Ten years old. How can Talking Dogs Scentwork® be ten years old already?! Trying to get my head around the fact that scentwork has been my life for a decade is truly mind boggling. But there it is. My little sniffing company has passed it’s first decade milestone.
My love of scentwork started way back in 1984. While working in my local library, I decided to kill some time by attending an interview arranged by the Job Centre. It was for an office job with HM Customs & Excise and I had zero interest in it. I rocked up to the interview dressed completely in black (I was, and still am, a huge Stranglers fan) I recall I was wearing a tight ruched pencil skirt and oversized man’s leather jacket I’d picked up at a jumble sale. I wasn’t nervous because I didn’t want the job.
And so, there I was sitting chatting with the panel when one asked if I knew about the dogs that worked at the airport? Instantly my ears pricked up as he went on to explain about the drug detector dogs. Suddenly this position had just moved from a boring office job to a career working with dogs. I will always be grateful to this interviewer. His name was Ivor Young. Little did I know that he lived on my street and saw me most days walking all the neighbourhood dogs past his house. And of course, I knew his little Westie, even though I didn’t know him. If he hadn’t noticed my affinity with dogs my life would have been very different.
Scroll forward a few years and I did become a drug detector dog handler with HM Customs. And I loved it. Back then we were trained by the RAF Police. Located at a base near Nottingham, I trained all over the UK. I got lost travelling from terminal to terminal at Heathrow Airport. I nearly drove my van into Concord when it was grounded at Glasgow due to fog. And I slept through the great storm of 1987 when working at the port in Dover. I awoke to find metal hotel signs bent over at right angles, cars crushed and shop windows smashed. It was as if I was walking through a scene of a disaster movie.
I absolutely loved (almost) every part of being a dog handler. Seeing different places, getting involved in all sorts of shenanigans, being at the centre of huge operations. And all with my dog by my side. My time in Customs taught me about life, helped reinforce and grow my values and allowed me to develop a strong work ethic. And now over three decades later, those lessons are still at the centre of what I do. And I still do it with a scentwork dog by my side. Well, three scentwork dogs now.
After I left Customs I set about learning more about the science of how dogs learn, about their behaviour and their motivations. Until this point I’d worked mostly on instinct. Looking back, the RAF’s approach to dog training was fascinating. We were taught nothing about learning theory. We followed the training system that worked though we were never taught why. Dogs were paramount and were always looked after first. To this day, if I travel somewhere with my dogs, their needs are still met first. For example, if we make a service station stop, they get to go to the toilet before me. They are given drinks and food before I am. And only once their needs have been met do I even think about what I need.
The training itself was dog centred. Unlike the patrol or general purpose dogs who were still taught with choke chains and punishment, our training was described as ‘non-compulsive’. The dog had to want to work. Therefore it was our job to make the work as pleasurable and rewarding as possible for the dog. Whatever the dog needed, we provided. I was so lucky to have been involved in a professional environment where the dogs came first. And yes, they were tools of the trade. But if you didn’t look after your tools you couldn’t do good work.
With this background of positive reinforcement training, although it was never referred to as such, I was keen to learn why what I was doing actually worked. Based in Scotland, I spent many hours schlepping up and down the country travelling to seminars, workshops, camps to learn form the great and the good. I travelled abroad and soaked up every bit of information, every training tip, and every behavioural theory you’ve heard of, and many you’ve probably not. I read voraciously. And I read everything. From the downright abusive to the thoughtful but impractical, I read it all.
Fast forward to today, and although my knowledge continues to grow and my understanding get ever deeper, the lessons learned during those intensive years stay with me. And I bring them to Talking Dogs Scentwork® in every course, lesson and interaction. All my teaching is dog centred. I work to help dogs have better lives. That’s my core value. I don’t work to look clever, or have dogs who behave like robots or who are forced or coerced into activities that I like more than they do. In order to improve dogs’ lives, I need to help their humans understand them better. Which in turn helps dogs and humans. Win-win! To do this work with a disregard for the people who bring the dogs to workshops, or spend time and money going online to learn more on my courses is to fail the dogs.
I don’t really described myself as a people person. But I am a teacher. And teaching requires empathy and compassion. Those I believe I have. And am always working on improving. I will never understand people as I understand dogs. But I try. I put myself in the place of the student, canine or human. What would help me work better, learn more easily, understand faster? I also consider what makes me uncomfortable, agitated, anxious. Working with multiple species requires multiple skills. But the crossover between dogs and humans is immense. And I know that if I can make one half of the team feel good about themselves, that positivity will flow to the other team member.
Despite TDS being the first national scentwork training company in Great Britain (and maybe in other countries?) to focus solely on companion dogs in a non-competitive, non-selective and 100% inclusive training, in my work I came late to scentwork. I had been working professionally for 20 years before honing in on scentwork. Yes, I’d always used it in training and behaviour work but had never really considered it scentwork. Only when I looked back did this realisation hit me. But I’m grateful for those two decades of work that came before I formed TDS.
I knew how to devise courses. I understood how to break exercises down into manageable and achievable chunks. How dogs and people learned were my bread and butter. Why people brought their dogs to training classes was well understood. Unlike trainers who come straight from the forces and expect the general public to jump to attention and follow their rules, I knew that people had to be treated with respect. They chose to bring their dogs to my events. They wanted to come and it was my job to make them want to stay and to train and to succeed.
Talking Dogs Scentwork® is born
And so, for probably the first time in my career, I sat down and planned a series of progressive workshops to take teams from complete novices through to unexpectedly amazing (more on this later) and experienced scentworkers. And though I’ve honed and tweaked these workshops, they still form the core of what I do today. I’ve never had a team come through these workshops who didn’t succeed. This isn’t a statement I make lightly. I can’t say this about any other area of training. But with Talking Dogs Scentwork® I know this to be a fact. And one that I’m very proud of.
I mentioned earlier that I was amazed at just how well the dogs worked. Given the support and opportunity to do well, every dog outperforms their human’s expectations. When allowed the freedom to express themselves in a way that feels natural and comfortable to them dogs can concentrate on excelling and really showing us what they can do with their olfactory skills. When I first introduced the Scent 7 workshop, I was blown away by just what these companion dogs could do. I’ve seen a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a Poodle, a cockapoo and a Newfoundland find tiny amounts of scent, hidden beneath layers of packing and materials, and then sealed up so that their searches were akin or even more skilled than those of professional detector dogs.
I’ve never been much of a trumpet player. But looking back over this decade, I’m super proud of our achievements. Thousands of dogs and their people have been introduced to the joys of scentwork. I see many trainers out there offering scentwork as an activity option to their clients. Many of those trainers are using my system even though they might not be aware of it. I wish more used it rather than squeezing dogs into faux ‘this is how the pros do it’ training, but that’s a blog for another day.
TDS has contributed to the pantheon of information of scentwork through our provision of dogs and handlers for a thesis at the University of Lincoln and through my book Detector Dog. TDS methods are used in over 24 countries (that I know of) We have helped both peopled dogs with disabilities, both mental and physical, participate and succeed in dog training. We’ve helped dogs in rescue, dogs with behavioural issues and dogs who have been housebound and isolated with us during the pandemic. And most of all, I do believe that we have helped highlight both the benefits and the necessity of sniffing to the general public as well as to fellow professionals.
I thank all those clients who gave scentwork a shot in the early days. And those who discovered us along the way. To those who have stuck with us throughout the decade – and you know who you are – I send my undying love and gratitude.
So what’s next? What does the next decade bring? I have no idea! But I do know that I will continue with my mission to help give every dog the opportunity to become a scentwork dog.
If you’ve been part of this amazing decade with us, I’d love to hear your memories of Talking Dogs Scentwork®.