Putting the ‘E’ into your Scent Detecting Practice

Let me start by explaining that the ‘E’ that I’m referring to here is the ‘E’ of EVIDENCE rather than the ‘E’ of Elephant! That said, an Elephant, or Nellie, will feature quite large (no pun intended) throughout the rest of this discussion … 


The Elephant in the Room

If you live in the UK, you’re probably already very familiar with the old British phrase, “Sitting next to Nellie“(Treguer, 2018). It’s used to describe “poor-quality on-the-job training where a trainee is not instructed by a qualified trainer but instead is expected to learn how to do the job by observing someone who has been doing the job for years (i.e) Nellie. Such training is not planned or systematic, but instead is haphazard and variable. Although the trainee might glean much of Nellie’s expertise, he or she will also pick up her bad habits. And although Nellie might well be personable, she does not necessarily have the skills to train others” (Oxford Reference, 2020). 

At some point in our lives, we’ve all sat next to a Nellie – someone who has taken on, or been given, a training responsibility simply because of the number of years (or months) she (or he) has been doing a particular job – time served. Unfortunately, time served does not always equate with expertise (another ‘E’), where there is an expectation of a “high level of knowledge or skill” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020).

If you’ve ever taken the time to enquire about a dog trainer’s credentials it’s likely that you’ll have encountered responses that go something like this … “I’ve owned dogs for over thirty years”. “I’ve been a dog trainer for twenty-five years“. “I’ve always loved dogs“. I’ve been an operational dog handler“. “I’ve competed with my dogs and been very successful. And so on. In fact, when asked about your own “credentials” it’s possible that you’ve said some of these things yourself.

These very common responses all represent time served. Whether they also represent expertise is another matter. The two – time served and expertise – do not always go hand in hand.

Time Served 

According to Rycroft-Malone et al (2004), “knowledge [is] fundamental to reasoning and decision-making and thus central to professional practice“. Importantly, knowledge can be derived from a number of different sources including personal experience which might include the notion of time served.

Personal knowledge, also referred to as non-propositional knowledge, “is informal, implicit and derived primarily through practice. It forms part of professional craft knowledge (the tacit knowledge of professionals) and personal knowledge linked to the life experience and cognitive resources that a person brings to the situation to enable them to think and perform” (Rycroft-Malone et al, 2004).

On this account, time servedpersonal / tacit knowledge – seems to be a very necessary criterion for any training role but, by itself, is it sufficient? As a friend and colleague usefully pointed out to me – “Having a uterus does not make me a gynaecologist“! Similarly, owning, living with and training one or more dogs over a number of years, or working in a professional capacity, does not, in and of itself constitute expertise. As Rycroft-Malone et al (2004) put it, very few “cognitive resources” may have been brought to bear on training practices over those years with little or no accompanying development in expertise.  

The Authority Figure

Closely related to the issue of time served is that of the authority figure. An authority figure can be described as someone “whose real or apparent authority over others inspires or demands obedience and emulation” (Dictionary.com, 2020). When looking for someone to support you with your Scent Detecting training, how often have you been seduced by a person’s old (or current) job title, role or CV? Anyone who simply refers to themselves as a “Trainer” can become an authority figure in the eyes of others, unfortunately, as with time served, there can be a mistaken assumption that this will, in some way, guarantee an accompanying expertise.    

What constitutes Expertise?

Expertise demands a “broad and deep competence in terms of knowledge, skill and experience through practice and education in a particular field. … An expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience, or occupation and in a particular area of study” (WikipediA, 2021).

Whilst the non-propositional or tacit knowledge of the time served trainer can go a long way to fulfilling this description of expertise, it’s only part of the story. Expertise, in its fullest sense, also requires propositional or codified knowledge – knowledge derived from research and scholarship (Rycroft-Malone et al, 2004). As Rycroft-Malone et al (2004) point out, tacit, non-propositional knowledge, has the potential to become propositional knowledge if it’s discussed and debated and then contested and verified through further study and research. 

At it’s most simplistic, turning tacit knowledge into propositional knowledge requires the individual – you or your Scent Detecting trainer – to question what you’ve observed. Why is this happening? What caused that? How can I better help my dog here? What training approach might be more successful? … Almost without exception, the answers to many of your Scent Detecting questions are already out there for you to access in the form of published, peer reviewed, studies. 

Scent Detecting and Evidence-Based Practice – Why it Matters and what it might look like

“Stop reading. Start training”? I suggest a big dollop of caution!

To paraphrase Burns et al (2011), evidence-based practice is about finding credible evidence – peer reviewed studies / research – that will act to inform and underpin your Scent Detecting training and practice. In discussing health-care, Rycroft-Malone et al (2004), state that “the message is clear: practitioners should be ensuring that people receive care based on the best possible evidence“. Similarly, your Scent Detecting dog should be in receipt of training that is underpinned by the best possible evidence.  

A few months ago, I came across a social media post seeming to suggest that, rather than waste time reading about Scent Detecting, we should simply get on and do it! Whilst I sort of “get” the sentiment here … stop procrastinating (maybe) and get to work … I offer a big dollop of caution! As Greyson (2021) states, whilst your personal experiences (or “truth”) “may be convincing to you as an individual [you] can’t necessarily prove them to anyone else“. In contrast, “objective truth is the kind of truth science discovers … [it’s] … the kind of truth that is true whether or not you believe it“.

And that’s the point really, the evidence of evidence-based Scent Detecting practice is not about opinion, or you or your trainer’s (possibly limited) experience, or Nellie’s views (remember her?), or jumping on the latest Scent Detecting bandwagon currently sweeping across Europe or North America. Rather, the evidence referred to in evidence-based Scent Detecting practice is about research, “a rigorous procedure for collecting and evaluating information” (Greyson, 2021). As Greyson (2021) points out, “science doesn’t take sides. It’s an impartial method for evaluating all the available data” and deciding how you can best operationalise it in your training and practice. 

Using evidence to underpin your Scent Detecting training and practice can provide a number of benefits –

  1. Prevents your dog, and other peoples dogs, from becoming Scent Detecting experiments. You might recognise phrases such as – “Let’s just give this a go”. “I wonder if this might work”. “How about trying to do it this way”. To a very large extent, experimentation during Scent Detecting training is both unnecessary and, I would argue, highly unethical. Whilst there’s a vast body of evidence out there that can be called upon to guide your practice there can be no reasonable justification to “re-invent the wheel”. Experimentation can be detrimental to your dog, his well-being and training progress.
  2. Supports your Scent Detecting practice. Evidence can shed light on why your training might not be progressing as expected and how it can be remedied.
  3. Helps to speed up your training. By reference to widely available peer-reviewed literature, evidence can assist you in planning your training whilst avoiding any unnecessary pitfalls. 
  4. Keeps your dog SAFE. Helps you avoid any dangerous practices. The selection and handling of your dog’s target odour is one very obvious example here.   

As Jia et al (2014) point out, “we depend upon the olfactory abilities of dogs for what are considered highly specialized and critical tasks such as detecting explosive devices, hazardous chemicals, and illicit substances. … to support [these tasks] greater emphasis has been placed on understanding fundamental olfactory function and capacities“. Unfortunately, despite an ever expanding body of scientific literature linked to Canine Olfaction, I would suggest that only a small fraction of this work has managed to trickle its way down to the operational level, be that the family pet, the Scent Detecting competitor or the professionally employed dog and handler team.

A partial explanation for this state of affairs may be the “inaccessibility” of much of the literature both in terms of its “readability” and, actual, “availability”. A more concerning explanation may be a lack of appreciation of just how essential evidence is to good practice.  

Which aspects of Scent Detecting training? What evidence?

In my Blog Post, Smoothing out the Lumpy Bits, I discussed splitting (as opposed to lumping) as a way of breaking the Scent Detecting training task down into smaller, more manageable, elements. Each of these elements, from familiarising your dog to the target odour, to developing the passive indication with duration, through to independent search strategies and the development of a Filament Detection Dog® are then spilt further into even more precise and detailed training elements.

Each of these elements, including the underpinning philosophy of Scent : Detect : Find Ltd, are shaped by evidence drawn from multiple scientific disciplines including, but not limited to –

Ethology. Neuroscience. Canine Olfaction – Anatomy and Physiology. Canine Emotions. Learning Theory. Dietetics. Fluid Dynamics. Education. Meteorology. Canine Communication. Reward Systems. Odour Chemistry. …

Without this rigorous application of evidence, Scent Detecting training and practice would remain little more than opinion … based on time served perhaps … but, none the less, only opinion.  

In conclusion …

As Rycroft-Malone et al (2004) state, evidence-based practice requires a drawing on and integration of “multiple sources of propositional and non-propositional knowledge informed by a variety of evidence bases that have been critically and publically scrutinized“. True expertise requires the non-propositional, tacit,  knowledge provided by the time served but it also calls for the propositional knowledge provided by a body of peer-reviewed evidence.

And if you need any further convincing of this, simply follow this link to see just how badly things can go without the tacit knowledge of the time served supported by the propositional knowledge provided by evidence. Your Scent Detecting dog deserves both.

When you place your restoration work in the wrong hands!

Final Note

As with all of my blogs, I include a reference list. This allows you to investigate the topic a little further, check out the sources of my information and decide for yourself whether my interpretations of the literature represent an accurate reflection of the author’s original work. Happy reading.

© Lesley McAllister – Scent : Detect : Find Ltd 2021



References / Further Reading

  1. Burns PB, Rohrich RJ and Chung KC (2011) The Levels of Evidence and their role in Evidence-Based Medicine. Plastic and reconstructive surgery. 128.1 305-310
  2. Cambridge University (2020) Cambridge Dictionary. https://www.google.com/amp/s/dictionary.cambridge.org/amp/english/expertise Accessed: 12.10.2020
  3. Dictionary.com (2020) Dictionary.com https://www.dictionary.com/browse/authority-figure Accessed: 12.10.2020
  4. Greyson B (2021) After. UK: Bantam Press
  5. Jia H, Pustovyy OM, Waggoner P, Beyers RJ, Schumacher J, Wildey C, Barrett J, Morrison E, Salibi N, Denney TS, Vodyanoy VJ, Deshpande G (2014) Functional MRI of the Olfactory System in Conscious Dogs. PLoS ONE. 9.1
  6. Oxford Reference (2020) Sitting-With-Nellie. https://www.oxfordreference.com/viw/10.1093/oi/authority.20110903100509169 Accessed: 30.7.2020
  7. Rycroft-Malone J, Seers K, Titchen A, Harvey G, Kitson A, McCormack B (2004) What counts as evidence in evidence-based practice. Journal of Advanced Nursing. 47(1). 81-90.
  8. Treguer P (2018) Meaning and origin of the British phrase ‘sitting by Nellie’. Word Histories. https://www.google.com/amp/s/wordhistories.net/2018/11/04/sitting-nellie-learning/amp/ Accessed: 30.7.2020
  9. WikipediA (2021) Expert. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expert Accessed: 16.03.2021

2 thoughts on “Putting the ‘E’ into your Scent Detecting Practice

  1. Bloody brilliant……albeit a bit too much for me to digest and remember at this time of night 🥴. Need to read again when not so tired. Got the general gist of it….really interesting and so true. How many so called ‘trainers’ have no real knowledge at all but it’s ok…‘it’s what I’ve always done and I’ve had dogs for years’ 🙄 Like all these bloody back yard breeders……no knowledge in what they’re doing resulting in poorly bred dogs often with temperament and health issues.


    Sent from my iPad



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s