Ep. 105: Group Classes and Customization

Feb 23, 2024


Dianna L. Santos

Handlers should absolutely advocate for their dogs. They know their dogs best and will be the ones who will decide the short-term and long-term goals for themselves, their dog and their team as a unit. Handlers working with an instructor should view this professional as an integral part of the team. These professionals can ensure all these goals are met, avoid common pitfalls or course correct if necessary. However, doing so can be complicated in a group class setting depending on the circumstances, particularly when we are talking about Scent Work.

In this episode, we discuss why this may be, the logistical realities of group classes and how supplementing attending class with private sessions or virtual training may offer better results. At the end of the day, communication is key and recognizing that instructors and professional trainers are devoted to helping their human and clients succeed.


Speaker 1 (00:00):
Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcast. In this podcast we talk about all things Scent Work, that includes training tips, a behind scenes look of what your instructor or trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode, I want to talk about how challenging it can be to balance our needs to maybe customize or modify things to make it appropriate for our dog, ourselves and our team, and also accepting coaching at the very same time, but it is doable, but it's challenging. So before we start diving into the episode itself, let me do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the Owner and Lead Instructor of Scent Work University. This is an online dog training platform where we provide online courses, seminars, webinars, and eBooks, all centered around Scent Work. So regardless of where you are in your sniffing journey, maybe you're just getting started in Scent Work, you're looking to develop some more advanced skills, you're interested in trialing or you're already competing, maybe in the upper levels, we likely have a training solution for you. Now that you know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the episode itself.

So in this episode I want to talk about how challenging it can be, particularly when we're talking about Scent Work, where you are potentially working with an instructor, let's say in a group class. So you're getting coaching advice from the instructor, but you're also trying to customize so that things can be appropriate for your dog yourself and your individual team. You're like, well, isn't that the whole point, right? Isn't that the whole endeavor of working with an instructor is that that will happen? The answer is yes. We obviously want that to happen. We want to make certain as instructors that our clients are meeting their goals and there probably are going to be different goals. There'll be goals for the dog, there'll be goals for the handler, and there'll be goals for the team. But we also have goals as instructors. So particularly when we're talking about group classes, we likely have designed the lesson plan or what our objectives are for that series of weeks with an idea in mind.

There was a method behind the madness. And what's super interesting about being a dog trainer, being an instructor of dog training of any variety, is you have to be incredibly flexible. If you are married to anything, the dogs will humble you very quickly. You have to be really quick on your feet. You have to be able to make adjustments. But that being said, you still have to get this whole group from point A to point B. Now, your goalposts may change in the middle of the class depending on how everyone is doing. You may have had very grandiose ideas of what they were going to be able to do, but then lo and behold, you stumbled into we have a whole as far as a lack of skills, we need to work on this instead. And that's okay. That doesn't mean that that's a failure.

That is now your goalpost. We're going to go to see instead see if we can fix that missing skillset. Why does this cause issues when we're talking about potentially customizing something for an individual client? On the instructor side, it's actually something that we're pretty darn good at, and we do it in a way, ideally, that no one even notices. So this really lends itself well to Scent Work because we may make tiny adjustments to each of the searches that we set up so that they're more appropriate for the dog, the handler, and the team. Again, with our grand view of we're starting at A, and I want to end up at B, how do I help this team get there? Where things get complicated is if a handler wants to do a certain thing a certain way, and that may be in conflict with what the Instructor had planned, and you may say, well, the Instructor should just do what the handler wants.

And I would agree with that up to a point. And here's where things get a little dicey when you're in a group class. As an Instructor, I'm just going to tell you from an instructor standpoint as far as what my opinion is, my job is to provide everyone with access to the information so that they can make decisions when they go home and they're practicing. I'm not looking for perfection in class, I just don't think that you can achieve it. But I'm trying to show everyone, these are the options of the things that we can try, and then I want you to go home and try it out and let me know how it goes, and if we need to make adjustments and modifications, we absolutely can and should, but there may be certain things at certain points in your journey that if you were to concentrate on those, it may cause you more grief than it's worth.

And we don't want to skip foundational things that are actually rather important. And again, as an instructor, you may have this, again, the method of the madness of I need to lay down this foundation so we can do these other things we're going to be doing in a week or two, and if we somehow miss this piece, you're not going to do very well in the later weeks. And now we're trying to fix that. Why is this an issue? In a group class specifically, there is an awful lot of groupthink in a group class which can have its pros and cons. When you are teaching in a group class, you're not just connecting to all the individuals, you're connecting to the group and you understand that the group is going to kind of move like a mass as they're going along in their progression.

And there may absolutely be some individual strengths and weaknesses, and that's completely fine and expected. But if suddenly you have one part of the mass of the group that is doing something entirely different from everybody else, that can cause a lot of problems. It can cause a lot of friction because now the other students are wondering, am I supposed to be doing that? And it's possible that what this other person is doing is entirely appropriate for them and their dogs, and it would be entirely inappropriate for this other dog. So that's what I mean is that this can get very messy from an instructor standpoint because we have to worry about the whole group as a whole. We care about your individual progress. Absolutely, but I can't cause issues for everyone else because we're deciding that you need to take this other path. So there may be some certain modifications or things that we can do where you can go on your little side adventure that's entirely appropriate for you and your dog, but everyone else is going to stay on this main path Where people have a hard time wrapping their head around this is if they hear about a certain approach, maybe they learned about a new technique, they learned about a different school of thought, they learned about whatever, and they want to give it a try with their dog or they already know about it, but maybe they're coming in to take this group class and they want to be able to do this hook, line and sinker, which is fine, but if everyone else is doing something different that can cause problems.

So lemme try to give you an example. Let's say that your dog is very unsure about working in tight spaces and it is something that you are working on on your own at home and to build up their confidence outside the confines of Scent Work. But for the purposes of class, what the instructor has told you is that, okay, we know that they're a little concerned about the tight spaces. Working in this environment is already an added stressor, so we're not going to be doing too many tight spaces searches because it's just too much. But if you happen to find yourself in a situation where, because it all depends on the dog's definition. We may deem something to be a quote unquote tight space and the dog is like, no, that's a tight space, right? The dog's opinion is the only one that matters. But if you happen to find yourself in a situation where the dog feels as though they may be a little bit boxed in, maybe as you're going into reward in that instance, maybe you're going to call the dog to you to reward so that they don't feel trapped because we don't want to attach negative associations and feelings to the hide.

Perfect. That is a good modification for that dog and that team in those instances and the rest of the class, like if this was my program, I reward at source. This is what I think is very helpful. I think it makes a lot of sense to the dogs. There's a lot of benefits, but I'm going to be really driving that home with everybody else. We are going to have our dogs. They find their hides. You step in, you reward as close to a source as you possibly can. Where this can get problematic is if in that same situation we have the same dog who has this modification that we are putting together again in concert, the instructor is working with the handler, they're explaining it, and everyone's on the same page and everything is copacetic and the dog is not working in a tight space. The handler is not boxing the dog in, the dog is not feeling pressure.

If as the instructor, the instructor sees, we need to underline the importance of source, step in and reward your dog as close to source as possible. If the handler then starts getting into a discussion with the instructor, Nope, I'm not doing that because I want to support my dog the way that I feel I need to, I'm going to call them to me, this is where we can get into an issue that you really can't solve in the middle of class because there's another bunch of people who have to run their dogs. And it's not to say that maybe this handler is wrong, they very well may be correct, but that's a conversation they have to have with their instructor at another time, and then they need to come up with a plan together. So this is what I'm trying to get across is that it's not that the instructor is wrong.

It's not that the handler is wrong, but this is just the realities of group classes is that there's a bunch of you. We have to get you all up. We have to get you all in, get in your searches, feel as though you're getting your money's worth. This is just reality. We can't have anyone taking up all the time for the entire class with their dog. We want to probably have multiple runs. We have to make certain that you have an idea of how you can practice when you go home, and then we can provide you with modifications as need be. At the very same time, the handler can't just take everything hook, line and sinker that the instructor is telling them because they are their dog's advocate and their guardian, and they have an absolute say as far as what their journey is going to be, what their preferences are, what it is that they want to do. So this is where there can be conflict and it could be very difficult to balance that. So I have some suggestions.

Have an open dialogue with your instructor. Don't hide the fact that you are looking into other types of training or that you may have experimented with something that you're interested in something. If something that you're doing in class or in practice doesn't make sense, please talk to your Instructor. This person is being paid to help you, but they can only help you if they know that there's an issue. Have that open dialogue. Don't feel as though, oh, well, they're going to think I'm cheating on them. Oh, I took a webinar with somebody else, or, oh, I sat in on another class or I read a book or whatever. That's not the case. All of the colleagues that I work with, none of them are like that. They will be thrilled that you are interested enough in this that you are researching and that you're looking into things that you want to learn.

And it's all as long as it's within the column of I'm trying to figure out what's best for my dog, myself and my team. If it's just, well, this looks snazzy and cool, I want to try it. Well, there may be different discussions, but basically having that open dialogue and not boxing yourself off because you're worried about the uncomfortable nature that the conversation may take because it may not happen. Additionally, everyone should really recognize what the group class is there for. It's there so that you can get information from the instructor on how you can practice at home or on your field trip searches, practicing outside of class. I try to when I was still teaching in person, drive this home all of the time. I'm not looking for you to get the exercise completely perfect here. I am merely giving you the information so that you can go and you can perfect it those other days you're not here.

And then we're going to see a whole lot of progress when you're here again next time. This environment right here, we don't have unlimited amount of time. There's all these other people who have to run. It's a novel environment. It may even be a stressful environment for your dog, for yourself, for the whole group. For me, this is not ideal. They're just not. Group classes are wonderful in many ways, but they're not the ideal place to be learning things sometimes. What do we always say, if we're going to teach a dog something new, we want to bring them to a familiar low distraction area. Then why are we doing that at a group class that's held in the middle of a training facility where there are tons of other classes going on, a bunch of other dogs and people, and there's all this novel stimuli.

Doesn't make a whole lot of sense, does it? So we're not looking for the dog to be perfect in this instance. I'm also not looking for you as a handler to be perfect because it's next to impossible. You have to try to balance all of these things as a handler. You have to listen to what the instructor person, me, is saying. You have to try to internalize that, translate it to your dog so that they can understand it, and then you have to try to figure out why any of this is happening in the first place. Lots of luck. This is difficult, this is challenging. Why does any of this matter? Because if we can frame what the group class is really there for, then we can avoid some of these conflict points that handlers may find themselves with their instructors because they may be looking for something that the group class is not there to provide.

If you need to have a lot of individual help, if you're trying to make sense of a new training, school of thought, a new methodology, you're trying to work on your handling or you're trying to really ask a lot of those "why" questions, maybe there's just a lot of modifications that you want to try, that's fine. But if you want to get coached through all of that, if you actually want to see the progression, working one-on-one with your instructor is the way to go a private session. And you don't have to do that all the time. Maybe you have your regular group class that meets every week and then once a month you're doing a private session so that you can really make that progress and you can incorporate some of those modifications. But there's been different types of conversations in the community over the last couple of months.

And again, all these things are cyclical. They come up and then they go away, and then they come up again where people have been venting their frustrations with their instructors, which I find so sad for a number of reasons. One, social media is not the place for you to be trying to vaguely vent about your instructor. It's just not. We have to remind ourselves that the Scent Work community is extraordinarily small and there's a real good chance that your instructor is on there. It's probably going to get back to them one way or another. And that's not fun. That's not a great thing, particularly because I know for myself, and I know for all the colleagues that I work with, we put in our heart and everything into what we do. So to find out through the grape vine, oh, by the way, Sally Sue or Billy Bob, they're bashing you over wherever because they don't feel that you have their dog's best interest at heart.

I mean, take the wind out of my sails why don't you! Like, my God! Of course, I want to have their dog's best interest at heart. So it's just not a good way of going about it. But the other part of that conversation that I think is almost more insidious is then there's the piling on of, well, that instructor or that trainer, they aren't advocating for your dog because they aren't open-minded enough to the modifications that you want to make. And that's why I wanted to put this podcast out because if you're not there, and this goes for anyone in any situation, but if you're not there and you don't know all the situations and all the particulars, it's really hard to make that statement because as I was explaining before, there are so many other factors that that Instructor or trainer have to be mindful of.

Just for safety purposes, let's say as an example, there is a group class. There is, the way that it's set up is the dogs are with the handlers, but they're not in crates and they're all spaced out among the space. And the space has some gating and stuff, but nothing really overly secure for the actual search area itself. It's the best that they can do. This is how the setup is. And this handler is like, I want to work on my dog working away from me and I want them to be working confident off leash. So I'm going to be doing the search off leash. And the instructor says, sorry, that's just not safe because we have all these other dogs in here and it's just not a good idea. So we're going to keep your dog on leash. You can work on distance. I have a longer long line if you need it.

And the handler's like, no, I have to do this off leash. You can't do it off leash in here. I'm sorry it's not safe. And if that doesn't make sense to you, like, oh, that's just so ridiculous, that instructor's being silly. Okay, fine. We'll say that we're searching out in a parking lot and now they want to search with our dog off leash. And by the way, the parking lot on the other side of it is a highway. You would not catch me ever allowing a handler to have their dog off leash in that situation. I don't care how much they want to work off leash. You need to figure out some other situation outside of class to do that so that it's safe so that your dog doesn't get run over by a car. I don't need that in my life. Thank you. And again, it's a reasonable request from the instructor.

I cannot do this modification for you. We are not set up for it, but I think it's a wonderful thing for you to want to work off leash in a larger area. We can maybe work together on that. Maybe I have access to another large fenced in area. Maybe we can do a private session. I can give you some referrals, whatever the case may be. But we can't do it right now because it's literally not safe to do. That's the thing I'm trying to get across. And on the flip side of that is if you have a handler, they notice that their dog is not succeeding. They know that their dog is struggling and they are giving suggestions because they lived with their dog. They know their dog best and they're advocating for their dog, but the instructor is being deaf to those things. Then that handler needs to talk to the instructor outside of class and be like, by the way, we just need to get on the same page because I know that Fido needs X, Y, or Z and they're not getting it right now.

Would the class still be a good idea? Would I be able to work with you virtually? Can we do something one-on-one, what can we do so that this can be better? Because right now I just don't feel that it's working. Have a conversation, but recognize that particularly with Scent Work, there are certain things that we may just not be able to do because of time. So I'll wrap up with this to try to help this make more sense. Anyone who has listened to either my podcast or have you done any training with me knows that I am very big about learning moments where I just want the handler to just breathe and wait and allow the dog to have the learning moment, however long that takes when we are not in a class, because that very well may take five to even 10 minutes sometimes. Sometimes these things take a long time for the dog to do, but they're powerful.

They're so powerful to allow the dog to make that connection, to have that moment of clarity. And it would be such a disservice to interrupt them. I probably don't have 10 minutes for each client to find one hide unless I only have three clients in my class because they're not going to want to run just once. So this is the balance that we have to try to find as instructors. It's like, okay, I'm designing searches to try to ensure that clients are coming in, they're finding hides and they are being productive. But tick tock, I have to worry about how much time we have. I have another class that would like to go as well. I hope that people can appreciate that there's a difference between what we can accomplish in class and what you should be applying from class in your private sessions when you are working on your own for your practice sessions.

I hope that makes sense. But absolutely, people should be advocating for their dogs and absolutely people should be learning as much as possible. And as I mentioned in one of our latest episodes, growth is a good thing. Being in the same exact position and spot that you were when you started ages ago, that's not great. We want to make certain, we're always evaluating and changing and trying things out and see what may work better. I think that's fine. I think that's a good thing. But having a more realistic expectation and understanding where there may be some of these conflict points that are just the nature of the beast, but they're completely workable. And it doesn't mean that your instructor doesn't care about you or your dog or your team. It doesn't mean that if you're an instructor that a client is being difficult. These things can just happen, but they're completely solvable.

They just may not be solvable 100% within the class itself. So a little bit of a different episode than usual. This may seem like really super specific, but these are the conversations that I've been seeing. Bubbling up again, just really makes me sad that a lot of these conversations that I've seen lately over the last couple of months is clearly these clients have been working with their instructors for a while. And to have that much time and effort and money invested into that relationship between an instructor and a client and a client with an instructor, and to have it broken down, we're just going to go to social media and just blast everybody is just sad. It makes me very upset. So I think hey guys, look behind the curtain a little bit, this is all the machinations, what it's like to actually put on one of these classes, this is what the reality is that we're working with.

It's not that as instructors we're trying to hold you back or we're, oh, I'm not going to let you learn about anything else. Or I'm just putting up arbitrary true blockades to your growth. None of that is true. It can feel that way. I can completely appreciate how potentially if you get upset enough, you may think that, but it's probably not true. So instead, recognizing what the role of the group class is, what some of the limitations that come with the group class that the instructor does absolutely care about you and your dog, but they have to care about the group and that the fact that they're trying to guide the group through a journey, that there is a method to the madness, that there is an idea they have in mind as far as what they want to do, and they are probably already making so many adjustments that you don't even know about that they may not be able to make the specific or very radical type of adjustments that you may request or think that you need for your dog. But there are ways of working around that, and it may be working with that Instructor one-on-one in private sessions. It may be just having it be known like, okay, everyone else is going to be doing this exercise doing X, Y, or Z, and I'm going to be doing one, two, and three, and this is why. No problem. That's fine.

I hope this makes a little bit of sense. It just, whenever I see these kinds of things, they eat away at the back of my brain and then I'm like, I have to talk about this so that I can move on to other things. But as always, we would love to hear from all of you, have you ever experienced this kind of thing? And again, I've seen it happen in all types of dog trainings, not just in Scent Work. It happens across the board. But have you ever experienced this? And if so, does this episode help a little bit better appreciate why it may be happening and how you may be able to come up with a different solution? Would love to hear from you. As always, if you have any topics that you guys are interested in, please feel free to let me know. We would love to make certain that we're offering what you guys want.

Also, we are going to be releasing some episodes where we've done interviews with some of our instructors. They are literally there. I just have to finish editing them. I just need a moment to do that. But those should be released very, very soon. I'm very excited about them because there's some really good conversations. We're going to be continuing our Spotlight series, so if you know of any individuals or businesses that are giving back to the Scent Work community that you would like us to highlight, please let me know. Again, the more that we can share, good, the happier I am. So by all means, feel free to let me know about that and I'd be more than happy to do an interview with an individual or business. Alright guys, thank you so much. Please give a cookie to your puppies for me. You spent a while listening to me. Happy Training. We look forward to seeing you soon.

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