Updated: Aug 14
Self-doubt and self-loathing can steal away any joy you would otherwise enjoy in Scent Work. It's crucially important to fight against these urges and focus on what is actually important: having fun with your dog.
My first true passion was horses. I was absolutely obsessed with them. Had a dresser filled with Breyer model horses as a child, subscribed to every horse riding magazine I could, re-watched Black Stallion and Black Beauty VHS tapes until they broke. I was determined to make my life focus entirely on horses, some way, some how. My family was not well-off, so it wasn't until I was 12 before I had my first ever riding lesson. A natural clutz with a ton of physical issues, I was far from a pretty rider. But, I worked hard and wanted with every fiber of my being to be better. Enrolled in summer camps, took regular lessons, and listened to my instructor's every word...even when they weren't talking to me. This oftentimes got me into more trouble than it was worth, as I would change my position based off of advice given to another student when my position was actually okay. Looking back, I'm fairly certain I drove my instructors to drink.
A few years later, my family moved to a new state and I was promptly reminded at the new riding facility that I was nowhere near where I should have been skills-wise. It was a huge hit to my already non-existent ego and self-confidence. Every time I climbed into the saddle, it was torture. It is not that the instructor was mean or unkind, they were simply...disappointed. Slowly but surely, I found myself riding less to avoid being reminded of how bad I was. Instead, I worked and toiled in the barn, where I could still be around the horses and manage the barn as a whole, but didn't have to face the fact that I was a "bad rider".
A few years into this, a new person joined the team as a co-manager of the barn and riding director for the facility, and she was a brilliant rider at that. There were several young horses who for years had gone without much of any formal training, and now she was there to bring them up to speed. However, she would need help. She was only one person and she saw that while I was far from perfect, I did have a ton of knowledge and would be able to do well if I merely had some guidance and opportunity to practice. She recognized the potential was there, but it needed to be cultivated. She tried everything to get me to ride more. I helped her out a few times and the young horses did do well, but as soon as the owner would come by and sigh the way she did, I would go back to "I cannot ride because I need to X, Y or Z instead"-mode.
The riding director finally took me aside and said something to the effect of, "You're killing yourself doing the work of 4 people to try to convince me you do not have time to ride. You can ride. I've seen it. Hand off a few of these tasks to the employees, who all leave early because you're doing their work for them, and come ride with me." I'll never forget the expression on her face when I told her I couldn't. It was obvious I was never meant to ride.
Fast forward some more and I was now at a new facility with another jaw-dropping incredible rider and instructor. My role was simple: manage the barn. However, this woman was a sight to behold. Truly, trained by some of the greats herself, she was beauty personified in the saddle. As before, this woman recognized that I was good with the horses and she wanted me to also ride. She assigned me one of her own personal stallions. She would give me short 30-minute lessons. It was wonderful. She was patient. She was kind. She was understanding. She pointed out when I was improving. All was going well, until I decided to ride him on my own when no one was at the facility, not smart from a safety perspective. Long story short, I clenched my knees as I would oftentimes do when I got flustered, thus cuing the horse to go faster, and faster, and faster until I fell off and broke my wrist. Not the horse's fault at all. Completely my own. The next day at work, I reported what happened, just relieved the horse was okay. This amazing rider who I had so much respect for turned to me and said, "Well, not everyone is cracked up to ride. Maybe you should take up tennis", and walked away.
While I did end up riding off-and-on for a few more years after that, even after buying my first and only horse, taking lessons with other instructors and so on, it was never something I did regularly. Always hearing in the back of my head, "Maybe you should take up tennis."
How This Ties Into Scent Work
I loved being with horses. Again, it was my passion, my career, my life. It then became corrupted with self-doubt and even self-loathing. My body broke down to the point I could no longer even work at the barns and I left horses altogether. As of the writing of this blog post, I have not seen a horse in-person in over 5 years. For all intents and purposes, my passion became something I dreaded.
As if that were not enough, that one quote, "Maybe you should take up tennis", has stuck with me the entirety of my life and has reared it's ugly head more times than I care to admit.
Now in my role as a professional dog trainer, trial official and Scent Work competitor, it is still there. Anytime something doesn't go perfectly, in the back of my mind that voice jeers at me saying, "See, you can't do this either."
It is nonsensical. It is silly. It isn't true. But, the feeling is still there and the feeling is very real.
I'm sharing all of this because I have seen my own students and colleagues struggle with similar self-doubt. It is painful to see them at a crossroads of whether they want to subject themselves to that very real pain, or give it all up. In their mind, it may simply not be worth it.
I am here to tell you that giving up is not the better path. I've done that it doesn't make the self-doubt go away. It actually feeds into it and makes it worse. Almost as though you are proving the underlying premise of, "You're terrible at this" to be true.
I'm also here to tell you that contrary to what you may believe, you do not have to be the hands-down best handler the world has ever seen to play Scent Work with your dog.
Always strive to be better. Always see where you can improve and do so. But do not think for one minute that if you are not perfect you cannot do this. That is simply not true.
Are there handlers out there who are awe-inspiring to watch? Of course.
Am I one of those people? Not in the slightest.
Does that mean I do not have any worth as an instructor, trial official, competitor or human being? No.
Having been down this road before, and STILL coping with these struggles regularly, I want nothing more than to tell everyone that your journey is your own. As long as you are trying your best and you and your dog are having fun, that is truly all that matters. I'm not discounting the importance of training or criteria, what I am saying is that perspective is crucially important. Please trust me when I say having proper perspective is really hard. It is so easy to slip into old habits and say, "Well, guess I'm not cracked up to do this EITHER", but that is just not true.
We are not robots. Our dogs are not robots. Even if we were, robots get corrupted as well. Their code suddenly has a hiccup. They also make mistakes. Nothing anywhere in this world is perfect, there is no such thing. So please don't twist yourself into knots trying to achieve the impossible. Again, striving to be better is a good thing. Striving to be perfect is something entirely different and will only prove to remove all of the joy from what it is that you are doing.
Listen With Care
Similar to what I talked about in the Rainproof Your Parade blog post, listen to what people are saying with care. There may very well be some people who are toxic and even mean-spirited, but most are not trying to hurt you or derail you. Listening with care is crucially important.
For example, at my last Scent Work trial, I was coming back after a year of not competing. I was being careful to set realistic expectations, to breathe and try to stay focused on having fun with my boy. On the very same weekend there were a ton of technical glitches going on with my business site, which meant an incredible amount of stress. I knew going in that I was not in the best head space, so I was going to try to do everything I could to keep myself calm and focused.
On the first day we went 1 for 4, with my dog actually going 3 for 4, in that I was simply not calling the hides he had found. While not ideal by any stretch, I wasn't distraught at that point. My dog had done amazingly well and I knew I needed to get out of my own way, and out of my own head, going into Day 2.
The second day he nailed his first search and I did my part too. Great! As we were heading back to our crating area playing high nose touches and having a grand ole time, I noticed that my area was looking sunnier than it had before...then it dawned on me that my EZ-Up had blown over in the wind and my parking lot neighbors were trying desperately to get it out of nearby tree. I was mortified.
Needless to say the rush to try to fix all of this was more than slightly stressful and incredibly embarrassing. Upgrade from 5lb EZ-Up leg weights to 10lb ones for now on apparently.
Here's the problem: all of this is happening immediately before my next, and final, set of searches.
No sooner had I collected everything and try to take a breath, it was our turn to go. Luckily, I had some time in the first staging area to try to get myself together. My dog was completely fine, but I was a wreck.
We were called up, and then had to wait as there was a question about another score sheet. Not a problem at all, except now I don't know if I should go back to the staging area, should I stand here, what should I do, am I going to make them upset...you can see where this is going.
It wasn't long before the Judge motioned us over, met me with a smile and gave a very pleasant and brief rundown of the search. I took another breath and released my boy to begin his Exterior search. He immediately went to the first hide. I called "Alert" and received a coveted "Yes". So far so good.
He then went and alerted on a ground hide.
In my mind I was saying, "What a good boy, all of that work on ground hides has really paid off! He's done such a good job! ... Wait, we haven't checked the rest of the area...there is only one more hide, so if I call "Alert" here and it isn't the hide, then that is my fault for not checking the rest of the area...what will people think...we only got 1 out of 4 hides yesterday and that was MY fault..."
He then slightly pawed the hide.
I KNOW the hide is here. I KNOW my dog is alerting. Yet, I am not calling it. Why?
Because of what other people may think if it turns out that I am wrong.
"Maybe you should just play tennis."
Instead of trusting my dog, I wait for him to walk away from the hide and then we investigated the rest of the area. He left the distractor alone, which also happened to be his favorite type of toy (a Lambchop stuffy), so I was over-the-moon proud of him. What a good boy! He sniffed everything in this area, as if to try to prove to me that nothing was there. He then went back-to-the-ground-hide.
This painful back-and-forth went on for the full 3 minutes allotted for this search. 3 whole minutes of me not listening my dog and being stuck in my own head.
With time running out, the Judge, being kind, said, "I'm not sure why he didn't tell you about that hide" and before I could say anything, the volunteer said, "He did! He pawed at it!"
Translation: "Maybe you should take up tennis."
I reward him at the hide he had found twenty times over, apologized to him for being so being stupid and headed to our second search. I blew this one too, correctly calling the first hide, worrying about incorrectly calling the second and not trusting my dog when he found it.
Once again, I rewarded him at the correct hide, thanked the Judge, packed up our stuff and went home.
The whole ride home I was seriously thinking, "I need to give this all up."
After all, even the volunteer pointed out that I am a terrible at this and should never do it again!
Here's the thing: they never said that. All they said was what they saw, what my dog had done, that he had pawed at the hide. I was then taking that statement as proof of how I needed to quit Scent Work, and maybe dog training, altogether.
It took a few days, but I was able to come back around, to forgive myself and to reevaluate why I am doing all of this in the first place.
It's to have fun with my dog. That's it. And I have to tell you, he had a great time that day. He loves to play the game and he loves to be with me. He has no concept of titles or ribbons or q's. It is the opportunity for us to be together that matters to him.
The Point Is...
If you and your dog love playing this game, then please continue to do so.
Be kind and patient with yourself. Grant yourself a short period of time to be sad when things do not go well, because even supposed "amazing" handlers and trainers have off-days.
However, if you find yourself wallowing for too long in self-doubt or self-loathing, try to take a step back and re-evaluate. Doing so will be difficult, I am not going to lie. If you've struggled with this sort thing as long as I have, it is going to be really hard to turn it around. But I'm also here to tell you it is possible.
I don't think you need to take up tennis. I think you and your dog are going to do just fine in Scent Work. Stick with it. Have fun with it. You'll be glad you did.
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 Family Dog University, 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 FDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of FDU, DSU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.