Scentwork is a recent introduction to the world of dog activities and sport. The training resembles that which is given to highly specialized ‘sniffer’ dogs searching for drugs and explosives, and through fun and games, develops your dog’s natural scenting abilities.
Scentwork training involves teaching the dog to search for a hidden target scent, and to alert his owner as to its exact whereabouts. Owners learn to read their dogs’ body language and trust their dogs’ noses – in scentwork the dog is the expert! By working with their dogs in this way, owners become acutely attuned to their dogs, and are allowed a glimpse into the invisible world of scent, which is so much a part of our dogs’ lives.
Scentwork offers dogs constructive physical exercise, and intense mental stimulation. It is a low-impact, yet fun and challenging activity, well-suited all dogs – boisterous youngsters, seniors, socially or physically challenged dogs as well as the family pet can all have access to this positive outlet for their energy. Any dog and owner can get involved in scentwork – there is no expensive outlay for specialist equipment, no previous experience needed by the owner, and dogs adore the game. All training is reward-based with a strong emphasis on fun. Unlike activities such as obedience and agility your dog does not even have to be particularly well-trained – down-stays and perfect recalls are not needed! Scentwork has been well-documented among behaviourists and trainers as a confidence-building, calming exercise, and an excellent activity for shy and reactive dogs. Dogs finished satisfied and relaxed after a search game, and the positive effects of working both body and mind can be met even within a small space such as a house or garden.
All training is reward based. In the early stages the dogs are taught to target a tin containing the chosen scent with their noses, and are rewarded with food for doing so. The game then quickly expands to hiding the tin in plastic boxes, so that the dog learns to ‘indicate’ on the box containing the scent. It is fascinating to watch how quickly dogs can learn to ignore toys and even other boxes containing food to find and indicate on ‘their’ box. Scent is then hidden in a variety of containers including plastic cones, cardboard boxes and even ‘junk’ such as pieces of drainpipe, old cycling helmets, plant pots, bags, shoes, toys and clothing. Indeed, when the scent bug has bitten, you will never look at the contents of the garden shed or the charity shop in quite the same way again!
As dogs become more proficient at searching, the search area can become larger and more demanding – scent is transferred to small pieces of cloth, and dogs can search buildings, and furniture within those buildings such as tables, chairs, and cabinets. As the dog’s confidence and focus for the game grows, searches can be taken outside … searching through piles of different types of ‘containers’, or searching the perimeter of the garden or a field or undergrowth in the woods, or even searching vehicles for their hidden, target scent. Dogs can even be taught to sniff out the scent hidden on a person, or to tell you when there is no target scent present. Classes are carefully structured to challenge dogs and build their motivation for the game with ever more complex scent puzzles including high hides out of reach of the dog, multiple hides, or several hides of more than one target scent set up in a search location.
Although a comparatively new sport in the UK, scent trials have already been running for some time. Trials are designed to be friendly and inclusive. There are different ‘levels’ of competition, from Level 1, ‘Novice’ trials through to ‘Advanced’ Prizes are awarded for the fastest times for finding all the hides – but steady, thorough dogs also go home with a rosette for finding all the hides in their class (known as a ‘Clean Sweep’). Points are awarded for handling skills and the team-work between dog and owner. Dogs search different elements including interiors, containers, exteriors and vehicles. In some tests dogs need to be able to work at a prescribed distance from the handler, and as you advance through the levels elements will contain multiple hides, as well as multiple scents.