Just Train For It: A Deeper Look
Dianna L. Santos
A slogan that is making the rounds as of late is, "Just Train for It!". This has come about in response to people claiming they are having difficulties at trials, especially when it come to potential distractions or distractors. Asking people to train for what they may see at trial is a sound principle on it's face...but is this slogan potentially doing more harm than good?
In this podcast episode, we discuss the inadvertent downsides to "Just Train For It", the need to be clear and thorough as well as how, as community, we need to reassess how we approach trialing and training. A ton of information jammed into one little podcast episode! Let's get to it!
*NOTE: In this episode, Dianna mentions a few things. One is Michael McManus' The Language of Nose Work: Reading Your Dog Webinar as well as Lori Timberlake's blogs and podcasts.
If you were looking for more detailed instruction on how to work distractions into your training, look into our online course, Only Odor Proofing Course.
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, a behind-the-scenes look of what your instructor or trial official may be going through, and much more.
In this episode, we're going to be talking about distraction training. Or something that we would be hearing as of late, just train for it. We're going to be talking about that concept in particular and why there may be some issues with it as a general stance and how we may be able to think about distraction training in a little bit of a different light.
Before we start diving into the podcast episode itself, let me do a very quick introduction of myself. My name is Dianna Santos, I'm the owner and lead instructor for Scent Work University, Dog Sport University and Family Dog University.
These are online dog training platforms that are designed to provide high quality instruction to as many people as possible. We're very fortunate to have a client base that's quite literally worldwide. For Scent Work University, we focus on all things Scent Work, which can include our online courses, seminars and webinars. This can help if you're just getting started in Scent Work, if you're trying to perfect some skills, or if you're getting ready for competition. So now that you know a little bit more about me, let's dive into the podcast episodes itself.
So the main thing I wanted to talk about today was this concept of just train for it, which is normally said when people are talking about distractions or distractors that they may have encountered while at a trial for instance. And the notion itself I don't think is necessarily a bad one, right? Is to basically ensure that people are actually training and preparing for what they may see at trial. Because there definitely is a trend where people are trialing way too early. Again, for me personally, I would urge people to expect that you should be training with your dog for anywhere between eight months to a year before you ever start trialing. And at that point you should be able to take an ORT, and you should be able to pass that ORT, and then you should be able to start trialing in NW1 level or a novice level with any of the various organizations. And then continue to train so that you'll be able to go to the next level.
But oftentimes what's happening is that people are putting their dogs on odor at whatever stage, whether they start with odor or they've started with primary then they switch over to odor. And then they immediately start trialing. And the issue with that is that there's a whole lot more to competing and actually searching at a trial than simply your dog finding the hide. In that they have to basically focus solely on the odor that's in the space and not get sucked in by anything else that may be in the environment. Which could be, for an exterior search, maybe there is some pee hat another dog had left as a little doggy text. There could've been where other critters were. There could be other people that are inside the search area. Your judge, your timer, any volunteers.
There could be other things that are going on outside of the search area itself. There could be something that's adjacent to the actual trial site such as a train station or a highway or even an airport. There could be any number of things. There could be food smells from the restaurant next door. And it's not just exteriors. Interiors have all of the same problems, where you have different airflow issues, you have acoustics. So if something were to make a noise, maybe there's an echo. You have things such as HVAC, which can in some instances be very noisy.
There's all kinds of different things that we have to consider when we're talking about distractors and potential distractions when our dogs are actually searching. Particularly when we're talking about trialing. Now again, all that still applies if you're playing the game on your own just for fun.
But when we start hearing about this whole notion of "just train for it", it's said within the context of trialing. And again, the notion itself I don't think is is a bad one. I think asking people to be as prepared as possible with their dogs before they trial is fine and that's actually sound. But there are some issues with it. And the first is it's assuming that people know how to actually do that.
So I come at this knowing that for me personally I like to have as much information whenever I go into a situation as possible. So if someone gives me some really broad guideline on something, I'm going to try to fill in the dots myself as much as I can. And that sometimes can get me into a lot of trouble because I didn't have all the information to make the right decisions. So again, completely outside of the context of Scent Work or even dog training, this kind of thing can happen where a very broad blanket statement is made and then you're trying to do something in response to that. But you don't have all the information in front of you. So at the very least, your attempts could be extraordinarily inefficient where you could have recreated the wheel, done five different things that the person who was giving this broad statement would have said, "Oh yeah, no, I tried that before. That doesn't work. You should have done these two things." Well that's great. Well, maybe you should've told me that.
And again, I don't think that anyone who says the "just train for it" are bad people or that they have bad intentions, I don't. I think they're actually trying to help to really urge people to be like, "Okay, look, you know, you really have to give this a thought as far as how it is that you're approaching your training." What I'm suggesting is that we don't just latch onto these kinds of slogans and instead think about real solutions of what it is we may be able to do within the context of what we're talking about.
Which is, okay, people are having some issues at trials. A lot of that is probably just due to experience level. And having holes in training and things of the sort. One of those things being ability to work through distractors. So then we should be talking through in a very detailed way how it is you would actually train for those things. Because if you just say, "Just train for it," well then that could mean to me, well, I think that my dog gets distracted by food. That means I need to have more food in my search area. On the face of it that sounds fine, I guess. But then what happens if you don't set it up in such a way where your dog is not able to go into the search area. Say, "Oh look, there's a bagel with cream cheese just out in the open and my hide is way over there. You know what? I'm going to eat the bagel with cream cheese and then I'm going to go get my hide."
Again, when you say it out loud, that sounds ridiculous. Because you're basically rewarding the dog for not getting the hide and going to the food instead. But if we're not careful with how we describe these things, that's exactly the kind of thing that happens. Or it's not that it's just really right out in the open, but it's in a container that the dog can still get to, or the dog fusses with enough that then they're able to get to it and then they are rewarded. Or enough attention is paid by the competitor, by the handler, to that thing that now it even has more value than it did before.
It could also just be the way the search area itself is set up. So let's say that you've never done distraction training before in any formal sense, and you have heard this, "just train for it". Maybe you got a "No" at a trial and you're like, "Oh, I have to train for this." Right? So if you've never done this before in any way, shape or form, you put out a hide, let's just say it's an exterior space, and then right next to the start line you also have a distractor. But the hide is further back. Can we not see how this is an issue? In that you're basically inviting the dog the very first time they're seeing in training a control distractor problem to go see the distractor first, mess with it a bunch, and then maybe, hopefully, go see their hide.
I would argue that you should be using a completely different technique of having your distractor very low-value, should almost be behind the search area, meaning behind you and the dog when you come up to your start line. It should be so low-value your dog doesn't even care about it. And you should be driving into source and you should be paying their finding of the hide as heavily as possible, whether it be with treats, toys, a combination of the two, whatever. Really let them know that was the right choice.
And as you progress, that distractor would come closer and closer to the search area until now it was part of the search area. But then you're also keeping it really low-value. And what I mean by that is low-value as in the dog doesn't care. It's barely a distractor. Really bake in an amount of success that your dog has and don't shoot yourself in the foot by having all these failures baked in. Have a lot of successes baked in instead.
And then slowly increase the value of that distractor. So now it is something like a bagel with cream cheese inside of a closed container, because you don't want your dog self-rewarding when they do potentially check it out. And when they do find their hide, tell them how great they are. The heavens open up, you're the best thing that ever lived, dog.
That can't really be boiled down to a fancy little slogan though. So could it be argued that that's what "just trained for it" means? I guess. But if you don't know that, then you could potentially be shooting yourself in the foot with how it is that you try to go about just training for it.
So that's basically what I wanted to talk about in this episode, it's not that the concept of it is bad. I think it's just the way that people think and go about it.
The other thing to consider is how it is that you are working on any number of distractors with your dog. In that you should not be approaching this in such a way, in my opinion, that you were designing this to ensure the dogs can make a mistake, meaning that you're trying to trick them into making mistake so you can give them a correction or anything like that. In my opinion, that has no place in Scent Work. It doesn't have any place in dog training. I hate trick questions. I don't know anyone who does like trick questions. They're frustrating even just from person-to-person. Just imagine what it's like to your dog. It's not fun.
So instead you want to have a really broad understanding of what a distractor could actually be. It's not just food, it could be movement, it could be sounds, it could be people, it could be just any collection of things. You want to really broaden your idea of what a distractor could be and then you want to try to figure out how is it that I can still have my dog do this search, stretch their abilities, provide some real learning moments without setting them up to fail.
So an example of this is using potty areas, so if you're doing an exterior search, you would want to work your way up incrementally to having your hide closer and closer to a potty area. So that your dog then can understand when I go to search, it is about searching and not about potty. I'm not talking about correcting your dog or anything like that. I have absolutely no need for any of that in my training when I'm talking about Scent Work or really anything. I'm talking about incrementally moving where your hide is, changing how your search area is designed so that your dog can come up and be successful and then get out of Dodge before they make a mistake.
You also want to be videotaping all of this so that you can see afterwards my dog got a whiff of the potty area, this is what they look like when they're sniffing potty. But then they made a fantastic decision of then going back to their hide and that's what they look like when they're on odor and I fed them heavily and that was a wonderful learning moment.
Yes, there was potty out there. I'm sure there's all kinds of doggy texts. Some of them were probably not very nice. Some of them are actually pretty rude. "Your mother had saggy nipples or something", who knows? It can be anything that's really terrible. We have no idea what those doggy texts say. But your dog made the wonderful decision to leave that and then go to find their hide. You have to make certain that you are setting that up so they can actually make that correct choice and so they can be rewarded for doing so.
So again, the main thing I wanted to underline in this episode was just being a little more thoughtful with how we're doing this. Yes, I think that as an overall statement, we can say that everyone kind of needs to pump the brakes a little bit, and do more training, do more preparation before we go into trial. But we have to be careful with how we do that.
The final thing that I wanted to talk about as far as this whole notion of "just train for it" is that it does seem to gloss over the potential that you could have a poorly designed search area. And that's just a fact of Scent Work trials. Now there are some organizations who have been in this for a lot longer than others, NACSW is the first. They have a lot of years under their belt. Does it mean that every single search that they set up is absolutely perfect? Of course not. There is no such thing. But they are going to have, as an organization, a lot more experience than some of the newer ones, like AKC Scent Work, that's just newer. The officials are newer, the organization is newer and they're just different.
That being said, something that Michael McManus talked about in his webinar that we offered at Scent Work University really struck a chord with me. In that we do give too much weight to the "No's" that we receive when we are competing. Meaning that they really cause us like emotional pain. And it was an inadvertent consequence of the way that the first Scent Work trials were set up. In that if you got a "No", you were done for the whole day and you didn't get anything. So it was a really consequential thing if you got a "No". And it was never meant to cause that much anguish, it just happened and it's just the way it is.
But the other thing that he pointed out is that we as competitors, need to kind of get a thicker skin as far as it's concerned. And I know this personally, I wish that "No's" didn't affect me as much as they do, but they really do. And I'm trying to work on that. But we need to look at every single situation for what it is and take feedback that we may get from an official for what it is.
This is something else that one of our other instructors Lori Timberlake has spoken about in her podcast and in her blogs, is sometimes you'll getfeedback that's great. Even if you and your dog didn't do well, it's still helpful. It's informative to you. It's something that you can actually use. And there are other times you get feedback that quite frankly, you know, it's not really helpful. There's not a whole lot you can do with it. That doesn't mean that because you got a "No", and you got that feedback, you have to tear up all your training and start all over again. Or that that official is the worst thing ever, or that that trial host is hateful towards all dogs. None of those things are true.
So what we need to do as a community, is approach our trialing a little bit differently. And go into it knowing, and being really honest, does my dog and myself actually positively have the skills to succeed at this level? And ideally even the level beyond this. Because that would be almost a guarantee that you would do well if everything was perfect, and we're going to get into that in just a second. If that answer is no, then you're basically behind the eight ball right out of the gate. You're basically guaranteeing yourself this isn't going to go well. You got a 50-50 shot, you got luck and then you've got, you know, reality is going to bite you in the butt. But you know if you say, "Yes, my dog and I both have the skills for this level and the level beyond," perfect.
You then have to ask yourself, "Am I prepared for the possibility that everyone does everything they possibly can do to have this go well, and mother nature just throws a wrench into it?" Because that happens sometimes, the Scent Work gods are with you and sometimes they're not. Are you willing and able to take that possibility that you may very well get a "No" and it's not that anyone did anything wrong, it just happens. Are you okay with that? If you say yes, then great, then we'll go to the next step.
Are you also willing to recognize that both you and your dog are not robots. That you may have all the training, you may have all the great background, you may have all the great observation skills, your dog may be the best sniffer ever. You also can be rundown, you could have a bad day, you could just not feel well. You may get a "No" for that too. Are you okay with that possibility?
So those are the three things you want to ask yourself before you start going immediately to, "Oh my God, it's a conspiracy. The Illuminati are preventing me from getting my my title."
How this ties into the whole "just train for it" piece is I don't want people to just say, "Well, that Santos lady said that I can just blame the officials because they didn't know what they were doing." I'm not saying that at all. But I am saying that we just have to be realistic about all this stuff. We have to be realistic about the fact that there are actual human beings, not perfect omnipotent beings, designing our searches. They're trying their very best. They're working with or sometimes in complete conflict with mother nature, depending on her mood on that day. And we also have to be mindful of the fact that us and our dogs are not robots either, that other things can happen.
But as long as we take the steps necessary to ensure that we and our dogs are as prepared as possible. If you do get a "No", try to learn from it. It doesn't mean you have to set everything that you've done on fire. It doesn't mean you just start all over again. It doesn't mean that you and your dog are terrible. Learning could simply be, "Okay, well now I have learned that in this situation I received feedback that's really not that helpful to my dog. I know from watching the video that he and I were really darn close to that hide. We were off by two inches. Okay. My dog was still right. My dog found it. Our training is fine. We just simply didn't get it within the confines of whatever organization standards that there are."
And that's the other issue that I think was brilliant that Michael brought up in his webinar, is that it doesn't mean that the dog is wrong. It doesn't mean that your training is wrong. It just means that in that one second, in that one moment, you didn't get a yes. And it's not that big of a deal.
So to wrap this episode up, the overall concept of "just train for it", I don't think is bad. I think we should be a little bit more thoughtful when we think about how it is we would actually implement that.
Training is absolutely important. Practice makes perfect. And understanding that the skills that are being talked about and being promoted by instructors is not simply so that they can get money out of you. Sometimes it can seem that way. Like, "Oh look, you've got another class for us." I know for myself when I'm offering a new class or a new webinar or something, it's not some like, "Oh, now I get to get some more money from people." It's because, "Oh, I saw five, 10 dogs who need the skill. Let's really focus on this, there seems to be some kind of gap. Let's help them get these skills." That's why we're offering these things.
I would say hands down, almost all the instructors and fellow colleagues that I know are offering these services because they want to help. And because they want to ensure that dog and handler teams have those skills that they really desperately need. It's not for any other reason.
So again, in that context, understand that there are a lot of skills that are necessary for you to be successful in all of this. Try to do as much as you can have control over. And what I mean by that is if I'm telling you that you're going to need eight months to a year of training to do an ORT NW1 or novice and maybe the second level, then really evaluate what skills it is that you and your dog need during that time. Because that's the thing that you can control. If you're competing, you cannot control who's officiating. You can choose which trials you enter, but you can't control where they're going to place the hides. You can't control the way the search area is set up. You can't control the rules that are set by the organization. You can choose which organizations you compete with.
But my main thing is be as prepared as you can and control what you can, which is you and your dog. And also the way that you approach all this stuff. Make sure that you're not coming at this from a standpoint that's going to just make you crazy, where everybody is out to get you. Because that's not the case. There's not a concerted effort to make you miserable because they want you gallivanting all over the country trying to chase Qs. That's not the point.
I know it's painful personally as an official to say "No", I want every single dog to pass. It's painful to say "No", it hurts because you know what it feels like to hear a "No" and you want the team to be successful. But I have to say I was comfortable with every single "No" that I have had said. There were times when I said, only to myself, like, "Not only is this a " No", but this is a you shouldn't be competing "No". You guys just aren't ready." And that's not a ding. I hope that people could maybe take a step back and not be quite so defensive when that's brought up. I understand the allure of wanting to compete, I really do. But you need all those skills.
So while I think the overall premise of "just train for it" is a good one, I think it's coming from a good place. It doesn't provide enough information about how to do that. Because when we just say just train for it, well that means, "Well I put three distractors out in two of my training sessions, now I'm going to go try a trial this weekend. Perfect. We should be great." No, it doesn't work like that.
So again, the whole premise of this episode as rambling as it is, is just trying to get people to think a little bit more about these things and to just try to take just some of the toxicity out of it. We shouldn't be at each other's throats about any of this stuff. And I don't think that anyone is purposefully trying to cause anyone angst as it comes to trialing and Scent Work. That's not why these trials are happening.
So I hope that we all can come at this from a little bit of a different place and just concentrate on having fun with our dogs. And for those of you who may not be competing, you're like, "Yay, I don't have to worry about this stuff at all." But that's not true either. You would want to, absolutely, even if you're just playing the game for fun, make sure that your dog can be focused when maybe you're practicing in your house and someone comes in from outside. You would hope that they would have enough odor obedience to stay on-task. There are fun ways that you can do this too. It doesn't always have to be about competition. It can just be about building skills and enjoying the journey.
So I hope this podcast episode made a little bit of sense. It was a tad bit rambly, but there'd been a lot of discussions, particularly on social media lately, and I was just hoping that we could kind of tap down on some of the anger that's coming out. Which again, I understand where it's coming from, but I think if all of us can just approach this from a more controlled standpoint where we are keeping in mind what we can do with our dogs, it can really help.
Thanks so much for listening. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.