Scentwork – A different way to ‘work’ your dog

We’ve been investigating lots of different dog activities during the last year of lockdowns and limited travelling, for things to do with our dogs a bit closer to home. We recently spoke to Sara Seymour of Compass Canine and asked her about her experiences with scentwork and why she finds it so beneficial for her happy, active dog, Ripley.

Sara is the owner of Compass Canine, based in Totnes, South Devon with her primary business being hydrotherapy and canine fitness.  She also offers scentwork training, as well as running scentwork events.  Sara’s dog training background was mainly in agility, but these days her training with Ripley, other than scentwork, focuses on Rally obedience.  This is mostly online, due to the limited number of ‘real life’ competitions currently available. They also enjoy training tricks and a variety of concepts such as mimicry.  Sara is training to become a Certified Professional Canine Fitness Trainer (CPCFT) and her training philosophy is best described as ‘Do No Harm’, focusing on positive reinforcement-based training that is adapted to each learner.  She aims to apply this to both people and dogs.

Here’s what Sara had to say…

“My current running buddy is Ripley, a six-year-old working cocker spaniel.  We started C25K together back in October 2019, and have run two or three times a week ever since.  I have to be honest, since the first lockdown started in March 2020 he free runs more often than not.  This suits us better, as I don’t run fast enough for him!  He still runs in harness on some routes.  Well, trots – quite famously he never broke out of a trot through the whole C25K program!  Anyway, the main point is that he is a very fit, high energy dog.

So it often comes as a surprise to people that I don’t walk him every day.  Even on the days we do walk, it can just be a quick 20-30 minute bimble.  Most people would then expect that he is running circuits around the house, or destroying anything that he can get his mouth on.  But that’s not the case.  I run my own hydrotherapy centre, and he spends most of his days in the office with me popping my head in between appointments.  Many clients have spotted him through the window, sound asleep with his legs in the air.  Want to know the secret?  Then read on…

Ripley relaxing!

Walking, or running, with your dogs for ever increasing distances is one way to try and tire them out.  However, the chances are you will end up with a very fit adrenaline junkie.  The more you do, the worse it’s going to get.  And let’s not even get started on standing and chucking a ball for them repeatedly.  Seriously, just don’t start it.  The way to tire your dog out, so that they can settle themselves during down time, is by training them.  I may not walk him every day, but we do train every day, even if it’s just for five or ten minutes.  Getting to the specifics, the very best way to tire your dog out is by getting them to use their nose. 

A large part of a dog’s brain is dedicated to processing the information that they take in through their nose.  Much more than in the human brain; our main senses being sight and sound.  Dogs navigate the world with their noses, which is why they often cope surprisingly well when they lose their sight or go deaf (and we often don’t realise for a while).  Given that they are using so much of their brain for sniffing, it’s an activity that will tire them more effectively.  Letting Ripley spend his 30-minute walk sniffing every blade of grass will satiate him far more than the dog that chases a ball for 30 minutes – they’re barely using their brain at all.

There are many ways to get your dog using their nose more, from scattering some of their meal around the garden to training for competitive scentwork.  I use everything in this spectrum.  I got involved in scentwork in 2017, as my springer Vinnie had been retired from agility relatively young and still needed a job.  I trained as a trainer for Scentwork UK, and started teaching classes.  I’ve since trained as a Trial Manager and Judge, and also run Nosework Games events.  I’m a lifelong learner, so there has been plenty of further education in there as well. 

With Scentwork UK, the initial scent that we teach our dogs is cloves.  They are trained to search for this scent in a number of different set ups, and once they find the scent they have to perform a behaviour that tells the handler that they’ve found it – this is known as an indication.  Scentwork classes are available all over the country, as well as online.  I have also recently written and published a book, Scentwork: Step by Step, which is aimed at complete beginners.

Ripley enjoying a scentwork session

However, the most simple way that you can get your dog sniffing is by getting them to search out their meals (admittedly much easier if you feed kibble rather than raw).  Either place a few bits of food in various places around a room or sprinkle some kibble in the grass.  Try to avoid pointing out every bit, stand back and let them get on with it.  You can even do this out on walks to encourage them to get their nose down.  Probably an important point to note here is that I put a lot of these behaviours on cue – quite rightly we don’t want our dogs with their nose down all the time whilst we’re running, but by actually allowing them time to do this elsewhere you may find that they have less need to do so at other times.

Scentwork can be as simple as getting your dog to sniff out their food in your back garden

Find out more

You can find out more about Scentwork UK or Nosework Games on their websites or Facebook pages.  I have a page dedicated to scentwork, Compass Canine Scentwork, as well as some information on my website www.compasscanine.co.uk/scentwork The book is available through Amazon, wherever you are in the world, either on Kindle or in paperback – mybook.to/ScentworkStepbyStep  If you have any questions, then please do get in touch.”

We think scentwork is going to be great fun for the K9 Trail Time team to try and we’re currently working through Sara’s book and looking forward to getting started ourselves. We hope you’ve enjoyed this little insight into scentwork and it gives you some ideas for keeping your dogs happy on rest days.

Happy Trails!

Running with a reactive dog

March is Pet Anxiety Month so it felt like a good time to write this blog on running with a reactive dog. Many of the people who get into the dog sports of canicross, bikejor and dog scootering, do so because they have a high energy dog, possibly bred to do a job which isn’t accessible to them in their current home. Some of these dogs are rescues and some have just developed anxiety leading to the dog being reactive in certain situations. I know plenty of people who have a found a safe haven in canicross because it allows you to exercise your dog, whilst keeping them close to you and under control to prevent incidents with other dog walkers.

Canicross can be a great way to exercise your reactive dog, allowing them to socialise safely with other dogs

People who have never owned a reactive dog will probably not understand the daily struggles of planning a stress free route for your dog or the impact that their ‘friendly’ off lead dog interfering can have on your dog and your day. So whilst it is extremely annoying, we do all have to consider that not everyone will understand your dogs’ reaction and often their first response is to accuse you of having an aggressive dog – not fun or fair on anyone!

I want to point out that I’m not a qualified behaviourist, I talk about this from my own experiences having owned three reactive dogs now, all of whom were reactive in slightly different ways and for different reasons and all of whom I have canicrossed with and canicross raced with.

In my experience dogs become reactive for a reason and whatever that reason is, it is usually based on a fear of something. If you can find out what ‘triggers’ their reactivity (so basically work out what is frightening them) then you are halfway there to helping ease, or resolve, the problem.

My own dogs

The first example I have is with my first canicross dog Tegan, Tegan was a husky collie cross, loads of energy and a mix of two renowned working breeds, both endurance breeds with a really strong work ethic. This is important because Tegan NEVER gave up on something if it upset her, if she had a ‘run in’ with another dog, she would remember that and it was very difficult to persuade her not to react in any future meetings with that dog, I think her persistence in this was part of her genetic make up, not just as a result of an individual disagreement.

Tegan was always shouting at me or someone else to let her opinions be known!

Tegan would react badly to most dogs she saw whilst on the lead and holding her in situations where we met other dogs ‘head on’ was always difficult. Canicrossing however, was a different story and I couldn’t understand at first why she was fine running shoulder to shoulder with a strange dog, yet would create merry hell in the car park after a run if the dog came any where near her. I began to learn about what situations ‘triggered’ her reactivity and so I would avoid them if at all possible.

Avoidance of the trigger has now become my key tool in dealing with reactivity and you might be thinking ‘well that’s not really an answer that solves the problem’ but for me and my dogs, it is. Tegan would react because she felt threatened in a situation, not because she was a nasty, aggressive dog but because she genuinely felt that for whatever reason, she was unsafe in meeting some other dogs in head on situations and so she would react first.

My springer collie cross Donnie is similar, he will happily canicross alongside a dog he has never met before but if you ask him to ‘meet’ a dog in a walking or running situation, he turns into a spitting, snarling and quite frankly scary looking dog. I often find myself apologising for him if we meet someone out on walks or runs and generally leave the encounter embarrassed, which is why more often than not, I just try to avoid meeting people altogether.

Donnie will happily run alongside dogs he doesn’t live with but won’t tolerate them approaching him

Where it’s not possible to avoid coming face to face with other dogs, I have to do my best to ensure every situation is managed and doesn’t lead to something which could reinforce the behaviour, so staying calm, moving him as far out of the way as possible and reassuring him, are generally the methods I employ for helping to keep him below his ‘threshold’ for reacting.

Canicross has been a lifeline for us in that I know I have him under control when he is attached to me, I can pull him in closer to me quickly and he is generally a much happier dog than if he were constantly in a situation where he was reacting to everything. The other thing about Donnie is that he has Addisons Disease which is influenced by stress and so keeping him as stress free as possible is quite literally keeping him healthier!

My final example dog is Delta who is much quieter and more subtle with her reactivity but she is still nervous and whereas Tegan and Donnie’s reactions were your typical ‘fight’ response to a potential threat, Delta’s is flight, so she runs! This is where canicross comes into the picture again for being a great way for her to see the countryside with me but without her being in a situation where she feels the need to flee. Delta knows she can just drop by my side and I can keep other dogs / people away and so her confidence has grown since we have been canicross training, as she learns that nothing bad happens when she’s with me and I wrote another blog on this here: https://k9trailtime.wordpress.com/2020/01/27/keeping-your-dog-safe/ about making sure she felt safe.

Delta is happy to run with me and I feel she is safer attached to me, so there is no ‘flight’ risk if we meet other dogs – Photo courtesy of Horses for Courses Photography

So what happens when you go to a canicross race?

Canicross racing is something I have written a fair bit about but not necessarily in the context of the reactive dog. I often see people ask if they can take their reactive dog to a canicross race and the short is answer is ‘yes’. The longer answer however is, ‘yes, but think very carefully about whether you should’.

I am always actively encouraging people to get to canicross races, the organisers are people generally experienced with dogs and will be friendly and understanding towards you, even if you dog is reactive. Most true dog people understand that not all dogs will behave in the same way and will help you feel welcome and try and accommodate any worries you might have about taking part in a canicross race.

However, and this is quite a big however, if you feel your dog won’t cope very well with the situation being surrounded by other high energy and excited dogs, or having to pass other dogs and this might cause your dog more stress than enjoyment, or worse put your dog in a situation where you feel they have the potential to harm another dog, you or even themselves, then perhaps a race situation isn’t for you.

I have to hold my dogs by their harnesses on the start line to make sure they do not cross the path of other runners and their dogs

You do need to be able to control your dog in a race situation so that you are not responsible for causing anxiety in someone else’s dog. I’ve been on the receiving end of this and have had my dogs lunged at and ultimately put off racing by other competitors’ lack of care when handling their dog in a race. I personally wouldn’t want my dog to be the cause of this for someone else and so I would always recommend building your reactive dog up slowly to racing. If you positively train them around other dogs, taking time to reinforce the fun elements of running with other dogs and work hard to do all you can to make the experience exciting rather than anxiety inducing, then you can enjoy racing with your reactive dog too.

Canicross is much more fun if you know everyone has control over their dog – Photo Courtesy of CBR Photography

My final thoughts

So to conclude, running with your reactive dog can be a really good way to get your dog used to being around other dogs without putting them under too much pressure to interact, or allow them to reinforce any negative behaviours around other dogs and people. Whether your dog is confrontational when anxious or looks to escape the situation, you have much more control if your dog is attached to you and can give you the peace of mind you need to be able to enjoy going out with your dog, without the fear of a negative situation with other trail users.

Happy trails!