Does Your Dog Really Knows How to Hunt?
Dianna L. Santos
A disturbing trend trial officials are noticing coast-to-coast is that dogs do not seem to know how to hunt when they are going to trial. Instead of knowing what they are doing as they step to the start line, dogs are instead being lead...or dragged...around search areas and tripping over hides.
In this episode, we discuss this problematic trend, how an overabundance of trialing opportunities are opening up the possibility for more and more dog and handlers teams to rush to trial and a quick test you can do at home to tell whether your dog knows how to hunt or not.
We are not trying to disparage any training approach or school of thought. There are lots of ways to get to the same end goal. But that goal should be the dog tapping into their amazing sense of smell and be allowed to be a dog, not the handler taking over the search.
At the very least, this podcast will get you thinking.
Podcast Episode Transcript
Welcome to the All About Scent Work Podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things Scent Work, that can include training tips, the behind the scenes of what your trial official or instructor may be going through and much more. In this episode, I wanted to talk about does your dog really know that they're hunting? Or does your dog actually know how to hunt? Before we start diving into the episode itself, let's just do a really quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the owner and lead instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sport University, Family Dog University and Canine Fitness University. These are all online dog training platforms that are designed to provide high-quality dog training instruction to as many people as possible, and we're very fortunate to have a client base that's quite literally worldwide.
For Scent Work University in particular, we provide online courses and webinars that are focused to help you throughout the entire duration of your Scent Work Training journey; that includes starting off when you're maybe just be beginning Scent Work, to developing some skills, to also getting ready to trial if that was something that you were interested in. We also provide a regularly updated blog, as well as podcast that you're listen to today. Since you know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the podcast.
So on today's episode, I wanted to talk about a issue that I think trial officials across the country are really trying to wrangle with is are dogs being entered in trials without having any concept of how to hunt? This has been something that we have really been struggling with as instructors, but also as trial officials. I think that this is a multifaceted problem and it has been exacerbated by the fact that we now have all of these wonderful trialing opportunities where you quite literally now could enter into a Scent Work trial every single weekend and sometimes you can enter into multiple set were trials within a week, because sometimes they're held during the week or maybe they're held on Thursday or Friday and then another one is held over the weekend, whatever the case may be. The point being is that not even five years ago, maybe even a little bit less than that, that wasn't even possible. You had really one organization that you had to choose from and that was NACSW.
So the possibilities of being able to trial were very limited. Slowly, but surely, other organizations popped up, which is again, not a bad thing. Those are all good things. More opportunities for dogs to sniff and for people to play is good. However, the other side of that coin is that people are now trialing so quickly into their journey and they're going up the levels so quickly that they're leaving some of their foundation training behind. What we're noticing trial officials is that you're seeing a lot more handler direction in the searches themselves as opposed to the dogs leading the search, which is disheartening at best because as professionals, and I don't mean professional detection dog people, I mean professionals as in trainers or trial officials, is that we understand what it looks like when a dog knows what they're doing. When a handler goes up to that line with a dog and the dog is not on odor, meaning that they haven't really detected anything yet, they don't even really know why they're there.
They don't really know what's going on and they immediately defer to the handler and the handler is leading them, sometimes quite forcibly, around the search area and presenting every square inch to them. The dog is almost tripping over hides and then they call alert and they get it. That's not what this game is supposed to be about. Now, there are lots of different ways of teaching Scent Work and I don't think that that's a bad thing. Again, there's lots of different ways to get to the same goal point, but the goal point is for the dog to find the hunt, which means that your dog has to know how to hunt. Particularly, if you are interested in going up the levels, you're not going to be able to do all of that crazy handler driven stuff at the upper levels. It's not going to be possible. Your search areas are too large, they're way too complicated and you don't have enough time. Your dog is the one who has to know how to do this.
So if you only cared about titles and you only cared about going up the levels, then that fact in and of itself should really put you back on your heels if you find that you're doing that a lot when you are trialing. What I want to talk about today is some of the ways that you be able to tell whether or not your dog actually knows how to hunt or if you may be doing too much. Again, this is not to disparage anyone who may train differently than I do. Again, I think there's lots of different ways that we can do this. I have my preferences, I have things that I prefer to do, things that I prefer not to do and that's okay. As long as the core principles are followed, I think we're fine. Again, just a trend that we're seeing right now is that those core principles are not being followed and the dogs are not being given the opportunity to learn and they're not hunting. They literally have no idea what they're doing and that's not good. That's not what this is supposed to be about.
How can you tell whether or not your dog actually knows how to hunt? Well, there are couple of different ways you can do it. I, again, I'm a very big proponent of pairing, or what that means is having a treat with a hide and some people are completely and totally against that. You could do it either way. You can either have a hide out by itself or you can have a paired hide, but just have it within a familiar space, so somewhere in your home, and maybe like a living room would be a good example. Just have it across from the start line, but have two other clean, they've never had any contact with odor before, vessels that are actually visible. A lot of people use metal tins or they may use straws or something, but your hide is not visible. The dog can still get their nose to it. So for instance, underneath the ledge of a fireplace or a chair or whatever the case may be. The reason why you want to have this set up is you want to have a visual cue for the dog.
If your dog goes to the blank tin and says, "Look, I found a tin," well that means that's what they think the game is about and that's a problem. Or if they don't do anything, which you would be surprised that if you do what I'm asking you to do and to stay at the start line, give your dog their search queue and just stay there, you can walk back and forth to maintain your movement, but you're not walking into the space; if your dog has no idea what hunting is about, they're going to look at you like you're crazy because they think the game is about you walking into the space, presenting everything to them and they quite literally trip over the hide. So if you can do that simple test, it doesn't have to be a living room, but you just want to have a familiar space so you're not trying to throw in all these other elements of distractors and unfamiliarity and everything else, and your dog isn't able to find that hide, then you have a problem.
You, in my opinion, should not be trialing. Your dog's not ready. Your dog doesn't understand what the core principle of this is and the core principle of Scent Work is your dog goes into any space and they find the target odor of whatever it is that you're working at that level; very complicated way of saying when you are at the very baby levels for the majority of the organizations, your dog goes into the space and they find birch. Again, what we're seeing right now with the rush for people to trial way before they should be is that dogs are going into spaces and they either are just staring at their handler the whole time, they may do circles and then look at their handler, their handler is touching everything and the dog is staring at the handler, but the dog's not working. The dog has no idea what they're doing.
It's further complicated since in some of the organizations for the entry levels, meaning the lower levels of competition where you start, some of these surgeries are super tiny where it's actually fairly easy for dogs to trip over hides. I don't mean quite literally, but they just stumble upon it. They're like, "Oh, there it is," but there's no real hunting involved. It's just hard to explain, but there's very big jumps in some of these levels. So you may do great at the lower level, maybe even the level of right after that, and then suddenly you're really struggling because now you need all those skills that you really needed in the beginning, but you were able to squeak by. Again, I think it's really important for us to just take a step back and say, "Yes, I could trial every single weekend. I may even be able to trial four days in a week depending on where I'm located and what's offered. Number one, do I need to?" I would argue no. "Number two, is that a good idea?' Meaning am I training to match that amount of trialing? Let's be honest, most of us aren't.
Every single time that you trial, you're diminishing your training criteria. A lot of people roll their eyes when they hear that, but it's true because your training criteria should be dog gets as close to source as possible. I don't care how good you think you are when you're trialing, you do not know exactly where that hide is. You just don't. It's out of you. You didn't place it. The judge will have a parameter that they will accept. Even if the hide is something simple like a chair. Probably the whole back end of that chair will be acceptable as far as, "Yes," but that may not be where the hide is. That hide could be in the middle of the back of the chair. When you're training, you want to reward there. You want the dog to get as close to source as possible so they can be correct. Again, that's another reason why you really want to think about how often you're trialing and whether or not you're training to match that amount of time.
The other thing is, is that if you're just rushing ahead with your trialing and you're not doing the training or you're not working on these core principles, you will find yourself in a very sticky situation at some point. Your expectations will be that your dog is going to do well even though they have no reason to do well because they don't know how to hunt, and you're going to get frustrated and you're going to get angry and you're going to get upset. Who are you going to get frustrated and upset with? You're going to get upset and frustrated with your dog, and that's not fair. So I know that a lot of people, because this isn't the first time I've talked about this either in podcasts or blogs or to students or whatever, and I know that people don't want to hear it. I know they just want to go, They want to have fun, they want to see their friends, they want to get their pretty ribbons, they want get their titles. What is this nonsense of having to train for three, four, five, six, eight months, a year? That's ridiculous. You know?
"I know that so and so did... They slapped some hides around for like three days and their dog went and they got high in trial." Sure, I guess. Let's just face some facts; I don't care what dog sport you're talking about, your dog needs to have skills and so do you. Right now what we're noticing is a complete lack of both. In this podcast episode, we're supposed to be just talking about can your dog actually hunt? But the handlers are lacking in skills as well, whether it be being able to read their dogs or being able to properly use their leash or their long lines, so on and so forth. But it shouldn't be seen as a bad thing that you need to take time to train. I promise you, none of these competition organizations are probably going to go away. Not all of them. One or two of the new ones may fizzle out, but your NACSWs or AKCs, your USCSSs, your PSDs, your UKCs, they're not going anywhere. That means none of those titles are going anywhere, that none of the ribbons are going anywhere.
They will be there when you're ready and wouldn't it be so much better for your dog to have a real understanding of what it is that they're doing when they actually go to the line with you? Because every single time that they go to the line with you, that is another experience and you want those experiences to be good. The whole point behind Scent Work was to give the dogs and opportunity to be dogs. What's so disheartening is that with these trends that we're noticing right now, particularly with trialing, is that that's being taken away from them. They're not allowed to be a dog. You're not allowed to actually figure out all these wonderful things as far as odor trails and learning to distinguish between other things that may be happening in the space and where the odor is traveling and how it may work here or there. They're not allowed to do any of that.
They're kept on a really short leash, their handler's hand is put right in front of their face and they're literally directed around the whole search area even though, if left to their own devices and if they knew how to hunt, they can make a beeline to the hide, no problem, and they can do it with confidence and a joy because they are allowed to be a dog in that context. But we're noticing, again with these trends, is that people aren't letting their dogs do that and that's sad. That's not what this is about. If you do it that way, you're not reaping any of the benefits of Scent Work at all. The reason why I love Scent Work so much is that it is the one activity that is supposed to put the dog in the lead role. The dog is supposed to be a dog. They are the lead dancer.
It is the one thing that the humans are just supposed to be offering support, but the dog is in the lead, making decisions, using their incredible sense of smell and being able to be a dog without all these human expectations put on them. There's a few, like they wouldn't be allowed to mark or potty while they're searching and they have to maintain their search within a certain space because that's where we've decided the search area is, but other than that, when Scent Work is done right, this is when your dog can be a dog and these trends that we're noticing doesn't allow that at all. So all the benefits I've been talking about and not myself alone, anyone and everyone who knows anything about Scent Work, for years, they don't apply. All that increase in confidence and increase in joy and being able to mentally and physically stimulate them and everything else, that goes right out the window because that's not what they're doing.
They're not being confident if you are literally dragging them around the space, showing them everything and then forcing them to do whatever behavior you want them to do when they've, "found it." That's not what Scent Work is about. That's not what it is. So it's not that I think that anyone is doing this knowingly or maliciously or because they don't like their dogs, it's just a trend and the dog world is very susceptible to trends. The Scent Work world in particular is very susceptible to trends and none of these trends have done well by our dogs, and there had been a lot of them over the years. There was a show me trend that was awful. It comes back every now and again, but it seems to have kind of gone away, which is nice. There's a whole bunch of them and they come and they go because the core principles always maintain their validity.
Does your dog know how to hunt? And if they know how to hunt, can you be confident enough in your dog to not mess them up? Can you just wait for them to work this problem out and be joyful when they do, mesmerized by the fact that your dog just did that? The actual finding of a hide from me, like when the dog actually gets to it, that's not even the exciting part. The exciting part is all the stuff in between. Watching them problem solve and figure out, "Okay, the odor is going there, but that's not where it's actually coming from. Oh, there was an interesting thing over here. Oh look, there's a little squished bug, but that's not what we're here for. Oh my goodness. Now, I've got it. Here we go.:" That's all the exciting part. That's stuff that I can't do as a person. My sense of smell's not that great. None of my senses are. They're pretty terrible.
So again, what I was hoping, and I don't know if I accomplish it in any way, shape or form, but I was hoping to at least bring to the forefront of everyone's thinking is evaluating how it is that your dog is approaching Scent Work. Evaluate how you're approaching Scent Work. Are you allowing your dog to hunt? I personally do not care one iota if your dog does some fancy, alert behavior at the end. That means nothing to me if your dog has no idea what they're doing at the start line. I could care less if they stood on their head and spit nickels when they found the hide because, "finding the hide," could have just been you. I've seen it time and time again where the dog has no idea what they're doing and the person basically just shows them where the hide isn't, then dog does a beautiful whatever it is. It's like, "Yeah, that's nice," but the dog has no clue what they're doing. That's not impressive. I'm sorry. I'm not impressed. I don't like it. That's not what this is.
I'm much more impressed with the dog who, at the start line, their nose is already going and they may be a little slower, but they're being methodical and they're thinking about it and they're following and they're being true to odor. I've always loved my sight hound students. Those dogs are so true to odor trails. They are amazing to watch. They would drive their owners crazy because they would try to compare themselves to the other dogs in class and I would say, "But watch what they're doing. Do you not see how they're... They're literally following it around. They're snaking around the search area, and those other dogs got all distracted and were all conflated with other stuff. Your dog actually found the hide faster. It just may not look as flashy, but who cares?'.
So again, as usual, this ended up being a little bit more rambling than I would have liked. But what I would urge everyone to do is to just take a step back, videotape one of your training sessions, do a setup like what we've talked about today, have three odor containers, vessels out in a search area. Again, two of them should never have had any contact with odor ever within their existence. You're using clean putty or tape or adhesive, whatever the case may be, and they are visible to the dog. Then on the same area, across from the start line, you have a non-visible actual odor vessel. You will stay at the start line.
There's a couple of things you want to ask yourself, is your dog sniffing at the start line or are they just staring at you completely clueless as to what is happening? When you release them with their search command, with their search queue, do they actually go to search or do they just stare at you going, "What are we doing?'. When you maintain your movement at the start line, but you don't enter into the search area, does your dog actually go to search or are they just come back and be like, "Hey, why aren't you coming with me? I thought you were supposed to show me all this stuff"? Do they actually find the hide or are they just targeting the actual, maybe you're using tins, are they just targeting the tins or the straw or whatever the case may be, that's actually empty.
Those are all things you have to ask yourself. If you're noticing that your dog is doing any of those things that they really shouldn't be doing, then you have to reevaluate your training and don't blame your dog, please. Just don't take it personally, it's perfectly fine. Just reevaluate and then see how you can fix it and fix it in a way that is fun. This is supposed to be your dog's favorite activity in the entirety of the world because they're allowed to be dogs. If it's not, then you're quite simply doing it wrong.
So again, I just wanted to put this out there for all of us to think about. Always open for discussions about it, not trying to disparage any type of training or approaches or make anyone feel bad. We just need to have honest discussions about these things to ensure that we're doing right by our dogs and that we are on the proper path as far as how we can reach our goals, even if we're using different training techniques to get there. Those core principles really do still apply. I hope you found this podcast episode helpful. Happy training, and we look forward to seeing you soon.