I’ve been using scentwork to help solve behaviour and training problems forever. Granted, I never called it scentwork for the first twenty years. I called it the ‘find it game’. Or didn’t name it but just used variations of it as techniques to help with numerous issues. Since starting Talking Dogs Scentwork® 10 years ago, I’ve had time to look back at some of the issues scentwork helped to solve. Here’s how.
I love to see a dog full of the joys of life. Bouncing around ready for whatever adventure is coming next. Or beside herself with glee that you’ve returned home. But there are times when this can be overwhelming. Or needs to be tempered. The classic example is the rejoicing dog who rebounds off visitors. Even a small dog bouncing off a person can be enough to destablise, startle or cause a fall.
But the last thing you want to do is punish your dog for being happy. You want her to welcome guests to your home. Punishing her for jumping for joy can set up a negative association between her actions and the presence of visitors. In turn this could make her become nervous or reactive when the door bell goes. And while you may have prevented the jumping up, you could have inadvertently caused an even bigger problem.
Much better to give your dog an outlet for her exuberance. Help her find an alternative, more acceptable behaviour that doesn’t punish her or squash her spirit. If the door bell heralds a game of ‘find it’ the focus comes off the people without setting up any negative associations. Using treats tossed along the ground encourages your dog to look down. The opposite direction of travel to jumping up. You can roll them away from the door. This means that instead of running towards the door, your dog can learn to run away from it in order to play the game.
Useful on walks
You can also play this game when out walking. Many pups are ecstatic and excited to encounter new people on their walks. If they are naturally sociable their first action is often to launch themselves towards the stranger. And while this is cute and rarely something that most people would take offence at, the reception changes as the dog grows in size. The perception of ‘cute’ can become ‘pushy hooligan’ in the space of a few months. Plus small dogs can leave muddy paw prints too!
Anticipating your pup’s behaviour is key to preventing problems. And solving those that have already developed. Each time you see a person approaching, toss the food away from them as you say ‘find it’ so that your pup follows the food rather than the stranger. This turn away from the person combined with eating a tasty morsel maintains the happiness of seeing someone new without having to make physical contact with them.
Reactivity to people and dogs
Interestingly, you can use the same technique that I’ve just described for making positive associations for dogs who already have negative associations with strangers. And/or with other dogs. The first difference is that you need to teach the find it game in the absence of whatever triggers your dog’s unwanted behaviour.
By teaching the game in an area where the dog feels safe, she can easily learn how to play. It’s much harder for her to learn once she’s been triggered. Imagine if you were asked to learn a new skill just as you were startled by a spider. The emotion of your reaction to the trigger over-rides the ability to learn. Your brain is trying to save your life not help you learn a new game. It’s the same for your dog.
Once she’s learned the game and loves it, you can start to play when the people or dogs that trigger her behaviour are in sight. Start far away, and well before she’s reacting. If you can see that your dog has noticed the trigger but isn’t reacting, you’ve found what is called the critical distance. As you get closer, you may find that she stops playing and moves her focus to the trigger. Don’t worry about this, it’s normal. What you should find is that you will be able to get closer and closer before she stops playing, i.e. reducing the critical distance. Eventually she’ll be able to play throughout the whole non-encounter. So she’ll see the trigger and move past it all the while playing ‘find it’.
Scentwork is a wonderful antidote to stress. For people as well as dogs. One of my stress relievers is playing video games. This works for me as it stops my brain churning over all the issues, pressures and responsibilities that can cause me to feel stressed. I become immersed in the game and so don’t have any capacity left to focus on my worries. Scentwork is like that too. It’s all consuming.
When I was a young, shy customs officer, the thought of working in front of passengers, crew or colleagues made me cringe. However, when I was working with my detector dog, I barely noticed if I had an audience or not. I recall one search in a factory. It was only when I looked up and away from my dog as the search ended, that I saw the whole factory had come to a stop to watch us work.
I call this immersion being in the ‘zone’. It’s my favourite place to be whether scent working, training or gaming. It’s my happy place. If you can make your dog’s happy place a scentwork search, you’ll see the tension and stress fall from her body just as obviously as wild swimmer sheds her towel.
Once in the scentwork zone, you dog can put all her energy into finding the target scent. Not only does this provide a break from whatever was stressing her, but she will feel more relaxed and content once the search is over. The pleasure gained from the search can maintain long after it’s completed. This means that you’ve provided her with a break which in turn drops the stress level. And the lower the level the longer it takes to build back up. And the easier it is to drop it further. It’s the opposite of trigger stacking where each new trigger stacks on top of another. You are taking a whole bunch of triggers away just by the act of scent working.
Anxiety is not the same as stress. Each can contribute to the other, but they are different. Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress. It is about anticipation. The fear or worry about something that hasn’t happened yet. Imagining what could happen can fill the brain with fear and worry. Anything that can release tension and/or redirect the mind into a more positive state is valuable. Scentwork encourages fluid movement, promotes positive interaction and provides pleasure all in one hit.
If your dog is anxious when she’s in new places, try doing some scentwork there. As soon as she hears the cue to start searching (something you’ve already taught her), she understands how to behave in this new area. This helps her to feel more confident, less anxious. Add to this the endorphins she produces as she works. And finish off with the adrenalin of finding the target scent and the anxiety disappears.
Anxiety is often linked to a lack of confidence. By setting up situations where the dog can anticipate that good things will happen even when she’s not sure about her environment, you can help reduce anxiety and set up new, more positive associations. Something as seemingly simple as supporting a dog to put her head inside a box to access the find can open up a whole new world of positive opportunities.
My dogs love going to new places. They are enthralled by all the new sights, sounds and especially smells. But I have lived with dogs for whom novel environments were their worst nightmare.
One dog, Megan, would hide and cower in the car when we went somewhere new. She would stiffen and try to make herself as small as possible at the slightest hint of having to leave her safe space.
But here’s the thing. At one time the prospect of going into the car provoked the same reaction. By playing the ‘find it’ game in the car (I had a roomy estate at the time) she was able to move freely without fear of being forced to do anything that made her uncomfortable. By giving her control of her choices combined with the opportunity to feel pleasure (please gained through finding and eating tasty treats) her confidence grew and her anxiety diminished. As time went on, people meeting the social butterfly that she became had no hint of the terrified, anxious dog she had once been.
Lack of focus
This can be an issue for many reasons. It can be down to age. Adolescents filled with surging hormones can find it very difficult to focus on one task, one cue, one person. Dogs who are stressed, anxious or fearful struggle with focus. Dogs who are excitable, full of energy and joie de vivre can find it hard to concentrate on a single task. Scentwork can help all of these dogs.
In the majority of cases, starting with simple searches that offer quick finds is a great way to pull focus and help the dog begin to listen and work with you. For others, they need more to do. More complicated search areas, more time working, more challenging hides are what allow some dogs to immerse themselves in an activity. It seems counter-intuitive but trust me, this works! I’ve seen it many times in my scent workshops. Dogs who are bouncing off the walls, barking at sounds coming from outside, leaping on people and dogs, not able to listen to their handlers or follow simple cues. Give these dogs a mental challenge on which to focus their energies and boom, you’ve got less craziness, more control and more communication.
I can’t tell you how happy I am when I suddenly see that switch flick in a dog as she realises that her handler is there to support her. Rather than feeling restricted or constrained, listening to her handler gives her more freedom, more success. She can start to train her mind to work on the task, to find the target scent. And to take heed of her handler as she does this. And the great news is that this attention transfers to non-scentwork activities.
The ability to listen and work with the handler is about more than trust. Obviously, trust is core to many interactions with the dog. But until the dog can settle her mind and focus on what brings rewards and pleasure, she can’t even begin to think about trust. By setting up suitable searches you can help your dog to self regulate. This gives her a valuable skill. And makes her so much easier for you to live with.
Put scentwork in your toolbox
These are just a few of the many ways that scentwork can help solve problems. Sometimes, the best approach to an issue is to come at it side on rather than directly. Looking at the whole dog rather than just the issue is what allows you to begin to find solutions. Understanding her emotional state and giving her the tools to change it for the better provides a wonderful foundation. Once you’ve laid that, you can begin to add other techniques and activities. Once taught, you’ll always have scentwork. And once you’ve got scentwork in your toolbox, you can use it anywhere and everywhere. For pleasure, for teamwork and for behavioural solutions.
Have you used scentwork to help your dog overcome an issue? I’d love to hear about it. Please leave a comment below.