I love the idea of dog camps. Events where you can either try out all sorts of different activities or concentrate on one over a number of days. But when I see scentwork events where the dog is being asked to chop and change from session to session or day to day, it makes my heart sink. Dogs can make scentwork look easy, it’s an innate skill after all. Or is it? Recognising different scents is an innate skill. But relaying that information to a handler is not. Neither is working to protocols or clearing areas in a systematic and efficient manner. These are all skills that the dog needs to learn.
Too many targets
Common jumps in training seem to be between targets and alerts. I guess that in an effort to offer clients a full curriculum, training providers offer sessions on finding a variety of scents, perhaps truffles in one session and cloves the next. Each new target scent needs to be taught carefully and thoroughly to ensure that the dog understands that her handler wants to be told whenever she hits the particular scent. Chopping and changing before the dog has had enough time and practise locating each scent in turn, risks diminishing accuracy. Unless the dog is certain that the detected scent is one that the handler wants to know about, she could decide not to indicate. Conversely, for fear of missing out, the dog could offer indications on anything and everything. Neither is desirable.
Too many alerts
The same applies to teaching alerts. Dogs can be taught all sorts of alerts, giving active indications where they go in and retrieve the target, to passives where they might be taught to stare, sit, lie down or paw. Or even take hold of items to show that they have found the target scent, commonly known as bringsel alerts. Again, these need clarity and practise. Passive indications require absolute certainty. If the dog is relying on signals from the handler that she has hit the correct scent, or is guessing, the job of teaching the indication is not complete. To then introduce a new indication, maybe on a brand new scent – the double whammy – is ill-advised.
Now I’m not decrying the amazing abilities of our dogs. Far from it. We know that dogs can detect and indicate on many scents, with some dogs alerting to 50 or more. But to ask them to move on before they are confident, accurate and reliable with both the target and the indication is grossly unfair. Confusion in learning rarely results in happy, positive learners. Take a moment to think of a time when you were learning something new. When you became confused, how did that make you feel? Did it aid your learning? Put you in a good place to take on new information? Or did it frustrate you? Perhaps you felt inadequate or stupid. Or maybe you decided that acquiring the new skill or knowledge wasn’t for you after all? Did you start guessing the answers with no idea if you could replicate any good luck next time?
This trend for squeezing lots of different content into an event rather than working on learning and consolidating skills and information is not new to scentwork. I spoke about it at the WOOF conference back in 2017. (If you sign up for the How to Teach Scentwork course you can see this full presentation.) Assuming that because the dog has an innate ability doesn’t mean that it’s fair to exploit it or load more pressure and responsibility onto the dog. Setting up searches that are too busy, too complicated. Or that go on for too long. Hiding targets in new environments or reducing scent pictures or adding height variants too soon in the process are, as I see it, common training errors. Just because your dog might be able to make the huge cognitive leaps doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.
I was about to write ‘especially when we are engaging in scentwork for FUN.’ But the same applies if you are working professionally. Either way, relying on the dog to make the jump, shifting responsibility from the trainer/handler onto the dog, is unacceptable. Why shouldn’t the human half of the team take on equal responsibility? After all, it’s their idea/request/demand to detect. I can assure you, that dogs trained to locate bombs and firearms are not trained in this haphazard way. Doing so could, and most likely would, cost lives. The fun of the game isn’t diminished when the rules apply to both team mates. Or when each is given the support and respect they deserve.
Trainers need to be mindful of what and how they teach, no matter the discipline. The system of scentwork training that I’ve developed is based upon the gradual increasing of skills, each building on previous skills in a considered and logical sequence. You will see this in both my in-person workshops and online courses. I believe that this is much more reliable in terms of results (understanding and reliability). But is also much fairer for the dog.
Mindful progression can be done at the dog’s pace. If she finds it easy to locate the target amongst 6 boxes, you can increase the number of boxes. But if she finds it difficult, reduce the number. Don’t suddenly hide something above her head. Instead start to elevate hides off the floor. Let her learn that not every hide will be at floor level. You don’t do that by suddenly hiding the article on top of the door. You could do it by placing it in the door jam at nose level and gradually raising it from there.
And what’s the rush anyway? Aren’t we having a great time searching with our dogs? Why miss out on searches for the sake of rushing to the next challenge? The more I search with my dogs, the more more I learn. Whatever the level of challenge, I pick up on something new every time. I learn more about her body language, more about pacing, hiding finds, handling.
Go have fun
I’m certainly not saying that you shouldn’t go to these multi-day events. Go. Have fun. Make friends. Learn stuff. But consider not working your dog at every practical session. Instead, attend as an observer. And then, when the time is right in your training plan, introduce the skills you learned at camp to your dog.
Be aware though, that even when you’re learning about the same topic over a series of days, you can still put a halt on the exercises if you feel that your dog is being pushed on too fast. I’ve been at great seminars when this has happened. Handlers feeling pressured by excellent, and often well-meaning, trainers to move their dog on to the next step before she has processed and learned the previous one. And I know it can be hard to say that you’d like to practise the previous step more, or to pull your dog out of a practical session. But that’s your job – to advocate on behalf of your dog. You know what it’s like to move on too fast, to not be sure of what you’re supposed to do but still being pushed to build on that unstable foundation.
So let’s not march on, oblivious to how are dogs are coping. Think about how our are dogs are learning. Let’s not ride roughshod over their emotional wellbeing or their cognitive process. Let’s be fair to our canine partners. And in turn, they will amaze and delight us in equal measures with their proficiency, their skill and their joy of scentworking.