I first came to live in Cambridgeshire to start a new job in a large animal shelter. The 50 acre site was a temporary home for (most of the) hundreds of dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, horses, pigs, and more! My position as behaviourist meant that I was able to visit other branches and learn so much about many species.
‘Rescue dog’ does not equal ‘problem dog’
I also learned lots about helping people who found themselves in the awful position of having to rehome their animals. Contrary to popular belief, not all animals who end up in rescue are ‘problem pets’. Many are caught in the middle of relationship breakdowns, homelessness and bereavement. To sit in a room filled with mum, dad, and the children all in tears at the prospect of giving up their beloved animal is truly humbling. And I took very seriously the task of finding that animal a new home. One with people who would love her just as much.
One of the most satisfying phone calls to make was to let the surrendering family know that their still beloved dog was safe and happy with her new family. It was one less thing for them to worry about. The guilt attached to discovering that you were not your dog’s ‘forever home’ can be overwhelming. But in so many cases, animals are surrendered for their well being, their good.
To be homeless. Or without work and have the worry of looking after your children. Maybe you have unexpectedly become a carer for a family member. Or have health issues of your own. All of these challenges can be compounded by trying to give your pet a high quality of life. Paying vet bills. Having the time and space to give this creature in your care what she needs. It can all be too much. I have great respect for those who find themselves in this awful place. And for those who make the decision to give their animals a second chance.
Shelter resources are scarce
For staff working in shelters, time is often the scarcest resource. Cleaning kennels and feeding. Vet visits and laundry. The myriad of tasks involved with accepting new dogs into the shelter. And helping rehome the residents. After all that, there is little time left for positive physical and mental stimulation. Whilst many focus on walking the dogs, this can leave the dogs with little gain. When done as a perfunctory routine, it can cause more problems than it solves. Arousal levels rise. The exercise is neither long nor engaging enough to allow adequate physical or mental benefits. Resulting in the whole procedure causing more stress than it alleviates.
However, scentwork is a non-compulsive activity that allows dogs to learn, feel good and feel satisfyingly tired. It is a transferrable skill. Once she has been taught how to search for a specific scent, she can work with anyone. Any member of staff or volunteer or new family can engage with the dog. For many dogs, and people, knowing how to behave in certain situations relieves stress and promotes feelings of wellbeing. Teaching shelter dogs how to play a game in which they are naturally predisposed to excel is the gift that keeps on giving. It can help maintain emotional, mental and physical wellbeing while they are in the shelter. And gives them and their new families common ground when they leave. Building relationships and trust is key to helping both adjust to each other in their new lives together.
The penny eventually dropped!
But as with my other training and behavioural work at that time, I hadn’t fully keyed into just how perfect scentwork is for shelter dogs. I was still in the mindset of scentwork being for specially selected working dogs. Certain breeds. Specific ages. I know, I know! But at least the penny did drop. Having worked almost exclusively on scentwork for the last 9 years, I now understand that scentwork is for EVERY dog.
Within 10 or so minutes, the shelter dog can learn how sniff out a catnip scented toy or a piece of cheese. From that point on, apart from the scent, this useful activity doesn’t require any special equipment. It can be done indoors or out. So whatever facilities the shelter has, be they sprawling or bijou, scentwork is readily available for all. Staff can use laundry rooms; kitchens; reception areas; empty kennels; the dog’s own kennel; exercise areas; carparks; store rooms. The options are endless.
Oh, and did I mention – it’s great fun! It’s so satisfying for dog and handler to spend 20 minutes, half an hour, working together for a common cause. Returning to the kennel, the dog has lots to process, good mental exercise. And she I likely to be tired. Scentwork takes energy. So no wound up dogs being put back in the kennel. Instead, the dog is more likely to be able to settle. And cope with what can often be an over-stimulating environment.
Improving chances of adoption
And can you imagine your delight if you went to adopt a shelter dog and there on her description were the words ‘has learned to be a detector dog’. Or ‘loves scentwork’. Even if you didn’t know what that meant, you might look at the dog with new interest. It shows she can learn, that she’s got skills. If she can learn scentwork she can learn all sorts of skills. Anything that helps a dog be viewed positively by adopters is worth it’s weight in gold. Finding the right person or family for each dog as quickly as possible is the goal. The sooner the dog leaves the rescue, the sooner she can start her new life. And make space for the next dog in need to move into the now vacant kennel.
If you work in rescue and have taught the dogs in your charge scentwork, I’d love to hear your stories. When Elite TDS Trainer Lindsey delivered some scentwork training to the staff and dogs at Jerry Green Rescue in North Yorkshire a couple of years ago, it went down a storm! I think you can tell how much it was appreciated by the smiles on everyone’s faces!