Updated: Aug 14, 2020
One the common themes I noticed teaching in-person group dog training classes was how hard it was for handlers to allow their dogs the time necessary to learn. As in give them time to truly work out a given problem.
This pattern was not solely relegated to Scent Work, it was something I noticed across the board. Handlers rushing in either to help the dog or, worst still, getting horrendously frustrated with the dog for not coming up with the answer sooner. Both approaches are detrimental to all aspects of dog training, but can be devastating when we are talking about Scent Work.
Learning Takes Time
I know this sounds obvious but is SUPER common for people to forget this simple truth when they are working with their dogs.
As humans, we are so focused on the end result that we don't realize how much time it may take for our dogs to figure out the answer to a given question. An answer, by the way, we already know.
Let me give you a human example to help illustrate what I mean: you are playing charades with a group of friends. You are miming something to them. You know the answer. They do not. How frustrating is it to you when their guesses are no where near where they need to be? What do people usually do in this situation? They mime with more force, increasingly exaggerating their movements and clearly looking flustered and annoyed. They will clench their jaws, eyes held wide, when they are not rolling into their back of their head out of frustration, all the while clearly illustrating how stupid they think their friends must be for not figuring this out. Not a whole lot of fun for anyone involved yet people still do this sort thing. It is understood that the game has some stress baked into it and there are no long-held hard feelings...most of the time.
What is the root cause of all this angst? The person miming knows the answer and thinks what they are doing is super clear (it is to them) while their teammates do NOT know the answer and the erratic motions of the person miming are making absolutely no sense to them whatsoever. You then add in the time crunch of, "your turn is almost over" and the social pressure of points and so on and you have yourself a pressure cooker of failure waiting to explode.
"Sigh. Santos, what on earth does this have to do with Scent Work?"
When we are designing training exercises for our dogs, such as an opportunity to introduce them to a particular type of odor problem, the same types of issues are there: we know the answer, how we are presenting the solution to the problem makes perfect sense to us, we will put an arbitrary time limit onto our dogs to get the answer and we will get stressed and flummoxed when the dog doesn't figure it out, all the while putting undue pressure on the dog.
Yeah, not good.
Luckily, there is a solution to this.
The first is to recognize that learning does indeed take time. However, this is not some universal thing. You cannot say, "It will take all dogs 3 minutes to sort out what a corner hide odor problem looks like and how to solve it." That is absurd. Learning is an individual experience, affected by the dogs own training background, their innate strengths and weaknesses as well as how that particular exercise was set-up and so on.
"But how do I know if I am giving my dog enough time?"
That leads us to second part of the solution. Just breathe.
When you are training your dog, simply breathe and give them as much time as they need to work out the problem. It could be a 30 seconds it could be 15 minutes, but as long as they are working and not stressing out or shutting down, let-them-work-it-out. Training is basically learning opportunities. The more you can take a step back and grant the dog the time and space to get to the solution, the better it is.