Talking Dogs Scentwork®

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15 ways dog trainers get scentwork training wrong. And how to avoid making the same mistakes.

I have concentrated the last twelve years on teaching scentwork over everything else. And as a result I have learned lots! I’ve learned how to teach scentwork in such a way that I can’t recall any dog and handling coming to any of my workshops and failing. Every team has understood the task and achieved success. I’ve also learned that not every scentwork trainer, be they teaching a class or their own dog, gets it right. Numerous times I’ve had people come to my workshops after attending classes with other trainers that left them confused and disappointed. 

As ever, I am keen to share my experience and knowledge. I want everyone to learn my top tips for scentwork training. So this list is written to help you teach scentwork to your own dog or to other people and their dogs avoiding these common mistakes. Many of which I’ve made myself at some point! 

1. Break it down

As teachers, trainers, we are super keen to share what we know. This can result in us spewing out information faster than Bolt can run 100m. We can be so excited to pass on our skills quickly and comprehensively that we overload our learners. I long ago learned to break lessons down into small chunks. Small manageable chunks. When learners get too much information at one time, there is a real danger that they learn nothing. And come away feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. When they should come away inspired and confident. 

More haste, less speed

When I sat down to design the five step in-person TDS (Talking Dogs Scentwork®) workshops and all of the online courses, I made sure to break each course, then each task, down into logical steps. As I was growing up, one of my mum’s favourite sayings was ‘More haste, less speed.’ And she was right. Rushing to teach all the skills, techniques and theory only ever results in students taking much longer to reach their goals. But taking small steps helps everyone learn at their own pace. And with much greater understanding.

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2. Moving on too soon, before the current step has been learned

Just as breaking exercises down into achievable steps is important, so is not moving on to the next step too quickly. I’ve seen this so often. Even with wonderful trainers who know the power of mapping out each and every step. Keen to crack on, they push forward. But without solid foundations, the whole concept of learning scentwork crumbles.

One of the wonderful aspects of teaching scentwork, is that each step is built upon the previous one. To watch teams grow as the layers of learning slot together is always joyful. On the flip side, it’s heartbreaking to see dogs and handlers struggling to make sense of the next step when they haven’t achieved the current step. So enjoy the process, and set realistic goals.

3. Not setting goals according to both the skill levels of the dog and the handler

As you will know from my previous blog posts, I have a complicated relationship with goal setting. But goals are essential when designing training plans. And without them neither trainer nor student have a measure of how they are progressing. Or how close they are to the end game. 

What is often forgotten is that scentwork is a team game. Each member of the team needs their own goals in order for them both to succeed. Sometimes, especially at the start, the team may be on the same page. Neither knows how to play the game so they both start from zero. But as training progresses, it is very likely that the balance will change with one of the team members moving ahead of the other. This is often the dog. 

Playing catch-up

Once the dog has learned to search for a target scent, she will be off and running. Meanwhile the handler is still learning how to work the dog. They are grappling with how to move while spotting indications and supporting their dog during the search and when they hit the scent. It’s Only by acknowledging these differences can the trainer set appropriate goals for dog and handler. 

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4. Jargon!

My pet peeve! I strive to eliminate jargon whenever I can. I want to be understood by everybody. Not just by students of learning theory or behaviour analysis. Cutting out technical terms in order to be better understood should surely be the aim of every teacher? 

Sometimes using jargon is a way to hide insecurity. Or to shy away from the fact that beyond the technical terms the trainer doesn’t fully understand the concepts themselves. Or in some sad cases it can be used to belittle those who don’t understand the jargon. 

So let’s ditch the geekspeak and work on clarity and inclusivity. Use language to bring people in rather than excluding them. Teaching depends on effective communication. So check your language to see just how much jargon you are actually using. 

5. Failing to ensure the dog understands that the target scent is important

If the trainer hasn’t taught the dog the relevance of the target scent, everything after that is meaningless. Expecting the dog to spontaneously realise that you want her to tell you when she finds a particular scent is both unfair and inefficient. 

Carefully choosing the target scent is the first step. Making sure it’s not a scent that she comes across every day is key. You don’t want her to be in any doubt that you want to know when she’s found it. Selecting a common scent requires her to decide when or if you want to know. 

Unique scent

For example, if you want your dog to find your own scent, your human scent, the scent that is attached to your home, her home, your furniture, her bed, your car, her crate, you better be very clear about when you want her to indicate. 50 indications a day around the house is not ideal!

Once you have your safe scent, such as catnip, you need to link it to a wonderful reward. Something that she loves to do or to eat. It could be a game of tug or a piece of sausage. Without the link, it’s not in her interest to tell you when she finds the scent. There’s no payoff. Nobody wants to work for free, your dog included.

6. Not making the dog/team feel safe enough to learn

Oh my word, how hard is it to learn something? To feel uncertain and vulnerable? Depending on your personality and/or your life experience, you may perceive learning as painful or pleasurable. It may induce feelings of inadequacy or curiosity. Stress or excitement. The trainer’s job is to make a safe environment for the learner. And in dog training, this means it must feel safe both both dog and handler. 

Physically safe

This could be a practical, physical safety. Scentwork is a wonderful activity for dogs who are uncomfortable around other dogs. During in-person workshops this has meant that while a particular dog works, I have asked vocal dogs to wait in the car. Or for dogs to move to the back of the hall. Or for all dogs to wait outside. By asking the handler what her dog needs and then providing that in spades, the dog can learn a new and potentially life changing skill. Watching a reactive dog start the day being wary of other dogs and end the day not giving a damn who or what else was in the room while she happily searches never gets old. 

Feeling vulnerable

Or it could be emotional. I used to hate learning in front of others. I dreaded making a mistake or sounding stupid. But thanks to a wonderful teacher I learned to be happily vulnerable. She assured me that no question, or answer was stupid. All they did was provide information about where I was in the process and how I needed to be supported. (To be fair, she didn’t say that at the time. She just didn’t make me feel stupid! Only later did I realise what she was doing). 

The bottom line is that we were all beginners once. So by adapting our teaching style to each student we can provide tailored support. By working with not preaching to our learners we can help them achieve more than they thought they, or their dog, could. 

7. Not conducting risk assessments (safety checks)

As I say in my workshops, ‘Health & Safety’ may be the dullest phrase in the English language. But they are vital when we are teaching scentwork. 

Firstly, we need to choose a safe scent – something non-toxic and non-aversive to our dogs. 

Secondly we need to give our teams safe environments in which to search. 

Risk is everywhere and negotiating it is something we all do every day. The ideal is to eliminate risk, e.g. choose a non-toxic scent for our dogs to find. But more often than not, minimising risk is more realistic. Checking that heaters aren’t hot. That surfaces aren’t slippery. Or if they are mitigating that by using a harness or playing carefully. Look for cables that could get tangled. Or sharp edges that could cut. 

Essential when working off lead

Especially important if you are working off lead, make sure you know what doors are unlocked, could be opened by your dog and what lies beyond them. For example, you don’t want your dog jumping onto the bar of a firedoor, opening it and running into the street.  Or pushing on a cupboard door to reveal dangerous cleaning bottles. Safety checking the whole area, within reason, not just the search area is  vital. Your dog doesn’t know the limits of the designated search area so if she can access it, you need to risk assess it. 

And thirdly, we need to ensure that what we are searching remains safe. So move valuable vases or precious photos out of the room before the search begins. And teach the dog to rest her paws, and nails, on you rather than on the paintwork of your car. Or put muddy paws on your white walls!  

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8. Expecting all dogs to work like professional working dogs

It’s futile trying to force a square peg into a round hole. For trainers who have worked exclusively with specially selected professional working dogs, adjusting their teaching methods and training style can be difficult. If you are used to seeing high energy, intense, sniffing machines, accepting that a languorous Deerhound is demonstrating the same scentwork skill can be a step too far. 

I recall a serving Customs handler sitting in one one of my workshops. At the end of the day she confessed that when she saw the whippet come into the room, her heart sank. No way was this dog going to be a detector dog. But her mind was changed and her perspective widened when she saw that this little hound was accurate and reliable, never missing a find. The style and manner with which she searched was completely alien to this Pro handler. But by watching this companion dog she recognised the same skills that she saw in her high drive working dog. 

No pre-selection with Talking Dogs Scentwork®

In TDS, we don’t pre-select dogs to get involved with scentwork. We know that all dogs can become detector dogs. And we know that to help them get there we need to adapt our training to suit the dog. Not the other way around. 

Trying to speed up a steady dog. Or slow down a speedy dog. Or insist on a particular type of indication when another is clearly more suitable is foolhardy and selfish. The Deerhound I mentioned was amazing. She looked as if she wasn’t working. There was no rush of excitement. No furious sniffing. But there was accuracy and pleasure. Her face when she hit the scent was glorious. I swear she smiled each time. By accepting her style of working, we allowed her to flourish and enjoy being a detector dog. 

9. Making the search areas too big

Enthusiasm is contagious. As is ambition. But both have their price if not handled carefully. Going out with a new search team and asking them to search a full building is unrealistic. Searching a whole room can be too much. In the early stages, small is beautiful. The search area should be being enough for both dog and handler to move independently. But not so big that they are miles apart or have to cover great swathes of uninspiring floor or ground. 

Size matters in scentwork. Too big can be daunting. Too small can be constricting. Choosing the right size of search area is about using the available space well rather than using all the available space. 

Define boundaries

I use chairs or boxes to define the boundaries of indoor search areas. This gives the team clarity. It helps them concentrate their efforts in the areas that matter. Even within the search area, you can limit what to search. You may choose just to search a particular corner, or just a couple of sides on the perimeter. It all depends on the team’s skill levels and the goals for both dog and handler. 

10. Making search areas too busy

Even when you make the search area the right size, you can still get it wrong. Filling it with too much stuff can make it overwhelming. For dog and handler. If the handler hasn’t yet learned how to make a search plan, over-stuffing an area is bound to lead to an incomplete search. Missing things and not searching the whole area can be frustrating. But so can re-searching the same things because you’d forgotten you’d searched them amongst the myriad of objects. 

Clutter free is the way to be!

Also beware of storing used or future objects too close to the search area. Clutter around the search area itself can be both tempting and distracting. It is important to help the dog save her sniffing energy for inside the area rather than squandering it on things outside. A pile of used boxes right beside the search zone will give out target scent. For the dog to then indicate on boxes, etc. that contain only residual scent rather than articles can be a real let down for her. 

Pitching the amount for the dog to search is a skill in itself. The trainer has to understand when to introduce different heights, when to bury articles or when to limit the number of potential hiding places to bring out the best in the team. Plan carefully and cleverly.

11. Reducing the amount of scent available to the dog too soon

There is a certain mindset where folks want to make things harder and harder for the dog. They want to challenge the dog to see just what she can do. Don’t get me wrong, challenge is good. When I was a Customs handler challenge was essential. Every day we met new challenges, new concealments. And we trained hard to meet those challenges. Much to my line managers’ dismay, I was often more excited about finding a few grains of cocaine than a few tonnes. To locate such tiny scent pictures was always awe inspiring to me. 

But you need to think about when and whey to reduce the scent picture. What is your goal? What do you want to achieve? It may be that you want your dog to learn to sniff through layers. So maybe a box in a box, in a bag. Or you might want to encourage your dog to indicate on a tiny smear of scent on a ‘bare’ wall. There is nothing wrong with either of these examples. Providing the trainer has worked with the team to complete all the necessary steps it takes to meet these challenges. 

Don’t rely on luck

Has she started by putting one box inside another? Does the dog already know how to search baggage? Has she ever searched a wall for a scented article never mind a smear of scent? If not, then asking the dog to make the mental and physical jump to locating the hide is to rely on luck. They may get lucky and the dog might be confident enough in her scentwork ability to take a chance on indicating on a deep find. Or a blank wall. But what happens to the dog who doesn’t have that confidence? Or to the handler who doesn’t recognise and understand an indication on an apparently blank area? 

The trainer has to introduce the challenges in small steps. Not giant leaps.  

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12. Failing to vary the search articles

Anyone who knows me or knows about TDS, also knows about the scentwork mice. Almost since the start of TDS, I’ve used these furry soft toys to introduce dogs to scentwork. The perfect size and material to release scent, squish into small places and provide a high value reward when the dog hits the target. But make no mistake – the dog is searching for the SCENT on the mouse, not the mouse. 

This is an important distinction. The core value of teaching scentwork is that the scent can be applied to anything and everything. The dog might find her target scent on a fencepost. Or a car window visor. Maybe in plant pot. Or under a rug. To limit the dog by limiting her target is a wasted opportunity. 

Of course, there’s still value in your dog searching for a favourite toy. But be clear about the target of the search. Is it a specific item or a specific scent? 

Variety in all it’s forms

You can avoid the dog getting fixed on a mouse, or any other article, by having a variety of different articles to scent up from very early in the training programme. After the initial introduction and starter searches, use similar but different objects. Use a variety of toys about the same size, maybe with slightly different textures, e.g. furry, smooth, soft, firm. Then start using different materials, like leather, denim, towelling. Later move on to cork, rubber, plastic, wood, metal. It is this stepping up and mixing of materials and objects that teaches the dog to keep an open mind. And through that you prevent her from dismissing possible scented articles just because they are of an unexpected or unfamiliar form. 

13. Failing to vary where the target scent is hidden

Write down where you hide the target scent. I know. I’m supposed to lay out why you should vary the hides before telling you how to solve the problem. But honestly, the solution to this issue is so simple, and so rarely used, that I couldn’t wait. Such an easy solution – but folks don’t use it often enough. I’ll guarantee that if you search the same area multiple times, e.g your back garden, that you will begin to hide articles in the same places. You probably won’t notice this. But your dog will! And what you’ll see is the dog going straight to those places before they settle down to check the area as a whole. 

But there’s no need. You can stay ahead of the dog by making a note of your hides. You can draw diagrams, make sketches, write lists. But do make a record.

Track your hides

Using these notes, you can also track your hides. This will let you see how often you vary the height (e.g. under the paws or above the nose). You can see if you are mixing up the depth of hides, the materials, the types, and the environment. A quick look through your jottings will let you discover the last time you did an outdoor search and hid the articles in a wall. Or where your last ‘line-up’ search was. Or your last baggage search. 

Whether through absent-mindedness or laziness, at one level failing to vary the hiding spots is failing to keep searches fresh and fun. At another level it will limit your team’s skill set. You’ll get stuck and your dog will stop searching anywhere other than the usual spots.  

14. Working the dog for too long

‘Let’s do just one more search.’ I’ve said it. I’m sure you’ve said it. And I’ll bet your trainer’s said it.  A hard earned skill for trainers is to know when to stop. Whether we want to repeat a perfect performance or have just one more go at practising a new skill or improving an old one. We must learn to resist the lure of ‘just one more’. 

End on a high

If you can end on an high spot, do it. The dog gives a fabulous indication. Perhaps she follows through on a check-step. Or jumps onto a ledge for the first time. Or checks under a mat with confidence and vigour. Don’t push your luck by asking her to do it again. The chances are she might not and then your opportunity for her lasting memory of the session to be positive and useful slips through your fingers. 

And pushing your dog past her limits to try to get something right can be counter-productive. As a human learner you know that you’re unlikely to get great results when you are physically or mentally tired. The same is true for your dog. Better to have a break and come back to the issue or challenge later. 

Scentwork can be physically demanding

The physicality of sniffing should never be under-estimated. It takes a great deal of stamina to be able to search effectively and accurately for more than a few minutes. You need to build up search stamina. Both you and your dog. To go from a 20 second free search, where the dog searches a small area with minimal handler guidance, to a fully supported 20 minute search, where nothing is left un-searched, is a huge jump.  But so are multiple searches. 

At our workshops, the Scent 4 Environmentals is the most search heavy day. Teams have the opportunity to perform 9, sometimes 12 searches over the course of the day. Compared to other workshops where they might search 3 or 4 times, this is a big jump. And handlers and trainers have to be ready to veto a search, to call a halt to allow the dog to rest. 

Scentwork requires mental stamina

For some dogs, a couple of short searches is enough. For others, they can happily and successfully work on. But it’s not just physical stamina that is needed, it’s mental. Scentwork requires high levels on concentration. Ask any handler who has just done their first 20 minute search how they feel and most will tell you they’re exhausted. ‘But it was only 20 minutes’ I hear you cry. It’s what happens in that 20 minutes, how much effort you exerted in that 20 minutes. That’s the difference between a 20 minute search and a 20 minute dog walk. 

Remember: resist, relax and revive. 

15. Failing to teach great handling skills

Sometimes too much time is spent working on the dog and not enough time is spent working on the handler. Scentwork is a team activity. It takes two. Dog and handler. One cannot work well without the other playing their part. 

Handling skills can make or break a dog. Without the right support and guidance, dogs cannot fulfil their potential. They may struggle to grow in confidence and skill. May be unsure of what is being asked of them. And may find that carrying the heaviest load of responsibility for success leads to stress. Which ultimately leads to disengagement with scentwork. 

Dance with your dog

Learning how to move with your dog, anticipating her needs and responding to her signals is a wonderful dance. I believe that it is this harmony, this mutual dependence and respect that makes scentwork so addictive. Speaking personally, to be ‘in the zone’ with my dog is a very special place. It’s just me and her in the moment. Nothing else matters. The Queen could be watching and I wouldn’t care. 

Can you imagine working without having this symbiotic experience? What a waste! And what a loss. If your trainer isn’t teaching you about handling skills, it’s time to get a new trainer. It takes great training, lots of practise and supportive feedback to learn how to handle well. But without this skill, you may as well drop your dog off at the search area and go home. 

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Steering in the right direction

So there it is. My list of 15 ways dog trainers get scentwork training wrong. I hope that I’ve helped you to avoid the pitfalls. And steered you in the right direction along the way. So if you are your dog’s trainer, you are looking for a trainer, or your are a professional trainer, do your best and learn from those who have been there before you. Learn from my mistakes and be the best trainer you can be. 

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