When it comes to scentwork, too many trainers follow Gwen Stefani’s advice and reject Taylor Swift’s. If you’re puzzled, Gwen says ‘Don’t Speak’ while Taylor says ‘Speak Now’. When it comes to scentwork training, I encourage handlers to be more Taylor and speak to their dogs. Here’s why.
Coming up . . .
When you’re learning something, how do you know if you’ve done it correctly? Or if you’re going in the right direction? Are you getting close to the goal? Is your effort at working to reach the goal appreciated? What if you’re doing something wrong, would you like to know? And would you like to understand how to change what you’re doing in order to get it right? What if your teacher was silent? Just stood by, watching you? Not letting you know if you are on the right track or far from the goal. How do you think that would feel? Would you feel motivated to continue? Would you feel anxious? Or worried that you were getting it wrong? Do you think the teacher’s silence would feel supportive? Are you having fun? Does this feel like a fun activity, being observed by a silent watcher?
The silent treatment
Let’s put it this way. Imagine you came to one of my workshops. I set up a search for you and your dog. After telling you what to do, you start searching. Once the search is over (are you sure it’s over, should you keep going, did you miss something, should you stop?) You sit back down and I call the next team up to search. I say nothing to you. Do you think that would be a productive teacher – learner session?
Dogs know how to do it
The sad truth is that this is akin to how many trainers think scentwork should be taught. The assumption is that dogs already know how to use their noses. Therefore, they should be able to do scentwork without help from us. Let’s look more closely at this assumption. To start, not all dogs know how to use their noses effectively. I’ve personally met dogs who had no idea how to use their noses. They had no concept of using them to track a specific odour. While many dogs can naturally spot and follow a scent, but just as many cannot without being taught how to sniff. I remember a conversation with the experienced trainer Ken Ramirez where he confirmed that in order to do scentwork, dogs first had to be taught how to sniff. It’s always affirming to hear another trainer confirm what you have found to be true.
Once we accept that we need to actively teach the dogs to sniff, we next need to acknowledge that they have no idea what scentwork game we want them to play. How could they? They’re not mindreaders. They don’t know that we’d like them to search for a specific scent. And that it would be super rewarding if they could let us know when they find it. That if they put their heads inside a box, or pushed a bag open or jumped onto a table that these behaviours could help them find the scent. And that they were behaviours that us handlers really liked. Can you see where I’m going with this?
We need to speak to our dogs. To communicate with them to let them know to keep going, to not be worried, to be brave and curious. A ‘good girl’ or ‘good lad’, ‘yes!’, ‘you can do it’, ‘go on then’ or ‘so clever’ can go a long way in letting your dog know when her behaviour is desirable and rewarding. Just as we need and appreciate feedback from our teachers, so do dogs. Whether teaching sit, stay or spin. Or scentwork. Every dog deserves to be verbally supported.
Advocating speaking to your dog is not the same as encouraging inane babble. Noise that means nothing and accomplishes nothing. We must be mindful of what we say and when we say it. For example, I rarely recall my dog during a search. Recall is one of my must have cues and not one that should ever be ignored. Therefore, when I ask my dogs to ‘Come’ I expect them to stop whatever they are doing to run back to me. If I give this cue mid-search I could be inadvertently calling them away from the target scent. And I always want to avoid that.
I also don’t want to talk so much that my dog switches off to me. Pointless talk isn’t worth listening to. Therefore, I take great care in what I say and when I say it. And, as always with my training style, this will change according to the dog I’m working with at the time. Some dogs need lots of verbal reassurance. While others just need some well timed affirmations that they’re doing well. Or that they’re allowed to jump up or push open or stand on something. But all dogs need some sort of verbal support.
Don’t forget too that when you speak to the human learner in the scentwork team, clarity is key. Don’t aim to baffle or try to impress with jargon. Be clear, concise and considered when deciding when and hownto make verbal interjections.
Scentwork isn’t some mystical ability that defies learning theory. It needs as much teaching structure and constructive feedback as any other skill. To stand in silence is to stop training. To stop being a teacher. And to throw out trust and erode confidence – yep those old chestnuts again!
So be more Taylor, she knows what she’s talking about!