I am writing this column from a high-speed train from the south of France to Paris. I’ve just spent four days at an event focused on the application of canine olfaction in companion and working dogs. There were lecture presentations for the first half of each day and practical workshops in the afternoon—a super-fun and helpful format. Topics covered were using scent work to rehabilitate dogs with behavior problems; training avalanche and search and rescue dogs; teaching dogs to alert for medical conditions such as diabetes and PTSD; and my session, which compared methods of teaching dogs how to search for specific odors for all of the purposes above and more.
It was truly a wonderful experience, and while I enjoyed every moment and learned a lot, I came away with two principal inspirations. First, my already hardy enthusiasm for teaching canine scent work has grown by leaps and bounds. I will return to the United States recharged and ready to expand nose work training opportunities for companion dogs on our side of the pond. Second, as always happens when I spend time in Europe, I am inspired to teach our SIRIUS dog training students to train their dogs to be the best canine citizens possible in an attempt to better integrate dogs into our daily lives.
From watching the video presentations and live demonstrations of the search and rescue dogs, it was most obvious the dogs were having the time of their lives. Their excitement was both palpable and infectious. These dogs were out in nature, joyfully traversing all sorts of terrain from snow and forests to rivers, using their superior sniffers to aid their human companions with far inferior noses in saving human lives. And they were doing it while engaged in the pleasure of one of their most instinctive behaviors: the hunt. Talk about a win-win situation. Searching together brings a dog and handler into harmony that is almost primal. It’s truly breathtaking to behold, let alone experience.
Similarly, seeing dogs in another life-saving role, the deep connection between a trained medical detection dog and his person is moving beyond words. Compared to the weak abilities of people to detect and ward off certain medical or psychological conditions, these dogs perform their trained tasks with such ease and accuracy that it’s almost as if they’ve got super powers from our mere mortal vantage point.
The beauty of all detection dogs is that they are dogs with jobs. Every breed out there was originally designed with a purpose in mind, even if it was simply to be a constant companion or watchdog with most breeds having had a much more intensive job in their history. In our modern society, most dogs have been out of work for decades, and without an outlet for their specialities, many suffer behavior problems because of it. I am a huge advocate of giving all dogs a job.
Aside from the takeaways of the conference materials, I also had the pleasure of simply observing dogs hanging out at the workshops. Actually, the dogs in attendance not only hung out together at the workshop portion of the event, but they also came to the morning lectures. All dogs were present all day long. Dogs included every type, from 12-week old puppies, sport dog companions, and elderly pet dogs just out for a fun time with their owners, to a few police search and detection dogs. Sure, occasionally the dogs would take a nap in their car or caravan, but mostly the French pace of a conference, especially one geared toward dogs, provided plenty of frequent breaks for coffee and stretching one’s legs out in the fresh countryside air.
During the workshop portions, unlike at an American dog event, all of the dogs were lounging out on the field, sitting with their owners and politely waiting for their turn for the day’s practical experience and fun. In fact, the presence of dogs certainly wasn’t limited to the dog event. In France, dogs are welcome nearly everywhere, and perhaps because it’s not a new experience for them to be out and about in public places just chilling with their people, they are very good at just laying low. There is very little dog reactivity, be it toward people or other canines. I believe this integration improves quality of life at both ends of the leash.
I would really love to see more of our American dogs participating in activities that give them purpose and allow them to express their inherent dogginess with glee and wild abandon. Additionally, it is my dream that all dog owners take the time to train their dogs to the level of reliability and responsiveness that will encourage municipalities to increase the amount of dog-friendly public places, rather than decrease access due to dogs being regarded as nuisances. I hope that someday our dogs’ lives are as rich as the lives of dogs abroad.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains the instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program. She also is founder and president of Open Paws and consults on various matters
Main article photo by: Chihyu Lin-CC