What Makes a Stellar Scent Work Team?

Oct 30, 2021

What is the secret to crafting a Stellar Scent Work team? Is it owning a certain breed of dog? Following someone's system to the letter? Practicing for hours a day? Trialing every weekend? I don't think it should be so difficult. This is what I think the secret formula is: A dog that loves to play the game + a handler that can make that happen. Sounds pretty easy, right?

It should be! Scent Work should be easy. Scent Work should be FUN! And while I'll admit I'm a highly competitive person and really need to work on not putting MYSELF down so much when I'm trialing, my first priority is making sure my dog is having fun and loving the game…and she does. Like, she really does! And that's why we are successful.
So, how do we create a dog that loves the game?

High Value Rewards and Lots of Them

Whether you're pairing odor with food or feeding at source once your dog finds the hide, you have to be generous with your rewards! I am amazed when I start an Intro class and I talk about bringing high value rewards and being ready to dole out ten or more pieces each and every time the dog finds the hide and everyone comes in with kibble…and gives their dog one measly piece of kibble…and wonders why their dog doesn't love this game and they're not getting it. And then when I bring out my treats and step in to do the rewarding, oh, wow, they DO like this game! Rewarding at source has to be an EVENT for your dog. Dogs already love to hunt, but hunting for a certain odor and then communicating to you that they've found that odor – they have to have a reason to do that! The HUNT is more important than the FIND – we need to turn that around.

This reminds me of an article I wrote years ago comparing the SEEKING circuit to my thoughts on shopping. If you don't know what the SEEKING circuit is, Google "Jaak Panskepp SEEKING circuit" to learn more about this fascinating subject. To totally simplify Panskepp's SEEKING circuit, he basically found that the hunt is more pleasurable than the final outcome. This is my analogy: I hate clothes shopping and grocery shopping and gift shopping in general, but I do enjoy being in a new town and checking out the local shops and seeing what they have to offer. I can look at every item in the store, pick it up, turn it in my hands, think about what I would do with that item if I brought it home…and then put it back down and move on. I rarely purchase anything in those stores, but I enjoy the HUNT. Something has to be super special and perfect and have meaning to me in order for me to actually make that purchase. I feel like this analogy is perfect for dogs doing Scent Work. They have this whole search area with lots of different smells and things to investigate. Why would it be important for them to tell us they found birch unless we make it important? Rewarding at source when your dog finds odor has to be an EVENT…and not just when they're in the learning stages.

Good Timing – Let Them Know They're Right!

Good timing is EVERYTHING in quality dog training. Knowing when to reward, when to hold off – this is such an important skill. There's nothing worse than watching a team search, the dog finds it…but either the handler isn't reading it or the handler is waiting for some final response or the handler is taking waaaayyyyy too long to pull the Ziploc back out of the plastic container that's in a zipped compartment out to reward the dog. And I look at the dog and I feel like I can see an actual question mark over his head. And they have a look of confusion in their eyes. They're almost saying, am I wrong? Should I go do something else? What do I do? A good handler has to know when to get in early and when to hold off a bit. This is a skill that takes practice. For example, if your dog is brand new to working high hides – GET IN THERE AND REWARD AT THE FIRST INSTANCE OF LOOKING UP. Once your dog is a bit more experienced, of course, watch your dog, wait, how does he communicate he's found something high? This is a process and it takes time.

Let the Dog Lead

This should be common sense when it comes to Scent Work, but I see so many handlers directing their dogs check here, check here, check it again, did you check this? If there's something there AND your dog has a history for being rewarded generously at source AND they've seen that odor puzzle before, they're going to stop and tell you they've found something. They will! But only if all three of those parameters are met. If your dog finds herself in an odor puzzle she has never seen before, then it's not so simple.
And this is where I'm personally struggling in my training. I've always let my dog lead, I've always rewarded generously when my dog finds something, I 'think' I have pretty good timing, but I don't often put thought in my training. When it comes to training with my dog, it's always rushed. Hey, I have a free half hour today, let's throw some hides out and see what happens. My dog has fun, but is she learning anything? To compensate, I've been trialing her on-leash lately to make sure we've covered an area before she moves on. We're doing well. We kicked butt at the last two trials we entered…but I'm feeling very guilty about this. Is she having fun? Yeah, I think so, but she could be having more fun. When I watch the videos they don't look fluid to me. It looks like I'm doing more of the work and it shouldn't be that way – she has the nose! I'm not letting her lead. That's why we need to work on the next step. My goal is to have her working off leash again this fall and still doing as well as we have been on leash. We have goals to be a Stellar Team, but we're not there yet!

Thoughtful Hide Placements and Training Set-Ups

If you want to be a stellar team you can't just throw hides out in a search area and see what happens. You can and certainly should do that for fun sometimes, but if you really want to move up the levels and show your dog every scent picture you can think of, some thought needs to be put into your hide placement. Are you working high hides, ground hides, inaccessible, converging odor, thresholds, corners, indoors, outdoors, in heat, cold, wind, rain, etc.? Are you setting hides for the level your dog is at? Are you videoing your search and watching back and learning from it? Do you know what your dog looks like sourcing a high hide as opposed to just jumping up on a wall? Do you know what your dog looks like sourcing an inaccessible hide on a vehicle as opposed to an accessible hide on the other side? If your dog hasn't seen many, many scent pictures and learned how to solve those puzzles…you could luck out and title, but that doesn't make you a Stellar Team.

Do you have an ingredient to add to this recipe? Is there something special that makes your team a Stellar Scent Work Team? I would love to hear others thoughts and ideas as I continue my journey to be a better handler for my dog, a better instructor to my students and a better official for competitors.

Happy Sniffing!!

Author: Lori Timberlake, CPDT-KA, CNWI

Lori Timberlake is an Summit-level competitor and Certified Nose Work instructor (CNWI) who is also an approved AKC Scent Work Judge, UKC Nosework Certifying Official and USCSS CSD and Judge. 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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