Ep. 59: Responsibilities of Scent Work Instructors

Oct 21, 2021

With Scent Work continuing to explode in popularity around the globe, there is an ever-growing demand for more classes and training. Instructors and trainers are working to meet this demand. However, it is crucially important that every professional instructor or trainer keep in mind the responsibilities associated with this role. No matter if you are newer or have been teaching since the sports inception, your responsibilities are the same.

In this podcase episode, we highlight how being an instructor and trainer is indeed an honor and privilege that we need to take very seriously to ensure we ae doing all we can to help our human and canine students learn, grow, progress and succeed.


  • 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 at what a trainer/instructor or trial official may be going through, and much more.

In this episode I wanted to talk about what are the responsibilities when you are a scent work instructor. So before we start diving into the podcast episode itself, let me do a very quick introduction on 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 all online dog training platforms that provide high quality dog training instruction to as many people as possible. And we're very fortunate to have a client basis worldwide. At Scent Work University in particular, we provide online courses, seminars, webinars, and e-books that are all designed to help you achieve your dog training goals. So whether you're just getting started in scent work, you're looking to develop some more advanced skills, or if you're looking to trial, we have a 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 want to dive into, what are the actual responsibilities that you have when you are a scent work instructor? I want to preface this by saying, I am not the sole authority as far as scent work is concerned. I am not some sage on high speaking down on anyone else. This is just things that I try to keep in mind when I am teaching. And then, I think as a whole, as a community as a whole of instructors and trainers that we should also be mindful of recognizing that this activity is exploding in popularity, has been for a while, and will continue to do so because scent work is awesome. But that also means that more and more people are jumping onto the opportunity to teach scent work and they may be coming at it from different perspectives, different levels of experience, and so on and so forth.

Again, none of that is inherently bad at all, but there are some truths that apply to everyone, regardless of where you're coming at this that I think are important to keep in mind. Responsibility number one, which really applies to anyone who's instructing anything is you have to know what you're instructing. When we're talking about scent work, you have to have an understanding about odor theory, what odor may be doing within a given space, and how it is you're going to get these dogs to hunt.

Now, there are a whole slew of different schools of thought as far as how you achieve that: a dog actually going to a space and finding a hide. But regardless of what method you may prefer to use as far as the school of thought, you still need to be mindful as far as how it is that you're designing your exercises, whether or not that be in a group class, whether or not that be in a private lesson, whether or not that be in-person or online or hybrid. You as the instructor, it's your responsibility to be directing this team in their learning to achieve their goals. You have to know what you're doing in order to do that. I know that sounds snarky, but it's true. You have to take the time to understand what odor theory is, what odor is going to do is in a given space and a lot of that also means that you have to practice.

If you have an exercise that you have in mind that you're going to ask your clients to do, I would sincerely hope that you have asked your dog to do that very thing. Or if you don't have a dog, like right now I've been dogless for almost a year now, that means that you're having someone else that you trust that they're running it with their dog. Or you've done it in the past with a dog that you can refer back to with videos, whatever the case may be, but you have actually done this thing, so that you can recognize what may happen in that given exercise; you can see, "Well, my goal was to do this, but I didn't actually do that at all." Well, that's a good thing to know.

Also, what kind of adjustments or modifications may be necessary. But again, the underlying current of responsibility is you have to have the answers to these questions. You have to know what you're doing. And unlike some activities such as maybe agility, or even obedience, or rally, or whatever the case may be, scent work is both at the same time complicated but not, meaning that there's lots of people who are like, "Okay, this isn't rocket science. I can just go set out hides and I can run the dogs and that will be that." It's so much more than that.

But at the same point, yes, you're running on an instinct sport. The dogs: we're not teaching the dogs how to use their nose. That's not the point. We're presenting them opportunities to learn how to work out certain odor puzzles on their own. I'm not saying taking molecules from this nostril, analyze it in this way and then blow them out the other nostril. That's not what training is at all, but we can't diminish the fact that you can absolutely either help a team progress and become this really wonderful unit of a dog and a human who are teammates, and are able to go into a space and work it well. Even if it doesn't mean qualifying every single trial or even finding every hide, they are a unit and a team that works well together; they understand what their job is and they try their best; and they're having a great time doing it.

You, as the instructor, can absolutely encourage and help cultivate that end result, or it could be just the opposite. You could have dog and handler that are butting heads the entire time, could hate the activity. You could diminish their confidence. It could be a nightmare. So, being responsible and understanding that it's your job to know how to do these things is important. I know that it sounds just so like, "Of course I have to know what I'm doing." But again, this activity is exploding and lots of people are jumping into teaching scent work and not everybody knows what they're doing. Everyone's going to be coming at this from different levels of experience.

I wasn't born knowing all this stuff. I am still not the sole expert in this by any stretch, and I never will be. That's the other thing you have to keep in mind is that you're always going to be learning more with this. You're never going to stop. The moment that you think that everything is when you're going to get into a whole lot of trouble because the scent work gods, Mother Nature and your dog will humble you real quick. So please, if you take nothing else away from this episode, take the heart that you've got to know your stuff and that you have to keep learning. You have to keep that learning cap on because otherwise you it's going to be a disservice to your clients. So, that's responsibility one.

Responsibility two is you have got to know how to help these teams progress. That very well may mean progressing beyond working with you, and that's a hard pill to swallow, right? If you take a team that started with you as little tiny baby handlers and little tiny baby dogs who didn't know anything about scent work and you've cultivated them into this really wonderful unit that are loving the game; they're having so much fun; the dog is getting really solid skills; the person's getting really solid skills; they may even going into entry level trials and doing really well and everything is awesome. But now, you can see that they're progressing beyond where you specifically can help them. You have got to put on your big girl or boy pants and then refer them to someone who can maybe help them grow more, if that's necessary, or partner with a colleague who can work with you as a team, and all together you can collaborate in order to help this client continue to progress.

Instead, what's happening is people are holding onto clients for far too long and they're not progressing. And then, the clients figure that out at some point because they had an idea that, "I was supposed to be doing this by now, but I'm not," and they get really angry, rightfully so. And they feel taken advantage of, which of course may not be the actual reality, but that's how they feel, and they talk about that a lot, so it's detrimental to you for... Like on a business side, it's really bad for people to be going around saying, "Hey, by the way this person is just going to take you for a ride," which may not be the truth. There are people who will just take your money, of course. Not every single person who trains out there is good. We can shelf that, but there are lots of people who aren't trying to take advantage of people, but you may just not know where else to go with them.

Or the other really good possibility is that you had an idea for how this team should progress and they have a completely different idea. Your idea may actually be the better of the two. There may be a really good reason why you want them to progress a certain way, but you haven't communicated that to them. They don't understand why you're asking them and their dogs to do X, Y, or Z. They think they should be doing one, two, and three. You know that that is rushing, that asking them to do the exercise that you've laid out, there's a really good reason for it: it's going to be developing this and this and this skill; there's a method to the madness; this is going to pay off in spades in the end. But if they don't know that and they're comparing themselves to other people out in the scent work world, "Why aren't I there yet?"

So, this responsibility has two prongs to it. You have to know how to help a team progress. You also have to know how to communicate to the team why they're progressing that way. Failures on both of those prongs result in the same thing: you have a very unhappy client. At the very least, you have a very unhappy client who's talking about you negatively, and so on and so forth, which is really bad; it's not a good thing at all. But the worst is that they do feel taken advantage of and they get such a bad taste in their mouth that they give up on the activity. That is awful. Pleas, don't let these types of things happen. You got to know how to take someone from point A to point B to point C, and then to communicate to them throughout the entire process, "Why we're doing it this way and why we may deviate at any point, depending on what the dog and the person presents to us."

If the dog suddenly comes up and now they're afraid of everything, for whatever reason, I would sincerely hope that you know how to modify your plan to accommodate that. That's the responsibility of an instructor, another one, is to have backup plans. You can't just have, 'Well, we do this all the time and everyone just deal with it." No. You have to be able to be fluid. You got to deal with the dog and the person that's ahead of you, and you have to help them, but that includes communicating to them.

Now, of course, you don't have to go into every single minute detail. If you did, you'd be talking for the whole hour; they wouldn't have done anything; and that's not going to be very helpful. But find ways to communicate the intent to the people that you're working. It doesn't have to be a secret. What are they going to do? Run around and tell somebody else? I hope that they do. "Hey, look, my instructor had this really great plan for me and my dog and I feel so well taken care of. "Oh, they're the best you should go train with them." That's what they're going to say.

Again, these are not trade secrets. Truly, they are not. We don't have to be so guarded about this stuff, particularly to our clients. Let them know. They have to not only know the how, they got to know the why. "Why are you asking me to do this? I thought by now I'd be doing whatever." "Well, actually, the thing that I'm asking you to do now is going to help you do that other thing times 10 faster, but we got to do this first because it's important because of..." yada, yada, yada. Simple explanations can really help set your clients at ease. But if they feel as though they are stagnant while everyone else around them is progressing, that they're just doing the same thing over and over and over again, that the ability to do what their end goal is farther away not closer, they're not making any progress whatsoever, and every single six weeks you're just asking for another check, they're going to be upset.

And again, I know there's lots of people where that is not their intent at all, but you got to communicate, and for the people where they may have found themselves in that position where they don't know what to do with this client; or maybe you've had a group of students who have fallen into a drop-ins type of scenario and you just don't know what else to do. That, again, is on you (responsibility of the instructor) to figure out, "How do I design individualized thing for this group of students (who may have been with you for a while) that they're still progressing?" Just because they've been loyal to you for however long, doesn't mean they're going to continue to do so, or that you now get to take a day off. That's not it.

This is why being an instructor is hard. It really is. It's draining. Trying to figure out how to do all these things is difficult. It's not easy at all. Particularly when you're trying to do it in a group context of, "How do I help all of these people and all these dogs progress all the time?" Yeah, it's challenging. That's why you get paid, but these are our responsibilities as instructors and we can't just simply go, "Oh well, it's just scent work. It doesn't matter." Of course it does. Are you getting paid for it? Then it matters. So you got to know what you're doing. You got to know how to help your clients progress. You have to ensure they're progressing. You have to communicate to them why you're plan is going to help them progress and you have to be able to individualize all your training. These are responsibilities of instructors.

This last one is going... If you thought the other ones were controversial, then hold onto your butts. This last one's a doozy. You have got to be a good advocate for how people should be approaching the activity and the sport of scent work. Now, not everyone's going to agree with me on this, but I think that as a professional trainer and an instructor, you basically are someone that people are going to be looking up to. Now, I do not like anyone looking up to me. It makes me very uncomfortable. I have talked before how I don't think idolization is a good thing at all, but here we are. People still do.

But even if it's not idolizing, people are going to be looking towards, you'd be like, "Okay, so that's a goal point," or, "That's someone that has achieved X, Y, or Z." You have got to be mindful of that point and you have got to conduct yourself in such a way that is above reproach. That means ensuring that you're not doing things that are undercutting the very thing that you're asking other people to do. What do I mean by that? Pretty simple. If you have a dog that shouldn't be trialing because they are dangerous, or they are just so incredibly shut down, or they have physical ailments, or they're just old, or they are sick and now, just from your natural progression, they're at the highest level of trialing whatever else, but asking them to continue trialing would be detrimental to the dog. To anyone who had eyes or ears in their head, they'd be able to figure that out. Do not trial with that dog.

It's one thing for me to get upset with a quote-unquote lay person who may make that kind of decision. I become furious when it's someone who damn well knows better and they're doing it for really dumb reasons to the detriment of the dog. Anyone can see that this is not a good idea for the dog. We have got to make better decisions as far as that's concerned because you can't then turn around and then lambast your client who's doing the same thing. Hello! In the same vein, please stop encouraging everyone to trial with their dogs. They can play scent work without ever stepping into a trial ever. Help people understand the difference between playing the game and trialing.

Also, do not equate success with titles and ribbons. They are not the same thing. I have lots of colleagues who have wonderful things with their dogs that have nothing at all to do with trialing. I have lots of other colleagues who have achieved lots of things as far as ribbons and titles, and there's nothing to talk about. Again, it's just we have to, as a community of professionals, take a very sober look at these things. Because how we conduct ourselves and what we focus on, what we talk about in social media, yada, yada, yada, what we do matters and that's going to then be mirrored by what our clients are with the community at large, depending on your audience, what they're going to do. So I don't want to hear you talking around the water cooler later, "Oh, I can't believe that Sally Sue with Spot went and did this with her dog." Well, that's so funny because you did the same exact thing last week. Why are you surprised?

This gets me very, very frustrated in case it wasn't obvious because it's something that I just don't think that enough of us hold ourselves accountable to. These can be very hard decisions. These could be heart-wrenching decisions, but we owe it to our clients to make them. Please, if any of my colleagues have dogs who should not be trialing for any slew of reasons, don't trial with them. Also, don't put them into public situations where they're potentially going to be making a really bad mistake. That doesn't help. Instead, share the videos of you working in safe environments with them, why you're doing that, how you're helping them be happy, and show them be happy in this controlled environment where they can be. That's much, much better because you'll never guess what, your clients are going to mimic that, and they're going to realize, "Oh, I don't have to go in the middle of a playground and set up hides with my movement and child fearful dog?" No, actually, you don't. Please, don't do that.

This is the kind of thing that we have to really reassess what we're doing as professionals, why we're doing it, and how we can set a better example. For anyone who's just getting started in training some work, first of all, welcome. I know it doesn't sound like it in this odd podcast episode, but I'm delighted that you want to do this. The more dogs and people sniffing the better, but please, please, please, please, please, take your responsibility seriously. You are going to be helping little dogs and handler teams embark on this really fun journey and it's wonderful, but it does come with a lot of work and a lot of responsibilities that can pay off with spades if you are careful, and if you take the opportunity to help each and every single one of your clients, human and canine, be the best that they can be.

Scent work can be the gateway to a dog and handler team developing a much more harmonious union between the two. Again, over the years, I can't tell you how many clients that I've seen become better dog owners thanks to scent work, that they now hear and see their dog as this emotional thinking complex being, and they actually want to understand them better instead of just talking at them all day long. They hear their dog now. They see their dog. They want to work with their dog. The relationship blossoms like that under those circumstances. That is my biggest contribution to my clients is doing that. Yeah, I can help you find highs. Yeah, I can help you figure out different odor puzzles. Yeah, we can work on distractions [inaudible 00:21:49], but if I can help the relationship between yourself and your dog, I feel like I've done my job.

So, to wrap up, what do I think the responsibilities of a scent work instructor are? Number one, you got to know what you're doing and you have to be prepared to have continued to learning. As humans, we are still only just scratching the surface as far as what odor... our understanding of it. The dogs will always be the experts in that realm. Always be ready to continue to learn. The second that you say, "Oh, I got this all figured out," you're going to get yourself into trouble.

Number two, again, is two-parter is you got to know how to help your teams progress, and you have to be able to communicate to them how it is that they are supposed to progress. That's very, very, very important. Being humble enough to know when a team may have outgrown what you can offer them, again, could be a tough pill to swallow, but that's part of being an instructor: build your community. Yes, they may be your business competitors, but they're still your colleagues. Find people who are experienced, who are reputable, that you can then either partner with or that you can refer clients to, so they can continue to progress if they happen to progress where you honestly would be able to help them, and that requires that you be honest.

And the touchy one, you got to know that you hold influence over your clients and the community at large, again, depending on your audience. So please, take a really hard look at what you're doing with your own dogs, what you're encouraging your clients to do. See whether or not those are good things or not and ask other people's opinion that you trust, obviously. I'm sure there's someone somewhere who will say, "Yes, no everything you're doing is trash. You should quit right now." Not saying talk to them, but just realize that there may be someone who is looking to you for guidance on how they could be doing something, and if you're sending mixed signals you could be really damaging what they could be doing with their dogs. And yeah, that's a really heavy responsibility to be placing on everyone all of a sudden out of nowhere. But here's a fact is that you had that all along; you just didn't want to admit it.

That's why I take my job so seriously. Because I know that there are people who take what I say and take what I do and they take it to heart and they go off and they run with it with their dogs. That's why I try to be as clear as I can knowing that there's still going to be people who misconstrue what I mean, but then it's my responsibility if I find out about it to try to clarify it as much as I can, and know that that is my role as an instructor. That's why I try very hard to let everyone know why I think the way that I do; why are we doing certain types of exercises; why I personally do the things with my dogs that I've done in the past; what I'll do with future dogs when I have dogs in my life again, so on and so forth.

So, being an instructor has a lot of responsibility with it. We shouldn't shy away from those responsibilities. We should embrace them and that's all to help our clients and their dogs be better little individuals and better little units. But as always, I want to hear from you guys. What are your opinions on these things? Do you agree with any of these responsibilities I laid at our feet or do you totally disagree?

We will be posting this up on the Scent Work University Facebook page, so you're always more than welcome to post any comments you have there. If there are other topics you'd be interested in having us talk about, either myself pontificating about things or with our round table of instructors that we have access to, we're always more than welcome to hear from you.

Also, hope you guys are checking out the newest series that we have out, that's coming out roughly once a week. It's our spotlight where we have a spotlight on individuals and businesses who are giving back to the summer community, and we've been really enjoying all these conversations that we've been having. If you have someone that you know of, either individual or a business that you think is giving back to the scent work community that you would like us to talk to, please let me know. The more light that we can shine, the better it is.

All right, guys. Thanks so much for listening. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.

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