Scentwork - where to start
Scentwork is becoming one of the most popular activities to take part with pet dogs and I think one of the main reasons is because it can encompass dogs of all ages, breeds and physical abilities. Being that scent is a dogs natural asset it also doesn't matter what category your dog falls into. Most people think that scentwork is only for the working breeds like spaniels and labs, but I've taught tiny dogs like Chihuahuas and Daxies, to sighthounds like Whippets and Greyhounds. Now of course some breeds are more genetically predisposed to using their amazing scent abilities but that doesn't mean the rest cant take part. Its all about finding the right motivation and what technique best suits the individual dog.
Being that scentwork is now so popular there are many trainers out there all using different scents so how do you know where to start? Well the most obvious answer is to start with a beginners course, regardless of the scent because scent pairing will be the first thing that is taught. Scent pairing is usually started with food because most dogs will work for food (it is a primary reinforcer after all) and you can get in more repetitions in in a shorter time frame than if you use a toy. But just because food is a quicker method doesn't always mean it will be right for every dog, some dogs will find their toy more rewarding and that's fine too! Remember is more about what your dog finds motivating! The point of scent pairing is for the dog to learn that when they smell that particular odour that something yummy or fun comes with it, therefore its worth them going to sniffing to find it. I can get into some really technical language here and come across as super smart but it can make my brain ache and I love this stuff so I wont bore you all with it.....Unless you come to my class of course! 😆
So how many scents are there and which one is easiest to start?? Well you can pretty much train a dog to find ANY scent!
We have police dogs finding firearms, cash and a variety of drugs & explosives. When I worked in the Police Kennels I went out on a training day to watch some explosive training take place in an old public house. A scent had been in a jar with absorbent pad for I don't know how long, but I watched as they cut off a tiny piece (like half the size of my little finger nail), open a solid oak dresser and place it right at the back and closed the draw back up. Now most people would think the dog is never going to find that or it will at least take intense sniffing around the entire thing....but no....each time the dog went to walk down the hallway to another room their head would snap back so quick and instantly begin a quick investigation and then indicate on the right draw. I had been watching this training for years but it still amazed me every time!
But I digress.... we also have medical detection dogs can alert to oncoming seizures, falls in blood sugar, cancer detection and now of course the Coronavirius detection dogs being used at many airports. There are also conservation dogs that are used to track and located endangered species across the planet! plus sooooo many more! And they all have one thing in common....they all started off with scent pairing. When they recognise that a particular scent gets a reward they are then motivated to search out and find THAT particular scent in a sea of many!
The most common scents used in pet dog scentwork are Kong, clove, gun oil, truffle oil and catnip (not the easiest when you also have a cat in the house!). The catnip for me is used as an active search. This means that an item is permeated with catnip scent and then put out into a search area for the dog to find and retrieve to the owner. The Kong, clove and oils are usually used as a passive scent, this means the dogs are taught to freeze, sit or lay down when they find the scent and not make contact.
This is where a lot of people will start, on a passive scent of Kong or one of the oils. Now there are pros and cons for starting with each scent and Ill go into a bit of detail below. Please remember this is just my opinion based on teaching with all these scents over the last couple years.
Ill start with the Kong as this is my beginners courses scent. I like to start with the Kong as it is a solid object that is easily recognisable and easy to acquire at the shops for pet dog owners. If people already own one then its safe to assume that their dog has used it with food and has therefore already made a positive association with that particular Kong scent. Another reason I like to use it is it is easily transportable, it can be taken out on walks or taken on holiday (if you go away with your dogs) and it can be easily washed if it gets contaminated. If we handle the Kong without gloves and get our human scent on all we have to do is make sure we touch other areas of the search area to make sure the dog snt just looking for our scent.
However (and stay with me as were about to get a bit sciencey) because it is a solid mass the scent odour is not as strong as say the oils as the molecules vaporise at a slower rate in comparison. For a dog to process a scent it is always in a vaporised form and how volatile the molecule is, these always differ between solid objects, liquid and gas forms.
When handling the cloves and oil scents the person should have gloves on and using tweezers to move the scented items around the search area. This is because oils and the residual odour from cloves can contaminate anything it touches for a much longer time compared to if you drop a piece of Kong on the ground. If you don't use gloves and get oils on your fingers then anything you touch will smell like the scent and confuse your dog when your not rewarding them. In their mind they have found the scent (even if you accidentally touched something the scent is still there) so therefore they should get the reward, if they don't get a reward too many times this can lower the value of the scent a also the confidence of the dog. So make sure you glove up and if you do drop your oil or clove scented item by accident then move your search area to another location. But the biggest pro for me when using oils or cloves is the dogs find it easier to find in the search area because it emits more of an odour than the solid mass of the Kong. It allows the dogs to catch the scent on air movement and follow it back to the source compared with the solid Kong.
So is there a right scent to start with? No, its a preference of what your local trainer uses. I personally don't use clove because I can't stand the smell of it and don't want to be smelling it on a daily basis 😆... that's just my personal preference, nothing to do with science or the dogs ability to find this scent.
Whatever scent you start with the most important thing is to have fun with it! Dogs can be trained to take part just for fun, as a mentally stimulating exercise that can be done anywhere. Or some can even go on to compete against others in competitions.