Updated: Aug 14
You've got a new puppy and you are ready to hit the ground running with your Scent Work training! You have an important question to ask yourself: start on odor right away, or not?
In this blog post, I provide my opinions on this topic. Look them over and see what you think.
Puppies Are Sponges!
It's true that you have a spare few weeks early in your puppy's life when you are in a position to make the largest impact upon their impressionable little minds. It is during this time that your puppy will make associations of what is safe, what is scary and lay down a foundation of what their skills of dealing with the world at-large will be as they continue to grow and mature.
"I'm sold! That means you want to show them odor right out of the gate, right?!"
Not so fast.
There are also fear-periods associated with your puppy growing up. Remember: they are learning what is safe and what is scary. What would happen if your puppy was startled at the very same time they were sniffing Birch during this fear-period? There is a real good possibility they will associate Birch with the scary thing, meaning Birch is placed in the scary column. Translation: not good.
"But there are lots of people who do this, and their puppies are fine! Police dogs and military dogs and..."
Professionals may very take this approach of introducing odor right away, that is indeed true. The key word there being professionals.
Think of WHY they are taking this approach: they need this puppy to get out on the job as quickly as possible. This means carefully cultivating the breeding stock to only use those dogs who have the genetic, physiological and real-life attributes necessary to be successful at the job, and even then, plenty of dogs fail and are kicked out of the program.
In other words, this puppy has been specifically bred over many generations with the sole goal of doing this and doing it well, and there is STILL only a 50/50 shot it will work out in the end. However, that is only a piece of it. There is also the training side of this equation.
When you have a professional doing this - read this as someone training for police work, the military and so on - the training is intense. As in all-day-long intense. Truly. Hours upon hours, upon hours, upon hours of daily training. And the dogs are up for it, even as puppies.
Can you honestly imagine getting up at the crack of dawn to work and train your dog, out in all of the elements, for hours on end until 4PM? Probably not.
"WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH MY PUPPY?!"
We need to recognize that we are not comparing apples to apples.
The reasoning behind WHY a certain approach is used within a certain group or population of dogs is critical.
If I am running a police dog unit tasked to get bad guys, contraband or weapons off the street, I need those dogs fully trained and on the street yesterday!
Us? You and I? People out there in the world either playing Scent Work for fun or having dreams of winning the Nationals? We do NOT have that level of urgency, no matter how badly you want that title or ribbon. It will still be there. The world will NOT come to an end if you do not finish your training by the end of the week, no matter how much you may FEEL as though it might, it really won't.
Therefore, asking our companion and dog sport puppies to go through the same steps as a professional-program puppy is not only unfair, it is entirely unnecessary and misses the mark.
What Are You Training?
"BUT THE ODOR, WE'VE GOT TO SHOW THE PUPPY ODOR!"
When you really take a step back and think about it, what are the skills that we need our puppy to cultivate over a period of time in regard to Scent Work?
Working out odor puzzles. As in following odor trails.
Okay, but, we will have them searching for various odors over their Scent Work career: Birch, Anise, Clove, Cypress, Myrrh, Wintergreen and others depending on where you are competing.
And anyone who has introduced their dog to a second odor knows it was fairly easy process...
"...I think you're making my point for me Santos."
Doesn't food give off odor trails?
The correct answer is yes, yes it does.
So, in theory, you can teach your puppy the very same concepts of learning how to follow odor trails, which is our goal, by using a hotdog, get them through and passed their fear-period, solid on a whole slew of other behaviors and THEN introduce to them a novel target odor.
"...But, but, but...hunting for the target odors is more fun..."
For you, I'm sure it is. And you are not alone. Humans across the globe find a dog finding a novel odor a helluva lot more impressive than finding a damn hotdog. But-it-is-the-same-exact-skill. Your puppy is perfecting the same skills finding a hotdog that they will someday need to find Birch.
What exactly are some of those skills, you may ask?
To do well in Scent Work, particularly in competition, your dog needs a certain level of confidence. Confidence in themselves that they can indeed work out, and solve, a given odor problem without constantly asking for help or guidance from their handler.
When your dog is playing the game of Scent Work, they need to be persistent. They need to work until they get to the solution. "I WILL FIND THIS HIDE!" is what your dog should be saying when they are playing the game of Scent Work, whether it be solely for fun and particularly if they are competing.
Your dog is the one with the nose. They have to be comfortable working independently from their handler, trusting what their nose is telling them, to find out where source is and then communicate this information to their human teammate, even if that teammate is convinced the hide is somewhere else...
How Can You Achieve This?
Food in boxes.
You're entitled to your opinion, but using food in boxes can be a fantastic way to help your puppy learn these three core skills that make up Scent Work: confidence, persistence and independence.
Design a simple search to start with, and then carefully begin to stretch them by introducing covered boxes, boxes behind barriers they have to figure out how to get around to get to the food box, boxes that are off and away from where the main pile of boxes are and so on...there are endless possibilities of using food in boxes that can help you achieve your Scent Work training goals.
All the while, you are helping your puppy develop a love for the game AND are building all these crucial skills AND are avoiding any potential negative associations with a novel target odor which is a BEAR to try to overcome, if you ever can. It sounds to me that using food in boxes with a puppy is a win-win.
Yes, it is true that I personally prefer to use the K9 Nose Work® training method when it comes to introducing puppies to Scent Work. Sessions should be short, fun and successful. The game should end while the puppy still wants to play so they want to play again next time. Warm-up searches, recovery searches and rest days should be used aplenty. Close attention should be paid to if and when the puppy enters their fear period, and consider holding off on training Scent Work entirely during that time frame, even when using "just food".
Does that mean that I hate or despise people who start puppies directly on a target odor? Of course not. This is simply my training preference, nothing more, nothing less. The one line in the sand I will forcefully put down is my desire for puppies to be allowed and encouraged to be puppies. They grow up so incredibly fast. You will turn around twice and your little wobbly munchkin will be gone, and in their place you will see a fully grown dog with white hairs showing up on their muzzle (I am projecting quite a bit here as my 5-year old Doberman is being overtaken by the evil white hairs of aging!). Take your time. They will only be a puppy once. Revel in their learning everything for the very first time with you. Don't be so blinded by the desire to enter into their first trial the absolute second they turn 6-months old. What-is-the-rush? I promise, truly, all the ribbons and titles will still be there if you take your time instead. But their puppyhood, that precious moment in time, will be over and done with before you know it.
Do you have a new puppy and are looking to get involved in Scent Work? Take a look at our Puppy Scent Work online course, we think you and your puppy will really enjoy it!
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.