I had a wonderful opportunity recently to watch over 40 teams trying for their NW1 title. I don’t know how many were trialing for the first time but I spoke to several who were attempting to achieve the title for the second or third time. Unfortunately this element had a very low pass rate and as I watched I found myself thinking that perhaps many of these teams just weren’t ready for this level of test.

NACSW trials are held in real world settings so there are often conditions that can be hard to work out within the time allowed even at the NW1 level. There are also unplanned distractions, challenging footing and weather and even sounds or smells that can make it hard for the dog and the handler to focus.

Add to these the pressure of being judged, timed and possibly doing all of this for the first time and it can cause a very different performance than the handler normally sees from their dog.

It seems to me that it might be helpful if we had a checklist of sorts to help us decide if we’re ready to trial so I’ve tried to come up with one. Let me know if you have anything to add to it.

Does my dog normally go straight to odor or does she tend to check out the search area before beginning to search?

  1. Does my dog get distracted by sounds outside the search area or by people in the search area? Does she stop searching or try to leave the search area?
  2. Can I describe the behavior(s) that my dog offers when at source?
  3. Does my dog come into the search area actively searching?
  4. Can I tell when my dog is bracketing (getting closer and closer to source) or does all her behavior look somewhat similar to me?
  5. When I practice blind hides, do I ever call false alerts?
  6. When practicing blind hides, do I usually call alert the first time my dog reaches source or does it take more than once for me to call Alert?

Let’s take the questions one at a time:

  1. Getting distracted by things happening in the search area doesn’t mean your dog isn’t ready to trial. Anything can happen in a trial and your dog needs to feel that he or she has the option to check out the distraction. But if he stops searching and can’t seem to get started again, you may need more practice in a wider variety of environments.
  2. Being able to verbally describe your dog’s alert/communication behavior is crucial for success. If you can’t describe it, it will be very hard to to recognize it under the pressure of a trial search. If you video your practice or class searches (and since almost everyone has a smart phone, that should be easy), you will become better at recognizing your dog’s alert behaviors and also the behaviors that immediately precede it.
  3. If  you’ve taken the time to build a strong foundation, your dog has come to expect he will find target odor and actively start looking for it as soon as he is given the freedom to search. If he simply walks around the search area casually checking objects and spaces, he may bump into odor and react to it but it will take longer and that will give him more opportunities to become distracted by the things he encounters.
  4. If you answered yes to this one, it will help to video your dog’s searches so that not only do you see the alert but the behaviors that come just before the alert. That’s bracketing, the time when your dog has encountered target odor and is working to find the source. Watching a number of dogs do the same search is a good way to get more proficient at recognizing the different parts of the search. Volunteering at as many trials as possible is the best way I know to become better at this skill.
  5. A “yes” here often indicates that confusion has crept into the how and where of rewarding for finding and indicating source. You may have thought you were paying your dog for indicating source when actually your dog thought you liked her lovely paw tap. It’s quite easy to accidentally reinforce a behavior that has more to do with your position and keen focus as you slyly reach toward your bait bag than on the odor itself. So now when under the pressure of a blind search in front of judges, videographers, stewards and even spectators, you creep closer to your dog and your focus is keen and your hand is inching its way toward your bait bag, your very observant dog does what she’s done so many times before and taps her little paw on that bucket you’re staring at. Naturally you call “alert” but your dog hasn’t had a chance to get to source yet or is close but not all the way there. Time to go back to basics and pair your hides with a bit of food so that the reward is for getting her nose on source and not for that sweet little paw tap that you thought you could always count on. It will also take her focus off of what you’re doing with your hands and feet and onto the hide. With consistency and careful timing and placement of reward, you can change what you’re rewarding to “getting your nose on source” instead of “tapping your paw on an object” that may or may not be near odor.
  6. Answering “no” here might mean that you aren’t clear about how your dog indicates he’s at source (time to video those searches so you can be clear) or it might be that his communication behavior isn’t clear and consistent. The most likely reason it isn’t clear and consistent is because you’ve been reinforcing various behaviors at various times. Go back to basics and be sure that you know what you want to reinforce. I like to reinforce my dog for getting his nose as close to source as possible so I try to always be in a position (when I’m practicing which I mostly do with known hides) where I will be able to reinforce the split second before his nose reaches the vessel. After months of doing this in all kinds of locations under all kinds of conditions, he strives to get his nose to source and I can start to ask for a bit more duration so that if I can’t be right there to reward, he will stick there until I can deliver his reward.

I could probably think of more questions on my check list but these are a start. The best way I know to prepare for a trial is to attend as many as you can as a volunteer. Not only will you become familiar with the way they’re run, you’ll get to see several dogs searching the same area and notice the similarities and the differences.

Most of all, be sure to keep it fun for both you and your dog. Your dog just wants to spend time with you and has no concept of success or failure so smile at your dog and hide your disappointment and remember that there’s always another trial.