Updated: Aug 14, 2020
Nothing like starting off a blog post with a bang…
Alright, once again it is time for some real-talk. The sniffing game is just that, a game. No matter how many titles or accolades you earn, you are still playing a game with your dog and creating memories. We're not finding dead bodies or bombs at Scent Work trials. We are not certifying our dogs to join a FEMA or SAR team. We are having fun with our dogs and testing our training. This is a simple truth, and I think (and hope) we can all agree on that.
This next bit can be harder for people to admit: dogs who simply play the game with their people, and never ever compete, may actually be the better epitome of what Scent Work is all about. "For the love of…Santos, what are you talking about now?!"
Let me give you a case study to help flesh this thought out. A couple has been working with their challenging pitbull-type mix for a number of years. This dog has a serious history of dog-reactivity and stranger-danger issues. The couple has done all the management-approaches they need to in order to keep the dog safe and to prevent the dog from making mistakes. They have partnered with a trainer to implement a behavior modification program to increase the dog's threshold levels to where another dog can now walk past their house without their dog losing it's mind. This couple is dedicated. They have done their homework, and their hard work has paid off. They have seen an improvement in their dog, but are worried about the sheltered life it leads.
Enter Scent Work.
This game is not being introduced with the hopes of getting this dog ready to trial. This dog cannot trial. Doing so would set the dog up to fail, and would put others at-risk. No, Scent Work is being introduced as a fun game the dog can play, at home, to work out their mind and body. To provide fulfillment. To further deepen and build the bond between dog and owner. To supplement their behavior modification program. To improve the dog's overall quality of life.
In a nutshell, all that will be accomplished by playing the GAME of Scent Work with this dog far outweighs any titles or other competition accolade anyone could ever achieve. Doing this can ensure the dog is healthier, happier and let's be blunt, lives longer. Scent Work can help keep this dog in their home and out of the shelter. Scent Work can help give the dog an outlet so the problematic behaviors lessen, or even go away completely. Scent Work the GAME can achieve this. Scent Work the SPORT cannot. Now, let me tell you this case study is real. This was one of my clients who I am thrilled to announce is doing well, years later. These owners are incredibly and amazingly committed, and do all they can to set their dog up to succeed. They have even found creative ways to fold Scent Work into their other behavior modification work, such as helping their dog be more comfortable around people who come over to the house.
Here is how they did it:
They followed their "person is coming over" routine, which involved their dog being safely positioned behind a baby gate, on-leash, with one of them clicking and treating the dog for staying calm. The guest would come in and get settled. The spouse would then set-up a series of box searches using the dog's favorite treats in an adjacent room; these treats and this particular game set-up are only used when people visit. Once everything is set-up, the active handler will remove the baby gate and have the dog search, on-leash. A jackpot is fed with each find (the hides only being treats, they have never felt the need to go onto using a target odor), and once all the treats are found, they will throw a party (tossing treats, asking for the dog's favorite tricks, etc.). Now this is the exciting part: the visitor gets in on the action by cheering with the couple, all while staying in their designated "visitor spot". Their celebration includes tossing more high-value delicious treats away from them, and toward the dog's bed, that is on the opposite side of the room. The dog will then run to their bed, gobble up the treats, go into an automatic down and wait for another sniffing game repetition. Depending on how the dog is doing, and their familiarity with the person, the guest will then place the treats into the boxes, go back to their seat and the dog will recommence the search.
This process continues 2 or 3 more times, and once all the searches are done, the dog will settle on their bed with a chew or Kong before being put into another room to rest and decompress.
Amazingly, this creative approach of weaving in Scent Work into their "person coming over" routine has resulted in 3 more people being added to this dog's "they are safe and I like them" camp. The dog will be all wiggly and happy when these people come over, and cannot wait to play the sniffing game with them. The dog can safely be off-leash, in the room with these people, and will sleep soundly and securely throughout the visit. No guarding behavior. No excessive nervousness. No pacing. Just relaxation and security. No ribbon can match that.
"…That is a nice story, I guess…But does that mean you are saying people who compete are bad?!"
No, not in the least. What I am saying is that we need to, as a community, make certain we are not ostracizing those of us who choose not to compete, for whatever reason. Instead of thinking, "you are only serious about Scent Work if you earn "X" title", maybe we can shift the perspective to, "you're doing Scent Work with your dog in ANY capacity? You rock!" This is especially true for those owners who use Scent Work as I have described here. These people deserve as much recognition, if not more so, than someone who has simply earned "X" title.
My everlasting hope is we can all see Scent Work for what it is: a powerful activity that can open so many doors for our dogs. Something that can absolutely result in ribbons and competitive accolades, that the team should be rightfully proud for earning, but more importantly an activity that can help keep dogs in their homes, living a fulfilled life where they are healthier, happier and truly able to be a dog. What could possibly be better than that?
What are some ways you can weave Scent Work into your training routine or protocol, outside the realm of getting a dog ready for trial? We cover some ideas specific to sensitive and reactive dogs in our upcoming webinars: Scent Work for Sensitive Dogs and Scent Work for Reactive Dogs. Be sure to check them out!
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.