all these false alerts and things start happening and it's just awful. It's this terrible cycle of just yuckiness.

You want to avoid all of that, and one the ways of doing that is by having interval training where you can split up whatever it is you actually need to work on to continue to progress while also interspersing within your training sessions, easier searches that your dog, you're almost guaranteed they're going to come up, they're going to find it, they're gonna think they're a rock star and then you're done. It also helps you as a handler because every single time you go on the line with your dog, whatever happens, whether it's training or trialing, that bakes into your own experience as far as how you feel when you search with your dog.

Another way of putting it is this, when you are either training or trialing, you have basically a piggy bank of confidence that you have in both your dog in yourself. Every single time that you're doing this activity, again, whether you're training or trialing, you are either making deposits into that piggy bank or serious withdrawals. You want that piggy bank of confidence to be overflowing so that if you do have a little bit of a stumble and you make a withdrawal is not that big of a deal. But if you're not careful, your piggy bank could be in default whether there is no confidence in your dog, which then you're basically, you're in a lot trouble, or it's so low that you're not even confident in yourself, so now you're second guessing yourself all the time, or worst case scenario, both. You don't have confidence in your dog, you don't have confidence in yourself and then it's just terrible.

So all this to say that you have to keep a lot of things in mind in Scent Work as it is, there's always a lot going on, but you particularly have to be mindful of how it is that you're approaching this activity as your dog continues to age. This is specially true if you're coming into Scent Work in the mid part of your dog's life. So maybe that they have finished their career in one dog sport and now they're coming into this later in their life and you are particularly interested in competition. If you're interested in competition at all, so maybe you have a younger dog now and you're going to be bit by the bug and you're going to want to go through and do this as long as you possibly can. You definitely still want to keep in mind what is it you're doing, why it is that you're doing that and preventing burnout.

And you may not be doing competing at all. You may just be playing with your dog for fun and if you are, I'm very, very happy about that. Good for you. Every single dog deserves the place network. But even so, even if you're just playing for fun in your house, what you used to play for your games, you may find is now really super challenging for your dog as they continue to age.

You may have put hides that even could just be food in certain parts of your house where maybe your dog need to climb some stairs in order to get to them, and years before they would fly around the house and they'd find them really fast and it was great, and now they're trotting around the house finding them. It's not quite as fast, but they're still finding them. But as they continue age, maybe they just stop trying to find the hides up at the top of the stairs because the stairs hurt.

That's the kinds of things and I'm talking about is trying not to put your dog into those situations where they're put into conflict of I want to be able to play my game, but my body won't let me. And it's a very sad thing. I know. Trust me, I'm going through all kinds of emotions now that my boy just turned six. He's healthy, he's fine, but it's still like I know what's going to be coming in however many years. I'm hoping many, but I also have to be realistic and I have to be mindful as his advocate and as his caretaker that I'm not putting him into situations where he could be basically put at a fork in the road of I want to do this with my mother, but it hurts for me to do that. I don't want to do that to him and I don't think that anyone does these things purposefully. We just forget. All this happens usually pretty slowly, pretty gradually. It kind of sneaks up on us.

So as your dog continues their journey, you want to be mindful of where they are and making sure that you're those adjustments. And I think it's nice when on the competing side of things, there are organizations that recognize that there may be a variety of different reasons. Your dog may be completely young and healthy, but maybe they got injured, maybe they got sick. Whatever the case may be.

I think is a really nice thing that organizations provide competitors with the ability to be a little bit more flexible and urges them to make good choices for their dogs and not place their dogs into situations where potentially we could be asking them to do more than they physically can.

So I hope this episode didn't make you sad, that wasn't the point, but I do think that it's important for us to keep this stuff in mind. This is very in the forefront of my mind because my boy just turned six, obviously. I've always said that like 20 times. You can tell it's weighing on me, but I think if we are just mindful of where our dogs are, if we just stay focused on what's really going on and if we can be balanced in how it is that we're approaching our training so that we're not always making things difficult. We're not always making things challenging. We can ensure that this stays fun for both us and our dogs as long as we're playing with them.

All right. Thanks so much for listening. I hope you found this episode helpful. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.