Spring has sprung in the Southeast which means there are more opportunities for trials. In 2 weeks there will be a NW1 and a NW2 trial offered in Greenville, SC. A few of my students were lucky enough to get into the trial on the random draw and are probably in various states of nervousness about the upcoming test. I clearly remember my first NACSW trial with my PRT, Devon. I was in no way ready or prepared for it and our performance definitely showed it. I strive to make sure my students are better prepared than I was and I hope that they’ll enjoy it all the more  by being readier for the challenges than I was.

One thing I’m often asked about by students going to their first trial is the best way to practice during the 2 weeks leading up to the trial. I believe that these two weeks are best used for building confidence in both members of the team. To do that I suggest that the handler set up easy and accessible hides in all the usual places they practice. This isn’t the time to try to work the more complex hides we might do in class. Try to place hides so that your dogs find the hides quickly and easily and don’t over-practice. Whet your dog’s appetite for searching but don’t satisfy it. Keep him wanting to do more. For  some dogs that might mean practicing every day, for others only one day in four or five. By this time, you should have spent enough time practicing with your dog that you can answer the question of what is the optimum amount of practice for your dog.

Try to avoid blind hides unless they’re few and accessible and placed by someone who really understands hide placement for the level trial you’ve entered. And if they are blind, it’s a good idea to pair with a bit of food so the reward timing won’t be delayed which could cause the dog some confusion which in turn can erode the handler’s confidence. “Success breeds success” as Mia Hamm said.

Other things to consider are how to keep you and your dog comfortable in your car for the whole day. One advantage of taking classes is that we go to new locations away from the training building frequently. This gives you and your dog a chance to practice working out of your car and asking and answering mundane but important questions like how to keep your dog’s treats fresh in hot weather, how to make sure she’ll drink enough water and what do I do if it rains?

Another question I get asked a lot is whether or not to use the warm up boxes. My answer is always the same: Yes, use them as long as you don’t use them to test your dog. In other words, use them as a chance to show your dog exactly what sort of super yummilicious treat you have brought to the trial. So as you approach the odor box (which should be marked clearly), you will reach forward and meet your dog’s nose at the odor box with your treat. If you can’t resist and decide to test your dog and she fails to indicate the correct box, that could be a blow to your confidence that you don’t really need at that moment. And keep in mind that there’s a lot of contamination around that area. Dog slobber, food, and more so it’s not an ideal place to test. Even a dog going to his first trial will know exactly why he’s there when he catches his first whiff of BirchFinish!.

So you’re pretty clear about how to prepare for the trial but what about the mental preparation side of things? You don ‘t need to be a pro athlete to benefit from some of the ways they get ready for a competition. One of my favorite ways to prepare is to set goals for myself. I think about the kinds of things I can do to be a good handler and/or the things I want to remind myself to do before, during and after the search and I write them out. For me the act of writing helps me to fix them clearly in my mind. For example, I might want to remind myself to give my dog plenty of room to work, allow him to work all the way to source and to call “Finish” when he’s found (or I believe he’s found in the case of an unknown number of hides) all the hides. When I’m searching containers I like to remind myself that I should get my dog to all the containers (at the NW3 level anyway), keep moving so I don’t accidentally “sell” him on a container and to watch carefully to make sure he’s actually checked the container that he’s alerting on (one of the things I forget to do is to make sure Devon actually sniffs the box he’s alerting on).

Notice that nowhere in my goals am I writing “I want to cover the search area efficiently” or “I want to stay in the moment” because those goals aren’t specific enough. Instead I might write something like “Remember to get into each corner of the room and check the threshold” because that reminds me where to move and when. Or I might plan to repeat a particular phrase over and over to myself as I’m in the staging areas to remind myself of what I want to do (stand back, let him work to source, say Alert!) I often start counting to myself as my dog crosses the threshold so I can have an idea of how much time is passing and it keeps me from allowing stray thoughts into my mind (“why is the judge standing over there?”).

Notice I also don’t have a goal like “I want to get my NW3 title”. Well, it may indeed be a goal of mine but it’s a different kind of goal called an outcome goal and those aren’t under my control. No matter how good a dog I have and no matter if I’m the best handler in the world, anything can happen during a search which might prevent us from passing. So those goals are important but I don’t want them taking up space in my thoughts that could be put to  much better use.

I’ve discovered what works for me by trial and error and by keeping a record of what happened at the trials I’ve attended. I write down the things I learn at trials and I usually learn a lot more from my misses than my passes. You’ll develop your own goals and methods for learning what works and when you do, I hope you’ll share them with me.

One other thing I do that never fails to put me in the right frame of mind before each search starts, while I’m staging or sometimes while I’m just waiting in my car, is to remind myself how lucky I am to be there, in that spot, with my dog. I think about all the people who would love to be doing what I’m doing but can’t because of illness or worse. I think about my dog and how much he loves searching and how I love watching him search and right before we go up to the startline I look into his eyes and feel thankful to be right there about to have this opportunity to dance with my dog.

To those of you about to have the same opportunity, remember how lucky you are.