Picture this: you are tasked with a super complicated and challenging project at work. Tackling this project has forced you to use all the skills at your disposal and truly stretch yourself. You may even be a bit worn out once the project is completed, both mentally and physically. It took a lot of out of you! Still, you rose to the occasion and did what was asked of you. Not only that, but you also knocked it out of the park by anyone’s standards, even providing the desired result in record time!
Yet when your boss sees the result of all your efforts, the best they can muster is the most monotone and unenthusiastic, “Good job. Now go do the next one.”
How excited are you to pour yourself into this next project? Are you going to give it your all, running on all cylinders, or will you begin to dread the whole thing, perhaps even daydreaming of getting another job?
Now, think of the same scenario, only this time have your boss genuinely impressed with the work you did. They paid attention throughout your presentation, noted what went well and even took you and your department out for a celebratory dinner afterwards where they announced they were paying you a bonus for a job well done. Afterall, you did what they asked of you and then some, which will benefit the entire company.
I can pretty much guarantee when they ask you to tackle another project, you will be much more likely to do so and with a pep in your step.
The only difference between these two scenarios was how the person who tasked you with the project reacted to your efforts.
Pretty simple concept, right?
Why is it when it comes to doing Scent Work with our dogs, we seem to forget this simple truth and find rewarding them for their efforts so difficult?
WHY SO SERIOUS
I apologize in advance for how flippant this will come across as, but why is everyone so flippin’ serious when it comes to Scent Work?!
We. Are. Playing. A. Game.
Not finding dead bodies. Nor bombs. Nor solving the worlds ills.
We are, at most, finding a novel target odor which bears no value to the running of the world. If every dog on the planet stopped finding Birch tomorrow, the Earth would continue to spin away.
Yet time and time and time again, handlers are doing searches with their dogs carrying with them the most serious demeanor and manner conceivable.
If you don’t think this influences your dog’s performance, you are sorely mistaken.
Our dogs are so in tune with us, of course how we carry ourselves in the search matters!
Not only that, the tendency of "serious handlers" is to be downright stingy with how they reward, even leaving the dog hanging once the search is over.
“I gave them a cookie! What more do you want from me?!”
To mean it. To feel it. To smile and laugh and exude genuine joy and happiness at what your dog just did.
They went into a space with MILLIONS upon MILLIONS of smells competing for their attention, worked their tails off to find a miniscule, little meaningless hide, even choosing to not investigate the interesting doggie text or chase after the critter trail they came across along the way. No, they did exactly what you wanted. They performed a task neither you nor I could ever do.
Stand in awe of them. Allow amazement to wash over you. Then genuinely and enthusiastically reward them for being the awesome little dog they are.
Doing so will only strengthen the relationship you have with your dog and the association they make with the game overall.
“But that is not my personality!”
Then suck it up and whip out that acting hat buttercup. Fake it ‘til you make it.
My natural personality is rather dour. Yet when it comes to working with dogs, I will dial it up to a 10, since I know it will benefit the dog. I would be lying if I didn’t admit there were times it felt incredibly awkward and borderline obnoxious, but the results speak for themselves. My dogs LOVED playing the sniffy game with me. My client’s dogs LOVED coming to class and would seek out their crazy instructor lady’s praise parties. It works.
Better still, my human clients loved getting in on the fun too. They sought out the opportunity to praise their fellow classmates as they watched them search. The group cheering dynamic helped canines and human handlers alike.
LEVERAGE ALL OF YOUR PRAISE
You are the biggest cookie in your dog’s universe. Own this fact and use it to your advantage.
There are countless times throughout a search you can use verbal praise. Obviously, when your dog finds a hide is a great place to start! As you are feeding them their cookie or playing with a toy, sing their praises in a kind and happy tone of voice. Practice on your own if you need to. Get comfortable with what you will say and how you will say it. Ensure you are being clear and not inadvertently muddying the picture. For instance, try to stay away from saying marker words or the dog’s name over and over and over again if that typically means they are supposed to pay attention to you. Instead, find nonsensical words that do not have any other meaning in your dog’s training vocabulary that you can utter to them in a lovely tone of voice. Allow the praise to be pure praise.
You can also use your verbal praise when your dog makes a good decision during a search.
For instance, let’s say that as your dog was in an exterior search working the perimeter they came across a tree with some doggie texts on it. Without any input from you, they briefly investigated this and then moved on to find their hide. What an amazing decision by your dog! Praise them! It doesn’t have to be crazy, but with a genuine and kind tone to saying, “What a good dog” goes a long way, especially if this is something you have been working on! Imagine spending months in training trying to ensure you have a leakage-free exterior search and it paid off with your dog making this correct decision at a trial. PRAISE THEM!
Maybe your dog has struggled in the past with hides in tight spaces. Yet on this occasion they worked their way into that tight alcove to find their hide. Give them a jackpot of 3-5 treats, minimum, one right after another while singing their praises. What a good dog!
Perhaps you are doing an upper-level search in a challenging environment. The search area itself is difficult and the weather is throwing you all kinds of curveballs. Your dog is trying their best, but you can see they are starting to fade. You’re pretty sure there are a few more hides to be found and you think your dog can find at least one more. Why not bring them to a hide they already found and really lay on the praise, perhaps even play some fun tug if that is what they enjoy? Reinvigorate them and then set out to find at least one more hide.
Or maybe you have successfully finished one search and are heading to do another one. Praise and play with your pup on the way. Show them that playing the sniffy game with you is amazing and they get to do another round, WOW! As opposed to, “Go find your hide! It is your job! GO NOW!” See the difference?
The influence we have over our dogs is enormous. How we carry and conduct ourselves throughout a search can mean the difference between a dog who is joyfully tackling a search to one who is merely going through the motions, even dreading it. Practicing genuine praise also helps us as handlers! It is rather challenging to slip into the downward spiral of despair when you are busy telling your dog how awesome they are. Verbal praise also forces us to breathe and doing so while smiling helps alleviate our own stress. Truly, praising is amazing.
Take a good hard look at how you are using praise and rewards right now in your searches. What types of praise and rewards are you using? When are using them? How are you using them? Are there ways you can dial up the value of your praise and rewards?
Our dogs are truly incredible in how they tackle a Scent Work search. Get your praise on to show your appreciation for their efforts!
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 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 and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU 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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