Where We See a Tree, Our Dog Sees a Forest

Updated: Sep 2

As humans, we tend to be laser-focused when training, attempting to parse out tiny and minute details to work on and perfect. Scent Work is no different. We zero in on a particular skillset or element of the activity we want to improve and then reverse engineer our training from there. However, we oftentimes forget to consider just how brilliant our dogs truly are and thus are too knee deep in the details to take in the totality of the picture.


When I was still actively drawing and creating art, one of my biggest issues was zooming in on one tiny corner of a piece, taking hours to perfect it to only step back and find out I had caused an enormous clash with the rest of the piece. Perhaps I had shifted perspectives – the total piece looked at the subject head-on whereas I had shifted to a profile-view in my detail-obsessive corner – or had seemingly forgotten the whole theme of the piece to begin with. Sure, the corner looked great, but it didn’t mesh with the piece anymore. If I wanted to try to make it work, I would need to change the whole piece to do so.

“What does this have to do with Scent Work, Ms. Trainer Lady?!”

The same holds true when we are training our dogs.

If we neglect to take a broader view of what is going on, we can suddenly find ourselves in trouble!

Now, it is true that our dogs are contextual little beings themselves, able to pick up on minute patterns and details, but those are perceived throughout the entirety of the picture as a whole.

“I have no idea what that means.”

Let me give you a non-Scent Work example: you are teaching your dog to do a nose touch, where they should bop their cute little nose on your outstretched palm. Every time they tap their nose to your hand, they slightly open their mouth and gum your hand. To the dog, the trick is NOT to simply boink their person’s hand with their nose. Instead, it is a behavior chain of nose-poke-then-put-handler’s-hand-in-mouth. Within a few repetitions, this becomes a solid behavior that you never wanted. You were so laser-focused on the nose bopping part, you neglected to recognize the gumming element. In other words, you were looking at one detail and not ALL the behaviors your dog was associating with the reward. The same can hold true for Scent Work if you are not careful.

Let’s say you typically practice and train Scent Work alone, as most people do. This means you are the one preparing the odor, setting the hides, and running your dog. I’ve already pontificated in prior blog posts how easy it is for us as humans to fall into patterns of where we place hides, and how our dogs will pick up on those, so I will not delve into all of that here (but you should still be mindful about it).

In designing your search, you are focused on specific things, the details, of that search: which search element you will choose, what will make up the search area itself, how may hides will be inside the search area, what type of hides you will use (food, paired or target odor hides and if the latter, which target odors and what concentration), where the hides will be in relation to one another and the objects or elements of the search area itself, how you will handle the dog throughout the search (on- or off-leash), where the start line will be and so on. Tons of details. Ton of individual trees. Your dog, however, is focused on the forest.

In this scenario, your dog is faced with a task: find their valuable hides so they can earn a meaningful reward. Being the incredibly smart being they are, they will use every tool at their disposal to complete this task. This means they will be looking at the forest instead of relying on the individual trees we may have been obsessing about.