This week's post comes to you a little later and a little lighter on the word count, courtesy of my new baby girl, Mackena Grace! She was born on Thursday, September 27, 2012.
I've been tossing around the idea of asking K9 Nose Work & NACSW co-founder, Amy Herot to unearth some early trial footage of me and Muriel to post here for instructional purposes. I have a feeling that the video would speak louder than any words I could conjure up to describe the experience. Still, I'm going to try and conjure some words.
The first trial I entered with Muriel was a December 2008 practice match in Torrance, CA. We were about 3 months into our training and had very little experience on all four elements of competition in novel environments. We had not even searched in grassy areas yet. For these reasons alone, my expectations for the outcome of the trial would have been pretty low, but a bout of fringes and false alerts just days before the trial had me focused on failure as the only outcome.
Trial day came and we took it one element at a time. We finished the day somewhere in the top ten - passing all four elements - and earned the first ever Harry Award; an award recognizing high performance, exceptional teamwork, and the special bond shared by a K9 Nose Work handler and his rescue dog (click here to learn more about the Harry Award). I was so shocked and overjoyed that I cried. Right there in front of all of my fellow competitors, the judges, volunteers, the score room tabulators, and the co-founders of the sport. I cried.
Now is probably the time to explain that I am not that guy who cries in public. Even behind closed doors, I'm just not the lachrymose type. At most, I'm a crying on the inside fella. Here's the thing though, I had adopted Muriel from a little two-woman rescue in Pasadena (Mutts & Moms) with no intention of competing with her - really, I just wanted to save this poor animal from a terrible life that nearly ended in early 2007 in some dusty Bakersfield shelter. What I adopted from Mutts & Moms was not an animal, not a pet, but a piece of my spirit I never knew was missing. That we shared some asomatous connection was the only explanation for why this being whose body and soul had been beaten and abused by humans, would allow me to get close to her. Muriel trusted me unconditionally from the moment we met and her penetrating stare and robotic focus on me were eerie at first, but I now know she merely wanted an opportunity to prove to me what others failed to see: that she wasn't worthless. Once I began to provide Muriel with opportunities to show what she could do, she set out on a path that led to my moment of public weepiness and she continues to amaze me daily.
That December trial was not just significant because we succeeded unexpectedly and earned the Harry Award, but because it was the first time my very personal feelings about my relationship with Muriel were recognized by others through our performance in a sport.
The next trial we entered was on January 25, 2009 and was the first official NACSW sanctioned trial in the sport of K9 Nose Work. I was on a high from the accolades Muriel and I received in the December trial, but I was trying to remain level-headed about the competition and the challenges we would undoubtedly face. First we gave an underwhelming, but successful, performance in the box drill (we got one of those "trust your dog" comments from the judge for not calling her first alert when I was only trying to be certain she wasn't up to her recently acquired fringing/false alert behavior). After that we waited to do the exterior and vehicle searches.
We failed the exterior search. It was a complete and total failure, beginning with Muriel nearly peeing on some ivy and ending with me calling a false alert that may have been caused by odor blowing and pooling, but was nowhere near the source. I was disappointed in our performance and not looking forward to continuing with the other two elements.
The rest of the trial was a far worse display of K9 Nose Work than our failed exterior search. I remember the actual experience being unpleasant - the searches going all wrong, Muriel signaling randomly and the judges begrudgingly uttering no to my feeble calls of alert - but watching the video a week later was painful and embarrassing. The images of me and Muriel searching show a slump-shouldered, blank-faced handler, and a broken dog trying anything she can to make him happy. After watching the video, I realized the January trial was just as significant as the December trial, it was the first time my feelings about our performance had a negative effect on Muriel. It was also the last time.
For every trial since that January 2009 trial I have worked very hard to keep things fun for me and Muriel. I'm still competitive and I want us to perform well at trial, but my number one concern is that we're both having fun. This is especially important when we fail with one or more elements remaining in a trial. Even though I know we won't take home a title for that day, there's no reason we can't do some great searching. I blew it for us on a vehicle search at the December 2011 NW3 trial in Livermore. It was our first element, and it was frustrating, but I knew our failure was because we didn't take our time and move throughout the search area well enough. Instead of bemoaning our loss of a chance to earn a title, I kept a positive attitude and looked forward to the remaining three searches. We ended the day with that one vehicle hide being the only thing we missed. I considered that a great day of searching, and I was very proud of Muriel.
Even professional handlers with working dogs recognize that the dogs see their job as a game, and it's best to play the game with the least amount of stress, especially when the stakes are high. There are accounts of search and rescue dogs working the rubble from the 9/11 attacks getting to search for and find live firemen who'd purposefully hidden themselves to give the dogs a chance to be correct and be rewarded and to keep the dogs' (and handlers') stress levels lower.
While there are many things a handler can do to make sure his dog is having fun while doing K9 Nose Work, one of the easiest things is to remember to smile. All dogs are sensitive to human emotional responses - some dogs to a greater degree than others (there is a great Nova documentary called Dogs Decoded that explores this topic). Don't just smile when things are going well, but try to keep a truly positive attitude when your team experiences failure. Some people like to use the mantra: trial is just another training day; I say do whatever works to keep a positive attitude. As long as your dog is able to enjoy searching and playing the game of K9 Nose Work, you can feel good about the day no matter the outcome of the trial. And, more often than not, your positive attitude will contribute to a better performance that you really will feel good about.
I remember what I said to my classmates the day I watched the January trial footage, I said that I never wanted to cause Muriel to fall to pieces again because I'd become so wrapped up in the outcome of a competition. I watch Muriel have the time of her life doing amazing things in practice sessions on both blind and non-blind searches and I know that there is no difference to her if the search is set up for practice or for competition. There should be no difference to me either. Every time we do K9 Nose Work I should be smiling at how much fun my dog is having doing what she loves and that should be the greatest reward.