Ep. 115: Keeping It Safe: The Choices We Make Matter

Jun 29, 2024

The choices we make regarding our reactive, sensitive and aggressive dogs is an important conversation to have. It is paramount that safety be a significant factor. This is especially true when we are considering whether to trial with our dog or not. We delve into this important topic in this podcast episode.

If your dog is struggling with behavioral issues, please seek out professional, reputable help. This professional should be experienced in working with behavioral cases. Ideally, this professional will come and meet with you for an in-person initial consultation, to get a full grasp of what is going on. Afterwards, they may provide virtual follow-up sessions. 


Dianna L. Santos



Here are some resources to find reputable professionals with behavioral expertise:

Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT)

International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC)

Other professional dog trainer directories:

Karen Pryor Academy

CATCH Dog Trainers Academy

The Association of Professional Dog Trainers 

Other resources:


Behavior Vets

Grisha Stewart - BAT Training

Conference Unleashed - Leslie McDevitt (Control Unleashed) and other speakers

Relationship Centered Training Skills for Reactive Dogs with Suzanne Clothier

Emma Parsons - Click to Calm and Teaching the Reactive Dog Class

Fired Up, Frantic and Freaked Out by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Virtual Trialing Options:

Cyber Scent Work

NACSW Skills Challenge

Fenzi Team Nosework


Dianna L. Santos (00:00):
Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcadt. In this podcast we talk about all things Scent Work, that includes training tips, a behind scenes look at what your instructor or trial official is going through and much more. In this episode, we're going to be talking about truly setting up our dogs for success, particularly if they have behavioral issues such as reactivity, fearfulness, or aggression. 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 that are all designed to help you in the world of set work. So regardless of where you are starting, maybe you're just getting started in set work, you're looking to develop some more advanced skills, you're interested in competing or maybe you're even competing at the highest levels, we likely have a training solution for you. So now to know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the episode itself.

So in this episode, I think it's a very important conversation for us to have about how it is that we can truly set our dogs up for success, particularly dogs who may fall into the categories of my dog is reactive. My dog is very fearful or my dog is even aggressive when it comes to Scent Work. Scent Work is an interesting activity because from the outset of it, from the creation of it, it's supposed to be open to all dogs and it can absolutely be incredibly beneficial for all dogs to participate in the activity. We may actually even see dogs who do have some behavioral issues. You start to see improvements in those dogs when they're playing the game, when they are doing training sessions, when they're practicing in a safe space, you start seeing them build confidence. There is a deepening in the relationship between the dog and the handler.

There's a lot of good stuff that can happen from the activity, but then separate from the activity is the sport and the sport is where we are going to trials in order to test our skills, both for the dog, the handler, and the team. And these are 99.9% of the time in person and they are events where there's lots of other dogs, there's lots of other people, and everyone is pretty much in a novel location. Why does any of that matter if Scent Work can help my dog build confidence? It's something that again, a lot of instructors and trainers who are working with dogs as far as behavior modification, they're incorporating Scent Work into those behavior modifications. Then I should be going to trial too, and that's not true. But you may say, but look, there are organizations that say that they're open to reactive dogs.

Yes, but there's a very important caveat to that. So let's break this down. At a trial you're going to have, again, I cannot stress this enough, so many other dogs, so many other people in a very new potentially bustling and chaotic space. This is a pressure cooker for any dog. I don't care if your dog is really super stable. They're really friendly. They are like, if you made the perfect dog inside of a test tube, it doesn't matter. Those dogs are still going to feel that stress. Why does that matter? If we have a dog who already has reactivity is very, very fearful, particularly if they are aggressive, those dogs need help. They need help from their people to provide management, to set them up for success. That typically means that we're making choices for those dogs, the types of places we're bringing them to, the kinds of situations we're putting them into and the types of activities that we're doing.

There are many, many, many situations at trial that if you had a dog who was extremely reactive, extremely sensitive or aggressive, would be entirely inappropriate, the dog would not be able to cope with it. And when dogs can't cope with things, they do things in order to respond to being unable to cope with it. They may lunch, they may try to lunge and bark. They may use their teeth and bite, or they may just completely fall inwards inside of themselves, which is also damaging to the dog. What I'm trying to point out here is that yes, we want all dogs to be playing the activity of Scent Work in ways that are safe for those dogs. Trialing is not appropriate for a lot of dogs, and this is something that people just get like what? All dogs who are trainings that should be trialing. That's not true.

It just may not be safe or appropriate for that dog. And here's the thing is that again, we're talking about big buckets of dogs, right? Let's talk about the safety piece. If we have a dog who wants to use their teeth when they're in those types of situations where they feel as though they're overwhelmed, that's a huge problem. Again, I cannot stress this enough. There are so many other dogs and so many other people at trials. Sometimes there are people at trials who don't have any dog knowledge. They are there as volunteers. Maybe their family members are friends of the people who are competing or the actual trial hosts because we need bodies to do these trials and they may not have an understanding that your dog is telling them in no uncertain terms, if you take a wrong step, I'm going to nail you.

They have no idea. It is entirely unfair for us to expect that everyone everywhere that we go is going to have a PhD in canine behavior because they don't the same exact expectation. If you are to have that kind of dog, you're supposed to understand that when you just go out in public that if you know that your dog wants to use their teeth first and ask questions later, you should be having that dog in a muzzle anytime they leave your home. You should absolutely be working with a reputable professional trainer or behaviorist, potentially even a veterinary team to figure out how you can properly help your dog. And if you can help your dog, which is another conversation, it's not normal for your dog to be biting people. It's just not, and it's also not acceptable and it's not safe. So that's why I really am passionate about this.

I literally started a business I co-founded it with my partner Sean McMurray. We started Cyber Scent Work because we understand the value of the activity of Scent Work having dogs play the game in safe places. Oftentimes at home, particularly those dogs have any kind of behavioral issues because we don't want them going to an in-person trial where they're more likely to make a drastic, horrible, catastrophic mistake that can cost the dog their lives can permanently scar another dog or a person or worse, even if it's not physical mentally, and that's not okay. I'm really passionate about this because I had one of these dogs. I was quite literally on voluntary house arrest with my dog for five years that I had him because he was dangerous. I know what I'm talking about with this. It's not okay for us to just say, well, I want to be able to do all the things with my dog.

If your dog is not safe, you have to be responsible and not bring them into situations where they have the high likelihood of hurting someone, whether that be a person or another dog or you. It's awful when you're at a trial and a dog is redirecting on their person because they're so stressed because the dog cannot cope with the trial environment and it kills you inside because you know that you know what? They probably are a really good team when they're in a safe space. Scent Work may have been a fantastic activity for this dog when they're in safe situations, which means doing this at home. Maybe if you're working with an instructor going to the training facility under very strict management rules, maybe it is going to the friend's house that was part of your dog's safe bubble. They love your friend, that's fine, that's great, but this idea that we have to try to push every single team that's doing the game of Scent Work into trialing is incorrect, and I have to be very clear about this.

At no point should anyone be making an excuse for a dog biting another dog or biting a person. It's not okay. We need to have these conversations and stop having this. It's not normal when putting on a trial. You have a lot of people that are involved in the entire enterprise of the actual trial. You have the host, you have any staff members, you have the trial officials, and you have volunteers. None of these people should be fearing for their physical safety to be putting on this trial. Now, we all have to agree, yes, any dog can bite that is true and these people are going to be taking steps to try to ensure that doesn't happen. But if you know again that there's a 99% chance that your dog is going to bite or even a 50% chance that your dog is going to bite, they shouldn't be going to trial.

It's just not okay. Well, maybe I can bring them with a muzzle to the trial. No. I can tell you here in the United States, there is not an organization that's part of competition that you can bring a dog who has any propensity to be biting people. They are not allowed to go to those trials. It's just not allowed here in the United States because it's not safe. You're asking too much from everyone else around you. You're asking way too much for yourself to make sure that this is going to go without a hitch. You're also asking way too much for the dog. Those titles and ribbons are not worth anything against how it is. You're able to set your dog up for success, and I can tell you from my own experience when I was a trial official and as I'm an instructor and also again owning one of these dogs, these dogs do not need to trial.

It's not going to help them as far as they're already so stressed when you bring them into this environment after you may have been spending a long and large amount of time building up all of this wonderful history with them that I'm going to keep you safe. I'm going to be managing the environment. I'm going to make really good choices about what we do, where we do it, and how we do it so that you know, dog, you and me were in this together and the dog was like, okay, I will actually trust you to keep me safe, and then all of a sudden we go to this place, it's like, wow, I really don't feel safe here at all and I'm expected to perform. It's not okay. And again, the fact that every other dog sport again in the United States makes it very clear that if your dog even grumbles at another dog, you're basically going to be excused.

There's a reason for that. What I'm trying to get across here is that there again is this misunderstanding between the activity of Scent Work and the sport of Scent Work. I understand that people want desperately to say, but my dog is really good and I'm sure that they are. I'm sure they are incredibly talented. I'm sure the two of you as a team when you're tackling searches in appropriate places are very good. That's why we created Cyber Scent Work, and again, we're not the only virtual option. There are the skills challenges through NACSW, Fenzi Dog Sport Academy has their own team titles. There are other options out there just like there's virtual rally competitions, there's virtual canine parkour competitions, there's virtual competition obedience competitions, there's virtual agility competitions. For this reason, there has been a recognition in the dog sport world that these dogs should not be at trial, not okay for anyone.

It's not okay for the dog themselves. It's not okay for their handler. It's absolutely not okay for the other dogs or other competitors, volunteers, the trial staff, spectators, just the public that may be watching that could be at risk. I have a unique perspective because I've been there. I know what it's like to be like I own a loaded gun, and I took that very, very seriously because I would never forgive myself if my dog, because he could have absolutely killed another dog, and he was big and powerful. If he wanted to, he could have killed a person. He was serious business. He was my baby and I loved him and he loved me. He was great in our home, but I had to take a lot of steps to make sure that if we did have to take him somewhere, I had to take him to the vet. It was a whole big reduction. I had to take him, had to wonderful support with the instructors that I was working with. We would have X pens and he'd be inside of a crate and be the crate would be inside of a closet. It was like a whole thing.

Even with that, even as careful as I was being, I understand that I got lucky. A lot of that was pure luck and that's not enough. We can't just hope that everything's going to be okay. We have to make good choices. So I want to offer some things for people to think about. If you are doing Scent Work right now with your dog and your dog doesn't like other dogs, they are reactive. They may see another dog when they're on leash and they go, oh, I hate them, and maybe they stare. They get really stiff. Their tail goes up, they okay. They are reactive towards other dogs. They don't have a bite history. They aren't flipping out at the end of their leash. They haven't tried to attack other dogs and they aren't redirecting on you. You know what? I would still strongly encourage you to be working with an instructor and a trainer who's reputable, who has a background in behavior so they can help you and your dog develop a behavior modification plan to basically teach your dog something else that they could be doing where a lot of the time these dogs quote don't like other dogs because they're worried what that other dog is going to do.

So this professional that you'd be working with would be able to give you skills to then teach to the dog that they don't have to be obsessing about that other dog. And a lot of it is making sure that there's a long history that dogs aren't bothering your dog, that your dog can trust you to keep them safe. A dog that fits that kind of description, you probably could either way, you could either just choose to trial or not. They probably would be all right, but again, you would be wanting to work with your professional person that is partnering with you to make those kinds of assessments. If you have a dog who doesn't like other dogs, but they want to hurt other dogs, they are trying to inflict injury onto other dogs or they already have, these dogs should not be trialing full, no, if ands or buts about it, they do not belong on trial grounds. And I'm sure there'll be people like, oh, that's not true. It is. We need to make certain that we're keeping everyone safe. I will also put myself into this category after I had Zeus who was my aggressive boy, I then had the distinct privilege of going a full 180 and I brought valor into my home and he was the same breed. He was a doberman and he was the most stable, sweet behaviorally, sound versatile, can do anything dog ever. And I guarded that with my life.

I would have been quite someone to deal with. If someone else's dog had tried to go after him and potentially ruin that, ooh, it would've been bad. But that's the point, right, is I used to have that dog Zeus who could have ruined, not to mention very seriously injure someone else's dog. I've been on both sides of this fence, and it is absolutely positively unacceptable for us to be placing our dogs who may have behavioral issues into situations where they could be ruining other people's dogs, but they never touch them. It doesn't matter. Do you know how terrifying it is to be potentially pinned and almost mutilated by another dog when you're a dog? I've seen this. I've seen the fallout. It's awful. Don't do this. It's not okay. Don't excuse it away. Don't say, but I want the title isn't worth it. The ribbon sure as hell isn't worth it.

I would rather buy you the ribbon to save my dog. Then you putting your dog into those situations. So if your dog has a bite history with other dogs and is seriously interested in trying to hurt other dogs, do not trial. If your dog has an issue with people, now this is where it gets a little iffy. Well, maybe they're nervous around people. Okay? Are they biting people? If they're biting people, they do not belong a trial at all. Again, there's no discussion to be had. Do this at home in safe places. There are virtual organizations such as Cyber Scent Work, such as the Skills Challenge for NACSW, such as the Fenzi team program that they have, and there are others. Do not bring your people reactive and or aggressive dog to a trial ever. Not okay, and I have to really stress this. We as a dog owning community, particularly those of us who are participating in dog sports, we need to have these serious conversations and we need to change the narrative that biting is something to be excused.

It is not it not normal, it is not acceptable, and it is traumatic to the people who are bitten. I've probably told this story before, but I'll tell it again completely was not doing anything dog related. I was getting my eye exam and I had finished the eye exam. I went out. I was checking out, and as they're bringing up my information, she noticed that I had on my intake form that I was a dog trainer. This woman went completely sheet white and started shaking convulsing. I thought she was going to drop to the ground. She was mortified and terrified that I would be working with dogs because she had been attacked multiple times as a child that will stay with me for the rest of my life. That was horrible. She saw a dog trainer on a piece of paper and she had that kind of reaction.

So we all need to have a very big honesty check. We have a responsibility when we have dogs. Every single dog has the capability to bite. Those bites are traumatic, not to mention injur to whomever they are biting, whether they are dogs or they are people. It is not to be excused. It is not to be talked down upon. It is not to be like, oh, well, sometimes they nip No, stop it. It's not okay and it's not acceptable. Don't do it. If your dog has any history of biting people, do not bring them to trial and please, please reach out to professional help. And I mean this sincerely. Do not just try to look for advice on YouTube or the internet. That's not going to cut it. You want to have someone come to your home and evaluate this dog. I used to do that.

That was my specialty. I don't do it anymore for two reasons. One, I don't do in-person training because my body is so broken before my body really just gave up. I stopped doing these cases for this simple reason. The last, I think three or four clients that I had, human clients had frankly dangerous dogs. One wanted to kill me and this person did not want to hear it, and they wanted to kind of pawn the dog off onto someone else. I said, no, you and I need to go to the vet and we need to have this dog put to sleep. And they were like, Nope, nope. I'm like, no, you don't seem to understand. This is a dangerous dog. The next client, it was like a 1, 2, 3 punch. The next client, they inform me after I get there that this dog had bitten 15 1, 5, 15 people, none of them that this dog knew.

This person had already been sued multiple times, and they refused to put the dog on a muzzle when they took them for walks and they wanted me to fix it and they wanted me to fix it really quickly, they said, yeah, we can fix it by going to the veterinarian and humanely euthanizing this dog because oh my God, and this is one of the reasons I got out of it. I was passionate about working with behavior cases, but I couldn't cope with a human client of, do you not see what's happening here? Your dog is dangerous. And what was even worse is that all these people had scars all over their arms and their hands. The dogs were attacking them and they just did not want to listen to reason. So I did what I had to do as a professional to keep up my ethics, contacting animal control and so on and so forth, and did what I could.

But then I said, I can't do this anymore because, no, but that's the point is that we have to have these serious conversations as a community. We need to stop making excuses. When dogs are biting, it's not okay. That also means that we need to improve our education to explain to people what appropriate behavior is, what it is, where dogs may indeed be having struggles, that there are such a big spectrum. It's not that every single dog who has behavioral issues is dangerous. They are not, and it's not that every single dog who is reactive should not be trialing. That is not true either, but if your dog is biting people and is biting dogs, they have no place at a trial. If there is even a chance that your dog is going to go after another dog or another person, they should not be at a trial and you should be seeking professional help.

You also should be very careful about where you're taking that dog out in public. It's your responsibility as a dog owner, and I understand how challenging this can be. I understand how heartbreaking it can be. I know that it can feel like everyone's attacking you, that life is just taking a big old poop on your head. I get it. I really do. I am extraordinarily sympathetic for people who find themselves in situations with dogs who have behavioral challenges. It is trying. It is exhausting. It is emotionally draining. I understand all of that. However, that doesn't mean because we are so emotionally drained and we so desperately just wanted to have some normalcy that we can forget our responsibility to everyone else out there. Again, just picture the kind of dog that you had always fantasized about the one that you can go to the park and take for a hike and go to the coffee shop or whatever.

Think of the perfect idea of a dog, and now imagine that someone came in and purposefully ruined that dog. Either killed that dog, severely injured that dog or injured, and then so psychologically scarred that dog that now that dog is shut down, terrified or lashing out every two seconds. How can we ever do that to someone knowingly because what we're doing when we're making bad choices, and we also could be doing that to people, we need more dog advocates. We need more animal advocates out there. We don't help ourselves in the dog community at all with a lot of the things that we do from not picking up after our dogs to just assuming that the rules don't apply to us. There's a whole big other podcast we can do about this, but we absolutely don't help ourselves when, particularly at a set work trial where the only way the trial is going to happen is with volunteers, which are people, and some of these people have no idea about anything about Scent, Work or dogs, but they happen to say, yes, I will volunteer. This is someone we want to help belong, and we want them to love this. This person is even scared by another dog, not to mention truly attacked by another dog. How do we expect this is going to go?

So I know that everyone's like, oh, this is such a bad episode. It's so depressing. We need to have these conversations because it's important to wrap up if own a dog who is, even if they don't have a bite history with people or other dogs, but they're right on that line, and you can trust your gut on this if they make the hair on the back of your neck standup, they give you kind of the butterflies in your stomach. You're like, I'm not sure what they're going to do. Please don't trial this dog. If you aren't already, please work with someone who is reputable, who can. Again, I know there's plenty of places that, and professionals who are very talented that do things completely virtually in my opinion. At the very least, an initial consultation should be done in person so they can really assess what's going on.

They can also see what's happening as far as for your lifestyle. What are the routines? What are the triggers? They can come up with more solutions for you that are more accurate. They can then follow up virtually, but please make certain that you are working with someone. Don't just follow advice on YouTube or what you're reading books. It's not enough. And then if you are like, I really want to show that we're great at Scent Work, that's okay. There are virtual options. I'll make certain in the replay for this podcast. I have links for all of them, not just cyber set work. There's a whole bunch. You would be giving yourself and your dog such a great gift by recognizing who they really are, owning who they really are, trying to help them be the best that they can be in means of being safe, of making their world as large as it safely can be, and recognizing that they just want you.

And then you would be able to find these other ways of celebrating what the two of you do together. Please, please take that to heart. If you have a reactive dog or a fearful dog that doesn't have a propensity of biting and they are not people reactive, you may opt to trial. You should still be working with a professional to make sure that you have all of the things in place to continually build your dog's confidence to have routines in place that will help them feel safe. And then we'll also be able to assess how is the trial affecting us? If it is because they do, and maybe you're going to be trialing once in a blue moon out and about, and then the other times maybe you're doing something virtually because you're probably going to have to help your dog recover from the trialing experience, and you may come to the position, you know what?

The in-person trial just isn't worth it for us. We have to do so much work afterwards. Maybe we're just going to do this virtually. Maybe I'm just going to be practicing with my friends that my dog is really super solid with. Maybe I'm just going to be going class, the support in everything else that we have. Talk to your instructor, tell them what you're interested in. They may put together mock trials, Sniff 'N Gos other events that will celebrate your dog's accomplishments and will give you that sense of community. The point with this episode is to try to lay out, you do not need to be making decisions that are not a good idea for yourself, for your dog, or for the community, and you have to consider all three. And if you're not, then you and I should have a conversation so I can change your mind.

It's very, very, very important. Again, I've been in your shoes. I've been on so many different sides of this fence, and yes, I'm very passionate about it and I'll speak very plainly about it because we should. So I know that there's probably a lot of people who are like, this is not the fun type of episode I wanted to listen to, but it's really important, and I absolutely want to provide a lot of support for all of our handlers out there who have dogs who are reactive and sensitive and potentially even aggressive. Again, that was my specialty. I had one of those dogs, but a lot of this is just about making the best decisions and not putting ourselves and our dogs into situations that are basically setting everyone up for failure. But as always, we would love to hear from all of you. We'll be posting this episode up on our social media as well as the Scent Work University site to be able to post any questions or comments that you have there.

Again, please make certain that you're keeping them respectful and because again, this can be very emotional. It could be emotional because these are the types of dogs that we've had. It could be emotional. These are the kinds of dogs we have right now. It could be emotional because we may have had an interaction with a dog that was less than great, and I'll end with this. I don't think that when someone can actually sit down and have this type of conversation and have it laid out so plainly, I don't think that if people are making these types of decisions up until this point that they're doing it on purpose. I don't think that there are people who are maliciously putting other people and dogs at risk. I just don't think that's true. But that doesn't mean that we should shield ourselves from that reality. And I know that that's hard, but it's important.

So again, would love to hear from all of you. If you are struggling with a dog with behavioral issues. Again, I strongly, strongly, strongly encourage you to seek out a professional who is experienced in working with behavior. There are a lot of different organizations where you may be able to find such an individual. CPDT is a good place to start, as well as IAABC. We'll have lots of different links inside of the replay page. We may be able to find someone. There's also places such as the Aggressivedog.com, which offers lots of different resources as well. Grisha Stewart is another one. Emma Parsons is fantastic. There's a lot of resources out there, but please don't try to fix this on your own. You really want someone who knows what they're looking at to assess what's really going on, and then help you put together a plan to help you and your dog.

So I want to thank everyone for listening to this episode. I know that it may have been difficult, but it's important conversation for us to have, and we're going to keep having these kinds of conversations because they're important. Make certain that you're playing the sniffy game with your dogs. The game is what's important. Practicing at home, practicing where it's safe, they want to hunt and search. Hunting and searching is great. Let them do that and everything else will be fine. Alright, guys, please give a cookie to your puppies for me. Happy training. We live forward to seeing you soon.

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