Ep. 106: Embracing the Grey

Mar 1, 2024


Dianna L. Santos

Dealing with absolutes is riddled with issues. Yet it is far too common for statements containing "always" and "never" to be thrown around when discussing Scent Work. "Black and white" type thinking can be problematic to stay the very least.

In this episode, we delve into the importance of embracing the grey to take into account all the variables including the dog, handler, team, search area, environmental factors and more.


Dianna L. Santos (00:00):
Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcast. In this podcast we talk about all things that Scent Work. That can include training tips, a behind scenes circle of which your Instructor or trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode, I want to talk about the importance of recognizing the grey. 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 dodge training platform that provides online courses, seminars, webinars, and eBooks that are all centered around Scent Work. So regardless of where you are in your stepping journey, if you're just getting started, you're looking to develop some more advanced skills. You're interested in trialing or already competing in the upper levels, we likely have a training solution for you. So I should know a little bit more about me. Let's step into the episode itself.

So in this episode I want to talk about the importance of being in the grey. When we're talking about summer, what on earth is that? That's basically recognizing that there are situations where we may opt to do something in training or how we're approaching a search or what we're doing with our handling that nine times out of 10 maybe we would not otherwise do, or that it could be helpful in certain situations, but not so helpful in others. And also to recognize that there may be a progression that we're doing and that as long as there's a reasoning behind it that we're okay, maybe we can find something that's more efficient, maybe we'll change our minds later, but basically trying to get away from an all or nothing or black or white, or yes or no absolutes. Absolutes really aren't great. We're talking about training and learning and just life.

Things are usually more complicated and set work is no different. There's lots of different factors that are affecting every single search that we do. The choices that we make or what we do may change depending on what we're doing. So let me give you an example. Once a dog understands the concept of finding a target odor, hide, Birch, Anise, Clove, Wintergreen, Thyme, whatever, it's, and they're now moving on to finding multiple hides. So there are multiple hides out in the space, particularly if this team is interested in competition. We want, the ultimate goal is dog finds hide. Dog is rewarded for finding hide dog moves on to find next hide that is missing the unfound hide. We don't want the dog to stay at the found hide and look at it like a Pez dispenser, be like, give me more cookies for this one.

I don't want to find any new ones. That's obviously not the goal. We want them to find all the hides that are missing. So then we come up to, well, how do we approach this? Right? That's our goal. A common thing that is referred to as like, okay, well let's make this clear to the dog. You're only going to get paid for this hide once. That seems like a perfectly fine approach right now. I'm going to give you an, it depends situation. Let's say that we have a dog who is fairly new to being imprinted on hides fairly new of being imprinted on this given odor, and this dog also tends to be, let's say, lower in confidence. They are very concerned about being wrong. So I have two things working against me. The dog is still trying to figure out the game and I'm concerned about the dog's confidence.

I have a couple of options available to me. I can spend more time working on singular hides within my search areas in all the different search elements, interiors, exteriors, vehicles and containers. Getting them really solid on finding singular hides, and I think there's a lot of value in that, making certain that they know how to work out these different puzzles in these different environments and then making those searches potentially more complicated or just going to field trip locations to find those hides. Potentially creating something that's going to require a little bit more effort, potentially doing mazes and problem solving searches that stretches the dog a little bit more where they need to have a little bit more effort to stick with it. I think all of that's great, but maybe I'm also trying to get the dog to have more drive to find more, and I'm starting to see something where the dog is kind of quitting, where they're like, oh, I found this one.

I'm done. So now I need to let them know where there actually are more opportunities for you to find more things. So I would really like us to move on to two hides. One of the things that we can do in that situation that's really easy and pretty fail proof is dog comes up, they find hide. Number one, we reward them heavily, tell them how great they are as they move off, we're then going to pick up the hide that they found. We're going to stick it inside of our pocket and the dog is in go off because now there's no hide for them to return to. Perfect. What a great solution.

We can't stay there forever though. At some point we're going to have to leave that other hide down. So the dog has to make the actual choice of moving on to find another hide, even though that's available to them to potentially play the Pez dispenser game. Let's say that in this situation, we've opted to, because of all these different things that we're noticing, dog is still kind of fairly new-ish on imprinting on this odor. Maybe they've been imprinted in different search elements, but they haven't been doing it for a very long time. We have this confidence issue where they tend to quit if they're thinking that they're going to get it wrong basically, and now they're starting to be like, oh, I only ever need to find one, so bye. So we want to start implementing that. There are additional hides in that situation. I'm going to try to set it up to ensure that the dog is 99.9% of the time not going to return to that first hide, but what happens if they do?

There's a very good chance I'm going to at least give them a singular cookie because I have these other things that I'm contending with. I'm going to try my best for the 99% of the time that they're not going to do that. That's not going to be a viable option for them. But if they were, they're still going to get the contract of odor pays. Here's a singular cookie. It's not the big giant reward event that they got when they first found it, and then we're going to move on to find more hides potentially. Now I am going to pick up that odor vessel and then move along. What I'm trying to describe here is in principle, and in theory, you don't pay the dog for returning to hides makes perfect sense. You may find in practice, depending on what you do and the situation that presents itself to you, you may have to fudge that a little bit and recognize that you are fudging it and how can you get closer to the goal of the dog isn't returning to hides, looking for more reinforcement.

Maybe they're returning to a hide to get information. So what I'm trying to get across here is absolutes can get us into a lot of trouble, even if it's just an absolute of what our preference is or that we're trying to avoid an issue. So let me give you another example. When it comes to Scent Work, particularly again where we're talking about competition, something that people are very concerned about is distractors. My dog is going to obsess about distractors. I'm not going to know if they're checking out a distractor. I want to work on proofing distractors, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So one of the absolutes that kind of goes around in the community is once your dog has been trained to be imprinted on a particular target, odor, Birch, Anise, Clove, Wintergreen, Thyme, whatever, then you're only ever going to use that type of thing.

Meaning that you're never going to ask your dog to find a primary hide food or toys because that would counteract your dog's ability to find hides when there potentially are distractors in the search area. If we stop to think about this, it makes sense on the surface level, right? I want my dog to only find Birch when there's Birch in the search area. I don't want them finding bagels. I don't want them finding ropes. I don't want them finding balls. I don't want them finding steak. I want them to find the Birch. So great. The way that we avoid that is we never have the dog purposefully search for steak or bagels or balls and ropes and things. Only have them find Birch and then we reward them really heavily for the Birch. However, what I would argue is that our dogs are brilliant and there may be a lot of benefit to rebuilding some skills using primary, and I've done this multiple times with my own dogs, but also with clients, and I know that you can actually have a parallel track where you have some searches where there's odor out there that I want the dog to find, and I have other searches where there is primary hides that I want the dog to find and there isn't confusion.

Why would you do the Santos?

Let's say that I'm starting to witness a degradation of the quality of the search. The dog is kind of lax basically coming into the search area, they're kind of like, ugh, whatever. They're showing signs of frustration or confusion. The handler is also showing signs of frustration and confusion. Those are typically signals and signs that there's been a breakdown somewhere. There's a hole or multiple in our training that we have to fix, and I find the fixing those holes with primary can really be helpful because they can take out all of the wishy washiness of, do I reward them now? Am I close enough? Did they actually decide all that stuff? There are so many parts to this on both the dog side and the handler side that we want to try to make this clear, and if the dog is being tasked, find this piece of hot dog.

It's really clear to them when they're successful because they get to eat the hot dog. But if I'm saying find this Birch, but they have a history of not knowing exactly what is it that I'm being rewarded for? What does it mean to find the Birch? How close do I have to get? Do I have to do anything? How long do I have to stay there? Am I going to get rewarded? Where am I going to get rewarded? How am I going to get reward? There's so many open questions possibly that could be contributing to the confusion, so I could potentially say, okay, we're going to evaluate our search. We've seen this dip. We've seen some things go awry. Is it the type of hide the dog is trying to work out? Is it a fundamental misunderstanding about the game? Is it just that the dog is burnt out?

Have they just been trialing to death and they just need to have a little bit of reinvigoration and the game? Have we gone too quickly or maybe we made assumptions the dog has skills that they don't. Is there handling issues? Are there stressors on the handler side? Do they have a misunderstanding of what it is they need to do in any given moment? Where is the breakdown? And it's possible that we have lots of breakdowns, but then I'm going to want to try to, once I've identified that, determine how I can plug all that up with actual skills and I want to distill this as much as I possibly can. So if I can identify this dog is having a hard time solving this kind of puzzle, I then want to take that puzzle out of whatever scenario I had it in, find a really low distractor, low distraction, familiar location and offer that type of puzzle, and I want the dog to immediately understand when they have correctly solved it, in my opinion, primary does that excellently, that's even a word, does it really?

Well. I can do it with pairing too. However, if there's a lot of negative association that potentially has been attached to Birch, as an example, pick your essential oil. It doesn't matter. I don't want that to carry over into the sessions that I'm trying to fix stuff, so I may be able to help the dog develop the skills and have a different emotion about solving that by going back to primary and then start incorporating paired hides and then non-paired hides and go from there. The point being is that none of that is possible as a possibility. Doesn't mean that's the only solution that you could possibly think of. Of course not, but none of that is even on the table. If I say, oh, once the dog is on odor, you can't possibly have them find primary. Again, it's just simply not true. It's just false.

It's not correct, and it may actually be very valuable to you. Now also, there are consequences to everything that we do, and yes, I may now have to really keep in the back of my mind, I have reincorporated primary. Have I been careful with how I've done that? Have I made it clear to the dog? If there is Birch as an example in the search area that we want you to find the Birch, I'm not going to ask you find the Birch and find the hot dog in two separate hide placements. I'm never going to do that. So if there's Birch out there, find the Birch and ignore the hot dog, if that makes any sense. And our dogs are really smart if we're careful with how we do our training and if we are mindful about how our dogs are perceiving these things, but if we close ourselves off because we're so stuck in black and white and yes and no and always never, we're not allowing ourselves to recognize that that's just not the way that learners learn.

That's not the way that life works it. I will give you another example. In my program, I follow the K9 Nose Work training method. I base everything around that pretty much, but my preference is to have dogs start by finding food, and I just happen to find that more often than not, a lot of handlers and dogs find it to be more rewarding. They find it to be for the handler standpoint, it can be a lot easier as far as a mechanical skill from the dogs. A lot of dogs, we can find the type of food and tree that they really find rewarding. It works. It doesn't mean it's going to work for every dog, and there are some dogs if food is okay, but toys are like, wow, if I were to just say, Nope, tough. Your dog has to do this with food, even though they've told us in no uncertain terms that they would prefer to do it with toys, that would be ridiculous, right?

That you have to take into account what the dog wants. Their opinion matters a lot, and that absolutely can take some creativity. I will be the first to admit that I am far more competent and experienced in using food than I am with toys. I'm okay with using toys. There are some instructors and trainers who are like savants when it comes to using toys across the board. I've had to stretch myself sometimes trying to think through, okay, how can we do this with pairing? How can we do this with rewarding? How can we make certain the dog understands? It's really about the hide rooms. We get the pairing and not just the toy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. How can I explain how to use the toy with the dog to the handler? I may be able to do it, but I have to be able to think about that in my brain and then translate that in a way that's going to make sense to the client, and I don't think I've done an excellent job with that throughout my whole career.

I think I've gotten better, but there are definitely some of my colleagues are very, very good. So the point being is that if I were to just dig my heels in and say, no, everyone has to start on food no matter what. Even if I noticed that a given client wasn't doing as well, starting with the food as I would've expected, but they clearly showed they would've preferred the toy, that'd be silly. That that'd be so silly. I'll give one more example to try to help this make sense. I have in my program, we recommend that everyone start with the Introduction to Scent Work course, and then it can go off into two different branches. You can stay where you are hunting for primary, so food or toys, or you can start working on paired odor, and I could force everyone into the primary path. I could force everyone into the odor path. That would be a disservice to the clients because let's say that I have a really super confident dog who totally gets the game, didn't need any kind of modifications. The handler has lots of training experience. Maybe they are even an Instructor or they've been training for a really long time and lots of different dog sports. Maybe they've even done Scent Work before. This is a pretty solid team, right? They go through the Introduction Scent Work course and they just rock it, knock it out of the park.

I'm not seeing anything that is giving me pause. I'm not seeing anything that is dictating. You know what? I think that they would do better if they were to stay in primary this dog, just the opposite, looks as though they are ready to be Introducing Birch as an example. It would be ridiculous for me to say, no, just stay on primary just because No, they can go into the Introducing Birch course and probably do totally fine. Whereas if another client did the Introduction to Scent Work course and we're making modifications with every single exercise for the dog or the handler or both, it would be absolutely obscene for me to say, oh yeah, no, we're just going to push along into Introducing Birch when the dog may not be a hundred percent certain on what it is that they're doing. They're not really convinced that this is even a good activity yet.

The handler is uncertain. Why are we going to introduce the thing that could be the basis for their whole career, particularly if they're interested in competition and potentially have that be a bad situation when I can help cultivate some of these additional skills using primary where I'm not potentially going to poison Birch. So even just the way the program is designed is with these gray areas in mind is that no two teams or going to be the same, and there are off-ramps in all of these different programs. Let's say as an example, we had that super confident team, right? This confident experience team, they go into, they finish the Introduction Scent Work course. We're like, great, perfect. Go ahead into Introducing Birch. They tackle that. They're doing fantastic. They're now going to tackle Exteriors and Vehicles, and all of a sudden we recognize that vehicles are a big issue.

Lo and behold, the dog is not overly fond of figuring out how to leave odor to get to odor. They don't want to work out the barrier problem, and they're a little iffy about the vehicle. Why are we going to try to stay with Birch in that situation, particularly if we have any kind of inkling that there's fear when we can do the same exact learning using primary. That dog may be on two parallel paths. They're tackling their interior, container and exterior searches, finding Birch, and we are building the skills they need for vehicle searches using primary. This is the kind of thing that I mean is we absolutely can have preferences in what we want to do. We can have successes using whatever tools or approaches or whatever, but always and never yes or no black or white, it can get us into a lot of trouble.

So instead, we want to think through in what scenario would this work and how could I potentially change it? How can I morph it, how can I modify it, how can I customize it? And it's not as though this is just something that instructors or trainers have to do. All of us should be doing this all of the time because our dogs are changing. We are changing constantly, so we need to be flexible to make certain that we're not shooting ourselves in the foot or banging our head against the wall. Pick your analogy simply because we're not being flexible enough. So I hope that makes sense, that it's not that these pieces of advice are necessarily wrong or that there's no validity behind any of them. That's not true. So to go back to the very beginning of, okay, we don't want dogs returning to hides. They've already found, don't reward hides the dog's already found on its face like we talked about before. That makes sense. But there may be situations where we would, as long as there's a reason why and we can think through how we can then progress to get to the end point that we're looking for.

I hope that makes sense, but I want to hear what you guys think. Are there any other kind of absolutes, these always endeavors that you may have encountered or you just have in your own program? I'm sure that I have some that I have referred to that I've said that I've done, and I'm sure I haven't actually stuck with them. I'm sure that in the moment I've actually made adjustments or if I didn't that it bit me in the butt and then I did. So we want to think about that, really try to analyze what it is that we're doing, and if we are making those modifications and changes, that's a good thing. We just want to think about these things a little bit more, but as always want to hear from you guys. What do you think? We'll be posting this episode up on our Scent Work University site as well as our social media.

So we would love for you to comment there. We are going to be posting those interviews with our instructors. I am finalizing the edits. We're hoping to get those posted soon. They're very good conversations, so we're looking forward to listening to those. We'll also be continuing our spotlight series. We're getting some interviews planned for that, so keep an eye out for that. We're also going to be continuing our Instructor series, giving a behind the scenes look of what instructors may be thinking about how they may be developing their different skills, all that good jazz. Just again, I think it's a helpful thing for us to talk about. But as always, if there's something that you are interested in us covering in our podcast, please let me know. I definitely want to make certain that we're offering the things that you all are interested in. I want to thank you guys so very much for listening to me today. I hope you all found this episode at least thoughtful, right? Give you some ideas to mull over and think about, but thanks so much. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.

1 comment

  • Cindy Green March 1, 2024 at 9:28 am

    So needed to hear this today ! Thank you .

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