Ep. 23: Are You Having Fun...You Should Be

Sep 2, 2019

A disheartening trend happening at the moment is handlers and their dogs are NOT having fun when they are doing Scent Work. Instead, their training and practice sessions are riddled with stress, angst and frustration and this bleeds over to painful-to-watch trialing experiences. This activity is SUPPOSED to enjoyable for both YOU and YOUR DOG...if it isn't, you need to find out why.

We discuss this troubling trend, and spark some discussion about it, in this podcast episode. Ask yourself honestly: am I and my dog having fun playing Scent Work...and if not, why not?


  • Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things Scent Work. That can include training tips, a behind-the-scenes look of what your instructor or trial official may be going through, and much more. In this episode, I want to talk about something that I think is very important and that is whether or not you are actually having fun when you are doing Scent Work because you should be.

Before we start diving into the podcast itself, let me just do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I am the owner and lead instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sport University, and Family Dog University. These are online dog training platforms that are quite literally designed to provide high-quality dog training instruction to as many people as possible, and we're extraordinarily fortunate to have a client base that is worldwide.

For Scent Work University in particular, we provide online courses, webinars, and seminars that are designed to help you whether or not you're first getting started in Scent Work, you're trying to perfect some skills, if you're just trying to play the game for fun, or if you are getting ready for trial. We also have a regularly updated blog as well as the podcast like what you're listening to today, so feel free to check out Scent Work University if you have any questions or if you're looking for some more information about how you can progress in your Scent Work training career. Now that you know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the podcast episode itself.

So what I wanted to talk about in this podcast episode was something that I personally think is very important, but I'm seeing a trend where it is slipping away, so I'll try not to be so odd about it or dance around the periphery. That's not really how I operate. Something that seems to be happening with the explosion of the popularity of Scent Work is that people are forgetting that this is supposed to be fun, and it's supposed to be fun for both themselves and their dog, and if either of them are not having fun, there's something wrong.

So if we just look at this from a very macro level, millions of miles away, right? Really high up view of what it is I'm talking about. At the core of it, regardless of the type of Scent Work that you're doing, you're doing it for fun. You're doing it for just something to give your dog a little bit of an outlet. You're getting ready for trial. You're heavily competing. You're super competitive. Whatever.

At the core of it, our dogs are working a space to find something. It could be food. It could be a target odor. It could be a toy. It could be an article. It could be a person. Whatever, but that concept, that activity of your dog searching and watching them as they flung themselves around the search area, whether or not they're a Tasmanian devil or they're really methodical, their feet are going one direction, their nose is going another direction, and they are so excited for them to be able to do this thing that dogs can do. That in and of itself should be a fun thing for you to witness.

It absolutely should be fun for the dog because this is an opportunity for them to actually be a dog and be celebrated for being a dog, so why am I even talking about this? It's because with the explosion of Scent Work, it appears to be, to me anyway, that there are more and more people who are rushing ahead to try to compete, or even if they're not competing in formal trials because they're trying to show off to family or friends, or whatever, that it's no longer this fun, exciting thing. It's a chore. It is riddled with stress, and strife, and baggage, and broken expectations, and all kinds of nastiness, so the person isn't having a good time at all by any metric. You watch them as they're searching with their dog, and they look absolutely miserable.

The worst one is where the person is miserable, but so is the dog where now the dog doesn't want to do it either, and that's a huge ginormous red flag. I'm not saying that I don't care if the handler is having a good time. I do, but when I see dogs coming up and they're like, "Ugh, why are we doing this?" that's a problem. That's not good, so I'm hoping with this podcast episode that we can at least take a step back and assess what it is that we're doing with our dogs. Are we, meaning us as human beings, having a good time doing this, and if we're not, why not? Then, of course, absolutely. You should be looking as objectively as possible, "Is my dog enjoying this, and if they're not, why not?" Then, try to figure that out.

So just a couple of examples. I've had clients who will be so focused on wanting to have a final behavior, a final alert behavior, right, and they're just starting training. I mean, literally just starting where we are maybe like two lessons in and they're already... They're waiting to reward their dog because they want something because that's what they feel is the important piece. "My dog tells me, and then I reward them, but the dog is still just figuring out what it is that we're doing."

I try to find different ways of saying, "We don't care about that yet. I promise it'll be baked in. We need to do all these other stuff first." They get more, more, more stressed because they feel as if it's taking too long and there is too much build-up to what it is that they're trying to do more likely and not competing. Right? I don't want to wait this long as if the ribbons and the titles are going away somewhere because they're not, and there are some people who... They may have come into Scent Work a little bit later in their dogs' lives, and they're like, "Oh my god, I don't have that much time left," and I'm not saying to dillydally. I'm not saying to waste time.

Obviously, maximize all the time you have with your dog, but that doesn't mean that you can then cut out all the time and effort that has to go in to get that end result. There is no fast lane to this. There really isn't just like with all kinds of learning. Could you take shortcuts? Sure, and they are going to bite you in the butt later, but more importantly than that, you are so focused on this other stuff. You're not taking the time to just enjoy what it is that you're doing because you're like, "Okay. I'm going to wait for them to show me. Okay, they showed me. Now, do it again. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again."

It's like, "Geez, this is not enjoyable at all." Just so that you could say that your dog has a couple of letters after their name? Just so you can have a ribbon? That's not a good reason to do it like that. That's not fun in any way, shape, or form. So you can have a photo on social media that no one is going to remember in like a few hours?

Like I'm not trying to diminish when people are accomplishing a trial, but my god, we have to put these things in perspective, and if every single time that you're practicing with your dog, it's this stressful, icky, gross, "Why aren't you doing it? We have to do better," whatever, then why are you doing it at all? I mean, and that's with me saying that I want every single dog sniffing. I do. I think it has a lot of benefits, but this is a thing that I'm noticing even without my own students, even just generally speaking, people talking about Scent Work or posting about it on social media, and just the way that they describe it, or you just watch the videos. They're not smiling. They're not... They don't look happy. They're not excited. They're not celebrating when their dog finds a hide just like, "Yeah. Okay. You finally did it. Good." It's like, "Why are you doing this? This isn't a requirement."

I would prefer for your dog to have the opportunities to do these things, but if it makes you absolutely completely miserable, then something is wrong because, again, it should be such a great thing to see a dog going to any space. I don't care what it is, and for them to work their magic because it is magic because you and I can't do this. We can't go, and use our nose, and find any of this stuff. I don't care how good you think you are. Put a blindfold on. Say, "Get on all fours, and now you go sniff and search out this exterior search, and you find me those four hides." You can't do it. I don't care how good you think you are, so our dogs are magical for all intents and purposes.

If we take all this other layers of... I don't even know what it is. Expectations, wants, desires, dreams. I don't know. If you can just sit there and marvel at how amazing your dog is with their magical sniffing abilities, that is exciting. That's why at trials, when people volunteer, everybody wants to be a timer. That's what people want to be because they want to see the dogs work, but again, the juxtaposition to that is what we're noticing is that there are more and more people are not enjoying that at all. They care about the dog actually finding it, but not even that, telling them about it.

All the process leading up to it, watching the dog find that odor trail, differentiate it from other things that are in the search area, any other kind of distractors where a critter may have been, where he may have dropped a goodie, where you may have dropped your odor vessel before if you're practicing, if you're really klutzy like I am, whatever. Maybe you're doing... This is the second search you're doing in this space for training. It doesn't matter, but this... All that stuff leading up to them actually finding it, that's the exciting stuff.

You see, the sudden [fisher 00:10:33] turns, the changing of pace, the slowing down, the, "Okay. I'm chasing the odor. Okay. It went that way. Now, I need to go back to get back to source." All of that stuff is the exciting stuff. When they finally find it. It's kind of like, "Okay. Great, but that other stuff was really cool." What I'm noticing, which is very problematic, which I don't like at all, is that people are only happy after the dog has told them that they found it. It's like, "Why? No. Bad. Stop."

That's the thing that I'm hoping that people can think about for themselves is if you're finding yourself in that camp, is there some way that you can rekindle your excitement about this activity, and if it was never there, ask yourself why you're doing this because... I am of the opinion that no title, no ribbon is worth you being miserable with your dog. I don't care what it is. I don't care how many people on social media, if you had a thousand people, "friends," because... Let's be blunt. I have almost a thousand "friends." I'm not friends with all those people. We may know each other, we may be acquaintances, but we're not friends. It's just social media, social networking, but I could have every single one of those people like a photo of me with my dog doing something. It doesn't matter if I was absolutely miserable getting it.

That's the piece that I wish I had a better way of explaining because they don't think I'm doing a very good job even in this podcast, and I don't think I've done a good enough job in my classes or working with my clients because it just seems like such a natural human progression of I'm doing something, I have to go towards a goal, and I have to be the best at that goal, and I have to sacrifice everything else, and I have to be really serious about it.

I'm not saying don't approach your training in a way that... I'm not advocating for people to not listen to their instructors. I'm not advocating for people to not practice or to try, but that doesn't mean that it has to be this really regimented, sterile, nasty, icky, gross thing either like there's got to be a happy medium between the two. Every time I have an opportunity to search with my dog, I am so happy about it just to see him work, even if he didn't find a hide. I don't care. Watching him work or not work, watching him working on odor and be like, "Oh, look, there's a squirrel right above my head. Let me check that out for a second," I find those things funny because he is a living, breathing, thinking creature. He's not a robot.

I'm not just doing a quality control test on a program that I wrote. I'm watching another living being do something with me, and I am marveling at how amazing he is at doing it and then how we can do this together as a team. There's a big difference between that and just waiting for an end result, so that's my soapbox, thought discussion thing for the human piece. The part that makes me even more upset and just breaks my heart is when dogs don't find this fun. To me, there is not a dog alive if they have a functioning nose and they have a person who knows how to properly reinforce that dog who shouldn't like Scent Work.

It doesn't make any sense to me. It just it... Literally, from a behavioral, biological standpoint, it doesn't make any sense. Every single dog, if they are healthy and their nose works, they should like Scent Work, and yet, over and over again, we'll see dogs who used to love it and now they're like, "Ugh, I don't like this anymore." That's heartbreaking. That is just the worst because you took this thing that is the only thing that your dog can do where they are 100,000% celebrated for being a dog.

We're not trying to make them do human things in a dog body. We are saying, "We are celebrating the fact that you have this incredible sense of smell, and we're going to allow you to actually do it. We're going to allow you to leverage this ability to play this game." How awesome is that for a creature that has to share their lives with us where we're constantly putting all these human expectations and requirements on them, which they do absolutely try to meet us on more than 50%? They try their damnedest to make it work, but with Scent Work, we're actually saying, "Oh, yeah. You're a dog, and dogs actually have really good senses of smell, and you love to hunt. Here's your opportunity to do that." Dogs are like, "Oh my god, that's the best. Thank you so much."

How it then goes from that to either micro-managing, taking all the joy away from it, not accepting what your dog is telling you, expecting your dog to do way more than they ever need to as far as these crazy final alert behavior things, not being clear on what the expectations or the game really is about. There's a whole slew of reasons why, but to see the decline of a dog's enthusiasm and love for the game, as an instructor and even as a trial official, that's heartbreaking.

When you're officiating a run, and you see someone come up to the line with their dog, and their dog is like, "Ugh," that's hard. That is very, very difficult to even judge because part of me is angry that this is happening. You should not be here right now. Either your dog doesn't feel well, which is perfectly possible. Maybe your dog has an upset stomach. Maybe there's something else going on. Who knows? Or your training and what you done with your dog has so poisoned them to this game. Why are you trialing?

And the other part of me is just very sad because more often than not, the person has no clue. They're frustrated because they're not doing as well, so it's only making it worse, and the dog is absolutely miserable. It's like, "Ugh, this is awful. This is so upsetting." Then, of course, as an official, you're not supposed to be saying any of that because that's not your role. Your role is to administer the test. Yes or no? Did they find it, or did they not?

I can know and think all these other things, but I can't say any of that, and then as an instructor, for my clients, absolutely. If there's any kind of sign at all, it's like, "No, no, no. We need to back up," and I've been very, very fortunate with the clients that I've had that they are very in-tune to their dogs and all their dogs really, really love the game. Even for clients over the years who may have veered off a little bit from where I would have liked for them to have gone, there's only so much that you can do as an instructor, and sometimes people just have to experience it for themselves.

They've all been able to come back and get back on the right path for them and their dogs, and that's the other piece is that what one person does with their dog doesn't mean that that's what everyone should do with their dogs. Everything has to be customized. What I think is appropriate for me and my dog may be entirely different than what I would even expect of my clients or what they would expect with their dogs.

But again, the big thing that I'm hoping that at least this, once again, rambling podcast would be able to get people to at least think about in as objective a way as possible is, "Am I having fun doing this, and is my dog having fun doing this? If we're not, why, and can I fix it?" Now, if you don't think that there's a way to fix it, then maybe you just don't do it, which would make me sad.

Don't get me wrong. I really, really, really, really, really want every single dog sniffing, but if it's causing more issues than not for whatever reason, then maybe it's just not for you, and that's okay. I don't think that's really the case. I think that people would be able to make enough adjustments where it would be enjoyable for both of them and their dogs, but maybe I'm wrong, and maybe there are just some people where this just isn't for them, and that's okay.

I would rather that you set it aside and try something else than staying with it and drowning in misery with your dog. That's not good because, again, at the end of the day, this activity is supposed to be, supposed to be fun. Whether or not you're at the highest levels of competition and you yourself are uber, uber, uber competitive or if you've never heard of a dog sport before in your life, you'd have a dog at home. They keep your couch warm. They're you companion, and that's about it. Both of those people and their dogs should be having fun. That's the big thing.

All right, so I'm hoping that at the very least, this podcast can get us thinking and maybe helping us to have a more objective view about how it is that we're viewing Scent Work with our dogs both for ourselves and for our dogs, and then if things aren't going the way that we had hoped that maybe we can make some adjustments, so it is enjoyable once again for both of us. Thanks so much for listening. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.

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