Add FUN to Your Scent Work Training...While Preparing for Trial

Oct 30, 2021

I truly believe that no matter what kind of dog training you're doing, it should always be FUN for both you and your dog. I'm not a fan of "training for trial." Of course, there's a time and a place for that, but it shouldn't be the norm. My schedule doesn't always cooperate, but I'm really trying to make my in-person classes more fun and game driven and offering more "Mock Trials" or "Sniff n' Gos" for students to get that "trial-like" feeling.

But here's the key, no matter how much fun you're having while training, there's ALWAYS something that helps with your trial preparation. Sometimes when I set up a game for class I get, "but why are we doing this?" and then I tell them all of the reasons why that particular game helps with certain aspects of trialing. And as we're going along I find even more examples of how that game helps us to prepare for trial that I didn't even think of before. It's amazing how even the simplest set-ups can do so much to help our dogs and US in trial situations.

Here are a few examples of "games" we've played recently that might help you add some FUN to your training.

Game #1:

Supplies needed:

  • A bunch of ORT boxes. 26 would be great!
  • A black marker
  • Odor (Birch, Anise, Clove or a combination)
  • A LOT of treats. Like, a real lot…
  • Leash (length – handler's choice)

I always try to give credit when I steal a really good idea, so this game came from Michael McManus who got it from someone else who probably got it from someone else. Isn't that how all great ideas are born? I may have changed it up a bit, but basically I place several ORT boxes scattered about and each one has a letter on it. When the dog finds the box with odor the handler doesn't say alert!, but has to say the name of a U.S. City that starts with the letter on the box. The handler has to continuously feed their dog while thinking of a city. I will place three odor boxes out, one has a more difficult letter on it. Quick – yell out the name of a city that starts with Y! How did you do? Due to time constraints I don't always add this rule, but if a dog goes back to the same box, the handler has to feed until they think of a new city. You can add all kinds of other rules and pick different things that have to start with the letters on the boxes.

Why play this game?

  1. It's fun listening to some of the funny city names people come up with.
  2. The dog gets a nice easy search.
  3. The dog has the potential to get heavily rewarded for a nice easy search if the handler can't think of a city.
  4. If you add the rule that you have to think of a new city if your dog goes back to a found hide, handlers are more likely to pay attention to the leash and not let their dogs go back to a hide that was already found.
  5. You're adding handler pressure to a fairly simple search. Okay, maybe you're not thinking of city names in a trial, but your mind is spinning. Did we search here yet? Is my dog sniffing for odor or crittering? Did I just miss a change of behavior? Oh, crap, the leash is tangled. Do I fix it now or should I wait? Maybe I should take my dog off leash – no wait, maybe I should put her on leash. Did they say 30 seconds yet? This is sort of a way to replicate that.
  6. Students get pretty competetive and love getting prizes!

Game #2:

Supplies needed:

  • Clothesline – the more the better!
  • Clear or white straw to place Q-tip in
  • Odor (Birch, Anise, Clove or a combination)
  • Treats

*Safety considerations: Be careful in how you place the clothesline so that a dog or human can't get easily tangled or trip or choke themselves on the line. This game may not be appropriate for some dogs…or people!

I just made this game up on the fly and I have all kinds of ideas to make it more fun. In the past I have used a clothesline and hung items from it in scent work classes to work on high suspended hides. I don't do these kinds of searches too often, but they're always fun around holidays. Last year we hung bats and skeletons and other Halloween creatures from the line and placed odor on one. Over the summer in Handler Discrimination I gave all of my students a pair of "granny panties" to scent up and we hung out our dirty laundry for the dogs to find. So, this week I was thinking I wanted to place the hide right on the clothesline because that is so much more difficult to source than objects dangling. I started with just a straight line and then I said to myself…you can do better than this! I started zig-zagging the clothesline around the room using different elevations. I've learned that I totally need to buy more clothesline the next time we do this!

Why play this game?

  1. The main goal is having our dogs find an odor that's not visible and is suspended, which can be very difficult.
  2. If you have enough clothesline and are able to criss-cross it and make some crazy designs it becomes an independent search game. The handler can't easily move around the room, the dog has to search on his own. Here's the trial prep scenerio: have you ever had one of those theatre searches or room with a hundred tables and you're like – how do I tackle this? If your dog is an independent searcher she will figure it out for you.
  3. Watching the handlers figure out how to get to the dog to reward can be pretty entertaining. Just make sure everyone is safe and you may want to pair that hide…and play limbo music!
  4. For prizes you can do "most creative way handler gets through clothesline to reward dog" or what I did this week was timed from when I saw a change of behavior to when the dog actually sourced it.

Here's Sylvie playing the game:

Game #3:

Supplies needed:

  • Glow sticks. Preferably long enough to go around the dog's neck.
  • Dark, quiet search area
  • Hide vessel (tin is probably best)
  • Odor (Birch, Anise, Clove or a combination)
  • Treats

*Safety considerations: Be careful to walk around the room and look for anything sticking out that a dog or human could injure themselves on. Don't turn the lights off until everyone is ready. Know the temperament of the dogs playing, some dogs can get spooked in the dark or some dogs may try to eat the glow stick! This game may not be appropriate for some dogs…or people!

I think a lot of instructors play this game and it's nothing new, but it sure is FUN! I have played different variations of this over the years and in different spaces: searches in the dark or blindfolded searches! In this example we're playing in the dark with the dog wearing a glow stick. Place your hide in a fairly open, easy to source area. Make sure the handler is ready and is in a safe place to stand still. Turn the light off and have the handler send the dog to search. Turn the light on as soon as the dog is at odor.

Why play this game?

  1. Adults get to play with glow sticks – is there anything more fun?
  2. This is another independent search game. The handler absolutely cannot help the dog, (1) because it's not safe and (2) the handler can't see anything anyway – the dog has to do the work!
  3. By watching the glow stick, you can really see what a dog's body does when sourcing the hide. You can see the dog change directions quickly, bracket, circle, head whip – it just looks really cool when all you see is the "glow" moving.
  4. This game forces us to listen more carefully – what does your dog SOUND like when sourcing a hide? How does the sniffing change? Does the dog sniff louder, faster, longer sniffs…?

I have lots more games planned for my in-person classes over the next few weeks. We have three specialty classes going on right now: Going the Distance, FUN! and Games and Pressure Cooker. I'm expecting these classes will help my students with their trial prep way more than the standard: you-have-3-minutes, the-whole-room-is-in-play, unknown-number-of-hides, good-luck-with-that classes and I'm really excited about that! What scent games do you play with your dog? I'd love to hear all about them!! I think we all need to have a little more FUN, right??

Author: Lori Timberlake, CPDT-KA, CNWI

Lori Timberlake is an Summit-level competitor and instructor who is also an approved AKC Scent Work Judge, NACSW and UKC Nosework Certifying Official, USCSS CSD and Judge and Cyber Scent Work Online Review Official and Evaluator. The owner of Do Over Dog Training, Lori is extremely active in the Scent Work community and Scent Work University is beyond fortunate to her as part of the team!

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