Ep. 39: Properly Training v. Overtraining

Sep 19, 2020

A common human trait is to drill, practice and run repetitions ad nauseam. This is counterproductive, especially when we are talking about Scent Work. Doing so can undercut the very skills you are trying to build for yourself and your dog!

In this episode, we delve into the difference between properly preparing training in Scent Work and overtraining, highlighting why we should avoid doing the latter. We also discuss why this not only important when building our dog's skills, but our own handler skills as well.


  • Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the All About Scent Work podcast. My name is Dianna Santos. In this podcast we talk about all things Scent Work, that includes training tips, a behind scenes look at your instructor or trial official may be going through, and much more. Before we get started I just wanted to send out a really big thank you to everyone. With only a very few number of episodes we've already surpassed 17,500 downloads, that's amazing. So thank you all so much for your incredible support and I do hope that you're finding these podcasts helpful as we talk about a variety of different things as far as scent work is concerned.

I also wanted to let you know that through Scent Work University, which is our online dog training platform, we provide a variety of different things including online courses, seminars, and webinars that you may be interested in, regardless of where you are within your scent retraining training career. But this month we actually have a pretty exciting webinar coming up and it's called the Mindful Scent Work Instructor, where we'll be talking about what it is that we can do as instructors in order to promote more mindful thinking among our human clients.

So I definitely urge you guys to check that out. You may find it helpful, particularly if you're a scent work instructor but also if you are training in scent work at all. As far as this episode, we're going to be diving into the difference between properly training and preparing with our dogs in scent work and overtraining. All right, let's dive in.

In this episode I want to talk about how it is that we can all approach scent work so that we avoid doing overtraining. That there is absolutely a difference between properly prepared and introducing your dog and yourself to all the proper concepts and odor puzzles and all that sort of stuff, and then doing it way too much, just really overburdening your dog and yourself.

One of the things that I think would help people really wrap their brains around this whole concept is that when we're doing scent work from a training perspective for the dog, we are not teaching them how to use their nose, that's not what it is, our dogs already understand that part far better than we ever will. All we're trying to do with our training is we're trying to introduce them to various concepts so that they would have the opportunity to use their nose to solve certain problems. That they may see a trial or that would just help them even if you're just playing for fun, use that mental capacity for the powers of good as opposed to like destroying your house because they're bored.

With that in mind, since the dog is already working basically light years ahead of us because of their natural abilities, we have to be certain that we are not overburdening our dogs, that we're basically not trying to train to the point where the dog is like, "Yeah, I got that." We don't need to keep harping on that, "I've got that piece already. Just because you can't tell what I'm telling you, just because you aren't able to receive the signals that I'm giving you that I've already figured this out, I know where this height is, doesn't mean we have to keep doing it 30 more times. I'm good, you're the one who's got to catch up."

But overtraining also applies to us as handlers. It's a very human thing to want to do something to death, to want to do it to absolute perfection so that it would be infallible, so that there's no way that you would ever be able to make a mistake. Because we don't want that to happen, particularly if you are interested in trialing or even if you're just working with an instructor or friends and maybe you do little mock setups where you have a blind search, the possibility of hearing that no is very traumatic to a lot of people. And in previous podcasts and also in Michael McManus' webinars, he's talked about the importance of all of us inoculating ourselves against that emotional and mental trauma that can happen when we are so concerned about hearing a no. That making a mistake, that not being correct is not the end of the world even though it may feel that way.

What we have to understand when we're setting up our training is that a lot of us are working still under that construct that we are attempting to prevent a mistake from happening, and that we overcompensate so we do too much. We put too much on ourselves, we put too much on our dogs and it slips from we're having a fun time together, we're doing some training, we're doing some fun, we're playing a game into this stress-filled, overbearing, terrible thing for both of us. And it turns into this really nasty cycle because obviously your performance with yourselves or your dogs or both will be negatively affected so it will get worse, which will then feed into your need to want to do it more, which makes things worse and it just keeps going and going and going.

So this is not a new concept. People have heard me harp about this before, don't turn this into a drill, make sure you keep this a game, don't do this to death, yada, yada. And rightfully so a lot of people will say, "Well, that's all fine and dandy as a concept. But I don't really know in the nitty-gritty what that means. Tell me how often it is that I'm supposed to train and tell me how it is that I can actually avoid overtraining as opposed to proper training?"

Okay. The first piece is that it's all going to be different from dog to dog and human to human and team to team. And already I know you're rolling your eyes at me but it's true. It's also going to depend on where you are in your journey. It's going to depend on the age of the dog, it's going to depend on the health of the dog. It's going to depend on your skillset, it's going to depend on what your goals are, so there's a lot of variables. There's not as though I can say, "Well, you only have to train this much and that's it." It's a lot more complicated than that, you have to individualize these things. But what I'm going to try to do in this episode is highlight some of the ways that you would be able to recognize if you were starting to go into overtraining territory.

We'll do that by giving some just general examples. Let's say that you and your dog are just starting out. Neither of you know much of anything of scent work, you're just starting off in your journey. When you first get introduced to this it may be really exciting in the beginning. When you can really recognize, "Oh my goodness, my dog is going into a space and finding stuff with their nose. Wow, okay, we're going to do this all the time because it's awesome." Obviously you would want to avoid that.

For most people, regardless even of what their goals are, when you're first starting out you want to maintain a level of excitement and joy and anticipation for the activity. So you definitely don't want to do this too much in the beginning. In my opinion, I have not found it to be advantageous to do this to death when you're first starting out regardless of the age of the dog. Young puppy, adult, senior, it doesn't matter. When you're first starting out you less is more, basically. So I try to tell my students is that if you can do this, meaning training sessions of scent work, three times a week, maybe four at the absolute most, and we're talking training sessions that are total like at most 10, 15 minutes and probably that's even too long. With three or four exercises of actual searches with maybe, maybe, three to four hides in each, again I start my students off with foods so they're just finding food, that's more than enough.

And I try to say that you want to make sure that there are rest days in between. So even if you were to say, "Okay, teacher lady told me that I'm going to be doing my scent work sessions three days a week, 10 minutes each." Okay. I don't want you doing that Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I want you to do that Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday. And then on those other days that you're not doing scent work, maybe you will be doing other types of training, but I also want you to have at least one or two days a week where your dog just gets to be a dog. Maybe they go for a hike, maybe they go for a walk, maybe they get to have a play day. Maybe they just get to keep your couch warm. This kind of balance is really important with all of our dog training but particularly when we're talking about scent work, because it is exhausting, it is a very tiring activity.

Especially when dogs are first doing it as a formal training activity where it's extraordinarily concentrated, they're trying to figure out what the game is all about, it's hard. It's something that they need to recover from. And particularly when you're starting off with food, I think that people discount that fact that it's mentally draining. It's also physically taxing but it's mentally draining on the dog. They need to be able to have that recovery time.

They're also going to be doing late learning when you give them an opportunity to just rest, meaning that they're not doing it all the time, they're actually still processing in the little back of their little baby brains. And you see that all the time even in other types of training. You may be working on something else entirely different, competition, obedience, agility, whatever. You do it on one day, typically, hopefully there are times that you're not doing it, you're not doing it to death. And you come back the next session maybe a couple of days later, maybe even a week later, and you're like, "Wow, they really got that down." Yes, because they've been thinking about it the whole time. That's the power of latent learning and you should be leveraging that to your advantage.

You shouldn't be trying to drill this into the ground because again, they're not a computer. They're just like you or me, they need time to think, they need time to process and they need time to recover. So that is a really quick and dirty view of how I would think the majority of dogs who are starting off should have a general approach to this. Less is more, there's no need to do it every single day, there's no need to do it in consecutive days. You want to keep it nice and short and sweet, you want the dog wanting more.

Now that should be true throughout the duration of the dog's career in scent work, in my opinion. Now, there may be increased amounts of intensity depending on what your goals are. The dog's age, the dog's abilities, their physical abilities, all at different stuff. So as an example, with my prior boy who was an experienced searcher dog while he was healthy, we would do scent where twice a day for three to maybe four times a week. And by twice a day, I mean, we do it in the morning and we do it at night. And so he would do a total of maybe eight searches a day. In those eight searches typically, there would be at least two that were rather challenging for him, but the others there were gainings but they were not really pushing the boundaries of what his capabilities were.

They were still things that he had to try, it wasn't like, okay, he's tripping over a hide but it's not stretching the boundaries of what his capabilities were. We would then go and we would do trials and I was working for a club and this quorum, so they had one stretch, I think it was a week and a couple of days straight of trials. And of course I'm in this quorum but I'm also bringing my dogs, so we're doing that as well. And that was one of the reasons that I was doing this really intense training of twice a day, three to four times a week, because I knew we were going to be trialing for six days straight or something like that, which is a lot. It's a lot of asking the dog to perform.

This was a purposeful kind of conditioning thing that we were doing for the both of us. It helped, he did great. In spite of me he was far more skilled than I will ever be. But the point being is that even though I knew that we were coming up to this long stretch of intense trialing and I did increase the intensity of our training, it wasn't every single day, it wasn't for hours on end, and it wasn't to the point that he hated it. I was still being certain to not drill very specific things. Even in the way that my exercises were designed it wasn't, okay, I know that you have this weakness, we're just going to work on that for a month straight and we're not going to do anything else.

Instead it was like, okay, I know the ground hides were an issue for him but elevated hides is one of his strengths. So I would offer maybe one or two ground hides in a week, and whatever I did I would also offer an elevated hide within that same session. So I knew that there was a guaranteed success for him and we could even leverage that success while he was working on something that he was a little weaker on. Well, I'm hoping that this is showing you is that there is an absolute difference between mindfully helping your dog increase their mental endurance, increase their physical endurance, work on skills, prepare for whatever your goals may be, and taking it to the nth degree to where you're over-training, to where it's not just frequency, it's not even just difficulty, but it's also what it is that you're training.

\While I had identified, okay, ground hides are a weak point for him, that didn't mean that 99.9% of the things that I worked on were ground hides. That is a sure-fire way of making a problem for myself because there's basically nothing in that formula that is allowing him to be successful. There's no reprieve, there's no, "Okay, I got this. Oh, now I get to do another problem that I know I'm really good at. Wow, thank goodness." It's just, "Okay, Oh God, I have to do it again, and again, and again, and again, and again." And that's just awful, it's a really gross feeling.

And it's the same thing for ourselves as handlers. This is what I want to wrap the episode up with. Is that sometimes people are able to really conceptualize what is it, I mean, as far as training their dog. Okay, I can figure out how often I'm going to train. I can figure out what it is I'm going to train as far as difficulty level and whether or not I'm stretching the dog, whether or not I'm just ensuring that they can work a space, whatever the case may be. And I'm going to be able to identify weaknesses and strengths and make sure I'm not overdoing it in either regard. I'm very happy when people are able to figure that piece out. It's not a small thing for you to understand that part.

But there seems to be a very large resistance or difficulty in applying those same things to ourselves as handlers. And again, I see this across the board with all types of dog training. People can be very patient with their dogs, people can be very understanding with their dogs, empathetic. They know how to break things down, they know how to be patient, all the other stuff and then they are absolutely awful with themselves. And I am included in this category. It's not as if I'm just sitting on top of some mountain somewhere looking down upon everyone like, "Oh, look at all you people who don't know what you're doing." This is something I struggle with as well.

But something that we have to recognize as far as over-training is that this is a very big problem when we don't recognize that it's actually happening. Because let's see you say that you know in the back of your mind your leash-handling skills really aren't all that great, which is a common thing for many of us, again, myself included. So one of two things happen. Either you decide that you're going to be concentrating on the dog and you're just not going to work on leash-handling skills at all, which is a very common thing for people to do, they just avoid the problem all together, and then you have to deal with it when you actually go to a trial. Or in addition to, really, you get burned and you say, "Okay, I really got to work on this now."

So you start inserting leash exercises into your searches with your dog all of the time, not giving yourself the opportunity to really learn how to use the leash and not giving yourself the opportunity to have success in using the leash, you're trying to simply learn through fire. You will magically master this skill even though you've been struggling all this time, it'll just magically come to be. This will negatively affect your search, it'll negatively affect how you're handling your dog, it will negatively affect how you are feeling about everything. And again, like we talked about before, you will then want to do that again because the performance was bad. So obviously I have to keep working at it.

What would be a better way of doing this? Well, even though Scent Work is again totally focused on the dog, they are the lead driver, obviously they're the ones with the nose, it is still a team sport. You are still part of the equation, meaning that you have responsibilities and skills that you need to work on and perfect on your own. That you have to improve and be aware of where they are in the grand scheme of things.

Because as the case, I think in every single facet of what it is that you need as a scent work handler, you can work on those things completely outside of your scent work training sessions you're doing with your dog and without your dog at all. And people may be going, "Excuse me, what?" So for leash handling as an example, just having the mechanics of holding onto a long line, being able to feed it out and reel it in, knowing what to do with your body, all of that, you don't need a dog for. You can do it either on your own or working with a person who's pretending to be a dog.

Get that down first then try inserting it with your dog. Maybe they're just finding goodies that you sprinkled around in the yard so you're not doing for most at work and then do it that way and then start putting into yourself in sessions. The point being is that you would be more mindfully working on these skills as opposed to trying to overtrain it, shoving it into when your dog is also trying to work, making yourself frustrated and flustered and not making any headway.

In my opinion, the big difference between properly training and overtraining is properly training is being mindful of how you can break things down, the limitations that you and your dogs are not robots or computers, that you're going to be timed in order to learn skills, that rest is absolutely crucially important, that you both need to be able to look forward to this activity. And if you bake in things that make it aversive you're going to want to avoid doing the very thing that you're trying to work for which doesn't make any sense. That would be properly training.

Overtraining is when you do the opposite of all that. It's when you drill stuff and you're not taking into account that you and your dog need time to think, need time to process, need time to work out how to do all this stuff at the same exact time, and that you're trying to force it in a particular situation. I'll try to make this a little bit more sense so that we can wrap up. From the dog's perspective, when we're talking about training the dog, if we're trying to introduce a new concept to them as far as the say a new odor puzzle, I think most people would absolutely agree that the very first time you ever introduced it to them you wouldn't bring them into the middle of Times Square and do it, where it's all muscling, it's all super crazy, and there's a bunch of people, a lot of activity and all kinds of craziness.

That wouldn't be conducive to learning and you also wouldn't know for certain if they were learning the exercise or if they were learning about other things that you maybe don't want them to learn about. The same is true for yourself as a handler. There's no reason why you need to put yourself into deep end of the pool when you're trying to figure out your own skills, whether it be leash-handling, whether it be rating dog, whether it be learning how to set up a search area or learning about the different elements or anything else.

We should be able, and we must break down what is it we're doing and understand what it is that is going to help us be successful and ensure that we're doing that for our dogs and ourselves, not just simply do repetition after repetition, after repetition, after repetition. Not be mindful about it and just getting stuck in the cycle of it's getting worse, it's getting worse, I have to do it more.

I think that people have an easier time once they stop to think about it. Applying this overtraining and how to avoid it with their dogs, I think they struggle more with themselves. It can be done as far as really be mindful and figuring out how you can perfect your own skills if you stop and think about it. It may take some more planning on your part, it may take some more creativity, it may mean that you, as a person, as a handler you need to do more stuff on your own. You need to watch a bunch of videos of dogs searching so you can really start honing your eye about dog body behavior when they're work in actual space. It may mean that you're setting up searches for your dog to run, that you know where the hides are but the main thing that you're focusing on is how are they actually work this space. Can I internalize what the search area itself is presenting as far as how it's going to be interacting with the odor?

All these things are really important but just simply doing it to death is not going to help you at the end of the day. So I hope this makes sense that even if you have very high expectations as far as what it is you want to do goal-wise, as far as whether it be trialing or anything else, that doesn't mean that you should then take your training to the point where your self and your dog are being run ragged, you're doing this in all the wrong ways, because you're not going to be getting good results. You have to make sure that you're keeping this fun for both your dog and yourself. Your dog because if they choose to checkout then you are in a lot of trouble because they are the one with the nose. And if you start checking out it's going to affect the performance for the both of you. And it's just not what this whole spirit of what's that work is supposed to be, it's supposed to be this really fun activity that both of you enjoy.

So the starting to one of our longer podcast episodes. It's a meaty topic but I hope that you guys were able to find it helpful and thought-provoking. But that doesn't mean I don't want to hear from you, I do. So please feel free to check us out at Scent Work University on Facebook. There'll be a post on there that's dedicated to this podcast episode. This is where you can post any questions you have or we can have discussions about the topic, or you can also let us know what else you may be interested in. Maybe there's something that you've been listening to the podcast for a little bit like, "Oh, I really wish you would talk about this." Please let us know. I want to make sure that we're offering what you guys are interested in.

And once again, sincerely, thank you all so very much for your incredible support of the podcast so far. It has just been a wonderful journey and I'm looking forward to offering more podcasts for you all to enjoy. Thanks so much for listening. Happy Training, and we look forward to seeing you soon.

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