Ep. 44: Training On Your Own

Feb 4, 2021

Many of us will train on our own at some point when doing Scent Work with our dogs. You may even be doing all of your training one your own, preparing your hides, designing your searches and running your dog.

In this podcast episode, we discuss the various factors we should keep in mind when training on our own so as to avoid inadvertently leading our dog astray. Some of the pointers covered in this podcast were also discussed in our latest blog, Where We See a Tree, Our Dog Sees a Forest, so be sure to check that out.


  • 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 the scenes look of what your instructor or trial official may be going through, and much more. In this episode, I want to talk about ways that we can train Scent Work on our own. So, before we start diving into the podcast episode itself, let me do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos, and I'm the owner and lead instructor for Scent Work University, Pet Dog U, and Dog Sport University. Scent Work University in particular, is an online dog training platform where we provide online courses, seminars, webinars, and eBooks that are all focused on helping you achieve your Scent Work training goals with your dog. So, whether you're just getting started in Scent Work, you're starting to develop some more advanced skills, or if you were getting ready for trial, we have an online training solution for you. So, now that you know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the pockets episode itself.

So, in this episode, we want to talk about how it is that you can effectively train Scent Work on your own, because not all of us are able to either work with an instructor or a friend or a group of friends. Sometimes a lot of our practice sessions are done one-on-one with our dogs. And there are definitely considerations that we want to keep in mind when we are doing that. Particularly if you were interested in doing Scent Work competitions or if you just wanted to ensure that your training was as best as it could possibly be. So, some of these concepts are things that I have covered, in our latest blog posts, which is Where We See A Tree, Our Dog Sees A Forest. So, there may be some overlap, but the general gist of things to consider, when we are training, particularly on our own, is that whatever picture we're presenting to our dogs, when we're doing training, we have to be mindful that it's the actual picture that we wanted them to see.

And that we, as humans, have a very large tendency to focus on a very minute detail, and to forget the totality of the picture, hence the title of the blog, where we can kind of focus on a tree, whereas the dog is seeing the forest of the situation. So as an example, let's say that you've been training with your dog for a while in Scent Work, you are now working on having them hunt for novel target odors, so Birch, Anise, Clove, Cypress, whatever the case may be. And you're working in the variety of different types of search elements. So, interior searches, exterior searches, vehicle searches. Maybe you're also doing things like AKC Scent Work offers, where you're doing buried searches. Maybe you're also doing handler discrimination, where they're finding an article that's scented with your odor, all kinds of fun stuff. But in any event, let's say we're going to stick with novel target odor.

So, Birch, Anise, or clove, one of the essential oils. And you're working in a variety of different search elements. So, your interiors, exteriors, vehicles, and containers. Something to keep in mind is that we are not able to directly communicate to our dog what it is that we want them to do at any given moment, meaning that I can't sit down with my dog and have a conversation with them and say, "I want you to find this thing that I've hidden somewhere. And I want you to find this particular odor profile. I want you to find these molecules," right? We can't have that verbal conversation. All I can do as a trainer, is I can try to set up scenarios where I'm hoping that that's the information my dog is getting, from how I'm setting up the exercise itself. The issue when you're training by yourself though, is that you may be introducing a very particular type of odor profile without you even meaning to do so.

What do I mean by that? Well, you, as your person, you carry an odor among you, right? You have skin cells, a slough off, whatever else. You have an odor that's associated with yourself, and your dog being a dog really knows what that smells like. So, if you're the one that's always preparing your odor, setting your hides, and then your dog is only finding odor that you've prepared and hides that you've set, it is a very strong possibility that your dog is going to be thinking that the game is about finding not only Birch, as an example, but Birch plus my person's odor. That there has to be both things in the odor picture for the dog to think that that is correct. That obviously could be problematic if you were interested in doing competition because in competition, you are most definitely not preparing the odor. Somebody else is.

And we'll talk about that in just a second, but also you're also not setting the hides, right? Someone else is. So, some dogs may think, "Well, there is Birch out there, but there's Birch plus weird person, who I don't know who they are. That's not mom or dad's odor. I don't need to find that." Or the dog may be using cues from you as far as how to find their hide. So, as an example, let's say that you're trying to train for an exterior search, right? And it's on a grassy area. And you're doing it early morning. So, there's a little bit of dew, right? You walk over, you place your hide. You then go in, wash your hands, get whatever else, get the dog ready. And you run. If you video that search, you may find that your dog actually follows your foot path through the dewy grass in order to find their hide.

Does this mean that your dog is bad? Of course not. It means your dog is brilliant. Your dog has figured out that they can use all of this information in the environment to get to their rewardable end point, meaning that they can get to the hide where they can get their reward. In order to do so, they're using all the information at their disposal. And in that situation, they're using your own odor path of walking through the grass, in order to get to their hide. Maybe it's not even your path, maybe they've just figured out disturbed grass, oftentimes leads to hides. I should go follow disturbed grass. So at this point, people are like, "Oh no. I train by myself all the time. Here, I thought my dog was doing really well. They're finding hides really fast. And maybe they're just doing this other stuff. What do I do?" First of all, don't panic. Our dogs are brilliant, but we just have to make sure that we are providing them with the picture that we want them to have, right?

We're not showing them a tiny little, super detailed corner of the painting, we're providing them the totality of the painting. So, with that in mind, some of the things that you can do when, you're training by yourself, is you would be able to be mindful as far as how you're setting up your search areas. So, as an example, let's take that exterior search again. So, now we know that potentially, our dog is following our path through the grass. So, one of the things that you could do is you can set your hide going through the grass, the way that you normally do, then backtrack on that same path, and that's why doing this at early morning, where you can clearly see where you walked because you're walking through the dew. You use the same as that path to get back, go inside, wash your hands, then go back outside and walk all over the place.

I'm not asking you to touch a bunch of stuff, but basically you're going to make a bunch of crisscross paths away from the hide, so that when your dog does come out to finally search, there is a ton of disturbed grass. There's a ton of paths that they could potentially follow, and not all of them are going to lead to a hide. So, basically the dog learns, "Oh, well, disturb grass always used to lead to hides, but now it doesn't." So, it's not that we want them to discount that information, it's actually not bad information to have. We just don't want that to be the sole information that they're using. So, it's just about being mindful in that regard, of how can I help my dog best understand the information that is helpful as opposed to being used as a crutch. That's the big thing. We don't want it to become something that our dog is absolutely dependent upon, in order to get to the answer. So, I hope that makes sense.

Another thing that you can try to do, is you can set a bunch of blank hides. And what I mean by that is odor vessels that have never, ever, ever come in contact with odor ever. So, that means like your tins, your straws, whatever the case may be, as well as adhesives that have never come into contact with odor ever. These are brand new, you just bought them and you made sure they have never come into contact. They're not even at the same room where you keep your odor. You may be that paranoid about it, and place all of those all over the place inside your search area. And then wear gloves, or whatever else, to place your actual odor hide afterwards. Let all that sit for like 10, 15, 20 minutes, and then run your dog.

What this is doing is it's allowing you to see is my dog simply following where I've been last, where my odor is the newest, as you and your person, or are they just trying to either use their eyes to try to see if they can actually see an odor vessel, or are they trying to find the adhesive? And that last piece is actually something that is really important. We, as humans, fall into patterns really easily. And sometimes that's simply because of time. You're like, "Oh, okay, I got to do something." We're like, "Okay, I'm going to throw this stuff together and go do it." But again, we have to remember that every single training session is imparting something to our dog. Our dog is learning every single time that they go up to that line. They are getting a different idea of what the picture is supposed to be. It's almost as though when you first start training, the picture we're presenting to our dog is really super fuzzy. Like you can't make it out at all.

And with every single training session, that picture is coming more and more in focus. You want to ensure that the picture that's coming into focus, is the one you want it to. You don't want it to be something completely different. You don't want to be presenting them with like a Van Gogh, but the picture that they're seeing as like a little tiny cartoon a two-year-old drew. You want it to be the same thing. But it's not that straightforward, again because we can't have this direct communication with our dogs. And they're learning basically through experience, and by what we're presenting to them, we have to be mindful of what we are presenting and how we present it. So, the reason why the adhesives makes a big difference is that if you're always using putty, as an example, which is a very common adhesive to use with our hides, in order to place them around a search area. The dog may again, think that they need to find a adhesive plus odor, or they may be using the adhesive as a crutch.

Again, we want to be careful because if you are interested in competition, perhaps that trial official doesn't use putty. Maybe they only use glue dots, maybe you use something else. Maybe they don't use it at all. Maybe they just find ... they have magnets, or they have metal placements everywhere. Who knows? It could be any combination of things. But you don't want your dog using something as a crutch. So, you want to be careful with how you're designing your searches, so that you're not inadvertently creating these expectations or these crutches. And the great way of avoiding all of that is by sporadically sprinkling into your training, purposeful searches that are designed to present a number of different things. And the answer is different than what the dog may have assumed it was supposed to be. Super sloppy way of saying that if you are concerned that up until this point of listening to this podcast, all of your hides have been placed within search areas using putty, and now I've made you sufficiently worried about it.

One of your next searches is going to have a ton of clean, never come into contact before, odor vessels, and putty. You're going to place those all over the place, right? And you're going to have one singular hide, using a different type of odor vessel, as well as a different type of adhesive. And it's going to be placed away from all of that stuff, so that when your dog finds it, they go, "Oh, not only was I able to find my hide, and I got lots and lots of reward for it." Please heavily reward your dog when they're right. "But it didn't have this other odor profile with it. It didn't have putty odor. It had this other kind of color." But the one thing that was consistent was the Birch, as an example.

So, over time, your dog is able to make the distinction, "Oh, I don't have to rely on putty odor. I just need to find the Birch piece." So far, we have ways that you can move about the space when you're setting up researches, things to be mindful of. You can do things like retracing your steps. You can set your hide, wash your hands, and then walk over to the search area afterwards. You can age your hides. You also want to be careful about the types of odor vessels and adhesives that you use. The other thing you want to be careful about is things that you're doing with yourself, meaning that when you're training on your own, it's very easy to give off tiny cues to your dog. "Oh, we're getting close to the hide." Even if your dog had no idea that they were getting close to the hide, right? Maybe they're in odor, but they don't know they're close to source yet. It's still in the very beginning stages. We naturally, will do things with our bodies and our dogs are extraordinarily in tune to it.

So, you may hold your breath, bring your shoulders up to your ears. Lean forward a little bit, go into your tree pouch, whatever the case may be. Tiny, itty bitty, almost insignificant, you don't even know you're doing it, stuff that are these huge alarms to your dog. "Aha. We're getting close." You want to be careful when you're only training by yourself because your dog has started using those things as crutches, where they just assume. And that's where you'll start seeing dogs throw false alerts, because they're guessing, "Oh, I guess we're there." You'll have kind of in odor, "I guess we're here. Do I get a cookie now?"

So, what can you do in that regard? Well, the first thing is video yourself. That is one of the biggest things that you can do. Video, video, video. Watch it back and look for these tiny little things that you're doing, and be kind to yourself. We all do this, all of the time. Even professionals do this, instructors do it. I do it. And we do it in all contexts of dog training. It happens all of the time because again, being a handler is more challenging than we may think. There's a lot of moving pieces. So, we maybe try and like, "I want to reward fast, so I need to get into my tree pouch," or, "Oh, they're getting really close," and we're getting excited or whatever. It's completely understandable. But again, we have to be mindful of the effect that it can have on the overall performance.

So, what can you do? Again, first, you want a video yourself, and then you want to almost desensitize your dog to those things, meaning that you're going to do those kinds of movements throughout the entirety of the search. So, even when they are nowhere near anything, mess with your tree pouch, hold your breath, bring your shoulders up, lean in, do whatever it is, that your thing is. So the dog goes, "I used to think that those things meant something, but now they don't. They just do them all the time. I don't know what their deal is, but I need to focus on my work." And that's what you want. You want them to be able to focus on what's happening in the search area. I'm not asking for your dog to completely discount you altogether. Again, Scent Work is a team work thing, but we want to ensure that we're not inadvertently giving our dog incorrect information, basically.

And we don't want them using us as a crutch. So, that's another thing you want to keep in mind, when you're training by yourself. One of the things that you really can't get around is the fact that if you are interested in competition, you are going to have other people preparing odor and then setting hides in search areas. So, there's not really a great way of getting around that fact. So, if you're training on your own, if you were totally a hermit, like me, where you don't see anyone or do anything, then one of the things that you could try to do is at the very least, buy different types of, meaning from different reputable vendors, buy their odors, and then have separate odor kits for each. I'll try to clean that up a little bit. So, let's say the vendor A sells a Scent Work kit, and vendor B sells Scent Work kit.

You would want to have both, because even though they're both reputable, they're both the correct scientific name, whatever else, no two types of odor kits are going to be exactly the same. And you may even want to play a little bit with your concentration of odor. So, maybe for your one odor kit, you're using AKC concentration of odor, where there's two drops of oil directly onto an individual Q-tip. And then for your other odor kit, you're using any NACSW odor concentration, where there are three to five drops of oil within a canning jar, filled with Q-tips halves, cut in half, and then shake it up and allowed to, "Cook" for 24 hours. Those are two completely different types of order preparation. The point being is that by having odor from different vendors, you're providing a little bit of a different odor profile for your dog.

Yes, it is Birch, but the way that they create the Birch oil is not going to be exactly the same. So, you want to get it from reputable places, I'm not saying go to Amazon. Please don't do that. But getting your odor kits from a few different reputable vendors and then presenting those different hides to your dog, could absolutely help. It could go a really long way, because again, when you do compete, you do not know know how they're going to be preparing their odor, and where they got it from. So that, at the very bare minimum, everyone should be doing that at least, right? But let's say that you're not quite as anti-social and hermit-like as am. Let's say that you have access to other human beings who can help you every now and again. At the very least, if you have a circle of friends, who also do Scent Work or classmates or whomever, swap odor kits with them, right?

Because again, what I consider to be three to five drops of oil for an NACSW odor preparation may not be someone else's three to five drops. It's just reality. But there's also, my odor will be transferred onto those things, right? No matter how hard I try, I'm always sloughing off skin cells. So, that's another. So, we have bare minimum, you are ordering different odor kits from different vendors. The next level is you're swapping odor kits with classmates or friends or whomever. The next level is that you actually are allowing those people to set hides for you, or anyone. It could be anybody, depending on how social you are and how open you are to working with complete and total strangers. But Michael McMahon has noted that going to a park and handing some hides to a kid and say, "Hey, go hide these somewhere."

Kids like to do that. Whatever floats your boat. But if you think that they're going to be able to place appropriate hides for your dogs, this is a really important thing. Because again, it gets away from the fact that your dog is using yourself as a crutch, right? It is introducing a different odor profile because the person is handling the odor itself, and they're probably going to place the hides differently than you do, even if you were to give them direction. So, how I may place a hide underneath a chair, is going to be different than how someone else will. You'd be like, "Well, it's still underneath the chair," but how are they handling the chair? How long does it take them to put it up there? Is it right by the edge, is it more toward the middle? All those things make a difference.

So, truly working with other people simply to just set hides, even if you provide them with a lot of direction, could be extraordinarily beneficial because then your dog will be able to say, "Oh, well, I don't smell my person. And I only smell odor, I guess I'll just use that." The point being is that, particularly when we're working on our own, we need to find ways to make the picture as clear as possible to our dog without making our lives impossible. And then just recognizing that we may be focused on a very particular detail, such as we're trying to work on elevation or whatever, but our dog is taking in the totality of that picture. They're taking in all of the information, and we want them to, right? We shouldn't be trying to make our dogs dumber, and we shouldn't be mad or upset that our dog is leveraging all the information at their disposal.

That's a good thing. That's not a bad thing. It just shows how brilliant they are. We have to heighten our response, we have to improve our training to take all of that into account, so that we don't accidentally cause our dogs to hinder their performance because they're relying on the wrong information.

So, I hope that makes sense. It's not that training on your own is bad. It's not, and it's not that you can't be successful training on your own. You can, you just have to be mindful with how you do it. And if you start noticing certain things, if you start noticing certain trends, or if you start falling into a rut, that would be a good time to do one of these more wacky exercises to ensure that your dog is truly again, following the game the way that you want them to play it, where they're just finding the odor and they're finding their hide, they're not using this other stuff as crutches. They could still use it as information, but we don't want them to be relying on that to get to the final answer.

So I hope this made a little bit of sense. I definitely encourage everyone to play Scent Work as often as they can, without overdoing it. You don't want to overdo it, it's supposed to be a fun game. But I don't want you to feel like you have to do it with other people. It can be a great thing to do with friends or classmates or to do in an in-person class or whatever the case may be, that is absolutely true. But particularly now, we're still in this pandemic, a year in, and there's still a lot of people who are working on their own. There's nothing wrong with that. I just want you to play the game with your dog. And even if you are interested in doing competition down the line, you can absolutely do that by working on your own, you just have to be mindful with how you do it, and just really take to heart that your dog is absolutely brilliant.

And they'll use all the information at their disposal, and you should be happy when they do so. So, let me know if you guys found this podcast helpful at all. And I also strongly urge you to check out that blog post that we posted, again called Where We See A Tree, Our Dog Sees A Forest. So, I think that will be very helpful. We want to hear from you. What did you think? Was this podcast helpful? Would you like us to go into a little more detail? Is there another topic that you're interested in? We posted a link to the podcast on our Facebook page for Scent Work University. So, if you have any comments or questions, you're always more than welcome to post those there. All right, guys, thanks so much for listening. Happy training, and we look forward to seeing you soon.

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