No Ribbon is Worth Ruining a Dog
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
Nothing like starting a blog post with a bang...
There is no denying Scent Work is exploding in popularity, which in and of itself is a wonderful thing. More dogs sniffing, fantastic!
Scent Work is an activity that is open to ALL dogs and carries with it real benefits trainers, instructors, competitors and dog owners worldwide are beginning to truly grasp and recognize.
However, I fear that for some dogs, the quest to shift from the beneficial and fun activity of playing the Game of Scent Work to competing in the Sport of Scent Work could very well spell their doom.
Competition is NOT for All Dogs
I say it ad nauseam, but the fact remains: the GAME of Scent Work is something every single dog with a functioning nose should do. The SPORT of Scent Work is probably NOT a good fit for that entire population.
Asking certain dogs to compete would be the equivalent of pushing a square peg into a round hole. It simply doesn't work.
"Fine Ms. Debby Downer, which dogs shouldn't compete then?"
Dogs who are aggressive: There should be absolutely no wiggle room on this. If your dog's first reaction to another dog OR person is to use their teeth, the have NO place at a trial. Full stop.
Dogs who are highly reactive to people: The likelihood your dog will make a tragic mistake is just too high. Between the judge, timer, score sheet runner, gate steward and one or more volunteers, all of which will be inside the search area as your dog is running, there are too many possibilities your dog will tag someone.
Dogs who suffer from significant "stranger danger": Trials are a stranger factory on steroids! What a terrifying situation to force your dog into. Again, WAY too many opportunities for them to make a tragic mistake.
Dogs who suffer from significant environmental sensitivities: If your dog needs a Thundercoat whenever they are outside the house to prevent them from completely falling apart, trialing is not what they need. Instead, these dogs desperately need a place where they feel safe. Not a terrifyingly bustling place that is essentially a pressure-cooker of stress and angst.
No Ribbon Can Adequately Represent Your Rehabilitation Success
Working with a dog who has a serious behavioral issue is trying and draining emotionally, not to mention time-consuming and expensive. Certainly not for the faint of heart and I tip my hat to anyone who is currently in this camp.
One of the things that owners of behaviorally challenged dogs want more than anything is a semblance of normalcy. That in some respect, their dog is not the odd one out. No, in some way, they ARE like other dogs.
This entirely understandable desire is usually the starting point for festering issues when we are talking about Scent Work.
Let's walk through a scenario: a dog and owner team have partnered with a Scent Work instructor. They've completed a few private sessions to ensure the dog has the foundation understanding of the Game and the instructor has ascertained they can safely incorporate the dog into a group training class. Everything is done with care, with special attention paid to safety, being certain not to ostracize anyone. Weeks turn to months and the team is doing well. Their classmates are patient, accepting and supportive of them. The dog is benefiting from the activity and the proactive and deliberate approach taken to ensure they are, indeed, successful.
Then it happens: some of those very same supportive classmates begin to compete with their own dogs.
Now the pressure is on. Not by any outside force, but from the dog owner themselves. They MUST prove that THEIR dog can compete as well. This is the new metric to show that their training worked, that all those nights of crying themselves to sleep, was not for nothing.
"Well, some organizations are open to reactive dogs. They know what accommodations to make. What's the issue?"
There are many.
The main being a practical one: training and trialing are two completely different things.
In training, this dog has been set-up to succeed at every turn. What does that mean though? Perhaps arranging how dogs are crated or moved from Point A to Point B to avoid setting this dog off. It could be where the instructor is certain to position themselves within the space in such a way as to prevent triggering the dog, maybe even being behind a barrier or outside the search area entirely while the dog is searching. Another likely factor is the other human students, who will be encouraged to be mindful of how they conduct themselves while this dog is working (avoiding direct eye contact, standing sideways, breathing, refraining from cheering or making too much noise, etc.).
At a trial, no matter which organization you compete in, these accommodations will not, and cannot, be made.
"But the red bandannas..."
Are there to tell people WITH DOGS to give your dog space. Not that your dog needs 20', 30', 40' of space from other people. Or that people cannot close their car door as your dog walks by. Or that the judge and timer cannot be within the search area as your dog is searching. Or that there cannot be spectators and if there are, they have to look away or turn around completely. Or that the photographer and videographer cannot stare down your dog with their non-blinking eyeball from hell, otherwise known as a camera. Yet time and time again, the very same owners who have done everything to help their dog in their rehabilitation efforts, oftentimes rearranging their everyday lives, will run headfirst into trialing with their dogs, all with a false sense of security. Worst still, these very same dog owners will stick with it since the ribbons and titles are some sort of affirmation that their dog has "made it", that they are now finally that much closer to being "normal".
I mean this with every fiber of my being: no ribbon or title will ever encapsulate your rehabilitation success.
In a cruel twist of reality, that very same ribbon or title you do earn could instead represent a complete and utter failure. A failure to accept your training accomplishments for what they were: amazing! Instead, you have a reminder of how you thrust your dog into a situation where they were almost certain to fail. If not today, then tomorrow. No accolade, ribbon or title is worth that.
Create Your Own Metrics
I speak from experience, sadly.
My Zeus had a hodgepodge of letters before and after his name. Not a one was assigned by a recognized competition organization. They were all created by me. For instance, he earned his LG, or loaded gun designation for his homicidal stance toward other dogs and less than stellar approach toward other people. Not really something you want to celebrate, but he was certainly good at it, so there's that... However, he held accolades outside of his behavior challenges. Rather he had designations for this behavioral successes.
For a dog with so many challenges, Zeus was a clicker savant (CLK-CH), able to learn amazing behaviors through shaping, such as marching in place (MDD - Marching Doberman Dog) and flicking his ears (FHE), all while making it appear as though his handler knew what she was doing (MMLG - Making Mama Look Good). He was a master at noming his stuffies (ST-NOM) and showed incredible restraint when he was on-leash in our yard dealing with the neighborhood suicidal squirrel and bunny squad (TRNBACK).
His Look At That Game! was phenomenal (LTT) and his chin target with that giant head of his was one in a million (CHIN).
There are so many more, but even with this selective sampling, Zeus was otherwise known as CLK-CH Zeus, LG MMLG MDD FHE ST-NOM CHIN TRNBACK LTT.
Pretty impressive if you ask me.
I am deeply proud of all those accolades...well, expect the LG one....but all the others exemplified our bond, relationship and connection. What we accomplished against such incredible odds. How brilliant and resilient he was, even though he was so tormented behaviorally.
Yet, I decided none of that was enough. I wanted to add an ORT designation to it.
So, we competed in an ORT. Passed all three odors in a single day. We rocked it.
If you looked at our times and score sheet, and the fact he kept himself under wraps during that entire trial, you would think we would have a bright future at Scent Work trials.
True, he didn't kill anyone that day. By pure, dumb luck.
That one ORT unraveled years of work and set Zeus back in our behavioral training for months. He suffered from the effects of stress-stacking for weeks afterwards. Triggers we had eliminated years before were back with a vengeance. He was tormented. My sweet, lovable. brilliant boy who depended on me to organize his life so it was safe and secure and predictable, was tortured once again and it was all my fault. I didn't put enough weight in what we HAD accomplished and instead thought getting some outside title would be the proof we needed, to show the world, "Look, we made it!"
Don't repeat my mistake. Trust me, it is not worth it.
Keep Playing the Game
I still harbor a lot of anger toward myself for what I did to Zeus. However, there was a silver lining: I kept playing his favorite sniffing game at home AND it helped him. When he was so over the top that we could only be in the backyard long enough to him go potty before running back inside, Scent Work saved him.
When a person walking down the street would put him on full alert, Scent Work saved him.
When a dog barking blocks away would cause him to glass over, Scent Work saved him. It took a few weeks, but thanks to Scent Work, my boy had a quality of life that was acceptable once again. Searching for hides, for fun, at home, where he was safe, allowed him to recover and get back to where we had been before my terrible decision to enter that ORT.
A bit more time and we rejoined our special group training class where Zeus was staged inside "Zeus' closet", a closet that housed his crate. This safe space was one of Zeus' favorite spots. After finishing a search, he would drag me to his crate, rush in, turn around as fast as he could and then slam that giant head of his on the top of his crate. We'll add Adorable Trick Doberman Dog to the list, or ATDD.
At no time did I even consider taking Scent Work away from him. It had given him so much! It provided him with an outlet and the ability to have a life worth living. Even as his health failed in the weeks and days leading up to his death, the one thing we did all the time was Scent Work.
So, if you are feeling in your gut that your dog would not do well at a trial, please play the game with them at home. Celebrate your successes with those games that you play! Video your searches and post them on social media. Get your dog a variety of different toys they can "win" depending on how they master a given skill. Document where you started and just how far you've come. I'd bet you would be surprised. And no ribbon, title or accolade can ever fully encapsulate all of that.
The Game of Scent Work is everything.
Ribbons and titles...not so much.
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, 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 PDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU, DSU 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!