Ep. 37: Being Smart About Equipment

Aug 6, 2020

When it comes to Scent Work, there are certain types of equipment for both dogs and handlers that are common and trendy. But does this mean that these would be a good choice for you and your dog?

In this episode, we discuss the importance of making smart equipment choices, how they may shift and change over time and the reasons why we should introduce certain types of equipment outside the context of Scent Work first.


  • Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcast. In this podcast we talk about all things Scent Work, that could include training tips, a behind the scenes look at what your instructor or trial official may be going through, and much more.

In this episode I want to talk about the importance of equipment. And you may be saying, really? But yes, it is actually very important. So before we start diving into the podcast episodes itself, let me 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, 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, and we're very fortunate to have a client basis worldwide.

For Scent Work University in particular we provide online dog training courses, webinars, and seminars. They're designed to help you throughout the entirety of your Scent Work training career. So that means whether or not you're just getting started, you're building some more advanced skills, or you're getting ready for trial, we would have something that'd be able to help you. Since you know a little bit more about me, lets more into the podcast episode itself.

So in this episode I wanted to talk about equipment as it relates to Scent Work, and this is all coming out of my being involved as a participant in the NACSW enhanced education weekend. So for those of you who may not know, I am a certified Nose Work instructor through NACSW, which is the National Association of Canine Scent Work. And many of you may know that NACSW offers trials, but there are actually two different divisions of NACSW. There's the trial division, and there's the education division. The education division is devoted to certifying officials, and then also ensuring that all of us have good access to continued education opportunities, and ensuring that we are following what their vision is as far as following their training program, as far as what they think is the focus of Scent Work, or Nose Work, as they call it.

And the reason I wanted to do this podcast episode, and there's going to be several of them like it, is that there were many excellent kernels of information that was provided in this instructor-only education weekend that I wanted to share with all of our listeners, and clients, and so on. And one of them was the effect of equipment, and the fact that as handlers, but even as instructors, and even trial officials, anyone involved in the activity of Scent Work, really, we can get caught up in a variety of different trends, or we may have something that was very beneficial or helpful for one dog, and then we just apply a blanket recommendation that all dogs and all teams must use this thing. And that's just not the way that it works.

So I wanted to, again, thank NACSW for providing the enhanced education weekend for us, because it was extraordinarily helpful, and I want to just talk about this whole concept of really nailing down what type of equipment you may or may not want to use with your own dog, and the fact that those needs may change over time.

So for many of us when we're getting started in Scent Work, particularly if we're coming from other dog sports, you can almost tell what a Scent Work dog is just by looking at what they're wearing. They're wearing a harness, maybe it has a flashy little sticker on it, or a patch or something, and they have a long line, and the person may have a little bit of tape on their belt buckles so they can tell which way the wind is going. And there's just a certain look to a Scent Work dog, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but there's a lot to be said that in this activity, you do not require, or you are not required, to use any particular type of equipment. What may have worked for one team, and they may have done extraordinarily well, doesn't necessarily mean that's going to do wonders for you and your dog, or what you do with one of your dogs doesn't necessarily mean it's going to do great for all your other dogs.

So let's just talk really quickly about what the dog is wearing. So you have options of collars and harnesses, are the most common things that you would be trying to figure out, well which thing should my dog be wearing when they're doing Scent Work? Regardless of what you choose, you want to ensure that your dog is able to focus on what it is that they're doing, meaning that we want them to be leading the search. So if they are actually attached to a leash or a line, you're not redirecting their attention back onto you. So you want to make sure that that's not happening.

You also want them to be comfortable enough that they can focus on what they're doing. So regardless of whatever type of equipment that you're picking, it has to be comfortable and not aversive to the dog. Even, I'm not talking about, obviously you're not going to be searching in choke collars, or prong collars, or things like that. But even a poorly fitting collar or harness could be so annoying to the dog, or could also be painful or limiting in their motion, that it is aversive.

For instance, I have Dobermans. It's very difficult to properly fit a Doberman to a harness because of a very deep chest, and then when they're fit, they have a very pronounced tuck up. It's just difficult to get a harness on them that actually fits. So I'm seeing that now with my puppy, who has just turned 14 months old, and trying to get one that actually fits him, that doesn't drive him nuts, is a challenge. It's not easy by any stretch. And you can tell when you take it out, he like, oh, really? I got to do that thing? That's not how you want to start any search, particularly when you're first starting your training.

But that also is true when you're going up the levels of your competing where things are even harder. You don't need to stack another stressor or potential deterrent against your dog when they're trying to work out some really crazy odor puzzle, and oh by the way, the thing that they're wearing is sorely uncomfortable, or they just can't stand it. That's not what we should be doing.

But again, just from a human perspective, there are just assumptions of, well, if I'm going to do Scent Work, I need to have a harness, and that's not true. It all depends on what it is that your dog needs, or what you may need, or what you both may need. But you don't need a harness to do Scent Work, that's a misnomer, that's not true at all. You may actually have a better time searching if you were just doing it on either a flat or martingale collar. Again, because I have Dobermans, their heads are the same size as their neck, so flat colors really aren't an option because they can slip out of them really easily. Even if they're not trying to back out of them, if they just change direction, depending on how tight you make the collar, all of a sudden you have a collar and a lease and no dog. So I have to use martingale collars if I want to be safe.

The point being is that I don't want anyone to think that simply because they saw someone else using a certain set of equipment, that that's what they have to do or what they should do if they're doing Scent Work with their dog. This is something that you want to assess throughout the entirety of the life of your dog because what works for them when they're younger may not work for them when they're older. So let me give you a personal example. My prior boy, Valor, was an excellent Scent Work dog, he was phenomenal, he was very active. He would really drive into the search, and we did all of our searches on a martingale collar.

That was all great.

Then he came up with a neck injury, and the last thing I wanted him to do, in a breed that already has a propensity for neck injuries that could be very catastrophic, I didn't want to put even more pressure on the vertebrae in his neck by having him continue to drive into the collar. So we transitioned to a full body back clip harness, that's actually the type of harnesses that you use if you're trying to... it's recommended by physical therapists, because it doesn't cut off their shoulders, the loop is around their neck and then down their back. So that was a transition due to need, but I wasn't so pigeonholed into, well, you can only do Scent Work in a collar. No.

The only reason why my dog has to wear anything at all is for safety purposes. I'm holding my dog's hand, as it were, in the parking lot, to make sure they don't get run over by a car. That's all this is. If we could we would do things like Barn Hunt, if it was all enclosed and safe, and the dogs would run naked. We have equipment on the dog because we need to keep them safe, that's the only reason why they're wearing anything. So you shouldn't feel as though you have to wear certain types of equipment because someone else did.

Then you get into the whole fashion side of it of, now I'm not even doing it because it's useful, but I'm doing it because it looks pretty. Again, as long as it's not adversely affecting your dog, I guess it doesn't matter, but you have to really look into whether or not it is. For a lot of harnesses, even ones that are well-made, they're not front clip harnesses, not saying that front clip harnesses are not well made, but the whole purpose of a front clip harness is to stop forward momentum and turn the dog to try to stop the dog from pulling. That is the complete opposite of what we want to do when we're doing Scent Work, we want the dog to really drive into what it is that they're doing when they're searching for odor, I don't want my leash to inadvertently tell the dog, hey, stop searching for that. That would be a complete counter productive to what it isn't we're trying to do.

But let's say that we're just talking about back clip harnesses. The vast majority of them still inhibit the dog's shoulder movement. No, I am not a physical therapist, I am not a veterinarian, I am not an expert in the way the dogs physically move, or anything like that, but this is just common sense. You have a piece of fabric in cross of your dog shoulders, it's going to inhibit their shoulder movement. And depending on the dog, that inhibition could be just enough to take down their excitement down a peg. And depending on the dog, you may not have a lot of pegs to work with.

So if you have a super, drive you crazy, jumping out of their skin dog, maybe you don't notice that big of a problem. But if you have a dog who already has, they're starting at a lower level, they may already have some insecurities, they may just be sensitive, and you're already deducting this out of your bank, that's not a good thing, that's a bad thing. So yes, I know that there are a lot of people who love the harnesses, and they put on different patches and they do this, that, and the other thing, they're like, oh, this is great. We look official, and you know what? I get it. That's totally fine. As long as you are really evaluating A, does your dog like the harness, B, is the harness not working against you, and C, are you open to not using the harness if A and B were not true?

If your dog hated the harness and the harness was acting against you, are you open to not using it? Because if you're not, then I want to know why. And it could be that you just don't feel as though you have enough control, that maybe getting from point A to point B, like getting from your car to the search area, you would like to not be pulled off your feet in order to get there. Hey, I get it. But maybe then you could remove the harness and then just have the dog work on the collar. These are the things that you just have to talk about, you have to think about, you have to mull over in your brain. There's not an absolute right or wrong answer, it has to be individualized to both you and your dog.

But it's an important thing to think about that I just don't think enough people do. We kind of gloss over it, even as instructors. They're like, "Oh yeah, these are your options. Okay, now let's get to searching like." And I'm guilty of this. It's like, "Okay, yeah, so these are the things that you need, and okay, bye." No, we should really spend a little more time talking about it.

So think about it, and even just take some video of your dog just running around the yard wearing this stuff, wearing it and then not wearing it. Do you notice a difference? Are you able to honestly assess, when I take out the equipment my dog is like, "Yeah, we're going to do Scent Work," instead of, "Oh God, you want me to wear that?" If it's the latter, you probably don't want to be inserting that type of emotional response into them searching, again particularly if you're doing this for behavior modification reasons, you're trying to increase their joy in life, you're trying to give them an outlet, you're trying to increase our confidence, or from the competition side you definitely don't want anything that's making your dog flatter. You want to try to fight against that urge as much as you can.

So the big thing is assess. And be honest, and be honest with yourself. If you're really married to something, why are you married to it? Or if you're totally opposed to something, why are you opposed to it? And it could be a very good reason, and that's fine, but you should be able to explain it. That's all.

The other thing I wanted to talk about was, let's say that you did all that, right? But there was something else that you wanted to try, there was a new type of equipment, whatever the case may be. In my opinion, it would be a very good idea for you to introduce this thing to your dog outside of Scent Work first, so that, Am you can figure out whether or not they like it B, they can figure out what this is, particularly with something that they're wearing, so it's not this strange, stressful thing as they're trying to search.

So this came into my mind, particularly it wasn't related to collars or harnesses, but I was watching some videos during this enhanced education weekend, and I was watching some of the dogs work, in the middle of summer, they're working vehicle searches on asphalt, and their owners have them wearing cool coats, so reflective coats, so the dogs can try to stay cool, and booties. The dogs are working great. But I thought, I can just imagine someone watching that going, "Oh, that's exactly what I need, because my dog doesn't like working in the heat." They run out, they buy it, they stick it on their dog, and then they say, "Go search."

Particularly when we're talking about something like booties, you have to get the dog use to those first, as far away from Scent Work as you possibly can. And it may take you a while. That also means that if you know that your dog is entered in a trial in the heat of summer, they don't do well in summer to begin with, and you're going to be doing something like either exteriors or vehicles that you know they're going to have to work on asphalt, and you don't know what time of day is going to be, and you are worried about their feet, you should not then just thrust upon them wearing these strange things that they feel weird to the dog, because they change where the nails may contact on the ground.

Our dogs aren't like cats, they can't retract their claws. So again, also depending on how long their nails are, that's why you see all that lifting motion, because they're like, "I don't understand," because there's actual pressure points being put on the nails themselves. It's probably not very comfortable, at the very least it's strange. You need to get your dog used to that first. And it may take you a while and you have to make sure that they're not only okay with it, but they actually like, "Oh, I'm going to wear my booties because we're going to go do vehicle searches now," or, "Oh, I'm going to wear my booties, we're going to go have fun." And then later, "Oh, I'm going to wear my booties because now we're going to do vehicle searches." You don't want to throw that at them the day of the trial, and then get mad at them when they're just sitting there picking up their feet up to their head going, I can't move because these things around my feet.

So there's stuff like that, that I think are very well-intended things. We're trying to ensure that our dogs are comfortable, we want to make sure they're safe, we want to make sure that we are doing all we can to keep them cool in the heat of summer. So we do all this research, and we watch all these videos, and we get all these recommendations, and we get all this stuff, and then we throw it on the dog, and then we go to the trial. Or we do training. We have them wear these things, and then we do a training session, and then we're all disappointed and frustrated when it didn't go all that well.

My point is, I commend you for wanting to use these things. They may actually be extraordinarily helpful, they may be exactly what your dog needs, but you need to bake in time to actually properly introduce it, A, so that your dog is familiar with it, B, so that you actually know that it's going to work for you, and C, so you're not adding in again a potential aversive into your Scent Work training, which would be terrible. I'm assuming that's exactly what you're not trying to do.

Then we have to talk about what you're going to be using as a handler, because there seems to be an increasing list of things the handlers think that they need as far as equipment. Particularly we're talking about trialing. Now I am not of the opinion that you should have to have all this stuff on you. I can see value in it, I guess. I don't think it's necessary, I don't think that it's a requirement. I'm not saying that you shouldn't experiment, I'm not saying you shouldn't, if something works for you, great. But the idea that you have to have all this stuff on you, and that you're trying to figure this out, it just seems like too much.

But the same approach would apply, that we were talking about with your dog, would be applying to yourself. Meaning I would hope that if you were going to do some things, such as a wind tape, which is just a little piece fabric, tape, whatever, that you attach to your belt buckle, you hold it up and you let it go, and you try to see where the wind is going. Okay, I can see how that could potentially be helpful. But you would want to get into a comfortable routine on your own on figuring out how you're going to do all that when you're actually working with your dog.

So what I mean is, actually taking that extra step of just pretending on your own, your dog is just in their yard and they're not doing Scent Work, they're just being a dog. You have your little magical tape on your belt buckle, just walk around and just make imaginary start lines. Pretend that you're holding onto your dog, and then go through whatever motion that you're going to have to go through. Okay, I have my dog, this is my search area, and now I'm going to do this, and then we're going to do that. Get comfortable with these motor things first, make it so it's almost second nature, and then bring it into your training, and then start using it at trial.

A lot of people are like, "Oh, you're making such an mountain out of an anthill." All of these little things make a big difference. And you may find, just like your dog, something that you use before may not be applicable anymore. So just like you have to be comfortable in regularly assessing what's working for your dog, you have to be really comfortable and open-minded to regularly assess what's working for you. And it may change from dog to dog. For instance, I can see a super sensitive dog who's like, "Okay, I'm putting in 100% of my mental capacity to try to do this. Wait a minute, what is that flapping thing behind me? What is my person doing? What is this? Oh my God."

Is it really worth the added stress that you're adding into the entirety of the search so that you could potentially just see a thing flap around to try to figure where the wind is? I don't think so. And if you thought that it was that valuable, then that means you're adding in additional time, hopefully, to get your dog used to that, and then getting yourself used to it.

The point being is that at its core, Scent Work is not supposed to be about crap, it's not supposed to be about these opportunities to buy things. It's not a very equipment centered activity, it's your dog going out and finding things, you communicating with your dog and being a teammate. That's about it. The only reason why you need either a collar or harness and a leash is to keep them safe. That's it. But all the other stuff, it's not overly necessary. It may be helpful for individual teams, but then you also have to realize that it may be helpful for one of your dogs and yourself, but it will be a huge mistake for another one. So you have to be comfortable enough to see that difference.

One final thing, and then I'll get off this topic. You also, as a handler, want to play with what is it you do actually need in order to be comfortable, and what you need to get through a day, again, particularly when we're talking about trialing. So just like with the dog, with the cool coat and the booties, you may need things like hats, or a cooling bandana, sunglasses, whatever. You need to practice having all of that stuff in training, not only for your dog, so they don't go, "Why do you look like that? But for yourself.

And I know this sounds very silly, but I am blind as a bat, just as a baseline I have very poor vision. So I need glasses, but when I'm out, I wear contacts, because I can't stand that I can't have the full range of vision with my glasses, there's blind spots, or whatever, it drives me crazy. But there are times when I'll be home, and I'm going to be doing a lot of computer work or whatever, so I will be doing training with my dog while wearing my glasses. And you're like, what difference does this make? Well, my glasses are not the kind that stay cemented onto your face no matter what you do, they try to jettison off my face every chance they get.

So I noticed this when I was working with my prior boy, that it was just such a distraction to me, because I'm constantly trying to stick my glasses back onto my face. I had to basically work that into our training, that I needed to get more comfortable to figure out, okay, how can I do this? And then if I was smarter, I would just have a different pair of glasses that didn't try to fall off my face every two seconds.

The point being is that if you're going to be adding in something, sunglasses, a hat, a scarf, whatever, even big coats. Let's talk about just hot to cold, let's say it's really cold outside, or it's raining or something. You need to be comfortable handling like that, and you also can't be scaring the bejesus out of your dog who's like, "Now there's this strange sounding rustling thing behind me as I'm trying to search, what's wrong with you?" Or it could be that they're fine while they're searching, but then you go into reward and you have this giant comforter around you. It can be very off-putting.

The point being is that we have to be mindful of these things throughout the entirety of the life of the dog, throughout the entirety of the journey when they're doing Scent Work, because all of these things do make a difference, and I just don't think that any of us are really thinking about it.

And the fact, again, that during this enhanced education weekend that it was brought up, I really appreciated that because I know for myself, as an instructor, I don't think I've been emphasizing this enough, that it's not that I need to be giving recommendations, that's not what this is, it's we need to, all of us, handlers, owners, trainers, instructors, trial officials, need to just take a step back and be like, "Okay, what does this team need?" And for ourselves as owners, this is working now, but I have to be open to assessing whether or not it's going to continue to work, for either my dog or myself, and be open to making changes, and not be married to anything.

Because it may work now, but like with my prior boy with his neck injury, I could have seriously injured him if I kept using the martingale collar. It worked out great for us, it was wonderful for searching. I preferred for my dog to be able to walk, so we used a harness and it was fine. So I just hope that that makes sense that this isn't saying, if you're doing set work, you have to use this type of equipment, that's not what this episode is about. This episode is trying to show that you have to assess what type of equipment you're using, why are you actually using it? Is it detrimental to your dog or yourself? If it is, are you open to using something else? And do you know the fact that what you're using right now may actually change, and likely will, as a dog continues on with their journey?

So I knew this was longer than usual, but again, I want to really send a huge thank you to NACSW for doing this enhanced education weekend. Its given me so many ideas, they're just bursting out of my head, and I just want to make sure I get them all down to everyone. As always, if anyone has any questions about these podcasts, or is they're like, "I don't really know what you meant by something," or, "I'm a little confused," by all means contact me. I'm always more than happy to have a discussion about this stuff. I don't purport to be some Sage on high, I'm not unapproachable in that regard, I'm always happy to have discussions about stuff.

I just hope this got you guys thinking about what it is you may be using when you're doing Scent Work with your dogs, whether it's for fun, whether you're teaching as an instructor, what you're telling your students to do, or whether or not you're competing, because again, a lot of this can just be trends, it can just be because it looks cool, but it could potentially be holding you and your dog back, and if you just made an adjustment, it may make it a little bit easier for you.

All right guys, I hope you found this podcast somewhat helpful and interesting and intriguing. Thanks so much for listening. Happy training, we look forward to seeing you soon.

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