Training v. Trialing

Updated: Sep 2

Whether we want to admit it or not, there is an inherent conflict between training and trialing when it comes to Scent Work. If we aren't careful, we could throw all of our training away as we chase after more and more trialing opportunities.

Tendency to Rush 

​When you can SEE the shiny object at the end of the road, you are much more likely to rush toward it! The same holds true for Scent Work when we are talking about competitions. In the early days of this sport, there was only one competition organization and trialing opportunities were few and far between. Further complicating things, trials were oftentimes held in pockets throughout the United States. This meant if you weren't willing to travel far distances, as in passing through several states, you may not have a chance to trial at all!

Now, this situation did not make people all that happy. They wanted the opportunity to play and compete with their dogs! In an attempt to keep up wth demand, more trials were offered in more parts of the country, but Scent Work had truly exploded in popularity! It was a simple math equation: demand far outweighed supply. Thus, new competition organizations began springing up to meet this overwhelming demand. This meant more trialing opportunities finally being offered. Yay! We now find ourselves in a situation where there are multiple Scent Work trials going on every weekend in every corner of the country with eight competition organizations in the United States alone!

Here's the rub...there is so much opportunity to trial now, people are rushing toward those shiny ribbons and titles. All at the expense of their training.

In the early days, it was common for people to train for over a year before they even considered going in to compete. The fact that traditional Scent Work trials were all or nothing helped deter people from entering before they and their dog were truly ready. Otherwise you were essentially throwing your entry fees away. 

Nowadays, people are leaping into trialing after a few short weeks of training and taking a shot at earning a few Q's. Worst still, they are getting by with this approach at the lower levels. This is a problem.

Behavior that is reinforced is strengthened. This is a fact. 

So, if you jammed in some training and entered the first trial you could get into, even against the advice of professional trainers and trial officials, and you STILL qualified...there is a super high probability you will do that again! Pump the breaks, slow down and train? WHY?! You were REWARDED for trialing!

We as handlers have to recognize the allure of these goals. The titles. The ribbons. The bragging rights. They can become addictive, something we obsess over and in so doing, we can make less and less ideal decisions for our dogs. Not having a solid foundation in our training is one of those poor decisions.

Training Should Not be Happening at Trials 

There is no replacement for training. I mean, real, true training. Thoughtful exercises that are designed to teach, promote learning and the development of skills.

Trials do none of these things. Trials are TESTS. Trials are TESTING that the prerequisite lessons were learned and that the skills were obtained.

That being said, it is true that trials do not occur in a bubble. Therefore, there WILL be learning that takes place at a trial...oftentimes the type of learning you do NOT want to happen.

Allow me to give you an example: a search area has some line-of-sight issues, so the trial host hangs up some tarps. A common practice that works out quite well! Except, as your dog is searching and heading to source, a gust of wind comes by and dramatically moves the tarp, startling them. Now your dog cannot go back to work as they are so bothered and you time out. Little do you know, your dog has made the association of being startled with the they think Birch, Anise or Clove is scary. A nightmare scenario. All because they had never encountered a moving tarp in a controlled environment in training.

Sounds outlandish? It's not. I've witnessed this firsthand. Lucki