Ep. 26: Definition and Key Rules of Scent Work

Jan 19, 2020

With the explosion of the popularity of Scent Work, it is important that we all understand what Scent Work actually IS, the difference between the competition element and the activity as well as some key rules for playing the game, especially when you are using target odors. There is a TON of misinformation out there, so in this podcast we attempt to set the record straight.


  • Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the It's 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 at what your instructor or trial officials may be going through, and much more. In this episode we wanted to talk about what it is exactly that Scent Work is and how it is that you should be practicing, because now that it's exploding in popularity, we're seeing all kinds of stuff that's not true.

So before we start diving into the podcast episode, let me just do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the owner and lead instructor for Scent Work University, Canine Fitness University, Dog Sport University and Family Dog University. These are online dog training platforms that are designed to help you achieve your dog training goals, by using high quality dog training instruction. And we're very fortunate to have a client basis quite literally worldwide. As far as Scent Work University in particular, we provide online courses and webinars that are designed to help you either first get started in Scent Work, develop some more advanced skills, or to get you ready for trial if that was something that you were interested in.

So now that you know a little bit more about me, let's dive in to the podcast episode itself.

So the reason that I wanted to do this podcast episode is two different reasons. One, I've seen some things on social media over the last couple of weeks that are just wrong, but I also have been out and about doing some other things and people have been asking also, "I see that you own Scent Work University, what is Scent Work?" And I've been trying to explain to people who are not dog people at all, they're just in the public, what Scent Work is, what it is that we do in Scent Work, and going from there.

So I wanted to break up this episode into two different pieces. One is really trying to nail down what Scent Work is, and then the second half is how it is that we should be practicing with our dogs, like just some real general rules that we should be following.

So the first and foremost thing to really talk about is well what is Scent Work? And Scent Work, for our purposes, for what we do at Scent Work University and what the majority of us are doing at sport, is we are having our dogs hunt within a specific area, for a trained target odor. That's all using very fancy language, but basically our dogs are trying to find something that we've trained them has value and that we want them to find. But this is a civilian version of what professionals do. Meaning that we are not going out and finding people, or fugitives, drugs, bombs or any of that stuff.

Now, does that mean that the only way that you would qualify to do Scent Work, whether it be if you were ever interested in competing or not, or if you just want to play the game with the dog, that the only way that you could do that is by having your dog find birch, anise or clove or one of the other essential oils we may use in sport? And I would say the answer is no. Having your dog hunt for something that you've asked them to find, in my opinion, is Scent Work. Now for a particular competition organization, they may define it that if you have to go to trial and you're trying to earn their titles, your dog has to find specific things, birch, anise, clove, myrrh, cypress, whatever the case may be.

But if you're just playing with your dog at home, finding food is Scent Work. Finding a toy, is Scent Work. Finding either yourself or your spouse or your children, is Scent Work. They're using all of the same exact aspects that you would see in a quote unquote formal set or competition setting. Meaning if your dog is doing well and they like the game and they understand it, they're hunting first and foremost, they should be working independently of their person, meaning that they don't require the human to find the thing. They're doing it on their own. They're problem solving. They're working out the odor puzzle. They're using their nose. All of these things are what we want to see in competition, that as trial officials and instructors we desperately want to see in the dogs. We don't want to just simply see people dragging their dog around the search area, presenting everything to them and the dog is not doing a darn thing and they're just hoping that maybe they'll trip over odor. That's not what Scent Work is.

So I just want to really nail down what this activity truly is and that it doesn't have to be confined to a particular category box. Meaning if your dog is not hunting for a target odor either yet, maybe you've started with primary, meaning food. Or maybe you're just not interested in doing that. You're not interested in doing dog sports. You heard about Scent Work, maybe when you were taking a dog training class at a training center for instance, and maybe they also offer Scent Work classes. Or maybe your instructor had said, "You know, I think Scent Work will be a great thing for your dog to try. It could be a really great way to work them out mentally and physically. It could be a fun game. It's an easy thing for you to do, yada, yada, yada."

I don't want you to feel as though you are somehow lesser than, than the people who are using target odors, because it's the same thing. The only reason why we use target odors is because you can't just use food at a trial. There are allergies that you have to be concerned about, and you also have to have some controls in place. You need to be able as a test, be able to say the dogs in this level are finding this odor. Not the dogs in this level are finding 20 different things and hopefully they're all the same. You need to have some controls in place for a competition, but that doesn't mean that if you are not using target odors when you're playing the game at home that you're somehow not doing Scent Work. It's the same exact thing.

So I really wanted to make sure that we were clear on that, that the whole thing about Scent Work is getting the dogs to be a dog, because the majority of the time when we're doing things with our dogs, we're asking them to do things that are very not dog. We're asking them to walk politely at our side when we go for a walk, not just run around all aimlessly and sniffing and exploring and usually trotting or running. We want them to be in a collected trot, maybe even walk at our side and really not sniff a whole lot most of the time, we're trying to get exercise and we're trying to get them to go potty. We don't want them jumping and leaping on people when they say hello. We want them to sit quietly or to stand on all four feet. We don't want them to just be chewing on absolutely everything in the house. We want them to only chew the things that we give them. We don't want them just running out the door and exploring. We want them to wait for us.

I mean there's a lot of things that we are putting onto our dogs just in day to day life that are counter intuitive to how dogs are designed and they are ready and willing to meet those expectations, right? They are happy to say, "Okay, well in human world I have to do this, this and this other thing, and I'm going to do that so that we can live successfully." They're actually very willing to make those concessions. But the whole point behind Scent Work is that it's allowing the dog to practice and to celebrate one of the key components of being a dog, and that's using their nose.

And when you're talking about Scent Work in the purest sense, it is a dog led activity, meaning that it is something that the dog should be taking a lead role in, and the handler is there to support and to listen and to watch and to learn. Not the other way around. That's what Scent Work is, regardless of what it is that your dog may be hunting for. So I don't want anyone who may just be playing this game at home because they're trying to do something with their dog to use their mind a little bit, to let them have a little bit of fun, to get the benefits of Scent Work, but they're not interested in competition. They don't even know what dog sports are, they don't care about dogs sports. They have their dog as a companion and they're doing this activity, that in my opinion, every single dog should be doing. I don't want those people to feel as though there's somehow this ostracize, oh, dirty little secret that we don't talk about.

The fact of the matter is is that if we could get every single dog owner in the entirety of the world doing Scent Work, the world would be a better place, for our dogs. They would be better behaved, they would be much more fulfilled. It would just be great. It would be really helpful. So I don't want people to conflate what the recommendations or the requirements are for a particular competition organization with what the activity is. Those are two completely different things.

So now that we've gotten that out of the way, now I want to talk about, let's say you're getting ready to train for Scent Work, and you do indeed want to use target odors because maybe you are interested in competition or you just think hunting for target odors is fun. Some of the things I've been seeing on social media as of late because Scent Work is really exploding in popularity is quite frankly just wrong. It's not even close to correct, and it's also something that we see if you've been involved in this activity for any length of time, there are trends and there are patterns, as far as what people think that you're supposed to do. and when you take a step back from it, it kind of makes sense if you don't know any better, it's like of course is what you do.

The big thing that I wanted to really highlight as far as in my opinion a big no-no of what not to do, is how people are A, prepping their odor, and B, placing it out into a space. So when we're talking about the target odors, the reason that they're used, one of the reasons, is that they're fairly potent. You don't have to use a whole lot. You actually don't have to use much at all. And some would argue that some of the competition organizations where they're placing one or two drops of oil directly on an individual Q-tip, that that's way too much. That could be a debate for a different time.

What I really want to make certain that people understand is that you should not, again really stressing this, should not be dipping your Q-tip into the vial of odor, soaking it so it is dripping, and then placing that somewhere in your search area. That is, that's a huge no-no. Don't do that. It is so concentrated. It is so much odor. Particularly if you have a more sensitive dog, you really could be ruining the experience for them because it's basically like punching them in the face there's so much odor. You're also probably dealing with a ton of contamination because people are then placing that Q-tip out in like a room or something, or an exterior space, wherever, and it's not in anything. Meaning the Q-tip is just out, so now you have actual odor, because it was dripping off of the Q-tip to begin with, is now dripping onto your space. So you are leaving actual oil behind, that for all intents and purposes is a hide. Even after you move that Q-tip away, the oil left behind, that's not lingering odor. That's not, well, my dog needs to work through it. No, that is an actual hide. That is odor.

That is oil and you can't get upset with people when they don't know, right? If you just hear about, "Oh you know you have some oil, you have some Q-tip, you put the Q-tip out and then we're good." Well if you're not explaining it in enough detail, these are the types of things that people are going to do. So I wanted to make sure that we're clear that the preparation of your odor, how it is you actually get it so that there's odor associated with the Q-tips, is done correctly. And also how we're placing it within a given search area is also done correctly.

And this is not just me being paranoid, isn't just me being a pain in the butt. There's a reason why these things are done a certain way. First of all, we want to make sure that your dog is successful, we want to make sure the odors being handled properly, and we want to make sure that you're not doing any undue contamination within your search areas. But particularly when people hear, "Well, you need to do field trips in order for your dog to be successful." You could be contaminating everywhere that you go, and there's more and more people doing Scent Work so you could be potentially making their dog's lives very difficult, because they come up, they have no idea that you did a search the day before, there is oil actually left behind somewhere. Their dog comes up and says, "Look, I found it." And their person gets all upset because they didn't put their hide there. "Leave that alone. Stop doing that. Oh my God, why are you being so naughty?" When the dogs not being naughty. The dog is one million percent correct, but they have no way of knowing.

So we do cover in a fair amount of detail how it is that you should prepare and store your odor in one of our webinars that we have on Scent Work University. And it's called prepping and storing odor. But just to give you a quick and brief rundown, when you are preparing your odor, there are two different methods that you can choose from. There's a 24-hour cooking method, and there's the placing the oil directly onto an individual Q-tip. For the 24 hour cooking method, there is no actual cooking involved. You're not placing this into the oven or a microwave or anything. All you're trying to do is to allow for the vapors to fill a canning jar that is filled with Q-tip halves so that they all have a fairly equal amount of odor, but it's not that much.

So what I mean by that is you can have a large canning jar, place it, fill it with Q-tip halves that you've cut them in half, and you're placing three to five drops of actual target odor on the inner wall of that canning jar. You close it, you shake it, you'll let it sit for 24 hours. After that point, all those Q-tips will be ready for you to use. How many will you use into an actual odor vessel? That means a thing that you're putting your Q-tips into and that's where you put into your search area? Typically speaking, it's a range, depending on what it is that you're doing, depending on the space, depending on the level of the dog, depending on what it is you may be working on, but it's a range of one to five Q-tips, right? So that's the 24 hour cooking method in a really small nutshell.

You then have the placing the oils directly onto a Q-tip. Depending on the competition organization, it could be one to two drops of the actual oil is placed onto the head of the Q-tip. Here's the big difference. That is the only thing that is placed inside of an odor vessel. Whereas with the other method you can have a range of one to five if you wanted to increase or decrease the concentration of the odor. When you're placing oil directly onto the Q tip, you have a ton of odor already. That is very high. You only want to place one Q-tip that's scented in that manner into one individual odor vessel, and that is going to be your hide that you place out in the search area, which is the thing that your dog is trying to find.

Again, the reason why this is important to go through is that is dramatically different from sticking your Q-tip into the vial of odor, soaking it up and then just tossing your Q-tip somewhere in the space. So again, I know even for people who are just interested in doing this for fun, but they do want to use target odors, this seems kind of like "Why do I care? Like what difference does it make?" It could be making your dog's life really difficult, because again if they come up and you haven't been handling your odor properly, they could be telling you that there is actual oil here. There's oil where this Q-tip used to be, and you're frustrated because you don't actually have a hide there now, there's not a Q-tip or an odor vessel at that moment, and you can completely demotivate your dog or frustrate them to the game because for all intents and purposes, they're right. We just don't see it that way because we don't have the nose of a dog.

So being careful and being thoughtful is actually important regardless of whether you're trying to do this for competition or not. So again, I do urge you to check out that prepping and storing of odor webinar. It does go into a little bit more detail, it's a 90 minute presentation, we provide videos and so on and so forth. But again, just be careful with what you see people describe of what you should do knowing that this activity is still fairly new to many, even though it's been around for a while, but it's exploding in popularity and people are starting to share on their Facebook's and they're sharing on their YouTube and they're sharing on their Instagram's, "Oh, this is what I'm doing.", and if you don't know anything about it, then you're like, "Oh well, then I'll do that too." And now everyone's doing it incorrectly. It's like, oh God.

And it's not as though it's going to completely break your dog, like the world's not going to come to an end, but it could be making their lives really difficult and it could also be making the lives of other dogs challenging if you are practicing out in the world, and you're potentially contaminating the space. That's just not fair to anybody. And again, I'm not saying that people are doing this on purpose. They're not. They think that this is the way you're supposed to do it. It's not.

So just to wrap this up with a nice little bow, Scent Work does not only mean that you are searching for target odors. That's not true. Every single individual competition organization is going to outline rules and regulations for what they determine that their competitors need to do to pass their tests to earn their titles. That means that more often than not, they require a specific odor to be used for those tests. Birch, anise, clove, whatever, or even your own scented odor, meaning the article that you've scented yourself with your own human odor for handler discrimination.

But that doesn't mean that that's the only thing that is qualified as Scent Work. Your dog hunting for something that you are playing the game with them that is Scent Work. Your dog having the ability to work independently, to problem solve, to work out odor puzzles, whether it be for food, for toys, for people, or target odors. All of that is Scent Work. So there's Scent Work the activity and then we can go off into a little branch off, Scent Work, the competition.

If you are going to be working with target odors, there is a specific way that you should be preparing them and there should be a specific way in how you handle them and how you design your hides, as far as what it is that your Q-tips should be going into. You should not have naked Q-tips out in the world, out in your house. It's just not safe. Your dog could also eat it. That's not great either. So you want them to be contained within something. And if you are interested in competing, you want to have your dog familiar with finding hides where you're putting Q-tips in a variety of different types of odor vessels, so metal tin, straws, lip balm containers, anything that you can think of where the odor may be escaping in different ways so it creates an even different odor puzzle. You want to really expand your dog's knowledge of how odor may be escaping from a particular odor vessel.

So that's something else that we talk about in the webinar, that being certain that you are not just showing your dog, this is what a tin hide looks like. You want them to know what a variety of different hides look like. So I just thought that this would be an important quick webinar to do. Quick for me, I know it's still on the longer side, but really trying to nail down what is actually is Scent Work and then how it is that we should be using our target odor hides when we're preparing them, when we're using them in practice, when we're training with our dogs.

So I hope that this was somewhat helpful, particularly if you're newer to Scent Work. If you ever have any questions, you can always reach out to us. You can message us on our Facebook page. You can send us an email. We're always happy to answer any questions anyone has. And if you're just not sure, just ask. I mean, it's so much easier to help you in the beginning than to try to undo stuff. And I don't want anyone to feel bad. We were all beginners at some point and we were all kind of trying to figure out what all this stuff was and we've all made tons of mistakes. That's part of the process.

What I'm trying to do with this is get the information out there so we can prevent people from making a lot of mistakes really early on, simply because they're all trying to jump into, "This Scent Work thing sounds fine. Okay, I want to do it. Well, I have no idea how." So we're just trying to make sure that we're getting the information out, these are the ways that you can do this particular activity.

So I hope this podcast was somewhat helpful. Thanks so much. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.

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