The training process encourages the dog to refine his innate hunting and scenting skills. Handlers are taught to quietly support their dogs as the dogs develop individual searching styles through a progressive series of classes. First, the dog is encouraged to explore multiple open boxes for the scent of a hidden reward — usually a savory treat or a coveted toy for chasing or tugging. Search difficulty is gradually increased by changing environmental variables: closing the boxes, raising the height of the hide, introducing varied objects to the search environment and eventually moving the search outside of the box. While the dog catches on to the game and builds drive for searching, the target odor is paired with the reinforcing treat. Over time and at the individual team’s pace, the handler gains skill in reading behavioral indicators as the dog learns to track the odor trail to its source. Dogs eventually associate the target odor with the reward, which is ultimately removed from the environment and delivered by the handler upon indication of the target odor alone. The thrill of exploration and pursuit seems to magnify the intensity of the game and compound the reward value.
The sport’s swift growth beyond its southern California center is a clear indicator of its wide appeal to companion dog owners. Since its inception, classes given by certified instructors have spread quickly up the West Coast and even reached the far corners of the Northeast. Massachusetts-based trainer Scott Williams, of Beyond the Leash Dog Training, has introduced the concept to over 200 dogs in a short eight months. He believes the popularity lies, in part, in the lack of equipment involved. “It doesn’t require a large fenced field,” he says. “It can be done indoors or out, anytime of the year, and requires relatively little handler involvement. Actually, the less the owner does, the better the dogs like it!”