Friday I went to the local scent work trial as a volunteer for my kennel club. I told them I wasn’t sure how much help I would be, since I had no idea what to do. But they said knowing what to do has never been a requirement of the club! I was the “hot steward” so I was in charge of taking the scented articles from the handlers and placing them in boxes for novice, or hiding cotton balls for more advanced classes. Then in the afternoon I was in charge of placing the birch, clove, and anise scented articles in boxes and again in the simulated environment for the dogs to find.
It was so much fun, and such a great introduction to the sport. I’ve been reading the rule book for Barn Hunt, but I find that it doesn’t give a really good picture of what the sport looks like. Or maybe I’m just visual and I need to see it happen. I didn’t get far enough into our scent work class to really have a good picture of what we were doing and why. In fact, at the trial we started with Handler Discrimination and I was confused about why we had a box with the handlers scent and then the judge put an article with her scent in another box, which we also hid. The remaining 8 boxes were empty. I thought the dogs just had to locate their owner’s box. What I didn’t realize was that not only did they have to find their box, they also had to discriminate between their owner’s scent and the judges scent. In hindsight it seems obvious (handler discrimination) but for someone who has never been involved in dog sports it’s not intuitive.
I think for the people who have been training dogs for decades, it’s sometimes hard to go back and explain it to someone who has zero experience in that world. It’s like when I go into the hardware store and I don’t have the vocabulary to ask them for the thing I want. I can see in my head what I need, but there’s a lot of sign language trying to convey the idea. I think so many people would enjoy activities like this with their dogs if it didn’t seem so mysterious. The dog people worry about their sport dying, but at least part of the problem is that it feels like a closed club. They would do well to work on getting the information out there and being welcoming to newcomers. Of course, on the flip side, everyone has been very kind to me and I’m starting to feel like I belong there. And someone more outgoing than I am may not feel as awkward trying to join the group.
It was just fascinating watching the teamwork between the people and the dogs. Scent Work isn’t really a spectator sport, so volunteering gave me a great opportunity to be in the room and watch. I also had the advantage of knowing where the hide was, so sometimes I could see the dog find the article and alert, and watch the handler miss it. Or watch them handle the dog around the area and they never make sure the dog looks at all of the boxes. There is a lot of nuance there. They really have to be able to read their dogs. I was also surprised at how many dogs alerted at the judge’s scent. I asked her why, and she said because it was a novel scent. So they found something new and different and were excited about it. I know the dogs can smell their handler. It’s about teaching them what you want them to find. When we were using a birch scented article I could smell the birch. I know the dogs could smell it. But you have to teach the dog why finding it is exciting. Birch isn’t exciting by itself, it’s the treats they get when they find it. And when you pair the scent with the reward you teach the dog to play the game.
I know it sounds weird, but it also made me feel all warm and fuzzy to see how many people didn’t qualify. We were just running novice dogs in the afternoon, so they were all new. But people weren’t upset. The dogs still got praised and rewarded and everyone was having fun. It was really nice to see that you don’t have to be perfect to get started. It really is about getting out there and having fun with your dog. I think there are so many people who would enjoy this, and they don’t even know it’s out there. I really want to try out Barn Hunt. As much as they love finding small creatures that I wish they wouldn’t find, I think the girls would love that. I’m really excited to find all of the things that I can do with my dogs.