You love Scent Work. You're passionate about it. Your dog loves it, they look forward to their practice sessions and if you compete, they enjoy doing that too.
But is everything really unicorns and rainbows?
Or, are you suffering from a severe form of odor blindness?
Infliction of Odor Blindness
"WHAT IS THAT?! IT SOUNDS SERIOUS!"
Odor blindness is when a handler thinks odor is only defined by a specific target odor. Think Birch, Anise, Clove, Myrrh, Wintergreen, Cyprus and so on.
"...That's because it is."
The first step of the healing process is accepting and coming to terms with your diagnosis, and thus fighting the urge of being in denial. So you making this admission is a good sign.
"Sigh. I don't have time for this..."
Don't despair. The cure to odor blindness is fairly simple. It involves having your dog master the same skills they must hone in Scent Work, without using target odors.
"I swear...here she goes again with the damn pairing!"
No, I think you misunderstood me. I'm talking about doing things completely outside the realm of formal Scent Work. So pairing would not apply.
"I've had it. I think she's completely lost her mind."
Before you storm off, can I ask you one question?
Thank you! If you were to play with your dog's favorite toy and then threw it into the bushes where they roughly knew where it went but not exactly, what skills do you think they would use to find it?
"...Well, they would see where I threw it, so their eyes or ability to see, I guess. Maybe after that, their athletic skills to crawl into the bushes to try to get to it...I'm not really sure what you're getting at here."
Isn't possible that your Scent Work trained dog would use their sense of smell to figure out exactly where the toy was so they could efficiently and effectively work out the problem and not waste valuable calories trying other avenues of attack?
I see. It appears you have a more aggressive form of odor blindness than we originally thought, so we must act quickly. I'm still hopeful for you though. We can get through this together.
Odor is Odor is Odor is Odor
Everything has an odor. Your scented q-tips obviously have odor. Your putty also has odor. Your odor vessels also have odor. You indeed also have an odor about you.
Your dog is constantly receiving information about all the odor in their environment. That nose of theirs is always working overtime.
So, when you toss your dog's toy into the bush it is absolutely possible that they will use their eyes to have an idea of where to start their efforts. However, their nose is not far behind.
The fact of the matter is, you can help your dog fine tune a whole slew of skills used throughout Scent Work completely and entirely outside the realm of Scent Work.
Odor is odor. Being able to work out various odor trails is a skill, regardless of whether your dog is in a formal Scent Work practice session or not.
Have Your Dog Find Stuff
Do set-ups in your house or yard where your dog is finding a toy. Get them jazzed up about the toy ahead of time, playing tug or fetch. Then put them in a wait, hide the toy and tell them to go find it. I personally would use a different cue word than what I use in Scent Work practice sessions, just to make it super clear to the dog that I didn't also place a target odor out in the space.
Resist the urge to help or move in. Follow all the same handling approaches you would in a formal Scent Work run - giving your dog space, avoid talking or guiding too much, etc. -and push it even a step further. Do something else entirely as your dog is searching. It's a good time to wash the dishes or catch up on your emails. Just let your dog work it out.
When they do find the toy, make a big deal of it. Celebrate with them. Play with them. Tell them how great they are.
"WAIT..what about distractors when I'm competing?! This is going to ruin everything!"
Do you have the ability to turn your dog's nose off?
Last time I checked, you cannot remove your dog's nose from their face. It doesn't come with an on and off switch. And I am not aware of anyone who has their dog so ridiculously managed and trained that they know every single molecule their dog is sniffing in any given moment of any given day.
Your dog is using their nose all day, everyday, millions of times a day. To search for crumbs after you eat. To investigate where critters or bugs may have been in your yard. And yes, to find their toys. Formally tapping into this fact to design structured searching sessions where your dog is finding a toy that is placed near a corner, or where the toy is placed in an area where the odor will pool away from the toy itself or in a location where your dog's confidence will be stretched are all huge learning opportunities you should pounce on.
The old adage practice makes perfect is indeed true. Allow your dog to hone their sniffing prowess in as many different ways as possible. Doing so will translate to their improved ability to solve those target odor puzzles you pose in Scent Work.
We now have a good treatment plan for your odor blindness and I would say your prognosis is good and quite promising.
Author: Dianna L. Santos, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, CNWI
Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U, Dog Sport University and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU, DSU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.
In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!
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