You know that I love Talking Dogs Scentwork®. I love everything about it. It’s whatever you need it to be. Perhaps you are stuck at home, isolating, shielding, confined due to health issues. Maybe you take your dog to work with you. She could be keeping you company in your van or truck or snoozing under your desk in the office. Your dog could be recovering from an injury. Or be worried about being around other dogs. Visiting new places could be a challenge. As could concentration when in exciting situations, such as in deer speckled woods or encountering new people or friends, four legged and two. Scentwork can be a pleasure, a tool, an aid in all of these examples. Core factors in this are flexibility and adaptability.
I discovered an unexpected bonus very early on in the genesis of Talking Dogs Scentwork®. Bearing in mind that it took me a long time to make the connection between behavioural support and scentwork, when I started teaching scentwork I was thinking of it only from a training perspective. It was an activity that we could teach our dogs. There was no consideration of any behavioural benefit past the dogs being happily tired at the end of sniffing sessions. But very quickly I started noticing how this fun activity was helping to calm dogs. Helping them concentrate and learn other skills more easily. And allowing them to feel safe and secure in situations where before they had struggled and stressed.
Anyone who has ever run a dog training class will recognise the difficulty in teaching when dogs are barking. Clients can’t hear what you’re saying. Some of the other dogs in the class get worried by the barking and so have trouble learning. Others join in with the canine chorus. As the trainer, you then have to decide how you address the barker/s. Do you let them bark it out in the hopes that no positive reinforcement for barking will eradicate the noise? Or do you react to the noise by giving the dog lots of attention. Of course, we have to assess the cause of the barking. Fear, fun or frustration? Once we know which of the three F’s is at the root of the behaviour we are better able to both pre-empt (the holy grail of all behaviour modification) or interrupt and stop it.
I was fascinated to discover that the problem rarely occurred during scentwork sessions. And when it did, it was quickly solved by working that dog first. After which time the barking usually ceased, or was diminished to such a level that it wasn’t an issue. The very act of engaging in deliberate successful sniffing was enough to address each of the 3 F’s.
Fearful dogs could achieve results and feel more relaxed even when in the presence of triggers to their anxiety. Dogs who were full of energy and fun could channel their exuberance into the searches and concentrate on the specific task. And dogs who had trouble waiting, or who found it hard to gain training wins discovered that sniffing resulted in achievable rewards, earned at their own pace, in their own style. All three categories of barker were better able to settle, both physically and mentally, after engaging in Talking Dogs Scentwork®.
And further, whenever we returned to the scentwork scenario, they could switch into that same settled mode. So dogs coming to follow-on classes or workshops recognised the routines around what we were doing and so respond positively. What I teach is not just the act of sniffing, but the routines and rituals before, during and after the searches. These are what allow the dog to predict events and so react accordingly. When previous experience has taught her that she will be safe, secure and satisfied, vocalisations and expressions of fear and uncertainty become redundant.
Another impressive bonus of TDS is the ability for reactive dogs to comfortably attend workshops or work in public around other dogs and people. I’m fascinated by scentwork being both a wonderful group activity and a solo pursuit. Let’s take the latter first. In TDS workshops, we welcome dogs who haven’t been able to attend other workshops. As we know, dogs can be reactive to dogs and/or people for a variety of reasons. Often managing the workshop environment to give dogs, and others, safe spaces in which to learn and work, is very difficult. Practical elements such as venue size, number of delegates and ancillary facilities factor in.
But so do trainer attitudes, expectations and experience. I never look at a dog who has difficulties coping with whatever triggers the unwanted behaviour, as a problem dog. Every dog deserves to have the opportunity to learn in a supportive and non-judgemental environment. This isn’t some wishy-washy airy-fairy meaningless mantra. This is about accepting that every dog is an individual and so every dog needs her own training scenario. This is a practical approach to inclusive and effective learning. And it results in fewer behavioural issues and more positive experiences that often transfer to other situations.
A powerful teacher
So it may be that for one dog I clear the room of other dogs and/or their handlers for the first few searches. Even the first few workshops. But I always – a word I rarely use – find that we can re-introduce most if not all of the previous pain points and triggers. Scentwork is a truly powerful teacher.
Scentwork as a group activity is a hoot! Working with fellow sniffers brings new skills to the table. Handlers observe and learn that each dog, and each team (handler + dog) works in their own way to reach the same results. You see that slow and steady is just as effective as fast and furious. You also learn how to take on different roles. That of the hider, the placer of finds. And of the coach, supporting others to success. You learn that what would be an easy find for your dog is super challenging for another, and vice versa. And you get to share the pride and amazement and pleasure when other teams are successful. Those shared experiences are emotional and affirming. And addictive in the best way.
Whether you find a fast friend to play scentwork games with. Or make new friends at our workshops. Or work in splendid isolation with your canine friend. You will find that Talking Dogs Scentwork® has a positive and beneficial effect of your and your dog’s wellbeing. So take those extra 15 minutes out of your day and throw in a quick search or two. Find time to bone up on your scentwork skills at home and then practise them in small searches that produce big results. Lose yourself in scentwork. Immerse yourself in the moment. Just you and your dog in the ultimate social bubble.