Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Dog, A Handler, and Eight K9 Nose Work® NW3 Trials

My first NW3 trial was in November of 2009. My most recent NW3 trial was February 15th, 2013. In between there I attended six other NW3 trials. That's eight trials total at the NW3 level. Thanks to Muriel, we have earned two NW3 titles from those eight attempts. What will happen at our next trial is any one's guess, but I can say for sure that there is something wonderful about competing at the NW3 level: every trial attempt - title earned or not - leaves you excited to try again. And again. And again!

Whoa, Jeff! Put on the brakes and back this post up. Every trial attempt leaves you excited to try again? That's a crazy statement! Not to mention, it shows a major case of repression! The first two NW3 trials I competed in, we were probably closer to sniffing out Jimmy Hoffa's remains than to earning a title. No titles were given to any competitor in those first two trials. Excited to try again?! I was on the phone with my orthodontist scheduling a root canal just to have something less painful to look forward to!

So, what about those first two trials was wonderful and kept us coming back? At the time, I didn't think there was anything wonderful about those trials. Now, I can say that the wonderful thing about those trials was surviving them! We put ourselves into some pretty challenging situations and came out of it very humbled and ready to learn more, practice more, and improve our skills - way more. By the time we got to the third NW3 trial in May of 2011, we were having tons of fun. I knew we were capable of doing the searches at trial because of what we were accomplishing in classes every week. I also knew that all we could do during a trial was show up and give it our best. If we missed a hide or botched a search, it didn't mean we were failures or we weren't capable of doing those searches, it just meant we needed more conditioning or more luck - or both!

Rather than share the details of one whole trial, I'll try to bring together learning experiences from a number of NW3 trials Muriel and I competed in; and hopefully you'll see why I really enjoy the trial experience.

San Pedro, CA Nov 2009 - what I took away from this trial was how unprepared we were to find an unknown number of hides. I was very nervous about the searches, so much so that I asked a lot of questions during the walk through and ended up focusing on the answers to the questions instead of focusing on my dog in the searches.

We were only successful in one search - the container search. I remember feeling very unhappy about the whole performance, but we were only two months off of our NW2 title and we just didn't have enough practice with NW3 search scenarios.

An interesting note - and this will resurface - the exterior search was between two classroom buildings and included grass, shrubbery, asphalt, and a handicapped access ramp with guardrail leading up to a building entrance. It was windy. Muriel got trapped up on the ramp because of blowing odor and we ended up wasting a lot of time chasing odor on the wind.

Lesson Learned: get used to multiple hides and don't rush into your first NW3 trial  

San Pedro, CA Aug 2010 - with a lot more time to practice we definitely felt more prepared, but we still got our butts handed to us! This time we had a fifty percent success rate for the day: container search and interior search.

At this trial I used chicken breast as my reward, a huge leap up the value ladder, and I think little miss Muriel was overeager to get her reward. On the vehicle search she alerted several feet from the hide. On the exterior, she alerted all over the place, but it wasn't just because she wanted that yummy cooked bird...

The exterior was brutal. A large grassy area with a depression in the middle leading to a rainwater runoff drain; beyond the grassy area, a playground with sand and equipment ending at the broad side of a building. There was a single hide at the bottom of the depression right in the middle of the grassy area. Again, the wind was up, and we were chasing odor all over the place. Muriel's nose was high in the sky for almost the entire search. Only one dog & handler team was successful in this search.

Lesson Learned: compete like you practice. Introduce new rewards, try new strategies in practice and get your team comfortable with the change before heading to trial. 

Sierra Madre, CA May 2011 - our training really took off between the second and third trials. I was more confident in my ability to read Muriel, and I tried my best to make the trial experience feel no different than class - same rewards, crating in the car, happy and running to and from the searches. More importantly, Muriel had the experience to work through many of the challenges that got us in the earlier trials: trapping odor, channeling odor, high/low converging odor.

This time, we were successful in every search but the exterior, where we missed just one hide. And guess what got us? The wind. Pooling odor blown into a corner of the massive search area kept us chasing ghosts for the better part of a minute in a five minute search. Worse, we left the area because she couldn't source odor, and we headed off toward the far end of the search area, found a second hide and then got that thirty second warning. In a rush to go work that pooling odor one last time, we pass the third hide. Cue the sad horn (wah wah).

An interesting note regarding the interior search: the first area included two rooms, one large lobby with a fireplace, and one very large hall with a cathedral ceiling. This area was blank. The dogs knew it right off. Muriel only needed to peek her head in the huge room and that was enough for her to tell it was blank. Us humans were less certain than the dogs. Muriel nearly alerted in several places in the clear room because I kept pushing her to search. Another dog, Anton, who is very similar to Muriel in his search style, gave a convincing alert in the clear room. It was clear that some of us with very driven and and odor sensitive dogs needed to condition them to search longer in blank rooms - because, hey, that takes the pressure off us handlers having to call clear quickly!

Lesson Learned: Don't just trust your dog, know your dog. 

Los Alamitos, CA July 2011 - I'm proud to say that in this trial, the wind reared its ugly head in the exterior and we responded by charging right into it and making all the right moves. Admittedly, this area didn't really have a pooling odor problem, but it did have a grassy knoll separating the parking lot from the street, creating some interesting air movement and derailing the search for more than a few of the dogs.

We had a rare first place showing in the vehicle search. I can't remember for sure, but it was probably a three hide vehicle search - those seem to be our speedier searches. We fared just fine in the other searches, until the interior...

This location was an office building in a business park. The interior used a section of office cubicles, a kitchen area and a room with desks. We missed one hide in the cubicle area, and it was definitely a joint failure. Muriel didn't commit to the hide, and I didn't ask her to more carefully search whole sections of the area. The second room was the kitchen area - it was blank. Muriel went in and searched everything with the same frantic sniffing, checking high and low. This is usually a sign that she's looking for something that isn't there. About forty-five seconds into the search, I'm getting up the courage to call clear and she head snaps on an exterior door, really detailing the door frame. She sniffs up and down the frame, then picks a spot, exhales hard and sits confidently. I call alert. Wrong.

After what happened in the Sierra Madre blank room, pushing Muriel too long and almost calling a false alert, I couldn't believe we fell victim to the same mistake - worse, because we actually falsed - just two months later. We're supposed to be getting wiser with each passing trial!

Lesson Learned: if your dog's covering the whole area, but making no progress/showing no signs of getting closer to source odor, then you need to step up and make a decision - most likely, the area is blank or the odor problem is such that it's not going to be solved by your team in the time allotted.

Livermore, CA Dec 2011 - this was a unique trial for me. There was a lot of driving involved. Five hours to Monterrey, where we spent the night at the Best Western Victorian Inn. Then another hour and a half of driving the next morning to get to the trial site. Luckily, Muriel didn't seem bothered by the travel and lodging. The trial was split into two locations: a vineyard for the vehicle and exterior searches, and a school campus for the interior and container searches. This was one of my favorite trials as far as the locations, but one of my least favorite trial performances because we really screwed up and - once again - missed just one hide on the day.

Our downfall this time was the vehicle search. Our first search of the day. Everyone in the trial successfully completed the vehicle search except us and one other team. Ouch. We really goofed on this one. We searched a few SUVs, and a couple of pieces of farming equipment - a flat trailer (could have been a cab attached), and something resembling a small dump truck. There were two hides and we found the first one pretty easily. The second hide was under the running board of an SUV, kind of midway between the driver's and rear passenger door. Two vehicles (another SUV and the trailer - I think) were perpendicular to the hide, with their bumpers closest to the hide, and a kind of odor bermuda triangle effect going on. Muriel would follow the scent around, bouncing off the rear corners of the SUV and trailer and circling and chasing, but it just wasn't leading anywhere. In my infinite wisdom, I decided the hide we'd already found must be blowing and pooling and that's what was causing her behavior. I call finish. I hear no, but the look on the judge's face tells me he really wanted to say no dummy! We really failed to work where the odor was, instead, we got caught where it was blowing and swirling.

We did a nice job with the rest of the trial. We handled the exterior really well. We were quick to complete the container search, and we made it through all three areas of the interior. Other than the snafu on the vehicle search, our biggest problems on the day were food faults and disturbing the odor. It cost us placements in the exterior and container searches.

The hardest search of the day was the exterior. It was a medium size grassy area, and there were three hides: two on the perimeter and one in the grass about 20 feet from a barrel and a small tree in a corner of the search area. The layout of the area and the way the wind was blowing caused that ground hide to blow toward the tree and barrel, with some odor collecting in the barrel. This search revealed the value of crossing search areas diagonally, and working in more than one direction.

Lesson Learned: make more of an effort to leave search areas undisturbed and clean. It's not that hard to avoid faults.

Los Alamitos, CA Jan 2012 - this was our first NW3 title, but I felt really disappointed with my handling. We took forever to complete each search. I pushed Muriel to search well beyond what I should have in each element. If I put on my pragmatic pants, I could say that since we titled, we did what we should have done. But, I don't own pragmatic pants, so I still wish we'd have done things differently.

The exterior was tricky for us. We had a man in a straw hat walk through the area during the search, but Muriel was too focused to be bothered. Muriel was perimeter obsessed and we nearly missed a ground hide in the middle of a grassy part of the search area. The interior, was almost an exercise in self-defeat. We searched a conference room with a large conference table and chairs, and some miscellaneous items. There was a single hide in a typewriter on the floor which she found in fifteen seconds. I made her continue searching until we almost ran out of time. She worked very hard to find something she knew was not there in the room, so hard that she jumped onto a desk chair and nosed a framed photo, a telephone receiver, she nosed a door knob, she even stretched high up a wall to nose a wall cabinet. I knew she wasn't giving me real alerts, but obviously some part of me thought there might be another hide, because I kept making her work. I wish I would have been more confident to call the search sooner.

This was a trial where twelve dogs titled*. Way more than any other NW3 trial. I think it was the result of a lot of teams like Muriel and I: skilled teams who had been coming really close in trial after trial finally hitting that tipping point.

Lesson Learned: Strike a balance between worrying that there's one hide tucked away high or deep that will require your dog to sniff every square inch of the area twice over and accepting that you and your dog have covered the area well enough.

Asuza, CA March 2012 - We put in a solid performance here, but our title hopes were scuttled by an unusual hide in the exterior. The exterior was off-leash optional and was all asphalt, with an RV, a large dumpster, and some other miscellaneous junk. Muriel was working a hide on the wheelbarrow. This hide was concealed in a channel formed by the metal lip of the barrow. The wind was moving the odor all throughout the channel, but the dogs still needed to get pretty close to the hide - there was about 12-16 inches of acceptable alert area, basically the narrow part of the barrow lip from rounded edge to rounded edge. Muriel alerted a few inches outside of that zone. The handles of the wheelbarrow impeded her enough that she stopped chasing the odor and made a decision. This was purely a training issue and an experience issue. Nothing that she did wrong. Just a tough search for us.

The rest of the trial was very fun - containers were in a tight space indoors. The vehicles were in a zigzag pattern and very close to some noisy industrial equipment. The interior was office space and a kitchen area.

On the vehicle search we were faulted for me pulling her off odor. This was a first, but I understand why the fault was given. A hide was placed deep in the wheel well of a pickup truck, behind the wheel - probably on the leaf spring. Muriel was practically disappearing in the wheel well, but she wasn't giving me anything close to her alert. I kept waiting and repositioning, and finally, I took her around to the other side of the vehicle just to rule out a blowing odor problem. When we returned to the wheel well she gave me an alert and it was correct. Our overall time on that search was the slowest vehicle search we've ever done.

I was not at all upset with how this trial went. I felt the exterior search was definitely doable with a little bit of practice, and we now had some work to do on vehicles to correct Muriel's indecisiveness.

Lesson Learned: The more things you fail at in trial, the more things you get better at.

San Luis Obispo (SLO), CA Feb 2013 - this was our most recent trial outing and our performance earned us a second NW3 title.

I loved this location! Camp San Luis Obispo, a military base. While we didn't get to search tanks, airplane hangers, or a mess hall, the search areas were unique and challenging and the overall environment was so different from any other trial I've attended.

This was a tough trial. The exterior nearly sunk us. I flashed back to Sierra Madre 2011 and the pooling odor. Muriel kept chasing odor into corners, and chasing it back out - that should have been my first clue that the corners were hide-free. I was pretty clueless for this search. Muriel pulled me to a ground hide, then she worked out a higher hide on a picnic table. Those were the only hides in the area, but I drug her back to the corners where she chased odor earlier. We went to the ten second warning before calling finish. Not our finest search, fittingly, we did not get pronounced on that search.

Muriel was a superstar on the other elements. She was so driven that day. She was so resilient to my thickheaded handling, demanding that she keeping searching areas when she'd already found every hide and covered all the ground there was to cover. I have a theory that when I'm under stress in some area of my life and not really able to shift focus completely, Muriel carries me and works on a whole other level. There have been two trials (this one and our NW2) where I was so stressed and distracted by non-nose work things leading up to trial day, I fully expected us to fail epically, but instead of crumbling along with me, Muriel brought her A-game.

I believe this trial really showed how far our training has come. We had a long break between Asuza and SLO, during which time we worked a lot on increasing drive and curbing her tendency to false alert when pushed to search too long in an area where no odor is present or all hides have already been found. Much of our work was on vehicles - a really great tool for working on drive and odor obedience, as well as decision-making skills. The Asuza wheel well hide is no longer a hide that takes Muriel a minute and a half to alert to; I believe she parlayed her quick decision-making skills to a fast alert on a deep odor in the bathroom interior search area, a hide that many dogs noticed, but did not commit to.

Aside from making the old mistake of falling for pooling odor in the exterior, I still pushed some of the searches longer than I should have. I really need to work on trusting Muriel more. She's worked hard to get to where she is, I should acknowledge her skill and not second guess her when she covers an area and shows no interest.

Lesson Learned: You can never train enough. Every training experience adds to your team's skills. Never stop training. Having trials to compete in gives all of us something to train for and a goal to work towards. Without trials, we might indeed stop training. This is another thing that makes trials wonderful!

I hope this has been a useful glimpse into one team's NW3 trialling experiences. There are lots of other teams competing at NW3 trials, it would be great to hear their experiences, too. Feel free to comment on in this post, or submit your own post to news@nacsw.net and we'll feature it on the blog!

Happy Sniffing!

*footnote*

Jan 2012, Los Alamitos:
NACSW & K9 Nose Work co-founder, Amy Herot put together some interesting statistics regarding the only NW3 trial where we had titles in the double digits. See below, just how many trials each of us had gone through before getting the NW3 title.

Ramona  - 5th NW3 Trial  (and 2nd NW3 Title)  (NW2: 09-16-2009)   (NW1: 01-25-2009)
Kim -  6th NW3 Trial (and 4th NW3 Title) (NW2: 09-06-2009)  (NW1: 06-07-2009)
Chris - 4th NW3 Trial (NW2: 03-26-2011)  (NW1: 11-08-2009)
Christy - 5th NW3 Trial (NW2: 03-26-2011)  (NW1: 06-07-2009)
Cindi - 2nd NW3 Trial (NW2:  11-08-2009) (NW1: 06-07-2009)
Julie - 5th NW3 Trial (NW2: 11-08-2009)  (NW1: 06-07-2009)
Jennie - 2nd NW3 Trial (NW2: 03-26-2011)  (NW1: 10-02-2010)
Jeff - 6th NW3 Trial (NW2: 09-06-2009)  (NW1: 06-07-2009)
Michael - 1st NW3 Trial  (07-18-2011)  (NW1: 06-07-2009)
Barbara - 7th NW3 Trial (and 2nd NW3 Title)  (NW2: 06-07-2009)  (NW1: 01-25-2009)
Penny - 7th NW3 Trial (and 2nd NW3 Title)  (NW2: 09-06-2009)  (NW1: 06-07-2009)
Alexandra - 3rd NW3 Trial  (NW2: 08-14-2010)  (NW1: 05-15-2010)


7 comments:

  1. NW1 Handlers - this all applies to you as well! Competing a Bull Terrier in any performance sport is challenging and we trialed times at NW1 before titling on the 7th. Had a blast at each trial and learned something every time. Titled at NW2 in only 2 trials and frankly, was a bit sad to not have been able to compete and learn longer at that level. I honestly think our time at NW1 is what made us able to finish NW2 Pronounced and win an element.
    Take your time people - Have Fun!

    Chris Mason, ANWI
    Sydmonton Bull Terriers & K9 Nose Work

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    1. So true! The knowledge gained from having to trial multiple times at the same level is so valuable.

      Chris, if you ever have free time and want to share those 7 NW1 trial experiences, I know it would be much appreciated across the country.

      Happy Sniffing!

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  2. Once again, thank you, Jeff, for taking the time to share your Nose Work experiences and wisdom. We are hoping to enter an NW3 trial in October and your blog is a valuable part of my study notes. Each trial is a learning opportunity, regardless of whether one achieves a title. One thing I would add is that volunteering to work at a trial at any level is also a learning opportunity. I gained many insights by watching 48 dogs do their NW1 container search.

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    1. Thank you for reading and saying such kind words.

      You are so right about volunteering at trials - to see a variety of dogs work the same searches over the course of a day is so helpful. Not to mention, volunteering and knowing that you're one of the reasons a dog & handler team can come to a trial, compete and have a good time is very rewarding and makes this sport extra special.

      Happy Sniffing!

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  3. Hi Jeff,

    Great post. My dog just got her NW2 and I'm looking for advice on training strategies for NW3. Anything you'd recommend after four years of experience doing NW3 trials?

    Brian

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  4. Hi Brian,

    Congratulations on the NW2!

    As you approach your first NW3 trial you'll want to take it slow and keep the challenges within your dog's abilities. Ideally, you and your dog will have already done lots of multiple hide converging searches from primary through pairing and odor only. Your dog needs to stay confident that odor pays, and needs to keep his/her sourcing skills sharp as ever.

    On the handling side, you're about to go down a road with no end in sight! Handling a dog in NW3 searches is hard. You need lots of practice observing your dog, and you need lots of practice working search areas efficiently under time pressure. At NW3 level, it's not very often that a team fails to find all hides in a search because of the dog - handling errors in terms of not reading the dog's behavior properly or not making sure the dog covers the whole area are most common.

    Resist the urge to do lots of blind searching unless you have a good coach (CNWI/ANWI or really knowledgeable nose work buddy). When you do work blind, try to vocalize your thoughts about your dog's behavior so you can see where your observations are right and wrong - try to avoid waiting your dog out for some kind of "clear" signal if you're unsure about his/her behavior, this can lead to trouble down the road; make your calls quicker in practice, if you're wrong you'll know what to work on.

    Do mock trials and sniff & go events to get trial-like experience and useful feedback from judges.

    Above all, keep having fun. NW3 level searching is great fun if your team is well-prepared.

    Happy Sniffing!

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    1. Thanks Jeff! It is exciting to get started practicing on this. Thank you for the advice. There's so much I want to work on now!

      Brian

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