Prep for Trial - what the National Invitational reminded me of was the first NW1 and the first NW3 trials. Dog & handler teams had no idea what to expect and were tossed into the deep end of the ocean and left to swim to shore! The big difference is that the teams at Nationals had the skills - like a Navy Seal team - to handle lots of unknowns and environmental challenges and come out sniffing. Yet, I think all 12 teams would agree that our dogs were pushed to the limit with the heat and test of endurance over two days of searching, and that we all could have used more rest the day before trial and more conditioning to do hot, large area, long duration searches.
Make sure your dog is well rested and comfortable in the days leading up to a trial. If your dog usually likes to go for a long run on Fridays and you're in a Saturday trial, make it a long walk instead. Give your dog plenty of food and water in the days before a trial, but don't feed too much the morning of a trial. If you know you're not likely to search until ten or eleven in the morning, maybe an early AM breakfast is okay, but make sure your dog is hungry enough to get some reward from searching. Remember, even dogs who search for the fun of it - hungry or not - sometimes need a little motivation to hunt from mother nature when going to trial at a new location.
You the handler should be well rested, too. Save the partying for after trial. Don't do too much strategizing leading up to trial or at the trial. Everything that will help you at trial, you already know in your gut from lots of practice and experience. If you fail at something, you'll practice and get better so next time it's in there, too.
Get in the mindset to have FUN. We are not in control of how well our dogs will do on any given day. We are just along for the ride, with a few opportunities here and there to add some value in the search.
No matter what level of nose work you and your dog are enjoying, make sure to expose your dog to as many environments as possible and to as many search scenarios as you can think of. Take advantage of an experienced CNWI or a practice group with some seasoned teams and soak up all of the search knowledge you can.
Finally, in preparation for trial, know the rules (people work very hard to set the rules and update them to make for fair competition), but do not let the rules override your dog's communication to you in the search. For example, many people fixate on the boundaries of a search area and worry about source odor being hidden on the boundary line or inside something that forms the boundary line. Just worry about watching your dog and letting him get where he wants to go - boundaries or not. But, don't be silly, if he alerts 10 feet outside the search area, move on.
Never Forget Foundation Work - a number of the searches at Nationals had some very basic hides that required threshold searching, hitting corners, covering the whole area, etc. Granted, the environment and other factors (converging odor) made finding the basic hides a bit more challenging - and a number of us missed some of these hides altogether - but there's no doubt a few of us could have used some foundation skill building in the lead up to the competition to remind our dogs and ourselves not to complicate the searches and forget about the simple stuff.
In your training, always go back to basics, but give it a fun twist to keep your dog excited. For example, the shell game we play with boxes to introduce dogs to nose work, play that game with your dog using a hide that you move back & forth along the rear bumper of a vehicle. If you have an interior area with several doorways, or pass-throughs - what we would call thresholds - set a hide at every threshold. You can work this two ways, once as a continuous search and once as individual searches where you line up at each threshold to find the odor.
Do lots of very accessible hides the dog can source, this will keep his job very clear and when he does search inaccessible odors, he'll be conditioned to get as close as possible. One thing to be mindful of, some dogs want so badly to get to the source of the odor that they may not stop trying and may not give their final response when a hide is way out of reach. Become a careful observer and take note of the behavior changes that signal your dog is onto an inaccessible odor - but also observe the times your dog is caught up in a blowing/pooling odor situation. The big difference for most teams is that when source is present the dog will not leave the area as readily as when there is no source. Another notable difference is most dogs make a decision on source odor within 15 or 20 seconds (or at least it's obvious they're working toward a decision), whereas they may work for as long as you ask them to in an area with just blowing/pooling odor.
Make a Wrong Call Sometimes (But Make Sure Your Dog Is Always Right) - The National trial was set up to allow competitors to make false calls (at the expense of points) and to continue searching, unlike the NW titling trials where a false call means the search is finished and a title will not be earned for the day.
I think almost all of us in the trial made at least one false call. Some we knew better than to call, and some our dogs sold to us like source odor kool-aid on a hot day! At the end of the first day of competition I learned that Muriel was all over two pretty high hides and I didn't buy in, and the false calls I made stemmed from me not correctly reading her interest in blowing/pooling odor. My poor dog worked back and forth for a minute or more in one search before I finally false called - she only stayed because I thought there was something important in the area.
As scary as it was to be making false calls in a trial, it was very useful in learning to better read and understand my dog's behavior changes. By the end of the trial, I still made a few false calls, but it wasn't because I was convinced Muriel had found source odor, it was because I wasn't convinced and I knew calling it would not mean the end of the search.
In practice, I'd do more blind searches with coaching. Make sure the dog is never rewarded for a handler's false call and that the handler is careful not to make too big a deal about calling the alert - just raise a hand or use another word than alert. The coach should give immediate feedback - often catching a handler before he can commit to the alert call and moving him on. This kind of practice gives the handler more feedback and helps address the root of why these false calls are being made. It's important to note that when we call alert it is not necessarily when the dog has decided he's done searching and has found source. It's when we think he is done and has found source.
Another benefit of going out on a limb and making a call you're not sure of is that you're likely to make all of your calls a little faster. I'm not saying yell alert at the first sign of a nostril flare, but maybe call it once your dog has sniffed to the left and right of an area or object, he's poked his nose in an opening, his whole back half is wiggling and waggling in anticipation of a reward - that kind of faster call. I called many of our finds faster than usual and it only got me once, we were maybe a foot away from a hide when I made the call, but we went back later in the search and sourced the hide. All in all, I feel much better about calling it faster, making a false call, and paying closer attention to my dog. I think it will make me a better observer and better handler when we go to trial and every call has to be right.
Relax and Have Fun - For Nationals Muriel & I traveled by plane from Minnesota to California. Flying her for the first time ever was a little stressful and I know it wasn't easy on her either. Our first two searches on the first day were tough and I got a little down - I made a point to blame jet lag, to say she wasn't being herself (maybe true, but not an excuse). I also think there was a bit of pressure to perform partly because we spent so much money to come to the competition, and to honor the sport by acing these searches. Thanks to the wonderful atmosphere created by the NACSW and the other competitors, it was easy to put things back in perspective and just enjoy the amazing opportunity we were given to search with our dogs.
I think this is how it should be any time we do nose work at any level, regardless of the venue. We did not take our dogs into our homes so they could parachute into the mountains of North Waziristan and find bombs and terrorists, and save the world. The fact that our dogs have learned nose work and become skilled detection dogs, with scenting and searching abilities beyond our wildest dreams, does not mean we always have to earn a placement or go home with a ribbon, or find every hide. We need to have fun and appreciate that our dogs are willing to put out a great deal of effort to find stinky cotton swabs hidden in strange environments.
We also need to remember that every search, every hour, every day is different. The best we can ask is that our dogs go along with us as partners into these searches and that we both do our best and come out smiling. K9 Nose Work trials are very specifically the measure of a dog & handler's search skills at that trial location, on that day, under those conditions. Some dogs have more good days than others, but any day could be your dog's day to shine.
A future post may look at the individual searches at Nationals in more detail - maybe with some video. A big congratulations to all the dogs & handlers who competed at Nationals. A big thank you to the NACSW, to Amy, Ron & Jill, to the amazing judges for the weekend, and to all of the volunteers and spectators. We can't wait to see what the 2014 Nationals will have in store for the invited teams!