Ep. 43: Clarity of Cues in Scent Work

Jan 10, 2021

When it comes to dog training, we are constantly giving our dogs cues to indicate what we would like for them to do in any given moment. "Sit", "Down", "Come" and so on. The same can hold true in Scent Work. But what if the cue you may be using in your everyday life would have an unintended consequence if you used it in Scent Work? Is that even possible?! Yes, yes it is.

In this episode, we discuss the importance of being as clear and mindful as we can when using cues, knowing what the true meaning of those cues are (to the dog), and whether using a certain cue could undermine the very thing we are trying to build in our Scent Work training.


  • Dianna L. Santos


Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things Scent Work. That can include training tips, a behind-scenes look of what your instructors may be going through, and much more.

In this episode, I want to talk about clarity of cues.

Before we start diving into the podcast episode itself, let's just 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 Pet Dog U. 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 courses, seminars, webinars, e-books, or regularly update the blog, as well as podcast episodes you are listening to today. These are all designed to help you, regardless of where you are in your Scent Work training journey. So whether or not you're brand new to scent work, you've been doing it for a little while looking to build some more advanced skills, or if you're interested in trialing, we have a training solution for you - such a little bit more about me. Let's jump into the podcast episode itself.

In this episode, I want to talk about the importance of clarity of cues as it pertains to Scent Work. There are many people who are saying, "what are you talking about?" With Scent Work, I don't need to worry about any of that stuff. My dog is just hunting. That's all that matters.

A discussion came up recently in our Friends of Scent Work University Facebook group, which is really wonderful at this point. I want to thank everyone who is a part of that group. There's a lot of really great questions and engagement. We're doing a Winter Sniffy Fun Challenge right now. It's awesome.

One of the things that came up recently was about using cues while a dog is searching and what those things may mean. I think it's important for us to just have a really quick discussion about what a different cue may mean to us as people, and then what it may mean to the dog, and then understanding how that may also tie into their overall hierarchy of behavior or what they think is more important in their 24 seven day-to-day life, as opposed to what we may be asking for in Scent Work.

And you're still saying, "I have no idea what you're talking about." Let's take something really simple. You are doing something with your dog. There are three hides in the search area, and your dog is searching. They find one hide; you reward them. You tell them how great they are, and now you're ready for them to find more hides.

Do you, or do you not give a cue for them to do that? It's not a requirement by any stretch, but some people will say, "Find more" or "Keep searching" or "Seek more" or whatever the case may be. What I'm urging everyone to do is to think about; a. Why are you using a cue? How you're using the queue? and then what that queue may actually mean to the dog. The important thing to remember is that you and I are verbal species. If we speak the same language, there's a pretty good chance that we may understand each other. But sometimes not so much.

That's not the case with our dogs, though. They're not a verbal species in the same way that we are. So that they don't communicate using any barks or whines or any of the other stuff they do, but it's not the same, right? Anything that they are responding to as far as our cues is because they're hearing a sound. They are then trying to connect that sound to some kind of meaning. We have to recognize that they are desperately trying to piece this puzzle together, and we have to try to make that puzzle as clear for them as possible.

It would be as if I gave you a 10,000 piece puzzle. I didn't give you a picture for it, and I only gave you half the pieces. There's no way that you're going to be successful, and you're going to get really frustrated. Particularly, if I kept showing you different pictures that the puzzle was supposed to be based off of that, you're like, "Oh, I think I'm on the right track." Then I showed you a picture of a mountain. You're like, "Oh great." Here's some trees. "Yeah, this is great." And then I show you a picture of Kermit the frog. I was like, "What? I didn't know I was making Kermit the frog? What is this?"

It's important for us to recognize that this is basically what our dogs have to contend with whenever they're living with us. Whenever they're interacting with us, is they're taking these kernels of information and trying to have them mean something because they are an alien species. They are not people. We are not dogs. When we're talking about Scent Work, more often than not, you have been using other types of cues, or sounds, or pieces of information to communicate, live and interact with your dog.

Those things may mean other things. Which is why it makes such a big deal when people are first starting Scent Work with me is that if you've been playing any kind of hide-and-seek with your dog before. A lot of times, people hide treats, or they'll hide a toy, or they'll hide their kids or whatever. It's just a fun little game that they may play on their own. They typically will say, "Oh, go find it," or whatever. Some off-the-cuff thing that they just happened to say, but being people, we will fall into a pattern where we say that all the time. What I urge brand new students is to really think hard if they've ever done something like that and use a different word when they start training for Scent Work because it's a different thing.

You can make the argument that essentially, in big picture, it's the same game. There's a lot of people were like, "Oh, she's contradicting herself. She said that I could hunt for all these things". Yes, that is true. But I'm talking about; we're trying to help the dog understand this is the formal game. This is the training thing we're doing at this point in time. We want them to have an association of what those words mean. So just letting your dog to a free-for-all, and if they find something great, and if they don't know, "Who cares?" as opposed to, "Okay, we're actually training, Scent Work right now.". Maybe I'm presenting a specific odor puzzle. Maybe I'm doing any other slew of things. They are entirely different. So that word actually means something, and we want to try to give our dog and understanding of what the game is that we're playing.

Another example that I brought up before was when we say, "Find more." Find more, seek more, whatever these may be. You want to think about any guess a dog may have any idea what that means to be with? If they don't, how is it that you're introducing it? And then what is it that you actually want that to mean, right? This is where you just have to sit and just to think about what works for you and your dog.

For me, "Find more" simply means that there is more out there, and that doesn't bar the dog from going back to the hide that they found. Which I know a lot of people are, "Oh my God." He was like, "Well, hang on, we'll talk about that in a second." but it just means that there may be more out there.

I try in my beginner courses to have this be baked in. Where we will have food hides in the beginning because I start, my students want food. Once the dog has finished eating their first hide and they have their supplemental reward, then the person will say, "Find more," as the dog is heading off to find more huts. The dog starts hearing this noise a "Find more," and they're making the association of, "Oh. They say that every time I'm going to go find more hides, there must mean there's more hides out there." It's just about being clear. Then you have to think about whether or not you think that is valuable. I bake it into the beginning of my training so that if someone needs it later on, if they have a dog that's really super sticky on hides where they just won't leave them to go find other ones, then we can encourage them which is to find more. It's not like a "Find more!" It's just a fun little, "Okay. Find more." You can also use some of your social distancing pressure. What I mean by that is literally moving your body a step or two away from the hide itself that they're stuck on. That oftentimes can really help the dog move off.

I think it's just being more mindful as handlers and trainers of the effect that we can have on our dogs, and also just taking a step back to see whether or not we're being super clear. Are we just doing things because we saw someone else do it? From the dog's perspective, does it mean anything? Do they understand the meaning that we intended it to be, or do they think of something else entirely?

The big one that actually came up in this discussion, which I'm actually very thankful for because it's something that I've seen over the years. I don't know how I forgot to talk about this in the podcast, but a big one is "Leave it."

There are a couple of times that people will say, "leave it," typically speaking in Scent Work. They'll say it when a dog is getting stuck on a hide, or they'll say it when their dog is getting distracted by something. They're sniffing where dogs are peed, or where the critters were, or maybe there's some garbage on the ground.

In my personal opinion, as with all in dogs training, "Leave it" should not hold any place inside Scent Work training, and there's a reasoning behind that opinion. "Leave it," when people are using it with their dogs and day-to-day life, normal training, or even more advanced training outside the context of Scent Work, that word means you do not have access to that thing. Do not touch it. Do not engage yourself with it. Leave it alone. It means all those things. Now, sometimes the cue can even be more muddy than that because you say leave it, and then you say, "Okay, now you can go get it," and the dog was, "Make up your mind," but that's a discussion for another day.

When someone says leave it, the dog is never supposed to have that thing. It's a dead bird on the ground. You're out on your walk; there's a tossed-out McDonald's bag that still has some burger in it. You're like, "Oh my God, leave it. Who knows what that is."

Understanding that that's what the context of that word is. When you think about that in the context of Scent Work, it doesn't apply. Let's think again about the scenarios of people use it in. One of the most common ones is when a dog is going back to a hide they already found. I say, "Leave it." "Leave it" typically means you cannot have it. You are sniffing, a hide you already found, and I probably rewarded you for, hopefully. And now I'm saying, "leave it." that makes no sense. It's completely contradictory. You're saying they can not have odor. If your dog is really smart or really sensitive, or very good at figuring out these things; They're suddenly going, "Well, wait a second. I guess I'm not allowed to have odor." It causes all kinds of problems.

The other issue is... let's take a different example. Your dog is investigating something else. Doggy odor, garbage, whatever the case may be. Immediately, there's just something that happens with the word "leave it." I do not know many people who are able to say "leave it," as though they were not some general nasty boot campers of "Leave it!". It's awful. It hurts your heart.

Here you're having this fun little search with their dog; they're doing great. It's all kinds of joys and happy. It's tapping into their instincts. Everything is wonderful, and you are really epitomizing what it's all about to have a good relationship with your dog. You're watching your dog. You're engaged with them, and all's good, and then they come up, and they start sniffing other things. That whole mindset of yours switches on a dime, and you suddenly go, "Leave it!" because now your dog is bad. Your dog is being naughty because they had the audacity to sniff something else.

Just think about from your perspective. How that immediately shifts the way that you're looking at your dog, the way that you're viewing your dog, the way that you're thinking about your dog. No longer are they engaged in doing this amazing, wonderful thing of Scent Work. Now they're being naughty. They're being stubborn. They're being distracted. They're not on task. They're wasting your time, whatever the case may be. It may even bring up all those other instances of where they did something you didn't want them to do, and maybe you had struggled with something, and it's "Ah!" Now you're injecting all of that simply because your dog sniffed where a dog had peed. All because of the cue that you used.

What I'm urging is that "leave it" just not be involved inside your Scent Work training at all. I think that it's potentially aversive to the dog. I think it's potentially aversive to you. I don't think it's really overly helpful. I think it actually muddies the picture quite a bit. So then people say, "Well, great. You have these scenarios; a dog goes up to a high they're already found, and now they're back at it again, or the dog is sniffing something else. What am I supposed to do? All mighty trainer lady who won't let me say leave it."

It depends on the scenario, obviously. We'll take your dog is investigating something else. Quite honestly, I try not to make a big deal about it. If the dog looks as though they're going to mark, I may encourage them on. Just simply patting your leg and encouraging them on. It's completely fine. Otherwise, I actually want the dog to make the choice. I want to give the dog the opportunity to choose that odor is better. The more you fuss about them worrying about something else, the more they're going to worry about something else. It's just a proven fact. The millisecond that they actually said, '"Okay. Well, I'll investigate that for a little bit, but now I'm going to go find my odor again," give them a reward. It doesn't have to be anything crazy. You know, I probably would say it wouldn't be necessarily want it to be too overt because you don't want them to be, "Huh? What? Huh?"

It's almost a subconscious, "What a good dog." That's all you have. That tone, that level, they lift their head up. They go back to searching actual odor... What a good dog. You're giving them some feedback, but it's nothing crazy. It's all about understanding that your dog has choices. You have no control over their nose, no matter how hard you want to try to. You don't, and you shouldn't. They are the brilliant operators of this incredible organ that does such amazing things. We should not try to get in between that, right? We should not try to meddle with that. Just let the dog be brilliant on their own. That amazing organ is attached to a brain. They're not little robots. They're not just going out into spaces and just finding odor in. That's it.

The environments are filled. They're saturated with so many pieces of information that are quite interesting to dogs. What we're trying to do in our training ideally is to say, "Okay, you have to go through an ocean of stuff. I want you to find this tiny little thing as quickly and efficiently as you can. Understanding that you have to swim through all that stuff, and I'm going to be patient with you because it may take you a while to do it at first. But then, as you build up your tenacity and your confidence and your focus and the value of the game becomes even so much more, that you will get there faster. But I am not expecting you to suddenly sprout wings and not swim through the ocean, but rather fly over it and land on odor."

I'm not sure that metaphor makes sense, but the point being is that I think we just have to be a little bit more realistic. It's not as though suddenly all of these areas are going to become sterile, and odor is going to be the only thing out there. With training, what we're trying to do is I make the beacon of odor the brightest thing in the environment. All those other things are still there too. They're just a little dimmer.

It doesn't mean that your dog doesn't smell them. Doesn't mean that your dog isn't processing them. It doesn't even mean your dog isn't thinking about them. We just want them to find odor as fast and efficiently as they can. That's what the latter piece is.

The first piece is, "Okay. That's all fine and dandy, whatever." My dog finds a hide. They keep going back to it. What is it that I'm supposed to do? For me, it depends on what is happening. Dog training is extraordinary of fluid. It's all based upon the individual dog, the level of their training, what the scenario is, what our goals are. I know you don't like any of these answers, but it's true. The big thing, as far as for the discussion of this podcast of cues, is I don't want the dog to ever take something that I'm saying to then associate that odor is bad. I don't ever want to inject any kind of aversion into the discussion of odor. If my dog is going back to a hide, I then have to assess, are they going back to that hide in order to get information like what we've talked about in our triangulating podcasts? Are they going back to it because they are trying to get more feedback from me? or are they going back to it because they simply want more rewards?

The thing with more rewards... dogs are smart little beings. They can be like, "Well, maybe this is a pets dispenser. Maybe I can just get a million treats out of this. That will be awesome. I'm smart. Let's just stay here." or it could be that they have determined that there are indeed additional hides in the search area, but those other hides are just too challenging to them in that exact moment. It doesn't mean that you failed as a trainer, and you didn't put out good hides. That's not what I mean. What I mean is that in that actual moment of time, the dog says, "Oh, that's hard. I like this one. This one's easier. Let me just keep finding this one." The point being is that what your reaction depends on what's happening?

I would never want you to discount your dog's need of going back to a hide, to get information because they're triangulating, and you're constantly pulling them off and everything else. That's not going to help. That's actually going to make their lives harder. I wouldn't want you to take a little tiny baby dog who doesn't know anything about odor. We're just starting out, and then you're constantly pulling them off and everything. If they're like, "Oh, what's this?" I want you to reward them and then have some sequence in place so that they aren't able to keep going back. Meaning that when they found all their hides, there's like a little treat magnet at their nose and jog the search area. If they happen to hit on the hide, as you're leaving, then feed them again, then reward them again for finding that hide because we are trying to build value in odor doesn't mean anything to them yet.

If you have a super-experienced dog, who knows what odor is. They know what the concept is of finding more hides in a space, and they are going back to hide over and over again from way back at the beginning of this podcast ages ago. This is where using a cue such as "find more" can really help. It all matters on how you introduced it, whether or not the dog understands it and what the context is behind it. Meaning, what's the emotion behind it. I try to ensure that when I'm working with my dogs, they understand that there's no anger behind anything. Because I'm very cognizant of how I feel, and I also see that a lot in other handlers. You can see it when they're training, and that's why I said the whole discussion about "leave it."

It just does something psychologically to people, and they can turn on a dime. All of a sudden they're really super mad, and it like dredges up all this history of stuff that maybe they were less than thrilled with what happened with their dog. We want to try to avoid that when we're doing training with Scent Work.

Just to recap, it is absolutely true that Scent Work is an innate instinctual type of activity. It's not supposed to be handler-lead. We're supposed to have our dogs leading the searches and being independent and making these choices, and figure out these odor puzzles. All that is entirely true. However, there are absolute cues that people use overt and subtle. We're not even talking about in this podcast everything that you're doing with your body in your placement, in your movement, the search area, all the subtle cues that you're giving.

We'll talk about that in another episode, but in overt cues, saying your actual begin to search cues such as search or find or seek or whatever. Having something to tell the dog, "Okay, I need you to find more hides or maybe more hides out there," and letting them know when they're done. These are really important parts of the puzzle, and we just have to be very mindful with what we're using, why we're using it, what kind of history there may be associated with it, whether or not we're injecting something that may be icky, whether or not we're inadvertently muddying the picture or we're making things more complicated for our dogs. Are we injecting something in there that's actually changing and taking us out of the experience and putting us into a less than stellar mindset? Because if that's true, then we should probably take that part out.

As always, this seems awfully rambley. I was very excited, and I literally just typed this up on the Facebook Scent Work University Facebook group. I have to talk about this in the podcast too. I don't know if it was as clear as I would have liked, but I think it is really important for us to be very mindful trainers. To always take a step back and to assess what it is that we may be doing, why we may be doing it, whether or not it is confusing at all to the dog, particularly if we're using it in a variety of different facets of their lives. "Leave it" as a perfect example that you're probably using it in your everyday life. It probably has a very specific context around it that probably doesn't play very well within Scent Work. Probably doesn't translate over as well as you may have thought. So just simply taking a step back and really assessing those things... that's basically what I'm trying to advocate for.

I had mentioned at the beginning of the episode that we are running a Winter Sniffy Fun Challenge over on the Friends of Scent Work University Facebook group. This is a completely free challenge. It is in response to the continuing COVID Pandemic awfulness that is affecting the entirety of the world. The way this works is every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; between now and the end of March 2021, we will be posting challenges that you could then look over and decide whether or not you want to do them with your dog. Entirely free. There's no charge whatsoever. We offer a different hide specifications so you can do. Most of these challenges, I'm designing most of them so that you can do it, but we lay out the hide specifications. You can do it with food hides, parrot hides, or odor hides.

We provide easier modifications for dogs that are less experienced, or maybe you just wanted to give them an easier modification. As well as more challenging modifications. They seem to be getting longer in description as I go. I'm going to try to not be quite so long-winded, but as you can see in the podcast, that can be difficult. So far the response has been amazing. We've just topped over 1400 members in the Facebook group yesterday, and people are being amazing. As far as posting their videos of them doing it with their dogs, they're asking questions, they're supporting one another. There's a ton of people who are lurking there. There are a ton of people who are watching and liking, and they're doing this stuff on their own when they can, and it's giving them some ideas, it's getting them some inspiration, and that's what this is all about.

We're trying to really celebrate the fact that Scent Work is awesome. Everyone should be doing Scent Work, and we can all define Scent Work for what it means to us and our dogs. That's what the whole purpose behind this fun little challenge is.

If you aren't part of the Friends of Scent Work University Facebook group, I would definitely urge you to send in a request. Basically, you answer a couple of quick questions. It's completely free, and then you are in there. Once the entirety of the challenge is done at the end of March, I'll be compiling all of the challenges into an e-book that will then be available for purchase, so it's all in one little spot. It'll be $10. We would love to have you. You do not have to post any videos. You do not have to post anything if you don't want to. We would just love for you to participate as far as actually looking through the challenges, watching the videos, and then maybe playing with your dog on your own. That would make me a happy little trainer lady. If you haven't already, I strongly urge you to go check that out.

All right, guys, thanks so much for listening to this podcast. I hope you found it helpful. If you have any ideas or thoughts or all the comments, we'll be posting this episode up on our Facebook page, Scent Work University, so we would love to hear from you. All right, guys. Thank you so much. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.

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