Being a Sniffing Sleuth

Aug 13, 2022

As handlers and trainers, we should strive to provide clarity to our dogs of what is expected of them or how they can be successful when playing Scent Work. This requires that we be critical of what we are asking of our dogs and what the results of those requests are.

“WHY?! They just need to go find the hide!”

But does your dog know what that really means?

Let me give you an example. You are practicing Scent Work with some friends in preparation for a trial. One of the searches that you have set-up is a container search. There is one hide among the 10 or so containers. A few of your friends tackle the search first without incident. Then it is your dog’s turn. Instead of hitting on the hide, they hit on another, entirely different container. They false alerted right before a trial! OH NO!

What does this have to do with being a sniffing sleuth?

Well, we need to figure out WHY your dog false alerted.

Taking a step back and realizing that our dogs are GUESSING what the game is all about is essential. We are basically playing a giant game of charades with them, with our reward timing and placement communicating to the dog when they are correct. But we are ALSO guessing what the dog thinks they are being rewarded for!

Can you say recipe for disaster?!

Really owning this disconnect and how EASY it can be for our intentions and what the dog PERCEIVES to diverge will help you immensely when you are training in Scent Work.

View the search through the dog’s eyes. Think back on how you have designed your practice sessions previously. What was the dog doing when you rewarded them? How consistently did you reward that? Could they think the game is about something ENTIRELY different than simply finding their hide?

You would be surprised.

Our dogs are incredible at picking up on minute details, contextualizing that picture and assuming THAT is what we wanted. However, we oftentimes are discounting those details, instead taking in the larger picture. Thus, it is our job as handlers and trainers to decipher whether that picture is accurate or not. If it isn’t, we need to provide more clarity.

Why does any of this matter?

It helps ensure we are being fair to our dogs. They are incredible and amazing creatures but are not infallible, machines, nor are they conniving or spiteful.

Our dogs WANT to play the game correctly! They WANT to earn their cookies and rewards. But they are attempting to do some incredibly challenging problem-solving when it comes to sorting out odor puzzles, which by the way, you and I haven’t a hope or a prayer of doing, ON TOP OF trying to figure out what the strange two-legged being wants of them in the first place…it is a tall order.

The least we can do is provide some clarity on our end.

Avoid making assumptions. Take a breath and analyze the WHOLE situation. What is the dog doing in this exact moment that I am rewarding? What could THEY be perceiving as the entire point of the game? What do THEY think they are being rewarded for? Is it simply about odor or is it something else? Is it about odor at all?! What proofing have I done? What steps have I taken to make this game clearer to the dog? Do I know what the rules of the game are?! Or am I simply rushing ahead, lumping a million things together, confusing everything hopelessly for myself and my dog? If it is the latter, you are not alone. This is a common pitfall for many handlers and trainers to fall into.

Essentially, you want to be fair to your dog and to yourself. There are BOUND to be miscommunications between the two of you. They. Are. A. Different. Species. They also possess the superpower of perceiving and interacting with odor, which we cannot do. However, they desperately WANT to understand what we want of them. And we desperately want them to be right!

Thus, take the initiative to look critically at your training sessions, parse out all the pieces, review your videos and truly SEE what is going on. The whole while, recognizing how hard your dog is TRYING.

A sniffing sleuth will embrace building their own skills as a handler and trainer, learn as much as is possible about odor and odor theory, will identify training objectives, design thoughtful practice sessions and truly appreciate their dogs are giving it their all.

Our upcoming webinar series discussing the causes and potential cures for false alerts in the various search elements may help.

Cause and Cure of False Alerts: Container Searches Webinar

Cause and Cure of False Alerts: Interior Searches Webinar

Cause and Cure of False Alerts: Exterior Searches Webinar

Cause and Cure of False Alerts: Vehicle Searches Webinar




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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