Ep. 30: Trials Cancelled...Now What?!

Mar 16, 2020

Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, the purpose of this discussion with Michael McManus CAPE, CATT, CNWI is to delve into why people compete in the first place, how those people will cope with trials being cancelled nationwide while also highlighting ways handlers can use this time to further improve their skills during an otherwise unsettling and uncertain time.

The main takeaway should be that we will all get through this. Use this opportunity to reignite your joy for the game of Scent Work and spending valuable time with our dogs.


  • Dianna L. Santos
  • Michael McManus


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, we're going to be having a very frank discussion about trialing and trying to evaluate why people trial and put this all into perspective given the coronavirus outbreak that this episode is being recorded during.

Before we start diving into the podcast episode itself, let me just do a very quick introduction on myself. My name is Dianna Santos and 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 very fortunate to have a client base that's quite literally worldwide.

Through Scent Work University in particular, we provide online training that is totally focused on scent work. That means we can help you from the very beginning of your scent work journey, all the way through to developing some more advanced skills and even getting ready for trial. We do this by providing online courses, webinars, and seminars that are all designed to help you in your scent work training journey. In addition to that, we also offer a regularly updated blog as well as podcasts as you are listening to today.

Since you know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the podcast episode where we have a discussion with Michael McManus.

All right, so now we're going to be talking about a potentially hot button, touchy topic of trying to figure out or discuss, debate about trialing as far as why it is that people trial, really digging into the source of people trialing and whether or not we can potentially change viewpoints. And this is particularly bubbling up because we're recording this during the coronavirus debacle. So let me just hear from you as far as your opinion. What is, in your opinion, the reason why people want to trial generally speaking?

Michael McManus: Yeah. And this is somewhat tainted, and I probably should preface this with my own personality. I am one of the most competitive people you'll ever meet. If it can be turned into a competition, it will be turned into a competition. Just cleaning the room, I would be one of the suckers who falls for the, "Paint my fence." All you have to do is say, "I bet I could paint half the fence faster than you can," and then I'd finish painting all the fence before him. Right? So I'm very competitive. People compete in dog sports for a variety of reasons. One of them is because they're competitive and ambitious and they like doing things like that. Another is community and spending time with people that you don't always get to do. And especially if you're a dog person, sometimes our social lives can be quite limited by the fact that we own dogs and getting together with other dog people helps.

Another reason is because we put in a lot of time and effort with our dogs and we want to be able to show that off. We want to spend a fun day with our dog. I think sometimes we can kind of distract ourselves though because for some dogs who are stressed by a trial environment, you could have a lot of fun doing nose work in a non trial environment, but it's more fun for the human. That's why we keep putting them in those situations over and over again. But I think what it comes down to is competition and being competitive. Otherwise, what's the point? You could do workshops and fun days.

Dianna L. Santos: I agree with all of those. So now let's talk about how it is that we can then square that circle.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: From the human perspective.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: To the dog. Because I think that there are a lot of dogs right now who are being put in situations where they're being asked to trial where it is wholly unfair to the dog.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: So can you talk about that? So from the dog's perspective, what do you think the dogs think about as far as trialing?

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: And you can talk about the whole range of different dogs.

Michael McManus: Yeah, so I think dogs from just like a baseline, let's talk about a neutral dog. Neutral dogs like going and exploring new places. They like spending time with their pack members, right? I guess that's a term that we may or may not be allowed to use these days, but they like spending time with their family. And so on that, so far trial sounds good. Right? And I would even go so far as to say I believe that forming relationships that you need two things. One thing is very, very much championed for me by Sue Sternberg, which is experiences of joy, right? When we go out and we have fun together, that's important.

But I think the other half of that is shared experiences of stress and trauma, and this I get from Dr. Roger Abrantes] who is absolutely amazing and been a role model for me as well. And this is the idea that you take two people who hate each other and put them on a boat in the middle of a storm and they will be lifelong friends at the end of that event. These traumatic events actually bond people together sometimes even stronger than just going out to a meal with a friend. That's a fun experience and we'll develop a bond over a meal, that's for sure, but not the same bond as we will surviving coronavirus together. Right? So I actually think the stressful component of trials is a positive and a negative depending on how it ends up playing itself out because you can't always guess the way it's going to play out. But for my dogs, for the most part, it's bonded us closer together than just have going to a fun day would have.

The other thing is dogs are predators and they're alive and so they also are somewhat competitive. I don't think they care about ribbons, but when they feel like you're competing, I think they also get that same adrenaline rush and it might be quite exciting for them. Not dissimilar to the excitement of going on a hunt and feeling that competition against your prey.

That said, it's a very stressful experience. That's why a lot of people, the majority of people I know, don't actually compete in sports for their upwardly mobile career. Right? Only one person gets that promotion and a lot of people just don't even go for it. I think being competitive is a very small subset of personality types and I think that goes for dogs too. The majority of dogs, that stress is just not for them and if you're not emotionally prepared to accept your dog for who they are, that can be very difficult. You might want to try to squeeze that dog into a competitive box that they don't fit in, and I think it's a very, very bad situation. I've seen it often and it's very upsetting for everyone watching people try to do this with a dog and it's not good for the dog or the handler.

Dianna L. Santos: So as far as the situation that everyone is faced with now where trials are being canceled across the country, across the world, people are having to self quarantine and whatnot and there's a lot of stress I think across the spectrum. And you have trial officials, this is their livelihood. You have clubs that are concerned about closing and you also have competitors who may be out of their entry fees. But when you separate money from it, I feel as though there is this outcry of not just disappointment, there's an actual like ripping out of the heart sort of thing with people where they're not going to be able to compete.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: And something that a completely not dog person, my husband, happened to say in passing. He's like, "I wonder if the sport's going to survive this." And that really stuck me for a minute because when you're talking about nose work, it has exploded in popularity obviously. I mean it was very popular when NACSW was the only game in town, but now the AKC is in it, it's obviously exploded even more. But the one thing that I've always found to be true is that people will do what they are rewarded for and the incentive of trial definitely has allowed more people to play. But now that there is more trialing opportunities, people aren't training as much, they're just trialing.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: So the one thing I would love to hear your opinion on is where do you think that this is going to go? Are people going to not play the game with their dogs because they can't potentially get the pretty ribbons and titles? Are they still going to be playing the game with their dogs? And where do you think this sport is going to be in six months?

Michael McManus: Okay. So this is a really powerful question and I think I'll start with the most controversial part, which is this, that I'm worried that dog sports in general aren't going to survive the technological change. And what I mean by that is as you can do everything from home and film it, and I'm not against online venues, I think that's great. I think it's a wonderful thing, but I think people might stop going out into public with their dogs all together. I'm worried about that. I'm already seeing that in the pet world. Just walking down the street I see a lot fewer dogs out on the street than I used to. I'm worried about that.

Michael McManus: I think in terms of the sport itself surviving, I have no doubt that it survives because any time you stick someone like me with someone like me in a room together with two dogs, we're going to find some way to compete and if it's whose dog has the better nose, that's what it's going to be. If it's whose dog can sit faster, that's what it's going to be. Right? So I have no doubt that at the power of human ambition and competitiveness, we will definitely keep having dog sports.

I think if anything, this may strengthen. I think some people may rediscover the joy of training and go, "All this break from trialing has really showed me how much I love training nose work." I've had so many students after I've either had to tell them to take a break from trialing or who for one reason or another couldn't trial for maybe health reasons or other reasons come back and tell me, "I forgot how much I like to nose work. It's actually really fun and I'd forgotten that by competing." So some people may rediscover their love for nose work and then come back with dogs who've had a couple of months of training without trialing, come back even better and are like, "Oh wow. Not only was it more fun, my dog's actually better at competing than they were before."

Dianna L. Santos: And I hope that that's true.

Michael McManus: Yes.

Dianna L. Santos: I hope that people do really start to appreciate the training more because quite honestly I think that the increase in trialing opportunities was pushing people to trial and then just not train and to try to supplement their trialing for training. And those are two completely different things.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: So if there is any silver lining to all of this, I hope that is it.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: As far as how do you plan as an instructor to help your super uber competitive clients who are basically going through withdrawal? How do you plan to help them get through this period? Because I am not, I'm the complete polar opposite to you. I could give two shits about competition. I don't relate to it. I don't care. It's not my thing. So when I have super uber competitive clients, I'm like, "I'll try to help you, but it's probably not the best fit." How are you going to help those people? Because they're the ones who are saying, "Well, I needed to go across the country five different times to get my whatever and I need that for my self work."

Michael McManus: Right.

Dianna L. Santos: Like it's not just simply because I need to prove my training, it's actually intertwined with how they feel as a human being.

Michael McManus: Yes.

Dianna L. Santos: How are you going to help those clients?

Michael McManus: That's a really good question. I think I actually don't have as many of those clients as you might think. I think because the idea of competition for competition's sake is actually disgusting to me in a lot of ways. I think that's where you get into, "Well maybe if I used an E-collar, I could fix my problem." That's where you start going down that path of really dangerous for me. I actually think that a competition on a whole with animals like by itself is a bad thing because even despite all the praise I've given it all up to now, if it's just about the competition and then it's not about the relationship anymore, it's not about the dog, it's not about even developing skill, right? Then we get people cheating, right? Which we have this happening now.

So I think the people who tend to train with me who are really, really competitive, there have to be some underlying ground rules, which is one that it's not really a win unless you actually earned it. As in you actually put in the time to develop the skills. It wasn't a fluke. You put in the training time, you honed your relationship, you honed your communication skill, you refuse to cheat or take any advantage wherever they were presented. Even if you were given an advantage, you would refuse it because you want to win on your own two feet.

And the second thing is that dogs who do well in competition tend to be happy dogs who are enjoying what they're doing. And so that enjoyment of enjoying what you're doing means that you can have just as much fun training as competing. So when the trial comes up and it's there to actually stand as a test of how your relationship and your training has been going as opposed to the goal, it's actually the goal is to train the best dog and the trial is just the test to see if you're on the right path. That is my emphasis in my training. And if you don't have that same emphasis, we're going to be sitting down and having hearts to hearts for a long time about what's important in life. It's like a philosophical debate.

Dianna L. Santos: And that's exactly where I try to come from.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: So I've had some people over the years, not many luckily, but a few who were just absolutely devastated when things didn't go well. I mean not just your typical, "Oh we didn't Q."

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: But now like, "I am not going to be able to face the world," kind of thing.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: So those are the types of people that I'm worried during this time of upheaval what they're going to do. And so what I would love to hear from you is what kind of changes could we do as a community to help better portray what trialing should be, what maybe instructors can do to better prepare their students, what dog owners can think about when they may be trying to embark on trialing.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: What should we mentally be preparing ourselves for before we do any of these things?

Michael McManus: Sure. And I think that that's a really good point about how you feel when you don't do a good job, when you come home without the title or that kind of thing. And I think that's the keystone, that's one of the big things about my type of competing and the way I want my students to compete is that the trial that you fail should be the most invigorating experience. To me it's like having a conversation with someone where someone proves you wrong. To me that's not a devastating experience. That's like opened up a whole new world for me. I want to know when I'm wrong because it's not like they made me wrong. I was always wrong up to that point, they showed me how I was wrong, and so it's the same. I found some flaw in my training that now I have the privilege to go home and trying to solve and that is the most exciting part of competition to me is actually the failure.

On the other side, in terms of being devastated, I've had trials where I was absolutely devastated by it and I've had two different types of experience in that category. One is where I'm devastated because we didn't show what we were truly capable of. These were problems we'd trained for, these were things that we knew how to solve and usually by my own arrogance or micromanagement I don't allow my dog to do their job properly. And I've been devastated by those moments. And the hard part is too, the dog doesn't understand that, so I can't let the dog think I'm mad at them. So I have to put on a good face and be devastated away from them. Right? So I've got to hold that in and just like, "Okay, that was really bad on my part." And dogs don't understand if I say, "I'm sorry dog," even though sometimes I actually say, "I'm sorry dog." They don't really understand that and so you have to just actually work on yourself to be better.

And then the other devastation I've had was when I allowed myself to get that bad kind of competitive. This happened in particular with the first ever nationals, NACSW nationals when I was trying to qualify, where I had two or three of the worst NW3s I'd ever done and they were just miserable, bad experiences. And I was devastated that I didn't get into nationals, but I was also, similar to the first type, I was devastated that I allowed my competitiveness to undermine my relationship with my dog, which then manifested itself in poor performances in trial. So the actual competition showed me something about my relationship with my dog that I didn't know before that I could then go home and fix.

Dianna L. Santos: Well, first of all, thank you for sharing that. I think it's helpful for people to hear that, at least from where I'm sitting, it appears as though these are the types of things that everyone goes through-

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: At some point, and if you claim that you don't, you're lying.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: This is where being a human is very complicated.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: Because you have all the emotional baggage. You do have all of the understanding, the higher level understanding of what's going on around you whereas the dog is just playing the game and then trying to connect those two things when things don't go well, particularly when it's on your shoulders and reason why it didn't go well. The dog did great or they would have done great if you just got out of their way or if you weren't stuck in your head. That's very, very hard to deal with.

And then when you also have, for myself, the added pressure of being an instructor, worrying about professional standing.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: I can't even imagine for yourself being someone who is so involved with NACSW, being an instructor at K9 Nose Work Camp, being a CEO. "Okay great, I'm going to be able to qualify for the first ever nationals. I better get in, I better qualify." And I personally would just crumble under that kind of pressure. I hate it. I can't stand it. But that is something that I think that as instructors, or just as a community as a whole, we need to do a better job of talking about that stuff openly. 

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: And explaining to our clients and students that they very well may encounter a similar experience and then how they can deal with it.

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: So you shared about this thing that you went through. How did you then use that information to get through it to the other side so that you weren't poisoning your trialing experiences going forward?

Michael McManus: Yeah, and so I'm going to say a couple things that may sound a bit harsh, but they're not meant that way at all. They're meant in the most loving, helping, trying to help other instructors as I can. So I've heard from a lot of people this fear of competing because of what other instructors or their own students will think and I think that's tragic. You shouldn't let those kinds of things get in the way of your enjoyment of your dog. Even on a base level, like I've known people, they're not able to enjoy their dog as a puppy because they're afraid they're not meeting certain deadlines. "My puppy hasn't learned this and that and other trainer's puppies are doing this." It's like, "Man, this is your puppy. Enjoy it." It's like, "You don't get this for very long."

So I get that and there are some coping things you can do. Like for example, don't compete in your local region so that you're not there with students who may come up to you. Even if you're not as nervous, they may be coming up with their questions about how to handle this and how to handle that and that may be something you're not able to deal with when you're competing. You have to understand when you're at a competition, as a competitor, you are there as a competitor, not as an instructor. And if you're fine with giving out advice, that's fine, but you also have to respect yourself and your own process.

The other thing is if you're afraid of failing in front of people, it's because you haven't failed enough. It's like if you haven't failed that many times, then maybe you should take a break from teaching and just focus on becoming a competitor first. Just go out there and fail a bunch. Maybe one of the reasons that I'm not worried about what my students are going to think about me when I compete is because I've just failed so much. I can help my students through every possible failure because I've done it myself personally. I know how to work through that problem because I had that problem five years ago, so don't worry, I got your back on this one. And when I fail in the future, I'm looking forward of developing new tools to help my students when they have the same problem. That to me is I guess how I mentally cope with it.

Every dog is a unique scenario. It's not an algorithm that if you just plug these variables in, you come up with the right solution. And so my new puppy Catfish, he's been training nose work for a while now and we're thinking about putting him on odor. When I go to compete with him, it's going to be starting from scratch and I don't know what that's going to be like and we're going to fail a bunch and I'm going to learn how to work a dog that's so different from any other dog I've ever worked before. And I'm actually looking forward to it. It's actually kind of an exhilarating experience for me.

I may even have people come up to me and say like, "Oh man, you got an elite on those other dogs but you can't get an NW1 or an ORT on this dog?" It's like, "Hey look, he's a different dog." I wouldn't even let that affect me, but I can understand for some people who wouldn't be able to shrug something off as easily as that. I think again, what I rely on is the amount of failure I've done and also the fact that I'm in it for a much more longterm goal than this ribbon. This ribbon is one little blip on my path to having this awesome nose work team and that doesn't happen in a trial, in a month, in a year. It happens in several years.

Dianna L. Santos: Perfect. So to try to wrap all this up, what do you want to let people know during this unsettling time as their trialing opportunities are dwindling? What is it that you want them to think about? What is it that you want them to consider, maybe reevaluate? Is there anything in particular that you want them to really sit down and really zero in on while they have potentially months where they're not going to be able to compete? Before they go into it or if you had someone who was maybe thinking about competing, but then all this happened so they're not going to be able to do it for a while? Is there something in particular-

Michael McManus: Yeah.

Dianna L. Santos: For people who are doing scent work or nose work that you think that this would be a good thing for them to think about, ponder and or do?

Michael McManus: Yeah, so this may seem cliche or morbid, but I'm a stoic, philosophically speaking, and so the idea of meditating on death is a very common theme in stoicism and understanding the gravity of different scenarios in your life. And so I think in this time or in any time, but in this time in particular when it's easier to think about that stuff, it's like, what are you really going to miss out? What are you going to miss if it all ended tomorrow? Are you going to be missing the ribbons? Are you going to be missing the time spent with your dog? The time spent developing your relationship? Are you going to regret not being able to compete for a week? Are you going to regret all the wasted time stressing you and your dog out instead of enjoying each other's company? And then go out and have some fun training and develop skill.

Michael McManus: It should be a real rejuvenating and positive experience, not just a somber moment. It should give you life to think about in those terms. I know if things get really shut down and I'm canceling classes, I'm going to be looking forward to spending some quality time with my dogs, developing skills that we've been putting off and seeing how we can develop and really make use of that time. Go back to your foundation, re layer everything on, see if you can come away with it way stronger than you were before and ready to go back out there and compete in a better way.

Dianna L. Santos: So we want to thank Michael for having this discussion with us. It's important for all of us to keep in mind why it is that we're trialing, the benefits that it may account for ourselves or our dogs or otherwise, and that we're going through this whole upheaval within the world right now as clearheaded as we can and that we are trying to figure out ways that we can still enjoy our dogs and still enjoy all of the time that we spend with them. I hope you found this podcast helpful, happy training and we look forward to seeing you soon.

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