Monday, July 23, 2012

The K9 Nose Work® Trial Experience

If you've never competed in an NACSW™ sanctioned K9 Nose Work trial, the following post from Jaime Fellows, CNWI, offers a vividly detailed account of what it's like. The day is long, and the searches can be brief, but intense. The atmosphere is one of integrity and respect, and competitors are supportive of one another. The experience is amazing, and it only gets better as the sport continues to grow.

Be sure to check out the website for the NACSW to learn more about trials and to volunteer at a trial in your area. And, if you're new to K9 Nose Work and reading this post, it may be helpful to know that the average dog/handler team spends one year learning and practicing K9 Nose Work before their first trial. So, all you newbies, take your time to prepare for the challenges of trial, and remember to keep it fun!

A Competitor's Experience at the Denver, CO K9 Nose Work NW1 Trial June 4, 2011 
by Jaime Fellows, CNWI

Friday morning leaving Santa Fe was hot. There was a dusting of ash coating the deck and chairs outside. There were two large wildfires burning in Arizona, as well as a fire north of Taos [New Mexico]. I glanced at the sky full of smoke and wondered if our dogs would have trouble with the smoke affecting the searches in Denver as well. I had the car packed, and loaded ready for the trip. A quick drive into town to pick up Amy [Cox] and Ridge.

We were on I-25 headed north by 9:45 am. Lots of smoke from the wildfires. 

I-25 heading north

The drive north was uneventful. A quick lunch in Trinidad [Colorado] and back on the road. We arrived at the hotel in Golden around 4:30 pm. We made contact with the rest of the Santa Fe group and had a quick dinner.

Saturday morning we were up and outside by 6:30 am walking dogs and preparing mentally for the day ahead. Bandy, my Malinios seemed in fine form. We set some practice hides across the street from the hotel to warm up for the trial. Dogs hit and worked the hides quickly with enthusiasm.

Amy Cox and Ridge practice

The morning was cool enough that I felt like wearing a light jacket. Amy and I speculated about weather conditions that might affect how the odor would travel at the trial location. We discussed possible strategies and pitfalls we may encounter. We were on the road to the trial by 7:50 am.

Denver Academy is a welcoming campus. There were two ponds complete with ducks, frogs, and a large red eared slider turtle. Amy spotted a snake, although I did not get to see it (fortunately). The parking in the South East lot was ample, and we found a large cottonwood tree to park under. Peter and Marianne Westen were already there, and had signed up to volunteer to steward.

Marianne and Peter Westen at Denver Academy

Seneca [Townsend] was there as well, helping Dana Zinn and her students set up for the trial. Nancy Brown arrived and signed in as well. We were given team assignments. The teams were created as a way of meeting other K9 Nose Work exhibitors from different areas. Each team has three dog/handlers, and each gets to pick the element that they feel they are best at. I chose exteriors, as Bandy has a lot of experience with different kinds of exterior searches. He is a strong, fast dog and I felt confident he would represent well. 

A running order had been decided, and we were way down on the running order, #25. Sen and Onyx were #26.  Nancy and Amy were further up the list, and I was happy that they would get into the search areas before they got too contaminated and before a large volume of odor had built up. It was beginning to warm up, so off to the car to lose the jacket, and give Bandy a quick walk to acclimate.

Competitor sign in at Denver trial

At 10:45 am the competitors had a "walk through" with Amy [Herot], Barbara [Schwerdt] and Ron [Gaunt] who were officiating the trial. We were allowed to see the search areas and ask questions. I felt good about the container search area, which was outside against the east side of a building, in sort of an alcove. There were twenty identical cardboard boxes on the ground in sort of a big semi circle. The exterior search area was a covered patio area at a junction between two buildings. Part of the area was gravel, medium sized river rock and the rest was poured concrete. There were a few low benches, and a metal bike rack. Off to the side of the search area there was shrubbery. I felt certain I knew where the odor would travel in that location, and formed a strategy.

Running order

The interior was down a long hallway into a class room full of small plastic seated chairs for grade school kids. There were stacks of chairs on the left side of the room, and a dry erase board and some more chairs on the other side of the classroom. The classroom was carpeted. I had no idea what to expect in that search area, but formed a game plan in case time started to run out on that search.

Vehicles looked pretty straight forward, three vehicles parked facing the same way with about 4 feet between them. Wind or lack of it would be important in the strategy for this search. Container search and exteriors would be run first, then a lunch break, and then interiors and vehicles.

We finished up the briefing and got ready to go. First dog was "on deck" by 11:15 am. I watched the first dog run the warm up boxes, then off to the container search. The dog would be searching while the judge, the judge's steward, the gate steward and the timer observed. The next dog got on deck warmed up and got into the holding position out of sight of the area of the first search, which was quite a ways away. Holding areas are set up between each search area to allow the next person to be on deck and ready to work. It makes things run a lot faster in a large trial like this. It also allows reactive dogs some space away from other competitors, and dogs. Logistics are critical in setting up a K9 Nose Work trial.

Center, from left: Barbara Schwerdt, CNWI; Ron Gaunt, co-founder
K9 Nose Work & NACSW; and Amy Herot, co-founder K9 Nose
Work & NACSW, brief competitors 

Eventually we were on deck and worked one round on the warm up boxes. We waited in the shaded holding area for several minutes before the steward flagged us up to the next holding station under a portable canopy to wait to run the container search. After a few minutes, the gate steward came to get us. We were shown the start line and asked if we had any questions. I held Bandy's collar and stepped behind him to start. We waited for a few seconds until he had a chance to scan the area, then I said "search!' and he flew off the line. He touched four boxes in quick succession, then bolted up to where the line of boxes started to curve. He was on a box, and digging at it. I called "ALERT" and dove to the box without waiting for confirmation. I rewarded at source as Ron affirmed that it was the correct box. I did not want to incur a fault for my dog destroying a box. Ron laughed as we were leaving and asked me if we could go any faster. I knew it was a fast search, but learned later it was only 9.35 seconds!

We were escorted to the exterior search. Not much waiting. We lined up and I gave the search command. Bandy hit odor almost immediately and had it locked down in a matter of seconds. He pawed at the end of the bike rack, a hollow metal pipe supporting the bike rack. I called the alert, and Barbara confirmed. Well done Bandy! Another fast search.

The last few dogs ran the two search areas, then we took a lunch break. I learned that Amy and Ridge had just narrowly missed the container search. Their exterior search went well, and they logged a quick time to boot. Nancy and Cody had done well in the container search and exterior as well. Sen and Onyx had good times in container search and exterior, but Onyx was feeling poorly. She is a fast, fast dog but was loosing ground as the morning wore on. It was now starting to get hot.

We finished up lunch, dog walking, and got ready for the afternoon elements. I do not remember what time we got on deck. By that time I was coughing a lot and my energy had waned. Bandy wanted to get back into his crate in the deep shade of the cottonwood tree and sleep for the afternoon. I figured I had better wet him down to keep him cool and comfortable for the next elements. A couple of us wet our dogs down and got ready to go. The interior element was next. We waited for what seemed a long time in the holding area outside the building. I was hot, and not feeling great. The cold I had the previous weekend started creeping back up on me. My mouth was dry and I again looked up to the sky filled with haze from the fires burning to the south. We were called and we went up the stairs into the building. It was a long hallway walk to the classroom search area. We had to wait again outside a door to the classroom.

Bandy kept trying to bolt up a flight of stairs across from the door. I knew he had odor, and I hoped we would not have to wait much longer. Bandy continued to spin up and started grabbing at his leash, and at my clothing. Finally the door opened, and we lined up. I could smell the birch in the closed room. I unclipped Bandy's lead and gave the search cue. He started more deliberately this time and headed toward the front of the classroom about six steps, then gave a hard head hook to the left and trotted between a row of chairs. I kept moving to the front of the classroom to see if he would follow or if he would stick to that row of chairs. He kept moving although he was showing a lot of interest in that row.  Bandy came around that row of chairs and cruised the next row only to circle back to the row that had interested him initially. I circled around keeping my eyes on Bandy. I stopped, then slowly started to back away. Bandy began poking his nose under the last three chairs in that row. I could see him "chattering" a little each time he pulled his head out a little. I knew he was very close to source. Finally he stuck his nose into a corner of the seat of the chair and his foot was on the way up when I called alert. Barbara confirmed. I was glad that element was over.

Trial grounds at Denver Academy

On to vehicles...We were escorted up and checked in with Ron. I stuck my pinky finger in my mouth and held it up to see which way the wind was wind. We were led to the start, and I waited for a few seconds to see if Bandy would catch odor. I do not think he had odor, so we started walking toward the vehicles. Bandy decided to go around the white sedan on the left first. He showed no interest until we rounded the front of the white sedan. Suddenly he sped up and disappeared around a black 4X4 truck parked in the middle of the three vehicles. He did a whiplash turn midway down the side of the truck and worked his way back to the right wheel well. Bandy crawled up on the tire with his front legs, shoving his head down in the wheel well. I began backing up to give him room to work. After a couple of seconds he moved back down close to the edge of the wheel well.. I could tell he was at source and called the alert. Ron confirmed.

I was relieved, and satisfied that we had completed our elements. I felt tired as Bandy and I walked down the prescribed exit path toward the larger pond at the center of campus. The shade and the green was so inviting. Other competitors were sitting on the grass, and milling around talking to one another and comparing notes.

We assembled at the gymnasium for the awards ceremony. I felt a swell of pride for our group, Amy and Ridge placed on their team event, Sen and Onyx also placed on their team event. Nancy and Cody earned their NW1 title. Everyone from Santa Fe represented well, and I am really proud of their handling skills, and professionalism in this sport. Bandy and I placed first in the container search, and second in exteriors! We also placed first on our team event. I was especially proud of a fellow instructor who I met in California last year, Linda Bramkamp, and her dog Indy Bear. This is Linda's fourth attempt at an NW1. At every trial previously Linda and Indy had missed qualifying by a hair. This time she did it in style, not only did she pass, but she placed third over all!!! Great job Linda! It is worth mentioning that Indy Bear is pretty reactive. So the lesson is, slow and steady has the race. If you keep at it, you will prevail. Dana's group represented well too, and I am amazed at the range of differing dogs that came out to trial this weekend, from a huge brown Newfoundland to tiny Chihuahua mixes, and a 14 year old BC who is a smoking hot competitor. That is the message of K9 Nose Work, "any dog can do it!"

This sport is challenging in that the weather conditions, and air movement within a building are ever changing. It can radically affect your dog's search. Ron likes to say "it is a horse race", meaning many factors can affect your search, and it changes from moment to moment. Another factor I found especially challenging is the wait time between elements. Your dog can totally tune out and fatigue during that time, and if you have not conditioned mental and physical stamina in your dog, that downtime will be challenging.

Nancy Brown at Denver Academy
Dana Zinn (center) instructs competitors

Many, many thanks to Dana Zinn for organizing and executing this trial. This was no small undertaking. Thanks to you, and your crowd of willing and able volunteers who pulled this weekend off without a hitch!! You did a great job!


  1. This article highlights well the camaraderie, sportmanship and support that exists in this sport!

    1. The K9 Nose Work culture and community are truly unique! I volunteered as a "gate steward" for a few hours at the Sierra Madre, CA NW2 trial this past weekend and really enjoyed the few minutes of time spent with each dog/handler team before sending them off to the vehicle search.

      And what a great trial location. Do a google image search of Alverno High School and you'll see the buildings have a distinct Italian architecture. The original building on the school grounds was a physician's home in the 1920s and was modeled after a residence belonging to Michelangelo himself.

    2. correction: Michelangelo designed the mansion in Florence, Italy that the building on Alverno HS grounds is modeled after.

  2. Thanks Jaime for the great memories. This was our first trial (mine is the "smoking hot 14-year old border collie - thanks for the compliment!)and we had a blast. It is always a joy to see you work Bandy - what a great team. We were on your first-place team and I'm a bit sorry to see the team concept go by the wayside as it was a fun way to make new friends. We are so lucky to have Dana here in Colorado - she puts on a great trial!