Celebrate the Dog You Have

Updated: Sep 2

A heartbreaking trend I've encountered throughout my professional dog training career is dog owners desperately wanting their dogs to be something they are not. The older dog to be spry again. The shy dog to be without any self-preservation. The reserved dog to suddenly go head-first into any given situation without a care. The careful and methodical dog to turn into a Tasmanian devil of activity. This is a surefire way to remove all the joy from any activity you are doing with your dog, especially Scent Work.

Build Skills, Not a New Dog 

​I'm the first one to say that training can, and should, be used to help dogs develop new skills. However, this is entirely different from building a new dog.

Our dogs are not computers where we can simply swap out motherboards or RAM and suddenly get an upgraded version. That is not how it works!

Yet, I've had plenty of clients over the years who want their geriatric and arthritic dogs to clear a large exterior search area in less then 1-minute flat in the middle of summer. Basically, they want their dog to be something they are not. It has nothing to do with the dog's sniffing prowess or talent. They are amazing hunters! They are simply not as fast as some dogs half their age.

These situations in particular kill me, because the time these people are wasting in vain trying to make their canine friend search faster and faster could be used to better appreciate the limited time they have left with their dog. Instead, they are frustrated that they are consistently placing 5th or 6th place at trial. No matter that their dog worked their heart and body out and DID earn 5th or 6th place out of at least 25 dogs, if not many more. It was still a failure in their eyes. If that is not heartbreaking, I don't know what is.

Now, I'm not saying that you shouldn't want to consistently improve the skills of both yourself and your dog, of course you should. But a healthy dose of reality helps too.

Real Talk

Part of the rush for people to morph their dogs into something they are not is the desire to trial and acquire those coveted titles and ribbons.

Let me breakdown for you why this is problematic with an example:

A young reserved and shy dog has been training in Scent Work for a year, the focus being on building their overall confidence and independent hunting. The training is not designed to try to change who the dog is. Rather the goal is to show the dog, 1. their person will always keep them safe, 2. they ​CAN do these exercises, and 3. they will be heavily rewarded for doing so. Crucially, the training program has been designed to set the dog up to succeed, not to over face them, and to give the handler the tools to step in to help their dog if needed. 

Over the course of that year, this dog who was quite literally worried about everything is now going on short field trips with their person and successfully completing small searches. A success story by all accounts! That is until the person starts talking with other Scent Work friends. They wonder why they are not trialing yet. Training for a full year...what is taking so long?! The dog just has to go out there and work! The trainer is clearly holding them back or something.

Are those friends wrong? In my opinion, yes.

Am I saying this dog is barred from ever trialing? No, of course not. But, instead of jumping all over this owner for taking their time, these friends should be recognizing and celebrating the owner's restraint! The honoring of what their personal dog needs.

The dog in this example needed time, patience and understanding. There is also a likelihood they will never be ready to trial without shutting down or falling apart, which would remove trialing from the table of options. And here's the thing: THAT-IS-OKAY. Trialing is not the end-all-and-be-all of Scent Work. That may sound controversial, but it is the truth. Trialing is only a part of the picture, and an optional one at that.