Ep. 27: Scent Work is Not an Exclusive Club

Feb 5, 2020

With more and more people being introduced to the activity of Scent Work, it is important for all of us to remember that EVERY dog can do this activity and that this is NOT meant to be a special invitation-only type of exclusive club. Rather, Scent Work should be incredibly INCLUSIVE. We discuss why this is and how we as a community need to do better in this podcast episode. Strap in for blunt real-talk.


  • 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 at what your trial official or instructor may be going through, and much more. In this episode I want to talk about how Scent Work is truly for all dogs. Before we start diving into the podcast episode itself, 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, Dog Sport University, Family Dog University and Canine Fitness University. These are online dog training platforms that are designed to provide high quality dog training instruction to as many people as possible. And we're quite fortunate to have a client base that is worldwide.

For Scent Work University, in particular, we provide online courses, webinars, as well as a readily updated blog and podcast where we provide all the information you would need throughout the entirety of your Scent Work training career. Meaning we can help you from first starting in Scent Work, to developing some more advanced skills, to maybe getting ready to trial with your dog. So now that you know little bit more about me, let's step into the podcast episode itself.

So in this podcast episode I wanted to discuss something that I think is really important for all of us to take to heart. And that's the fact that Scent Work is quite literally for every single dog who has a functioning nose. And I wanted this to cover two different paths, basically. The first is really trying to understand that you don't need a specialized dog to do this, and also to really appreciate just how awesome Scent Work can really be for such a wide swath of dogs.

So for the first piece, I really wanted to emphasize that you should not have to get a specifically bred dog in order to do Scent Work. Now, is it true that there are dogs out there right now in the sports realm who do come from more specifically bred lines, that they do a wide variety of different types of scent sports and they have built in drive and enthusiasm and gusto and confidence and grit and all this other stuff? That is true. Does that mean that in order to do well at trial, that's the kind of dog that you need? The answer is no.

On the flip side, it also is true that there are some dogs that would really struggle at trial. And you should not be trialing with them. It would be detrimental to trial with that dog. Either they're too timid, or they're too reactive, or the environment would be too much, it would be too stressful. But that doesn't mean that those dogs shouldn't be doing Scent Work. So I find myself really frustrated by the state of things at the moment, just in the community as a whole, as people continue to talk about Scent Work only in the lane of competition.

And I just think you're missing such a big picture when you do that. But even when you do want to talk about just competition, I don't think it's a fair assessment to say that the only dogs who can compete and do well, are the ones who are specifically bred. I just don't think it's true. Could they have a leg up on another dog who may not have all those things? I guess. But every single dog is going to have strengths and weaknesses.

The reason why this is in the forefront of my mind is I had another person contact me. And just in passing, it wasn't even asking for advice or anything. They were talking about something completely different, and we'd stumbled upon Scent Work as I oftentimes do. And they started talking about how they were so excited that they were going to be getting a working line dog. And they were tired of dealing with all these dogs that had issues, and they were so excited that now they were going to be able to go to trial, and just clean house, and get all these titles and it was going to be great.

And I looked at them and I said, "Really?" And they're like, "Yeah, I just, this is what I really want." And that's not what Scent Work is supposed to be about. I mean, everyone's journey is different. There's some people who are more competitive than others. There are people who really do hold a lot of weight in titles, and ribbons, and things. But it's just so sad to hear that someone had dogs who may not have been absolutely gung ho. They may have had whatever issues, I don't know what they may have been. But to say, "Yeah, I've gotten rid of those dogs. I don't have to worry about that anymore. Now, it's on and forward with these really high gusto dogs."

I just don't think that's good. It's not what Scent Work is supposed to be about. And even at trial, for myself personally, when I see dogs who I know may have some timidity issues, may have some reactivity issues, may have some environmental sensitivity issues, may just be your slow, methodical searchers, maybe thinkers, where they're not just going to go gung ho, all guns blazing into a search area, they're going to think about it first. When I see those dogs go and search and search with joy and have a relationship with their person, I could care less if they Q. The fact that they did it and they were having fun is all I need.

But when they do Q, oh, it's so great. And if they get a title that's even better. And if they place, ah, I mean just whipped cream on top, like tears, the whole thing. But notice how I said that. It's not the placement that I care about. That's just, that's an added bonus. I care that the dog did the activity with their person, and they had fun. That's the thing that should matter. And the conversations, and the types of videos, and the dialogue that's going on right now is so not what that is.

It's all about completely different stuff that we should not be focusing on, in my opinion. Could I be wrong? I could. I don't think I am. And what I fear is that Scent Work is being portrayed in a way that is becoming a smaller, and smaller, and smaller, exclusive group, where if you and your dog do not meet these very specific credentials that you are not invited. That is not what Scent Work is supposed to be.

That's not why so many instructors have switched the entirety of their business to concentrate solely on Scent Work. It wasn't because it was this exclusive club, it was because it was inclusive. is because it was so incredibly beneficial to all of their dogs, to all of their clients, to all of their human clients That it was addicting. That you could have, sure, a dog who was really super gung ho about everything, could go in and have a job and do really great, great work, do really great solid search. And they could be followed up with a dog who had no self confidence, was very worried, and they could also do a really great job. And at the same time it was helping that dog. That kind of stuff is addicting. To see how much you could help so many different dogs with one type of activity.

So the idea that somehow it's shifting to where you have to have a certain type of dog, you have to have a certain type of mentality, you have to have a certain type of approach, and you have to do it in the fastest amount of time possible. Because if you don't have 20 titles within the first six months of you doing this, then what the hell are you doing? That's not what Scent Work is. It's just not. And yes, are they going to be people who are going to listen to this and be like, "Hey, I do some of those things you're saying I'm wrong?" If that's your journey, then great.

My concern is this, plain and simple. My client base when I was teaching in person were dogs and people who needed help. And Scent Work was part of the program that provided that help. These are the very same dogs and people that had been shunned from other types of activities. They couldn't do agility. They weren't welcome in competition obedience class. They could not go to rally. They wouldn't be able to do parkour if that was an option. They couldn't do dock diving. They do fly ball. All these other things were off of the table. They were not even in the realm of possibility.

Then comes along Scent Work, where the dog is celebrated for being a dog, not an agility dog, not a competition obedience dog, a dog. And this person who has been trying desperately to regain some sense of joy in having a dog, and they may have been struggling with a variety of different behavioral issues. It doesn't mean the dog is bad, but it could just been a mismatch. It could have been that they had no idea what they were getting. It could have been that this was a brand new dog and oh, by the way, the dog also has some timidity issues. Who knows?

The end of the day, these dogs and these people, needed help. And Scent Work allow them to get that help. Then they were able to build off of a very strong and understanding relationship, a communication that went back and forth. The person was finally listening to their dog, because they had a venue and a way to understand what the dog was saying. And even better, the dog realized the person was listening. And the look on those dog's faces when they realized that they were finally being listened to, that is enough for me to retire forever.

It is amazing when a dog actually realizes that person is actually listening to what they're saying. It's empowering to the dog. This is where I'm coming from. This is the power of Scent Work. This is the benefits of Scent Work. This is what Scent Work is about. Some of those people went on to compete and they did well, or they may not have earned any titles. But they still did well for their own metrics. The dog and they went to the trial. Maybe they Q'd a couple of times, but they had a good experience. They had fun. They were still building on their bond. They were improving upon their skill set. They were improving upon their confidence, being able to work at a trial setting. Yada, yada, yada. Fill in the blanks.

The point being is that the idea that you would then somehow take away those people's ability to do Scent Work because they're not going to go to the highest level trial, and title at the highest level in place, is just preposterous. And I wouldn't stand for it. I would get very loud and angry if that is where the community is going to go, because those dogs and those people they need Scent Work to be part of their lives. And to try to take that away from them, it's just not right. It's just not right.

So I think that all of us need to remember what this really is. The activity of Scent Work, playing the game of Scent Work, however you do it, do it with food, do it with toys, do it with people. Do it. Starting with food and doing target odor, doing just target odor, doing operant. I don't care. The actual activity of it, of your dog being celebrated for being a dog, and you listening to them, and you partnering with them, that, that is a thing that we all need to celebrate, and we need to encourage as many dogs and people to do as possible.

The small shoot off from that is competition. It's not the other way around. So again, I'm sensitive to this, because I know how these discussions and things are perceived by people. And then I hear new people coming in saying things that are, they just break your heart.

"Oh I don't think that my dog could ever do that."

"Why can't your dog do Scent Work? Is there something wrong with their nose."

"Oh no, they're just not good enough."

"What do you mean?"

"Oh well I saw a video where there was a dog searching and they were sticking their nose into some wooden box thing and there were people like throwing balls at it and there were dogs walking around, all kinds of craziness. My dog can't do that, so we can't do Scent Work."


First of all, let's just be blunt. There is a lot of videos right now on social media of quote unquote proofing of dogs, that no one in their right mind should be doing with the majority of dogs. I'm sorry, I will have a very strong discussion with someone about these things. People are like, "Oh, it's so amazing." It's not you're setting dogs up to fail. Because you have to understand that when you're putting that video out, that person who may be thinking about doing Scent Work, or may even have been doing summer for a very short period time, they're going to do that with their dog.

And you know what? When their dog is being pelted with tennis balls and other dogs are walking around and no one knows what the hell they're doing, and no one really understands the whole purpose of this, they're just trying to copy what they see, and it goes terribly wrong. Don't come crying to me. "Oh well now we're having problems." No wonder you're having issues. It drives me nuts. And why are we seeing those things?

Because there's a conflation between the types of dogs who need to do professional work, and what we are trying to do for sport. These are not the same. If you have dogs that you see these crazy videos for, the vast majority of them are being trained by professionals. And these dogs must work. There's a big difference between, I have to go out and I have to find the bad guy, I have to find the bomb, I have to find the drugs, whatever. And you know what, I'd like to go to a trial and it would be good if we found the target odor, because I like the pretty ribbon. Neither of you are going to die if you don't, and no one else will either.

There's a big difference between the two. And the other thing to recognize is that those pros, that you're seeing all those videos of, something like crazy, like 80% of the dogs in their programs fail. They fail out of the programs. Even the ones that are specifically bred. And all this careful breeding and selection and training, they still flunk out, because it's incredibly difficult because they have to do a job.

This is not what our dogs are doing. Our dogs main job is to be our companion. That is their most important thing they could ever do. So to try to set your companion up, who's there to be your friend and is there to share your life experience with, that you're going to have with you hopefully for 10, 12 plus years. And to put them into these positions where you're sitting them in to so much conflict where they're going to fail, because you're trying to get them to quote unquote look like a pro. No, don't do that. It's not necessary.

I'm not saying don't train. I'm not saying don't practice. I'm not saying don't proof. But do it reasonably. To expect your dog to do some of these things that you're seeing on social media right now, is just not fair. I'm not saying dumb it down. I'm not saying water it down. I'm not saying don't try to push the envelope. By all means do. Within reason. And please don't think that because you see something like that and go, "Oh, well I don't think my dog can do that, therefore we can't do Scent Work." That's not true. It's just not. It hurts me to my soul that people think these things because it's just not true.

I know this comes across as a higher than thou, looking down on everyone who doesn't agree, yada, yada. I'm just concerned with how it is that the narratives are going. And the types of feedback I'm getting from people who are now entering into this whole thing and they're new. I want this to be something that every single dog does around the world, because I think the dog's lives would be a lot better. If they just did Scent Work for fun, I mean truly for fun, five, 10 minutes a day with their person, not for anything, as far as titles or competition, their lives would be so much better.

But if you want to talk about competition, setting it up so that the expectations are realistic for the dogs and the people, can go a really long way. Where we all could appreciate the fact where you see really true solid teamwork. Where you see dogs improving because of the activity, not because they're being trained to test against the activity. There's a big difference between the two.

So just to try to help this make a little bit more sense. I am taking my puppy through a summer class right now. And again, we're going to take our time. I will probably go a lot slower than people think that I should. And that's just the way it's going to be. But one of his classmates in our class yesterday, which was at a field trip location, was at Tractor Supply. One of his classmates is little bit more reserved. And I have to tell you, these are the times I truly miss teaching in person, because from the beginning of the class to the end of the class, the change in this dog was remarkable. I'm not overstating this.

The way he held himself. The way that his eyes glistened and he would raise his tail. He would wag his tail when he would find his hides. And they're searching for food because the environment is already crazy enough. The instructor did an amazing job as far as setting the owner at ease. This was the first time she was ever using a long line. She did an amazing job with it. I tip my hat to the instructor. The instructor did a fantastic job. Again, this is not my class. I'm taking the class.

But the point being is that this activity, I think, is going to help this dog immensely. It's not going to be the whole solution to his problems. But it could be a very important part to it, where he is able to celebrate being a dog. He is able to gain confidence by working away from his mother, by working out these increasingly difficult problems, incrementally. Being rewarded for it heavily. And then realizing just how awesome he is. What more could you ask for? I mean I'm telling you in one hour class, he went from a stress case to not a whole lot of stress in his body, being able to wag his tail when he find his hides. And he wasn't slouched on the ground.

I mean, wow. No ribbon or title will ever be able to encapsulate that and the improvement of the handler of being able to see, "Oh wow, if I give him a little bit more space, he can work it out." And being able to, "Oh, did you see him do that really quick head turn? I think he got the odor." She's seeing these things, not the instructor and not me when I would blab too much. She's noticing this. So there's an improvement of the relationship. She's able to read her dog more. She's able to see things better. What more could you ask for?

These are the things that Scent Work is really about. This is what Scent Work should be. This is the basis of everything and this is proof that Scent Work is for absolutely every single dog. So to wrap this soap box session up, I think we just have to be careful how it is that we're talking about this, particularly understanding the people who are new may not get all of the small little intricacies of what we may be talking about.

I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to specialize, and customize your training to work on very specific skills, to perfect things, to be a better searching team, to be a better handler, to improve upon your dog's weaknesses, whatever they may be. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But to basically try to make this a really super exclusive club, I think is flatly wrong. And we have to be very careful to try to avoid that.

Let's keep Scent Work very inclusive. Let's remember the wide range of dogs that are available out in the world and let's ensure they all get an opportunity to play. Let's not cut any of them out, because that would be a travesty, truly. Let's make this an activity, and ensure it remains to be so, that every single dog can play however they are comfortable doing so. And if they are able to compete, great. And if you don't earn every single title under the sun, that's fine. If you do, congratulations, tip my hat to you and that's about the extent of it.

Let's just keep these things in check. Let's be realistic. And let's make sure that we keep this open and fun. So at the very least, I hope this podcast got everyone thinking, and I'm always open to discussing any of this stuff. So agree, disagree. By all means, feel free to reach out. The more we talk about this stuff openly, the better it'll be. All right, well, thanks so much for listening. Happy training with we look forward to seeing you soon.

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