Updated: Aug 14
People, by design, are fairly impatient. We get all excited about something and we want to do it NOW! The prospect of having to wait for the final payoff is painful and frustrating. Unfortunately, this WANT IT NOW approach can spell havoc when we are talking about working with and training our dogs, especially in regards to Scent Work.
Your Dog Needs Time to Learn
Yes, sniffing is an inherent skill that dogs possess. But that doesn't mean that they do not need to hone and perfect this skill.
Figuring out odor puzzles is challenging. There is so much information that your dog has to sort through to get to the correct answer, so many other odors and scents they have to process, set aside and not get distracted by.
Then you have the environment the odor puzzle is set-up within. Perhaps they have to physically weave their way around a space to get to source, contort themselves to get to a hide.
Or, maybe they need to assess whether the odor puzzle is worth solving...does it seem as though they are risking life and limp to get to this hide?!
At the end of the day, our dogs need time to learn! Again, they are the ones with the nose. We need to give them the space and time to perfect the skills necessary to use their noses in the most effective and efficient way possible.
"Okay, so how long will it take?!"
It all depends.
It depends on the dog: their age, their health, their training background, their personality and their behavioral profile.
It also depends on how often you train and how you go about training.
It depends on how you structure your training, what exercises you set-up and why.
It depends on how certain you are the dog understands a given exercise before you go rushing onto the next one.
Really, it all depends.
However, the most surefire way to have a dog who has holes in their training, who will start throwing false alerts or shutdown to the game altogether, is by drilling and/or rushing. Regardless of how you approach your training or which school of thought you belong to, this should be an activity that your dog LOVES to do. Remember: sniffing is an inherently "dog" thing to do. Your dog should light up at the chance to...well, be a dog! If, however, they sulk off when you get your equipment together, that is a huge red flag. You would need to reassess how you are training to inject the joy back into the activity.
"You're not answering my question...is this going to take days, weeks, months..."
What are you trying to gauge? How long it will take for your dog to understand the basics of the game? How long it will take your dog to perfect a given odor puzzle? How long it will take for them to amass all the skills necessary to begin competing?
There are some dogs who whiz through certain parts of their training and then struggle with other parts.
"Will you just answer my question?! How long do I have to train to compete?!"
There is no definitive answer I can give you. However, the guideline I give my clients is it will take 6-8 months at a bare minimum from the start of training to begin competing. This way your dog has a solid foundation under their belt, will be proficient in the skills they will need for an ORT or entry-level trial and can start to make steady progress up the levels with continued training.
"I don't want to wait that long. My dog can do it now!" Alright, here is the sad reality: you're right. Your dog likely can do an entry-level search now with some success.
That being said, let's ask some questions and assess where your dog is right now:
Does your dog work from hide-to-hide confidently or do they get stuck at the first hide they found?
Does your dog show resilience while they are sorting out an odor problem or do they give up by asking for help or shutting down?
Does your dog confidently work the entire search area or are they constantly looking back at you for feedback and guidance?
Can your dog work in all the search elements (Containers, Interiors, Exteriors and Vehicles) equally or are they substantially weaker in some search elements?
Can your dog work out all of these odor puzzles: threshold hides, corner hides, channel hides, converging odor hides, hides directly affected by HVAC, elevated hides and ground hides or would these be alien concepts?
Does your dog know the difference between pooling odor and source or do they hit or get tripped up by pooling odor?
Can your dog find a large range of hides (1 - 10 hides within a given search area) or have they only consistently found a certain number in their training?
Can your dog find hides of varying odor concentration or have they only worked with a certain odor preparation technique (NACSW v. AKC and vice versa)?
Can your dog work a search with other people in the search area or have they only practiced in "sterile" search environments?
Can your dog work a search regardless of where it is (location-wise) or have you only ever trained in a one location (home and/or training center)?
Can your dog work through all types of distractions (food, toy, sound, movement, etc.) or do they stop working and/or obsess about the distractor?
Can your dog work in all types of weather (ideal, hot, cold, rain, snow, windy) or do they stop working in less than ideal conditions?
Can your dog wait and settle in their crate in between searches or are they barking and a screaming maniac?
"...Those are a lot of questions..."
Exactly. For your dog to be successful in trialing, where they are confidently working and consistently moving up the levels, you should respond YES to all of these questions. If not, then your dog needs more time to perfect those skills.
Now to move onto the even more sensitive part of this...your dog is not the only one who needs time to learn and perfect their skills. You do too.
You Need Time to Become the Handler Your Dog Needs and Deserves
As a professional trainer and instructor, a common theme I've witnessed is a handler's assumption that the dog is the one who does all the work, learning and skill-building. This could not be further from the truth, regardless of the dog-centric activity we are discussing, but is particularly faulty reasoning when we are talking about Scent Work.
"Wait...you said the dog is the one with the nose. They are the ones leading the search. So if I work to ensure their skills are up to par, then everything should be fine!"
Doing so is a big part of the puzzle but only a part.
You are a teammate to your dog. In the lower levels of trialing, it is likely a 80/20 breakdown of the dog's contribution to the search in relation to what the handler needs to do or is responsible for.
However, as you go up the levels, this becomes closer to 50/50. Think of a massive Elite-level search area with a range of hides and a limited amount of time to find them. As your dog's teammate, you need to ensure you both properly cover the search area, that you keep the time in mind and notice what your dog is telling you about the given odor picture and if you need to support them to get to the answer faster.
"...I don't know how to do any of that."
You're not alone.
Sadly, it is becoming increasingly common to see people not only rushing their dogs into trial, but rushing themselves as well. The only thing they "have" is a supposed final alert behavior they are looking for. Nothing else. Again, this may get you through an entry-level trial but it will come back to bite you as you go up the levels.
The worst part is when that big bite is taken out of you, it is chomping on your self-confidence and the confidence you have in your dog. This is all you have in Scent Work. If you do not trust your dog, you will fail. Furthermore, the more you second-guess yourself, the more mistakes you will make. It is really that simple.
Yet time and time again, people are rushing into trialing way before they or their dogs are ready, begin racking up false alert after false alert and overcompensate by dragging the dog around the search area on a short leash, yanking them off of vertical spaces ("They may pee!), hovering over them or taking forever to call a hide ("I want to be certain...show me again!"). All of this kills me as a trainer, instructor and trial official. There is no joy or fun in these searches for the dog or the handler. They are a bundle of stress and angst. All because they leaped into trialing way too early and are now stuck in this perpetual downward spiral.
With that in mind, let's go over some questions you can ask yourself to assess where you are skills-wise:
Can you tell when your dog detects odor within a given search area? What are their unique signs or body cues?
Can you tell when your dog is chasing odor within a given search area? What are their unique signs or body cues?
Can you tell when your dog has found source within a given search area? What are their unique signs or body cues?
Can you tell when your dog is investigating dog odor and may be thinking of marking?
Can you tell when your dog is investigating critter odor and not a target odor?
Can you successfully run your dog in all the search elements (Containers, Interiors, Exteriors and Vehicles) both on- and off-leash and not negatively affect your dog?
Can you tell when your dog may need support within a given search and how you can do so without taking over the search and/or hindering your dog?
Can you keep track of what parts of a search area you both have already covered, where they showed some interest but didn't find a hide, what you both may have missed and need to double-check?
Do you know what to do, handling-wise, if your dog is struggling to sort out a given hide?
Can you tell when your dog is getting mentally or physically exhausted and you would need to stop the search?
Do you know what your dog's strengths and weaknesses are and how you can fold them into your training to ensure positive progress?
Do you know how your body can affect your dog while they are searching?
Again, all of these questions should be YES if you are going to competing with your dog. If not, then you have work to do.
I understand the allure to rush ahead and do the "fun stuff". I'm here to tell you that all of this takes time for both you and your dog. That time, though, should not be seen as some sort of hindrance or burden. The journey, the learning, is the best part.
Those who know me personally know that my sweet young Doberman was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. I'd give anything for more time with him. More time to set fun and challenging hides, where I can simply sit back and watch him work them out, however long it takes. More time for field trip training sessions, practicing ground hides (one of his former weaknesses) and working around other people having fun (playing tennis, jogging, etc. is SUPER fun to watch and can sometimes trump odor). More time to improve my own leash-handling skills and mental management skills, both of which are wanting to say the least. Instead we are counting the minutes, hours and days before we have to say goodbye.
My only consolation is that we did not make trialing the all-encompassing element of Scent Work where it forced me to rush through blindly. Training and playing the game was always our focus. I've got lots videos of us playing that I can refer back to for memories and to continue my own learning. We took our time and I allowed him to lead the pace. I am thankful for that.
I don't bring this up to ask for sympathy or to make you uncomfortable, rather to put things into perspective. The majority of our trialing experiences, while stressful for me due to my less-than-enthusiastic approach to competing, were good ones. We had fun even if I was stressed. He had fun, which was the important part. I knew he had the skills to handle what we were faced with at trial. If there was anything that was less than stellar, we went back to shore up those skills no matter how long it took. It didn't eat away at our relationship and bond, just the opposite.
That is all I am asking all of you to do. Evaluate how you are tackling this Scent Work thing: is it deepening the bond and relationship you have with your dog, strengthening your understanding and appreciation of them? Or, are you saying things like, "My dog LIES!" or "UGH! They won't work on grass without marking!" or "Elevated hides are unfair!" or "This is taking too long, I want that title!". If so, then you need to re-evaluate what you are doing, something is amiss. Perhaps you haven't given you or your dog the time necessary to perfect all the skills necessary to have FUN in Scent Work. You owe it to both of you to take a step back and put the time in.
I wish I could with my boy...but I will take some comfort knowing that you all pump the brakes enough to take the time with your pups.
Dedicated to Sir Valor, the sweetest, smartest and most perfect Doberboy who ever lived. You've given me so much...however long we have left together, we are going to make it as fun as possible. Thank you sweet boy, mama loves you more than you will ever know.
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.