Ep. 42: Training for Fun v. Training to Compete

Dec 7, 2020

This episode is designed more as a discussion-piece rather than a "listen as we declare answers on a given subject".

The question is rather simple: should there be an observable difference between a team playing Scent Work simply for "fun" and a team solely interested in competing? My gut tells me the answer should be "No". If that is the case, are we as a community, myself included, shooting ourselves in the foot with how we describe the delineation of the type of teams participating in Scent Work?

Who knows?! Let's discuss!


  • Dianna L. Santos


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

This episode I wanted to talk about, is there really a difference between training scent work just for fun as opposed to training for scent work if you're interested in competition? Before I start diving into this episode, let me just do a very quick introduction of myself.

My name is Dianna L. Santos. I'm the Owner and Lead Instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sports 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've been very fortunate to have a client basis worldwide.

At Scent Work University in particular, we provide online courses, seminars and webinars, as well as e-books, that are all designed to help you achieve your scent work training goals, whether that be you're just starting out, you're trying to develop some more advanced skills, or if you are interested in competition, you'll be able to have an online training solution for you. Since you know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the podcast episode itself.

In this episode, I wanted to step into a bee's nest a bit, and see if there is indeed a difference if we're interested in training scent work just for fun, as opposed to training scent work for competition, if there is a delineation between the two.

Now I think that it would be entirely dishonest to start off this conversation by saying, "Well, of course, there's no difference. Scent work is scent work. It doesn't matter." Because there may very well be certain skills that you absolutely, positively as a team would need to know about and also master if you were indeed interested in competing.

For instance, things that don't have anything to do with scent work at all, but your dog just in their everyday life, maybe you don't have a crate. Maybe you don't use crates. There are lots of people who don't. If you're going to be competing in scent work, they have to not only know what a crate is. They have to be able to be comfortable in that crate. Also for long periods of time, be able to travel in that crate, wait in that crate, be able to sleep in that crate and rest in that crate, not be freaking out the whole time, and not be exhausting and expending all kinds of calories they need to be using in the search itself. So just with this example that, quite honestly, people could argue have nothing to do with scent work, as far as the actual sniffing or hunting for hides.

There is an absolute delineation between what it is that person who owns dog, who just wants to live their life as dog may want as far as, "Well, I don't think I need a crate, so I'm not going to use a crate," as opposed to a person who has dog and is interested in competing with said dog and scent work. Well, you're going to have to use a crate. It's just a requirement. Then people say, "Well, great. Well, that was a really short episode. Thanks. I have things to do with my life. Fantastic. There is a distinction between one or the other. We can wrap this up. That's great."

I say, "Hang on, pump the brakes," because I think that there is absolute truth that there are specific skills and needs that a team would need to have, first of all know about as well as master and whatnot, if you're interested in competing and doing well. I mean, if you just want to compete and you don't care if you do well or not, then I guess it doesn't matter. But if you want to be successful for yourself and your team, those are the things you would need to know.

Where I'm coming at this and I'm struggling with personally is should we really be framing this the way that we have, even the way that I have for years since I've started in scent work? Is really the fork in the road having fun with scent work and competing with scent work?

Now, maybe this is just semantics, but to me, that immediately seems to translate into it doesn't matter. No rules apply, no standards, no requirements. It doesn't matter. It's a free-for-all on one side, and we have standards and we care and we're more serious about it on the other.

I don't think that that's correct. I think that you absolutely should still follow some protocols as far as handling odor, for instance, regardless of whether you're, "just doing it for fun," or if you're doing it for competition. I also think that you don't need to treat this as though it is the end-all and be-all of life where "We're born to do scent work" if you're interested in competition.

I think that there are multiple layers of this. I think on the very face of it, it's very easy to say, "Well, of course, there's a delineation. There are people who don't care, and they're just doing it maybe as a fun activity every once in a while, do with their dogs. There are other people who actually want to compete, so they want to make sure that they're checking off all their boxes and that they're figuring out what skills they need and how they can train them and how they can perfect them and yada, yada, yada." That's fair.

But when you actually look at those two groups of people when they're actually doing scent work should there be a difference? That's really my question. We're already almost six minutes in and I know it was a long way to get to the question, but should you be able to delineate just by looking at a team who's playing for fun and who's playing because they're interested in competing?

In my opinion, the answer should be no, and I'm sure there's going to be lots of people who disagree with me. But as a whole, the dogs have no idea that they're competing. So if Dog A is only "doing it for fun" and Dog B is only doing it to compete, they're still hunting. They're still finding stuff. They're still doing the same exact thing, and they should be doing that joyfully. They should be doing that with wild abandon. No, this is supposed to be the dog sport, so regardless of whether it is a sport sport or an activity for fun.

I would also argue that the same should hold true for the handler. Now, could you say, "Well, of course, someone who's interested in competing is going to be taking more classes and more training. They're going to be reading and doing seminars and all sort of stuff. So they may have more skills." I guess that argument could apply, but the approach should still be the same as far as they should be enjoying themselves. You should not be able to look at these two teams, say like, "Oh, well, that one over there is clearly doing it for fun. Them and their dogs are having a grand old time. Those over there, they're doing it for competition. Yep, they're right down to business. They don't feel like they're having much fun at all."

That's what I'm trying to get at is I'm concerned that by placing these labels on what is it that we're doing is pushing us as a collective community into these different extremes, and I don't think it's overly helpful. I mean, you then get into all of the, "Well, I'm more serious about this. Thus, I will look down on my nose upon you, little peon, who is doing this just for fun." That's a whole other can of worms. We'll tackle that some other day. But I mean as in the pressure that we're putting on ourselves and our dogs, the removal of joy, the stepping away of viewing this as a game, all of that I think is extraordinarily problematic.

Whereas in the classes that I've taught in person, which now at this rate is like eons ago since I've retired doing stuff in person, from beginner to advanced because competition is not the focus of my training program when I was still doing things in person, it was mostly for people who are trying to find things to do with their dogs when their options were extraordinarily limited for a variety of behavioral issues, health issues, whatever the case may be, it's not as though these people and dogs didn't have any skills. They did. I was teaching them the same exact skills that I would teach someone else. But because there wasn't this pressure, the joy that these teams had was contagious. They stuck with the program throughout. They never missed classes. They went from class to class to class, meaning through the levels, you couldn't get rid of them. Not that I want to do, but they were always there, and they were there and having fun.

Even the classes that I attended as a student, it would be the same kind of dynamic where for years people went to these classes and I would say, maybe, I don't know, I'm totally guessing here, but maybe then something like 60% of them, maybe higher, did not compete ever with their dogs. It just wasn't even a thing. You went to class. You went to class every week, and maybe that was the only scent work he did with your dog. Maybe you practice once or twice during the week. But it was this fun, great activity that you could do with your dog. But there was also the social aspect as well. Now you're making connections and friends with your classmates.

But the point being is that I can look back on all of those classes, either the ones that I taught or the ones I was involved in, and I can pull out in my memory specific teams and compare them to completely strict competition teams and say, "You know what? That just-for-fun team that never competed a day in their life are a hundred times better. They're a better team. They're a better unit. They're better searchers. They're much more enjoyable to watch, and they're just having a good time. Whereas the competition team is this bundle of stress and 90% of it is originating with the handler. The dog is trying their damnedest to do their job, but the handler is a mess, and it just goes into this really nasty cycle."

What I'm pondering and I don't have the answer for it, quite frankly, this is more of a thing for all of us to think about, rather than me descending from on high with any answers that I have, but that I don't, are we shooting ourselves in the foot, myself included, when we are describing this activity in that way? There are some people who do it for fun. There are some people who do it for competition. Isn't that placing people into camps, falsely, because it's almost assuming that if you're doing it for competition, you're no longer doing it for fun, and if you're doing it for fun, you're not taking the activity serious enough to be taken seriously, if that makes any sense? It's almost diminishing everybody.

I don't know if there's a better way of talking about it, but I think it's something for all of us to really just kind of, again, pump the brakes and just think about, and to say, okay, like I said, at the very beginning ages ago now, there absolutely are skillsets and requirements that a team would need to know about and potentially master if they want to be successful in competition. That can still be true. But that doesn't mean, and shouldn't mean, that the team should no longer be having fun doing scent work, nor that they are, by default, better than a team who's not interested in competing.

I don't know how it is as a community we can kind of solve this puzzle because my goal has always been to get more dogs sniffing. I do not care if teams compete or not. I really don't. I know that the vast majority, probably something crazy like 70 to 80% of the dog-owning public, don't even know where dog sports are. Those people should still be doing scent work with their dogs, though. They should still be playing the game, whether it be hunting for food, hunting for toys, finding little humans, as they're hiding around the house playing hide and seek, or doing target odor searches, whatever the case may be, but they should be doing some form of scent work. It would be beneficial to the dogs.

I would prefer for them to have some kind of outlet where they know how to do this in a way they can better appreciate their dogs, and they're not saying their dogs would have failed. I think all that is great, but they don't have to then funnel into formal competition. Some of them may catch the bug and may want to, which would be wonderful. But it shouldn't be a requirement and I think it's lying to ourselves as a community to think that that's going to happen.

The fact the community is as large as it is, is actually pretty amazing when you think about it. I mean, when you're just from a purely objective standpoint, if you're to put up agility and scent work, as far as what's going to really revs people's engines, I'm sorry. I love scent work. I think scent work is awesome. To the Joe Schmoe who doesn't know anything, you put those two videos up and be like, "Yeah, I started watching the dog walking around with his head in the ground, three minutes ago. But that dog running around that little obstacle course, that's cool." We have to recognize that piece.

The fact that the community has grown as much as it has, it's actually amazing when you stop to think about it. But I don't think that it's realistic to think that everyone who owns a dog is going to be interested in the time and the effort of diving into sports.

Also just some people don't like competing. I think just like in anything, it doesn't have to be... They don't like it. They don't want to actually subject themselves to being judged. They're like, "No, thank you. You want me to pay you money so you can judge me? What? No, I don't want to do that."

We have to recognize that as a community and, as such, how do we make all this work? How do I achieve my goal of promoting more dogs to be sniffing without thus assuming that the only way of doing that is to getting people to go onto the path of competition without ostracizing people who "just want to have fun," but not also telling the competition people, "Well, you're just a bunch of snooty people. We don't care about you?"

I don't know how to square that circle, you know what I'm saying? It's a tricky thing when you really stop to think about it. How can we prevent using language that then could be converted into action of pushing people into these camps and extremes? Again, I don't know, but this was just something that just dawned on me the other day, and I've been thinking about it ever since, because it's something I say all the time. "Oh, for my training business, we provide online training, could help if you're just interested in doing something for fun, or if you're interested in developing some more advanced skills, or if you're interested in competition."

I mean, that's true. But that doesn't mean I don't think the people who are doing advanced skills or competition shouldn't also be having fun with their dogs, or that people who are having fun with their dogs wouldn't be interested in doing some more of the more advanced things, even if they're not interested in competing. Maybe this is just my problem, I don't know. But I do tend to see these types of categorizations of our population done outside of my little bubble, and I'm wondering if it's correct.

To put a nice little bow on this, I think it would be helpful for all of us to really just stop and think what it is that we're trying to convey when we're saying these things, and that while there are absolute differences between teams who are interested in competing, the handler has goals for certain titles or what have you, and another dog-and-handler team that does not, maybe they don't even know the dogs even exists. They're just trying to do something fun with their dogs or give their dogs something to do, a "job," that there can and are differences between those two.

But there's also a whole lot of overlap and you shouldn't be able to distinguish them, particularly on the level of joy. The ones doing it just for fun should not look so much more joyful than the ones that are doing it for competition. But that's sadly the case and that needs to shift, so just things for people to think about.

Again, I don't have any answers. This is more of a, "What do you think?" I would love to hear what you guys' thoughts are. Again, I'm always open for any discussions on these things. I do not purport to be the sole authority on things that work, as I'm not. But what do you think? Do you think that there should still be like, "Oh, no. I think the way that we're describing it is fine. You do it for fun, do it for competition. That's fine. You're thinking too much about it." Or do you agree, and do you have any thoughts about ways that we may be able to describe it differently? Do you have thoughts about maybe we just need to have more things in place to ensure that the people who are doing competition aren't taking it quite so seriously, and that we're not diminishing the skills that we're teaching the just-for-fun group.

What are your thoughts? I want to hear from you so let me know. We'll be posting this episode over on Facebook, that's sort of the easiest way to write any comments that you may have. So, yeah. Who knows? Maybe you'll have a kernel of brilliance that I have not stumbled upon yet. I'm all ears.

All right, guys. Thanks as always. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.

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