Talking Dogs Scentwork®

Small dog with large toy

The struggle is not real. Time to follow a new path.

Over the last few years, and especially since the first lockdown, I’ve been struggling with how to help more trainers come on board at Talking Dogs Scentwork® (TDS). Not being able to see trainers in person but still give them the TDS seal of approval was proving to be an almighty struggle. But suddenly, I found the answer and realised that the struggle isn’t real.

You wouldn’t believe how many potential options I have gone through to ‘certify’ trainers. When I started TDS a dozen years ago, I never imagined that trainers would want to be part of what I was doing. The thought of them wanting to teach the TDS systems wasn’t on my radar at all. But as I taught more workshops and made contact with more trainers, I began to see that there was a need to develop a route for trainers to get involved. It was only then that I sat down to devise a programme to bring them on board.

The original system

The system was straightforward. First, all trainers, no matter their experience of scentwork had to work their way through my 6 core workshops until they gained their TDS Accredited Handler Certificate. Back then, hardly any companion dog trainers had much scentwork experience. However, I was starting to get enquiries, and still do, from professionally qualified scent dog handlers. These folks generally came from a forces or customs background and as such had zero experience in teaching non forces handlers.

Many had zero experience in teaching at all having been handlers rather than trainers. Teaching is not the same as handling. And teaching people who are not required to do as they are told due to rank or position is a very specific skill. As is teaching breed types who have not been specially selected for the work.

Short cuts = short change

I’m a strong believer in working your way up. Short cuts short change both the trainer and the learner. How much better is your teaching when you have been where your learner has been? Working through each workshop, building up the skills and understanding the experience of learning in this workshop environment is essential – whatever your current experience. I know that I always respect a trainer more if they have direct experience of what they are teaching. Those who pass it on third hand or who have in depth knowledge of the theory without having practised it do not have that deep understanding and empathy.

So, the first step was to work through the 6 workshops. Once they’d gained their TDS Accredited Handler Certificate, if they were still keen to become TDS trainers, the next step was to volunteer to assist on the workshops. This gave would-be trainers a chance to see the workings of the sessions from the trainer’s perspective. They could learn the practicalities of setting up workshops, of how to simultaneously teach both the individual teams and the whole group and they could start to build up some experience of teaching. This allowed them to learn in their own time, not be pushed on by some arbitrary time limit.

Variety

It also gave them the chance to see different trainers at work, taking the best from each one. While we all taught the same syllabus with the same ethos, each trainer has their own style. This on-boarding method encouraged that through the practical demonstration and support of each trainer’s experience and skill set. I chose people who I thought shared my general teaching style, I.e. informal, supportive, positive. And who believed in the core values of TDS. Sad to say I didn’t always get it right. But in the main, I worked with a good set of folks.

Priorities

Back in the early days, I got to coach every trainer myself. As we grew, this became impossible and so my trainers began to have aspiring trainers assist them too. The busier we became, the harder it was for me to know each trainer personally. I made the decision to accept the watering down of personal involvement for the sake of growing the business. And that did not sit well with me. Once the decision had been made, trying to service the needs of disparate trainers each running their own businesses became very difficult. The model worked well on paper. But rather than the trainers working as a collective, some began to develop their own businesses in opposition to TDS. The cracks began to show.

The struggle

Jump forward to 2020. It was now impossible to bring on new trainers in a way that satisfied my need to maintain exceptional teaching standards, share practical scentwork skills that only come from hours of practise and top notch customer care. I tried and tried to find ways to assess online, to build experience through video calls and Zoom meetings. I’ve looked at points based systems. And intensive trainer only workshops. But each idea fell at the same hurdles:

Time

Learning how to teach a new skill takes time. It takes practise. No matter how much experience you have, it is impossible and impractical to think that you can acquire the necessary set of skills over the course of a few workshops, or an intensive week or even a residential course. As a green handler, it took the RAF Police 17 weeks to train me to work one dog. How any responsible person can think they can equip trainers to go out under their banner in a quick fix type of course is beyond me. Well, it’s not. I know it’s more about generating income than producing reliable, experienced trainers. And while that’s for them and their conscience to deal with, it’s not a route I want to go down.

On average, it took my trainers 2 years before I offered them the licence to work as TDS Accredited Trainers (now called TDS Elite Trainers). Along the way, some trainers pulled out. But this never worried me. Those who understood that quick fixes and instant certificates were not ethical or effective stayed the course. Each was encouraged to move to the next stage as and when they were ready, not because we only had the training venue booked for a day or a week.

Skills assessment

Video assessments are poor substitutes for in person assessments. And theoretical understanding is not indicative of practical competence. I recall a trainer on work experience explaining that she couldn’t train the dog as the clicker I’d given her didn’t work. She was holding it upside down. Straight A’s in clicker training essays bore no relation to her skill in actually using one.

Nothing beats working in real time with people. Discussing their choices. Their training decisions. Giving feedback on handling. On teaching. Assessing behavioural knowledge. Seeing them pivot to adopt a different technique in response to the dog and handler in front of them. These moments are invaluable. For both me and the potential trainer. I can be secure, and proud, in allowing my brand to be associated with them. And they can be confident that they have the necessary knowledge and experience to do a great job.

I have an online course detailing how to teach scentwork to beginners: How to Teach Scentwork . It’s my biggest course in terms of material. It includes over 40 video clips, a 38 page course booklet, handout sheets for clients and trainers and lots of advice on general teaching methods as well as how to teach specific scentwork skills. It’s a really popular course and I regularly get great feedback about it. But right from the start students are informed that completing the course will not qualify them as scentwork trainers; it will not certify them as TDS trainers. From the feedback, I know that it’s a great tool for trainers that they find valuable and useful. But it doesn’t solve the problem of me being able to certify new TDS trainers.

Thank you John

So where does that leave me? I was really tearing my hair out with this conundrum until last week. It was the untimely death of one of the leading names in dog training that brought me to my senses. John Rogerson was part of the original cohort of canine behaviourists in this country. At the start of my behavioural education, I had the surreal experience of attending a week long residential course at his home in Durham. It blew my mind in all sorts of ways, good and bad. Live rats and cold vegetable soup were a part of the process that anyone who attended his courses back in the 90’s will remember well! However, in those days he was ahead of his time with much of his training style and many of those lessons are still with me now.

Learning about his passing, I had a sudden lightbulb moment. He was very straightforward in his approach. Why labour over an issue that, when seen from the dog’s perspective, isn’t an issue? For example, if two dogs in a household are constantly fighting why keep them together? Either separate them or rehome one. Why spend many fraught hours trying to persuade both to like each other when clearly that was not the case? Both dogs could live miserable lives constantly negotiating, tiptoeing and occasionally coming to blows with each other or they could live happy lives apart. Simple. I know that John understood that each case is more nuanced than this, but the core question, and solution, is valid.

The struggle isn’t real

It was this paring down of a problem to it’s core elements that helped me realise that my struggle was not real. There was no struggle in finding a way to quickly and/or remotely assess and certify new TDS trainers. It can’t be done. Yes, it would be fabulous to have more TDS Elite Trainers on board. The original route is still open. With trainers who have been with me for a long time, I know I can trust them to be my ‘boots on the ground’ should we have any suitable candidates in the future. But for now, my focus has changed.

This realisation allowed me to suddenly see a way forward. Instead of spending all my time working on this impossible conundrum, I can now spend that time building resources to support all trainers teaching scentwork. And wow, has that set my brain alight! I’m now brimming with ideas and plans. I don’t want to give too much away at this point, but I’ve already started planning courses, downloadable resources and more that will be super helpful for trainers.

Trainers assemble

If you are a trainer, get onto my mailing list so that you don’t miss out on what is coming up. (There’s a subscription box to the right of this post) Make sure to tick the trainer box so that are automatically added to the trainers only section of the list. You don’t have to be teaching scentwork yet, this info is open to all trainers. If you are already on the list but have not told me that you are a trainer, please drop me an email to let me know and I’ll add you to the trainers’ segment. This segment allows me to send trainer info just to those who will find it useful rather than bothering non-trainers.

So there it is. Problem solved. New plan in place. And I feel great about it. Now to get to work!

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