Boxes! Pairing! Boo! .... Or Not So Much
Dianna L. Santos
When it comes to training, we oftentimes want to take shortcuts or cannot wait to work on the "big dog stuff"! This is no different in Scent Work. However, the dismissal of potential training tools outright, or being in such a huge hurry to get rid of them, can be limiting the effectiveness of your training. We dive into this topic in our latest episode, specifically speaking to the use of boxes and pairing as Scent Work training tools.
Podcast Episode Transcript
Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcast. In this podcast we're gonna be talking about all things that work. We'll be giving you a behind the scenes look at what your instructor or trial officials may be going through. Giving you some training tips, and much more. In this episode we're gonna be talking about boxes and pairing, and how people can not wait to get rid of either of those in their training, and how that could actually be a shortsighted way of looking at your training. Before we start diving into the podcast itself, let me just do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the owner and lead instructor for Scent Work University, and Dog Sport University.
Scent Work University is an online dog training platform where we focus on all things Scent Work. We provide online courses, webinars and seminars. They're designed to help people who are either just getting started in Scent Work, have been doing Scent Work for a while. Maybe playing the game for fun, or may also be interested in doing competition. In addition to being a professional trainer, I'm also an approved trial official, and have actually worked for a competition organization. So now that you know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the podcast.
In this episode I wanted to go over a very common thing that I've notice while I've been training students across the country. It is the desire to get away from foundation skills, and to get away from those quickly. Particularly for those individuals who are interested in competition. There seems to be a rush in order to get their dog ready for trial. But even for people who aren't interested in competing, there seems to be an allure to designate certain things as just a stage, and to announce to the world that my dog no longer needs that. It's as though they're looking at their dog training as though it's having the training wheels on. They can't wait to get them off. What I'm hoping to do in this podcast is to outline for two particular types of training tools that they are tools, and they shouldn't be seen merely as stepping stones. They should be seen as something that you can use throughout the duration of your Scent Work training career.
To allow your dog to be more successful, and to allow your dog to really understand particular odor puzzles, and that they have value throughout the duration that you're going to be doing Scent Work. So that's the goal. We'll see if we reach that goal.
The two things that I wanted to talk about in this podcast is the use of boxes and the use of pairing within the context of Scent Work. Now there are going to be some people right out of the gate who say, "I don't train that way." And that's okay. The one thing that we all have to recognize with Scent Work is, as with all things dog training, there are millions of different ways of getting to the same goal. We can all have our preferences, and that's okay. There's nothing wrong with that. For this podcast I just want to talk about the two things that I tend to do when I am teaching someone for foundations that work, and to hopefully help people understand why it is that those are used in the first place, and the value that they hold. Not only within the foundation context, but that you can also use them throughout any type of Scent Work training that you're trying to do.
The first thing I want to talk about is boxes. For myself, when I'm doing foundations that we're training with the student, either within my online classes or if I was still be able to work with people one-on-one. We would use boxes in order to focus the dog's attention onto a particular part of a search area. It's basically introducing the dog to a container search set up. It allows the dog to self reward, because we'd be using food. It also allows the trainer to assess the dog's confidence, which is extraordinarily important. If I have a dog come up and they're trying to do a box search, and they're very concerned about the boxes, that's important information for me to have as a trainer. I now need to make certain adjustments to ensure that we can build that dog's confidence.
Not only within the contents of Scent Work, but overall. So that I know that this is going to be ... this will be an issue. This is something that we need to address. The boxes give me that information. In addition to that, I can also use the boxes to present a variety of different odor pictures to the dog so that they're able to figure out how to work those out. So for instance, I can use the boxes to present an elevated hide problem, where you have an odor box on top of the seat of a chair for instance. But what I like to tell my students to do, is to use a empty box that's a little distance away from that elevated hide. They'll be collecting some of that odor that's coming out of the odor box, and the dog is typically going to sniff the empty box, because there's going to be odor going into it, realize it's not where the hide is, and then hopefully pick their head up, get a whiff of the actually odor cone, and then work their way up to the elevated box.
This has worked time and time again, and it's a very powerful training technique. This is all the sort of thing that I do in my foundation classes. Now something to point out is, you can do that same exact approach when you are further along in your training. So let's say that you were no long working on primary. Let's say that you were following the K9 Nose Work training method where you start with food and then you do paired odor as far as birch, anise or clove, and now you're just solely on a target odor, and you've been doing it for a while. You may even be competing. Your dog is doing great. But now they're going to the point where they need to do even higher elevation. They need to be doing hides that are three, four, five feet high. You could absolutely bring your boxes back into the picture. What I mean by that is, you can still have your non paired, if you decided to do that, at large elevation hide.
Meaning it's four or five feet up. But you could have some empty boxes facing that hide to allow the dog to investigate the box first, to then figure out where the odor is actually coming from. It gives a dog a sense of familiarity. When they already have a long reinforcement history with boxes, there's no reason to really throw that away. The other great thing about boxes is that they're really easy to transport. So when you want to be able to do training sessions at your field trip locations further down the line for your dog's training, you can just set your boxes up. It could also be a great way of warming your dog up. Anyone who does trialing knows the boxes are used for warm ups. So you could do that within your search area as well.
For instance, let's say that you wanted to do an exterior search with your dog, and your dog happens to be a little bit on the sensitive side. Maybe they're environmentally sensitive, or they could just be very environmentally invested. Or maybe they're not worried about the environment, but they think the environment is really cool. Wouldn't it be nice if you could do a test search where you can see whether or not your dog can actually even think in this space? That's where you can bring your boxes into play. Use the same exact search area that you were going to. You can even still have exterior hides, but have your boxes near those exterior hides to help offer a level of familiarity for the dog. They can come in. They can say, "Oh, we're doing boxes. Clearly we're doing the sniffy game." You can test whether or not they're actually able to perform, or if they may need to have more skills to be successful in that space. That'll be so beneficial, as opposed to trying to force your dog to do well within a given space and just hope for the best.
To do repetition after repetition after repetition and then have them fail over and over and over again. Have you get frustrated, simply because you think that using boxes will be going backwards. "Only baby dogs use boxes!" It's silly. Use this sort of thing as a tool. Use it as a training tool. Don't just simply throw it away, because you perceive that it is something that only baby dogs do. The other great thing about boxes is that you can use them to incorporate into really complicated odor pictures. So if you're trying to do something, like we noted, with very high elevation, that could absolutely be something you can use your boxes for. What about suspended hides? You can do that as well. You could just have boxes. You can suspend your boxes up.
If you're going to a completely crazy location in order to do your searches. Maybe you're trying to work a lot on distractors, where it could literally just be the environment is really distracting, or you actually have a lot of distractors. Wouldn't it be nice to have, again, a level of familiarity for your dog? Where you can set them to succeed, maybe for a warm up search. See if they can actually work in that space first. Give them an opportunity to be successful, and then you can go from there. I'm hoping that these examples can showcase that this is suppose to be a training tool. It's not simply suppose to be some black mark that we never talk about and say, "Oh well, I used to use boxes, but I don't use boxes anymore. I'm this really accomplished Scent Work person, and I'm amazing, and boxes are just for baby dogs." That's just silly. It should be used as a training tool. It should be used as a way to help your dog master these skills, and to further progress in their Scent Work training.
The other thing I wanted to talk about was pairing. I know pairing is definitely something that not everyone agrees upon. There's lots of different schools of thought as far as Scent Work is concerned. There's lots of different schools of thought as far as pairing is concerned. I am a CNWI with an NACSW. I follow the K9 Nose Work training method. I think that it works really well, and I am a very big proponent about pairing. I think pairing is awesome. That being said, if you wanted to use pairing, it should not be seen as something that you do for a very short period of time and you can't wait to get rid of. I tend to see this a lot with people who are definitely interested in competition. Because they say, "Well, I wouldn't be able to use pairing, obviously, at a trial. It's just going to be birch, anise or clove, or whatever target odor that we're using. So I need to get rid of that pairing as quickly as possible, so that I know that my dog understands finding the hide."
Now, I guess I can see the argument in all of that, but I would use a similar type of dog training scenario to try to make my point. Let's talk about the Canine Good Citizen test. For AKC, they offer a Canine Good Citizen test where basically there are 10 different test items. Where they're trying to assess whether or not the dog has the manners that would be necessary for them to be safe out in public. Throughout this test you are not permitted to use any toys or treats in order to reward your dog throughout the exercises. However, there are Canine Good Citizen Prep courses taught throughout the country. I teach them through Dog Sport University online, and I've taught them before in person. The thing that I would always stress to all of my students, and it would typically be a six week class, is while we are training we are going to be using rewards. Whether it be treats, or whether it be toys, or verbal praise, or anything else. Because we're teaching our dog. We're trying to help them understand a skill.
Yes for the test you're not allowed to use that, and we will go through a very specific way of fading out those rewards and to use different types of rewards or just smiling at your dog, and even giving them some verbal praise. But where they wouldn't necessarily have to have the treat immediately, I would strongly suggest that when you're done with the test that you give them lots of treats, let them play with a toy or something. Let your dog know how great they did. But when you are training, you absolutely want to be using all of those rewards. Why wouldn't you? It doesn't make any sense. Now stepping back into Scent Work. The same would apply. I completely agree with you that when you're competing your dog is finding the target odors by themselves. They're not finding birch plus hot dog. They're finding birch. But when you're training you absolutely should be using rewards regardless, and the great thing about Scent Work as a sport is that you are allowed to reward your dog at source, even at trial.
While it won't be paired at the hide itself, you're still allowed to actually feed them a treat when they find the hide, which is great. When we're talking about pairing, I think that we're conflating trying to see whether or not we can help our dog succeed in a given exercise, with trying to ensure that they can actually do the thing at trial. I think those are two completely different things. Let me try to clear up what I mean by that. I initially start off all my students with pairing. The second that they start working with birch, for instance, they're going to see paired hides. They're going to see a tin, typically speaking, with a treat on top of it. This allows the dog to self-reward. The whole purpose behind self rewarding is that there is no convincing the dog what the answer is to the question that you posed. It's very simple.
They came up, they found the hide, they eat their treat. "Ah, brilliant. You want me to find birch." It's very simple to the dog. There's no guess work around it. The handler doesn't have to get involved and trying to explain what it is that this game is all about. That's a very powerful way to train. So if you have a really challenging hide placement, if you pair it it could actually help the dog work that problem out. I'm not saying you have to pair it forever, because you don't. Maybe you just pair it the first time. The same way we use the boxes, maybe do a warm up search where the hides are actually paired. Do a big jackpot with your dog when they find it. You can play with toys, whatever your reward system is. Take them out, throw them a party. Tell them how great they are. Remove all the pairings, keep the hides in the same locations and run the dog again. That's using your pairing as training. It's a training tool.
It should not simply be seen as this stage you can't wait to get rid of. I still pair with my dog. He's been doing Scent Work for five years. That doesn't mean I pair at every single hide. I don't. I'll pair one or two hides within a session. There will be other sessions I don't pair at all. There will be other sessions I pair everything. It's all about being variable. It's about tapping into what we understand about training. What we understand about reward systems, and making things really clear to our dog. My goal is not to set my dog up for failure. I want him to be as successful as possible. It doesn't mean I want everything to be a gimme. I want him to still work and learn to figure out a problem. But I want him to be able to do that. So I don't want him just out there floundering. If pairing the hide is going to help him come up with the solution, and help him understand, "Oh, that's how that works." Then we can over time fade that pairing. Great. Why wouldn't I do that?
So again, this is all a matter of opinion. But the one thing that I'm hoping to make clear in this podcast at least, is that if you are using these tools, whether you're working with someone like myself who follows the K9 Nose Work training method, or if you're doing training on your own, or whatever the case may be. But if you're using something like boxes or pairing or something similar, just realize that they are not simply something to do for a number of weeks, you can't wait to get rid of them and you never use them again. Then it wasn't that helpful of a training tool, and that's what you should be looking at this as, that they are training tools. They are helping your dog achieve the type of learning that you need them to to be successful. That's the whole point.
The last thing I just want to talk about in wrapping up this episode is that when we are progressing in our Scent Work training, what we have to keep in mind is why it is that we're going from step one to step two to step three, and whether or not those steps are artificial, and they're not actually the steps that our dog needs to take, but they're the steps that we think are the steps that everyone else takes. As an example, let's say that you are getting ready to do your very first trail. You're gonna be doing an ORT for instance, and you signed up for birch. You didn't sign up for anise or clove, you just wanna do birch to start off with, which would be fine. It's about six months down the road, you signed up way ahead of time, which is wonderful. You're nice and prepared. But now you're starting to read things online and on social media about people who are rushing along with their dog, and the dog has already found all three odors. They're alerting and they're doing just brilliant things. They've only been training for two days.
You then start coming up with a training plan for both you and your dog, and you're going to be using boxes to start, and you're gonna be using pairing. But now you think that you have to move ahead a lot faster because you've got to get ready for this ORT, so you start taking away some of these things artificially. Instead of giving your dog the time that they need to figure everything out, you're now rushing. You're going up against a false goal, a false deadline that doesn't really exist. What happens when you do that, when you have that kind of approach, is you're going to have glaring holes in your training. You also run the risk of having your dog not really understand what the game is all about. To pick up some suspicious behaviors as far as, if you're really involved in the process and you're trying to shape things or things like that. They may not think it's about the odor at all.
They may think it's about something completely different, if you're not careful. Or they could just determine that the game isn't all that fun, because they're not really sure what's going on. Things are kind of confusing. Because you're up against this deadline, you're probably practicing a lot. So if it's not really fun, it's not really clear, it's not really winning for them, they may actually just not like it all that much. What I'm hoping that people can recognize is that every single dog, every single dog is going to have a different process in how they learn. Every single dog is gonna have a different learning path. Even if you have multiple dogs in your home, every single dog is still going to have a different learning path. Every dog will have different sets of strengths and weaknesses.
But that's why you should have as many tools in your toolbox as possible so you can help all of those dogs, and you don't just paint yourself in a corner where you only turn into a one trick pony, this is all that you can do. You don't wanna just throw tools away. You wanna have them accessible as much as possible so that you can whip them out when you need to. So I hope that makes sense. That while the allure is there to determine what stage everything is and where it belongs, and you can't wait to get out of it so that you can show everyone that you're this pro. Doing this other stuff isn't bad. It's great. It's actually really helpful. It's stuff that you should still lean on throughout the duration that you're gonna be doing Scent Work with your dog.
In my opinion you should be doing it forever. Find times when it would be helpful and then use it. I have no problem whipping out a box or using pairing with my dog. It doesn't bother me in the least. I don't think that it says anything about my training that's negative. I don't think that anyone would look down on me about it, and if they did, I don't care. It works for my dog, and also works for my clients. I'm just hoping that we can all have a better understanding of what these things actually are. It's not simply a, "I can't wait to graduate from this." That shouldn't be the point. "I cannot wait for my dog to actually understand what this is all about," would be a better thing to be excited for. "I can't wait for my dog to confidently do the search." "I can't wait for my dog to independently work this out." "I can't wait for my dog to come up to the start line with me and be really excited to do this game with me." Those are good things to be excited for.
But to get rid of something that could be a really helpful training tool, to me that just seems counterproductive. It's showing that we're looking at this through the wrong lens. I hope that makes sense. I hope you found this podcast helpful. We're diving into some touchy subjects, and it's not meant to make anyone look down upon a different type of training. Different thoughts and different approaches are good. Having different ideas about how to get to the same goal is perfectly fine. It's always been there in dog training, it always will be, and Scent Work is no exception. But what I'm hoping that we can understand is that having tools in our training are there for a reason, and that they can be very helpful, and we shouldn't be so eager to throw them away.
Thanks so much for joining us in this podcast. I hope you found it helpful. Happy training, and we look forward to seeing you soon.