Saturday, July 2, 2022

Making Sense of Scents

In typical fashion my last post for my theme of the month comes a few days late.  But this is one of the most important things to think about when you start talking about scents.  As dog owners we often become creatures of habit, walking the same walks, playing the same games, using the same treats, and so forth.  This routine can have some benefits for our dogs but also cause some troubles for our dogs.  

When we walk the same walk all the time, our dogs become desensitized to the smells that are in that environment all the time learning the common smells along the route.  Now we can use that to advantage by practicing skills and manners in these common environments where our dogs have a higher chance of being able to focus on us.  These are often the best environments to work on new skills to generalize that skill in multiple places.  And these common environments also can be used to set up sessions where we are desensitizing our dogs to something that triggers a larger then life emotional response.

But what I really want to focus on is our dog's need to experience new and novel environments or the road less travelled.  Of course this need is going to be different for each individual dog based on their comfort, confidence, and previous experience exploring new environments.  A dog that has issues with fear and anxiety would need a much smaller environment to explore with less distractions.  And a dog that is overly confident may try to rush through even the busiest of environments much to quickly without taking the time to slow down and really investigate that environment. 

Azul being a country dog that lives and walks regularly in rural environments needs to take the occasional walk in more urban locations to keep up on his skills in these environments and understand what to expect.  We try to walk in downtown Iron Mountain on the city sidewalks before visiting the library in that area so that he can take a moment to explore and practice those skills.  When we visit family in Illinois we try to go on a few adventures in more urban areas to practice those skills as well.  See in the rural environments, Azul is commonly on a 10 ft leash and able to move around at will sniffing and exploring.  However in an urban environment he is typically on a 4 ft or shorter leash and needs to stay on one side of the sidewalk without zig-zags to reach the smells he wants.  Rurally we walk at his pace, stopping when he wants to stop and in urban environments we usually have another goal so he has to go at my pace, stopping at crosswalks, doorways, or waiting for other people to cross our path.  As a Service Dog who goes everywhere with me, Azul needs to practice both environments on a regular basis.  However Cam, being more anxious does best in rural environments and doesn't need to practice in urban environments often so if we do walk in downtown environments we tend to do that late at night when there is less distractions making the walk more enjoyable for him.

Recently I've had the opportunity to share my more rural environment with some "city" dogs allowing them to practice exploring more nature.  Team Betsy Ross has visited from the Illinois area multiple times now so she is becoming more and more confident in my quieter rural environment.  Team Echo lives in a much smaller city environment, but does most of her walks on sidewalks and local walking trails.  Because this was Echo's first time on my property, I want to describe our training session so you can see how you can apply this to help your dog.

  • We started in my fenced in backyard, but still used a longline for management knowing that Echo was over-excited and would most likely struggle with recall.  With management in place, we pretty much let her wander the area dragging the line and watched her do her thing while Echo's handler and I caught up.  We helped her keep the line from tangling, but other then that she was free to move around however she wanted.
  • Once we saw her relax, we walked through a few parkour stunts that I had set up in my backyard as a way to redirect Echo's focus back on her handler in this new environment.
  • Then we went back to the typical walking/training leash to help Echo know it was time to focus on training and I brought Azul out.  Both Azul and Echo are working on better handler focus around the distraction of other dogs.  This was our main mission for this training session, but we made sure to allow Echo to get totally comfortable in the environment before we actually started training.  Parkour activities were a minor part of the mission only because this is a great way to practice focus and teamwork in a way that if fun and engaging for the dog and handler both.
  • After our intense focus session, we set out on a walk on our hillside with mowed paths through a wild field of wonder for the dogs.  In this environment the dogs has so many awesome smells that they could enjoy being a dog without worrying too much about the other dog in the environment.  The goal of this walk is to decompress after the intense focus session and only keep enough focus on the handler to refrain from pulling on the leash.  Azul is well familiar with this type of walk, but this was totally new for Echo.  During this walk, Echo's handler commented on how her dog helps her to slow down and enjoy the finer things in life which is something most of us humans need to do more often.  Echo enjoyed a good roll in some smelly bear poo which brought a huge smile to her face...not so much for her owner.  LOL
  • Then to end our session, Echo went back on the longline to explore the backyard while Azul hung out on the porch allowing me to also bring Cam out on the porch to work on some training in calmness for all the dogs.  Cam being nervous around strange dogs and Echo having been attached by a GSD previously could have caused any one of the dogs to quickly go over threshold.  But since we were able to provide distance and safe spaces to each dog we were about to do some desensitization and counter conditioning for all 3 dogs for about 10 minutes.

All in all, this session with Team Echo was roughly 2 hours long.  This would be too long if we were only focusing on one activity.  But since we kept changing activities and observing dogs closely changing before they became overstimulated or tired of any one activity we were able to get the most of our session.  This is how I prefer to set up training sessions with clients and why I charge a flat rate per session instead of an hourly rate.  I'd much rather spend the extra time taking care of the dog's needs for environmental processing, providing emotional support, and creating calmness before focusing on the main training need for the session.

Now you may be asking, what does this have to do with scents?  Our dog's see the world through their sense of smell.  By recognizing that need to sniff and process the environment, we can set up better training sessions to accomplish more and help build up our dog's confidence in new and novel environments.  The more we do this, the more we can expect our dogs to be calm and confident in a wider variety of environments.  This is the one thing I try to help all my clients see, no matter what reason they have for working with a trainer.  If owners can learn how to help their dogs process the environment more effectively they will have a much higher chance of getting the dog of their dreams.

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