Sunday, February 18, 2024

First Impressions of Scentwork

I have been wanting to get into scentwork for years. I took a couple of private lessons a decade ago, but couldn't continue for various reasons. I have been actively attempting to get into a scentwork class either in person or online for the past two years with no success. I now own a book on getting myself started and am working through it, but I'm not really enjoying the process and so far I am massively underwhelmed by this sport. Here are my impressions of scentwork as a completely inexperienced outsider attempting to get into the sport:

Patiently waiting to be released to eat treats off the floor.
1. We don't want newbies. Scentwork as a whole is trying to keep new people out. This seems weird at first, both online and in person training programs for scentwork are everywhere. My local kennel club has half a dozen different classes every session. There are clinics and seminars everywhere all the time. BUT, the prerequisite for all of these things is to have taken the intro beginner class. The beginner class is only offered once a year. The class at my local kennel club only has space for six dogs and has filled up in under 15 seconds one year and under 26 seconds the other year I tried to get in. I know this because that's how long it took me to fill in my information and hit the submit button when registration opened. So I started looking for an online class and found a great website for a great trainer with all sorts of online classes. BUT, she only offers her intro class once a year and it was last month so tough luck. This is proudly announced both at the kennel club and with this online trainer, they are very open about how few people they introduce the sport each year.

2. Odor is a sidequest. Scentwork is mostly just sniffing around for treats. My outsider impression is that scentwork is almost entirely about finding food. I had originally believed it was modeled after narcotics detection rather than foraging around on the floor for crumbs. A friend who managed to make it into the kennel club class reported that after a year of classes they were still hunting for food with no plans to look for anything else. My book teaches searching behavior entirely with food and says you don't ever need to teach them to look for anything else unless you want to compete. Another training website I looked at had a bunch of different exercises and said they could all be done with food and even if the dog can search for a specific odor they should mostly still be searching for food.

3. There is surprisingly little sniffing involved. I am working my way through the book with Sisci right now, and three weeks into it the "searches" consist entirely of scattering food on the ground around various objects. The dog is supposed to learn to carefully sniff around the object to find the treats, but Sis just cannonballs over and slurps them all up as if the object isn't even there. She can clear the room in seconds even when there are several objects to be searched. We can use up her entire daily ration of kibble in five minutes of "searching" and it takes less time than if I just threw it out on the lawn. I'm probably doing something wrong here, but so far I'm not seeing the fascinating searching behavior and puzzle-solving that I keep hearing about from scentwork fans. Maybe at some point the book will instruct me to start hiding the treats instead of just scattering them on the ground around boxes and bags. But then, having had multiple completely food-obsessed dogs in the past, I'm also not entirely comfortable encouraging my dog to forage everywhere for potential food. 

So there's the current state of our scentwork journey. I am throwing treats on the floor for my dog to eat while ruminating on why the sport doesn't want new people to get involved and wondering how this is even a sport in the first place. I am currently looking for an online class or program that isn't entirely about searching for food in the hopes that eventually I will discover why so many people like scentwork. Feel free to set me straight in the comments if your opinion differs.

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