Ep. 36: Thoughtful Trialing

Jul 27, 2020

When we are trialing with our dogs in Scent Work, there is no reason you should abandon the very same principles you have come to rely upon on in training simply because your trialing! Yet, time and time again, you will see competitors doing this very thing!

For instance, if you know a certain routine will set your dog up for success in training, you should absolutely try to use that same routine when you are trialing!

At the very least, this episode will get you thinking and consider how you can approach your trialing experiences more thoughtfully.


  • Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things that work. That can include training tips or behind the scenes, look at what your instructor or trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode, I wanted to talk about how it is that we may be able to still help our dogs, even when we're going to trial. In the same kind of way, we may actually want to help them when we're doing training. Before we dive into the podcast episode itself, let me just do a very quick introduction on myself.

My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the owner and lead instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sport University and Family Dog University. These are online dog training platforms that are designed to provide high quality dog training instruction to as many people as possible. We're very fortunate to have a client basis worldwide.

For Scent Work University, in particular, we provide online scent work training that can help you in any part of your scent work training career. So, what I mean by that is, we be able to help people who are just starting out, if you were developing some more advanced skills, or if you're getting ready for trial. We do this by providing online courses, webinars, or regularly updated blog and podcast episodes of what you're listening to today. So without further ado, let's dive into the podcast episode itself.

So in this episode, I wanted to talk about how it is that we may be able to as handlers, help our dogs while we are trialing using some of the same types of techniques that we would use when we are training. Now, before we dive into this, I want to make sure that we're being perfectly clear, particularly for those of you who may have listened to my rants previously, is that there is an absolute distinction between training and trialing. They are not the same. Training is where we are training skills, where we are helping our dogs learn how to do certain things, or even introducing them to certain concepts with a plan, with an idea of what it is that our end goal would be, right.

Trialing is testing whether or not your training worked. So, they're not interchangeable. It's not as though they both start with "T" so, therefore, they're the same thing. They're not. But one of the things that I think is lost in the distinction between training and trialing is that you, as a handler, when you're trialing, do not suddenly take off your trainer hat. Meaning, the very same things that you would do when you're training your dog, you can do while you're trialing your dog. And you may be saying, "I have no idea what you mean." Well, let's take setting our dogs up to succeed, right?

So if you're training and you notice that your dog is struggling with something where maybe you are trying to do a field trip search, and you noticed before you even left, before you even put the dog in the car, they were kind of off. Maybe they had an off tummy. Maybe they had a really exciting day the day before, and they're a little tired. Who knows? But you as an astute and keyed into your dog handler know, "They're a little iffy today. I don't know how this is going to go." So with that in mind, you decide to set both of yourselves up for success, right?

Because you don't want to set your dog up to fail, you don't want to set yourself up for frustration. So, you decided to set up a warm-up search of sorts, where you can assess where your dog is mentally, physically, how their capabilities are going to be doing in this new environment, in this new place, this field trip location that you've decided to practice in.

And depending on how they do, that will then dictate how far it is that you can stretch them for the actual training exercise. That, to me, is an excellent training approach of saying, this is the animal I have in front of me. This is the learner I have in front of me. They're not robots. They're not little Androids. Things happen. And it's not always bad things. It's not like your dog is dying or anything. It could just be that they're tired. Maybe they had a really awesome day the day before, but now, they're sore, they're tired, they're a little off and that's okay. There's nothing wrong with that.

You also have to balance. Maybe you're going to a field trip location that is just practically Disneyland, right? And they're just like, "Wow, this is so awesome." But it's such a large amount of awesome that they can't seem to stay inside their brain. They're just off doing other things. Whatever the case may be, by doing the simple exercise of assessing where your dog actually is and then figuring out, what can I conceivably get out of this session? Where I'm not bashing my own head against a wall and I'm not setting my dog up to fail and potentially putting my training backwards. That simple exercise of doing a warm-up search. You can actually see, collect data about where it is that your dog is, is a good thing. And you may say, "Okay. That sounds fair. That sounds fine. What on earth does it have to do with trialing?"

Well, the same applies. Meaning that when you have warm-up boxes for trial, that can be the same exact thing. So, if you are coming up to a line of warm-up boxes and your dog says, "Odor what?" That may be a very good sign for you that this may be a little bit rough. It could also just be that your dog is so incredibly overwhelmed because where warm-up boxes typically are situated is, there's a lot of chaos. There's a lot of movement. There's a lot of stuff going on. So, if you haven't practiced that before, your dog would be like, "I have no idea that we can search here. Since when? Who knows?" But it's still information for you to have that you can then take to you to the start line.

So maybe there are other things that you'd be able to do as a handler to better help set your dog up to succeed even as you are trialing. You don't have to go into this whole situation blind. You don't have to say, "Oh, well, we're here and we'll just see how it goes." Your brain should not turn off simply because you're trialing. If anything, it should be more keyed in. You should be more in tune to the fact that you're probably in a very strange environment. Your dog, no matter how often that you practice, you probably are never able to really truly assimilate the way that a trial works and the way that a trial is bustling with activity. There's no way to really simulate that unless you go to a trial. And I'm not saying that replacing trialing with training. I'm not saying that at all. All I'm merely trying to point out is, even if you do a lot of practicing, it's a very, very difficult thing to practice in such a way that it will as closely mirror what you will see at trial. That's all.

But because of that, you need to be in tuned to that fact when your dog is actually in these situations. So you're like, "Okay. Maybe I can kind of follow you here. What am I supposed to do then?" Well, there's a couple of things you could do. You could see... Again, going into your training hat, are there ways that you can help your dog feel more at ease? Are there ways that you could help introduce more of those built-in routines that you have in your training? Meaning when we go to the start line, we do X, Y, and Z in order to get started. Really make sure that you do those things. Give your dog an opportunity to really focus on what they're doing.

You may have to let them go around the whole perimeter of the search area first before they can key in. That's fine. But as long as you know what those things and those possibilities are, so you're not fighting against it because you're like, "Oh, we're trialing," and you have to go. If your dog isn't there, your dog needs help. Then you should be helping them. That's the whole point. And I've been seeing a lot of discussions. It's not recent. They come and go. It always goes in pendulum back and forth. But a lot of the discussions recently have been that, "Well, your dog should just go and search," which, again, ideally is true, but it's also, I think, extraordinarily unrealistic, particularly if you're just starting out or if you're just starting out in a new level. And that's another thing that I don't think people are really quite wrapping their heads around is... Let's say that you've just started in your set work trialing career, right? So, you've done novice and your dog entered novice. They did well. Another through novice. Fantastic.

Let's take AKC Scent Work as an example. And now you're going into intermediate and the same thing. They've gone in and did great. Now, you're going up to the next level. I'm telling you that that jump from every level to the next level, particularly, once you go into the higher levels, is basically a brand new experience for your dog. And you need to try to adjust what your expectations are. You need to be ready as a handler to help your dog as needed that you are not just this completely bystander person who's just there to drive them to the trial site.

And I know that there are people who've heard me harp on the importance of a dog being independent, right? Of being able to work and do this on their own, that you are the passenger, but notice that I'm saying that you are the passenger. I'm not saying that you're not in the car. I'm saying that you're still there as a supportive role. So, if the driver is just completely phased out and there's a deer in the road, I'm hoping that the passenger is saying, "Hey, by the way, there's a giant deer in the road. We're about to die." You wouldn't just sit there and be like, "Well, I guess we're just going to hit that. That's okay." No, you're going to say or do something. It's the same thing with our dogs when we're trialing.

And I'm hoping that people will be able to have a better comprehension of what that is, and it's not easy. It really isn't. Once you're able to delineate training from trialing, it almost... Again, a very human thing, isn't it? "Okay. So now there's this wall between them and I cannot do any of the things I do in training that I do when I'm trialing." And that's not true either. You have to be able to pick certain things from training that you can use in trialing. You can still find ways to set your dog up to succeed even when you are trialing.

So, for instance, the whole idea that if your dog is drowning in a search at a trial where they just cannot figure out a hide, right? Maybe it's a converging odor problem. Maybe there's pulling. Maybe it's inaccessible, who knows. It could be anything. And they are just like, "Oh my God, I don't know where it is." And you're like, "Oh my God, you don't know where it is." And the clock is running and your stress levels are really high. And it's like, "Oh, for the love of all."

The idea that you're just supposed to stand there and just let your dog flounder, I think, is completely false. I don't care what level it is. You should then be doing whatever it is to help your dog. Maybe you noticed they showed some interest somewhere. Maybe you go back to that area and be like, "Hey, do you want to go check this out?" I'm not saying, they have to detail every square inch. I am not saying that I want you to take over those search. I don't.

I'm merely saying, notice what your dog has already told you, and then use that information as necessary. Maybe it's that your dog needs a reset. Maybe you're doing an exterior search in the middle of summer. It is a gazillion degrees outside. They've already been searching for two and a half minutes. You have, let's say, a five minute search and they are hot. Go find some shade. Just let them reset For a couple of seconds. Let them catch their breath and then come back out and again bring them to the areas that you saw that there was some interest or areas that you may have remembered as a handler, "We didn't do that corner. Maybe we need to go over there."

Again, I know that it's very hard when people are trying to wrap their brains around all these different concepts. We've become very black and white, become very linear in our thinking of saying, "Okay. My dog is a leader. They do everything and I just stand there and watch and call Alert." That's not it. Or they say, "Okay. I am the one who is a leader and I have to direct the entire search, and my dog is just there to put their nose on it." That's not it either.

So, there's a combination of. There's a nice little medley and it's all going to be different from team to team and even from dog to dog. So, if you have multiple dogs in your household, you may do something completely different with dog one that you would do with dog two. And that's even more complicated for people. And it makes people... It drives them nuts, "But you told me to do this with this dog." "I know, but that's what that dog needs. Your other dog needs something else."

So, I don't try to claim that any of this is easy because it's not. But I think you can help yourself incredibly by recognizing that some of the very same things that you do in training in order to promote your dog to be successful in a given exercise, not that you're giving them the answer, not that you're making it easier, but you are setting them up to be successful, to be able to learn, to be able to stretch themselves, to figure out these new skills. Those kinds of approaches can apply to trialing as well. And I just don't think that people know that or they don't recognize it, or they don't think about it that way. I think it'd be helpful if they did.

So, just a couple more examples then I'll wrap this rambling episode up. So, let's say that your dog is sensitive to other dogs, right? But you have been working through this with your instructor and you've been practicing for a while and you've done some mock trial setups and your dog has done well, right? We're not talking about they completely fall apart. We're not talking about your dog is trying to eat other dogs. We're not talking about anything like that. We're just saying that your dog is a little sensitive around other dogs, right.

You as their handler and guardian and their advocate need to look out for their best interests from the moment that you leave the home, right? From the moment that you leave your house, you need to say, "Okay. What can I do for my dog in order to set them up to succeed, in order to ensure that they don't make a mistake, in order to make sure that their behavior modification program doesn't go out the window because I decided to put them into the deep end of the pool?" I mean, again, we're the ones driving our dogs to these events. They're not the ones doing it. So we have to make sure we're making good decisions.

With that in mind, you have to probably think about, maybe even a week ahead of time, what kind of activities and events are my dog going to be involved in? Is there a possibility for stress stacking? Is there a possibility that my dog would have... Had all these other things happen that are now stacking on top of each other so that they basically are in this heightened alert state, the stress state physically for themselves? That we go to the trial and they're just going to explode. That, basically, they are just like a little pressure cooker. They're ready to just erupt. That, obviously, wouldn't be fair.

So, being mindful that that maybe is a possibility, look for a week ahead of your trial and try to make sure that your dog is in situations where that would not happen. And again, it's not only negative stress. It's also really super exubering stress could also be stress stacking. So, for instance, let's say that your dog likes to do things like lure coursing or fast cats, or the new organization has just started up dash dogs where, basically, they're chasing the plastic bag, the little "bunny" and it's very super exciting and it's awesome. It also tends to get dogs really aroused, which again, in and of itself is not bad. But if you had a dog who is sensitive to other dogs and you decided to do one of those things the day before the trial, maybe that's going to be setting your dog up to be even more aroused when they go to the trial that you're trying to do for scent work. And maybe that wouldn't be such a great idea.

So, I'm just trying to paint a picture for you that when you are trialing, there are things that you should be doing, keeping in mind of who your dog is. So, let's say, that you did that. You looked at your calendar, you said, "Okay. We're going to be doing these types of activities leading up to my trial to ensure that as best as I can that my dog is not stress stacking, right. That they're not overly aroused or anything else." Okay, great. You then have the drive to the trial. Well, do you have a good routine already? Is your dog comfortable in the crate? Is your dog... Are you going to be feeding them breakfast or are you not going to be feeding them breakfast? What works best for them? You're going to be playing music. Who the hell knows?

It runs the gamut, but again, all of that matters because you could have done great that whole week leading up to it. But if your drive to the trial is just a bunch of stress for your dog because they don't like their crate, they don't like the car, maybe you're stressed out, maybe... Who knows? But now you get to the trial site and they're like, "Oh my God." That's not going to help you. So you have to think all these things through, again, ahead of time. And then what it is you'd be able to do to help them.

Okay, great. So, we've done the whole week leading up, we've done the actual drive. You get to the trial site. You now need to figure out, "Where am I going to put my car so that my dog who's sensitive to other dogs could be successful?" You're probably not going to want to be at the entrance. You're probably not going to want to be at the exit. You may want to be closer to the exit. You're probably not going to want to be where there's a lot of foot traffic as much as you can avoid it. And you're going to want to have your set up so that your dog isn't going to be yelled at every single time that another dog walks by. You don't want them potentially yelling at other dogs as they walk by.

So you want to, again, ahead of time, invest in things such as easy ups or shades or other things you'd be able to block off line of sight if necessary. You want to be able to have access to the potty area so that you and your dog can go. You want to have a routine of how it is that you can do that to have your dog focused on you. All of these kinds of things. None of this has anything to do with scent work. This all has to do with helping your dog be successful, but these are all training techniques that you were using at a trial.

Then we have the actual part for searching. Now, we actually walk into scent work land, right? You still want to be pulling on some of your maybe behavior modification techniques or other things or exercises that you've worked on with your instructor in order to help your dog be in the right mindset when you go from your crating area to maybe the potty area, to maybe the staging area, to then the search area, right?

You want to be able to ensure that your dog is focused on you and/or being ready to focus on odor at the right time. You don't want them saying, "Well, there's a big, scary monster, the dog, over there. I'm worried about them." You don't want that happening. You want them to say, "Oh, I love being with mama and papa. And Oh, we're going to find this smelly stuff. It's going to be so much fun." Whatever it is that you need to do and in order to do that, have a toy on you, have really high value treats on you to have them do small, little, low octane tricks. You don't want to send them over the moon, whatever the case may be.

But again, I'm hoping that you're getting the trend here. That you are applying the very same things that you have learned in your training to your trialing. You haven't just abandoned all these things, left them at your house and then go to the trial site and be like, "Oh, well, we're here trialing. We're just going to hope for the best." No, of course not. You're doing all of these things because you know that these things are extraordinarily valuable for you to be doing with your dog.

Okay. We have a week before. We have the day of, we have the drive, we have finding a little parking space. We can then talk about what it is you're supposed to be doing when you're going to your search areas. Again, whatever kind of exercises you're talking about with your instructor, whatever may be helpful or useful to your dog. Oh, that's great.

You then have the actual search. So you're actually told, "Okay. It's your turn. Come on in." When you go up to the start line, you are still able to do things with your dog, whatever the case may be. Now, I'm not saying that I encourage you to distract your dog or to try to get your dog focused on you. I'm not, but if you bring your dog up to the start line and you notice that they're looking behind you and there's no search area back there. That's where you came from. That's the staging area. They are not focused at all on the search area. Then you want to do something in order to ensure that they can actually focus, whether it be doing a small circle, whether it's walking backwards a little bit, and then walking upwards, whether it's doing other types of activities with your dog, nose touches, a little trick, whatever, to get their brain back on what it is that they're supposed to be doing.

You wouldn't want to just cross the start line, dragging your dog behind you as they're looking the other direction and say, "Okay. Now we're going to search." I'm not saying you take 10 minutes to do this. I'm not saying that I want the trial to slow down. But again, the idea that you would abandon all the potential things that you would do in training because you're at a trial. Simply because you're at a trial, I think, is a completely inappropriate way of thinking about this. It's not correct. It's not right.

And the same thing if you're working with your sensitive dog in the middle of a search, and you can hear a dog barking in the distance and your dog is stressed. Again, you don't have to just let them sit and stew in that. You can do whatever it is that you need to do to help them. It may be simply saying, "It's okay. What a good dog. Let's go back to searching." Whatever. But again, the idea that because you're at trial, you cannot do any of these things is not correct.

The other thing that, again, you want to make sure this is allowed for the organization you're competing with, take a look at their rules. If you're still not sure after reading the rules, contact them to make sure that it's okay. But generally speaking, you would be able to reward your dog in the search area if you so chose that it was appropriate. Particularly, if it was a low level kind of reward. You give them a tiny cookie or you give them a pat or something. In scent work, you're allowed to touch your dog. It's not like in other dog sports where you can't touch them as soon as you're competing. You can touch them all you like.

So, if you had that scenario where a dog barked in the distance, your dog went, "Oh my God," and they can't seem to get back on track, then just providing a little bit of feedback. And then when they do make the right decision to then say, "Yes, what a great decision that we're going back to searching. Here's a cookie. Here's a pat," whatever. That should be completely fine.

So, I'm hoping that you can see that even from this very basic example that there are so many things you can do pulling from your training to help your dog in the moment. It doesn't mean that I don't think that you should be doing as much practicing or training before you ever enter into a trial. It doesn't mean that this is now an excuse for you to not do any of the training or the practicing to make sure that you are properly prepared for trial. Of course, not. I'm not saying that. What I am saying is that even if you did all those things, you crossed all your Ts and dotted all your Is. Your dog, whether or not they're sensitive or not, is a dog. They are a living, breathing, thinking, emotional being, and they are not an Android. They're not a robot. So things can happen. And you as their handler and their advocate, their guardian, the person who loves and cares for them, at this point, you should have some things in your toolbox that you be able to use to help them be more successful.

It may also provide you more information for things that you need to include in your actual training, in your practice sessions. "Okay. I had to help my dog do X, Y, or Z. We really need to work on that the next time that we start doing some training." That's fine. But that doesn't mean that in the moment of trialing that you just let your dog sit there and flounder. So, I hope that makes sense that there are things the way that trials are set up that you could actually leverage to help your dog using some training techniques at a trial.

So, again, just to reiterate. Those warm-up boxes are perfect for that. It assesses where your dog is, so that if they're completely blowing it off, you could then figure out, "Well, is that just because they're excited? Is it because they don't really view it as a search or is that because they are just so overwhelmed and so overstimulated that we're going to have a really rocky start at this search?" What can I then do to ensure that my dog is able to key in on what it is that we're doing without getting mad or upset at my dog, without getting frustrated, without getting flustered myself as the handler, right?

You can then figure out what types of things you could do in the search itself. Are there routines that you can have built up in training that you can then use in trialing? So, for instance, if you know that your dog doesn't do well in the heat, could you then bake in? We're going to find a shady spot and we're going to do a nice little break for five seconds and then we're going to go back to searching. And we're going to try to get that time span down in training. It may take time, but we're at least going to have that be normal. So then if I do have to do that in a trial is not this weird thing that I'm asking my dog to do.

There are things you can do in training such as, if you allow to take your leash on or off, again, depending on the trial and organization, if you're allowed to run off-leash. Maybe you know that your dog does really well on-leash to start. So you can help them really stay focused in certain areas and then they do better off-leash or vice versa. You would want to practice in training your dog being really comfortable with you clipping and unclipping the leash. It's not like this big production.

You want to figure out if there are other things that you can do in order to help your dog, whether it be getting them used to you re-queuing them to search if they were to get distracted by something or getting used to you actually stepping in. If you've done a ton of independence work, maybe if you actually had to step in because they saw something, they saw the interest in something, but then they got distracted or they got pulled in to another area. Now, they're never getting back to that other corner, let's say.

If you've never done anything like that in training, your dog may notice that you're moving and say, "What the hell are you doing? No, go away. I'm over here doing this." And you're like, "No, but I saw... You had interest here, remember?" "No, leave me alone." The dog, shoo. You want to have balance, right? You don't want it to be all one way or another. That doesn't help you either.

So, I'm hoping that you can see that there are things that you could be building up in training that you can absolutely use as really training techniques while you are trialing. I'm not saying that I want you to replace training with trialing, please don't mistake. That's what I'm saying because I'm not. I'm not saying that you don't have to practice and have all your skills down in training before you're trialing. I'm not saying that, but I am saying that I want people to be more thoughtful in how they are trialing and the things that they can do when they're actually stepping to the line.

And also, when you finish your search, that matters too. Again, setting the dog up to succeed. That should kind of be your go-to thing. It's not that I want everything to be easy. It's not that I don't want your dog to be stretched or to learn, or to even encounter the normal everyday occurrence of stress that goes along with learning that is completely and totally appropriate. That is all fine and dandy. I'm not saying that. What I am saying is that we shouldn't want our dogs to just flounder. We shouldn't want them to end on a bad note, particularly, if we could have ensured that they ended on a good note.

So, let's say that your search is all done, right? Let's say it didn't go all that well. Let's say that it just fell apart, no matter what the either of you did because it happens. Even when trial officials try their best, the host, competitors' dogs. Everyone brought their A-game and mother nature says, "No." Nothing is going the way that anyone wanted it to. No one's finding anything today. Thank you for your time and goodbye. Let's say it was one of those situations, right?

So your dog put in all his effort. They tried their hardest. You put in all this effort, you tried your hardest. In my opinion, I think being able to either go to recovery boxes if they're offered or going back to those warm-up boxes and allowing your dog to have a win and making a really big deal of that win is a good thing. I don't think it's a bad thing. I don't think that having that gross experience be the last thing, particularly, if it's a last search of the day because one of the trends that we're seeing, particularly, in places like AKC Scent Work or some of the other organizations where you can pick and choose the searches that you do when you enter and people are like, "Well, I screwed up that search and I'm done. I'm going home." And that's it. They pack up their stuff and they leave. That's awful. I mean, just think of it from the dog's perspective.

I go into this strange area, the strange place, I work my heart out, probably in inclement weather. Weather is too hot, too cold, it's raining, it's snowing, it's windy, whatever. I can't find all my cookies, all my cookie opportunities. My handler is all stressed and upset. All these people watching are probably stressed and upset because they know where the hides are. They really want the team to be successful. And maybe this is team 20, who hasn't been able to find anything and everyone's all stressed and like, "Ah," it's all terrible.

So, from your dog's perspective, this is a bad experience, right? This is not fun. This is not enjoyable. This is kind of sucky. And then they get stuck back in their crate and they go in the car and they go home. And their person's upset the whole drive home. And they're like, "I thought the sniffing game was fun, but this isn't fun. This is the opposite of fun. This is gross. I don't like this. I'm tired. I'm sore. My head hurts." And it's like, "Ugh."

Now, just imagine if you had all that same stuff, all the same level of stress and angst and everything else, but instead of just going to the car and leaving, you had this amazing party session at the warm-up boxes or the recovery boxes if they have them. Some places do, most places don't, which I think is unfortunate personally, but... Just think of that. Just think of how good that could be, right? That would be wonderful for your dog to still say, "Yes, this odor does still pay," right? Because you can't bring odors to the trials. I'm not telling you to bring odors to the trials. Please don't bring odors to the trials. Don't do that. Could you go home and do that? I guess. It's a really long span of time. For some people, it's days. You're traveling days to get to trial sites.

So, again, I think if we apply the training thought to this of, "We had a less than stellar experience. How can we salvage it?" You can do that by letting your dog hit on the recovery or the warm-up boxes and making a big to-do about it. And then having a huge party to your crate. "Oh my God. You're the bestest dog ever. You're amazing." Do whatever acting that you have to do and then when you're alone and your dog is not within earshot, then you can be disappointed. But, again, just knowing what we know about training. Applying those same techniques, those same principles, I think makes sense.

So, I hope that this, at the very least, got you guys thinking about how you may be able to apply some of the very same training principles to when you are trialing. Not trying to say that they're the same thing because they're not, and you should not be conflating the two, but the idea that all of your training knowledge turns off as soon as you trial, I think is incorrect as well. So, I hope that you found this at least thought provoking. We're always open to hearing what anyone's thoughts are, but thanks so much for listening. Happy training and look forward to seeing you soon.

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