Monday, November 11, 2013

Guest Blogger Jason Heng, CNWI, Answers the Question: Am I Ready For a K9 Nose Work® Trial?

I first crossed paths digitally with Jason Heng, CNWI, when he submitted a story to the NACSW newsletter about his journey in K9 Nose Work with his Shiba Inu, Atlas. At the time he submitted the story he was just a student with a (difficult) dog. Now he shares his experience, knowledge, and passion with students of his own.

Enjoy this post from Jason, it has lots of helpful information and some important words of wisdom, not just for people considering entering their first trial, but for everyone who wants to have fun with their dogs in the sport of K9 Nose Work.

Am I Ready for a K9 Nose Work® Trial?

by Jason Heng, CNWI

This post came about thanks to a question from a fellow instructor and the realization that hosting a trial locally means this question is going to be asked a few times before the trial.  If you’re a highly competitive person that has competed in other dog sports (agility, rally, IPO, etc) then you probably understand how competing can affect your attitude, learning and experience. If you, however, are competing for the first time the question has probably crossed your mind more than once: Am I or is my dog ready for a Trial?

If you have never competed with your dog, your nerves might be giving you a second thought about if you are ready. The K9 Nose Work community is growing, so reach out and talk with others who have competed and ask about their experiences. It can only help you learn more about the trial experience. If your region has trials happening now, go volunteer; this not only supports the K9 Nose Work community, but will also help you learn all you can for your own competition future. There was a previous blog post about what to expect for the trial day, check it out: The K9 Nose Work Trial Experience. So how do you decide if you and your dog are ready to trial?

Trial Considerations?
The first questions to ask are: is your dog ready for the day; is your dog reactive, does he become anxious in new environments, does your dog travel well, how about staying in a hotel? Any one of the answers might be of great concern. Although some reactive dogs are able to successfully participate in a K9 Nose Work trial, it doesn’t mean that your dog won’t need to be in proximity to other dogs in the parking lot, or on the way to the search areas. If you are considering competing with a reactive dog, attend a trial to see what it's like, visit the NACSW for information on trial readiness, or take the time to speak with a Certified Nose Work Instructor (CNWI) about what to expect with a reactive dog. When I decided to compete with my reactive dog, it was incredibly stressful. I felt confident in my responsibility to manage the environment for our safety and the safety of other dogs, but I wasn’t sure if the overall experience and the potential environmental stressors would be too hard on my dog. Although his reactivity has reduced with K9 Nose Work, entering a new environment with dogs and putting my dog into a stressful situation was of significant concern. The path to the first search area was straightforward after leaving the parking lot from the reactive dog parking and the waiting areas were screened from view, so once we started our process to the search area there were few opportunities to see other dogs (this is not a guarantee at every trial - each location may be different). Be comfortable with the decision to compete, talk with your instructor and other competitors that have reactive dogs before deciding. The NACSW had a policy statement recently regarding the red bandana and reactive dogs, find it in the NEWS section on the NACSW home page.

Travel considerations can be stressful as well. Will it be hot on the trial day? If so, preparing to make your dog comfortable while crated in the vehicle will need some thought beforehand. Even staying in a dog-friendly hotel can present a challenge; if your dog barks at the smallest noise, sleep might be all you’re searching for on the day of trial. Traveling with your dog previous to a trial can be a good way to assess any challenges. Are there any mock trials in your area? Maybe just getting your fellow classmates together in a park to have a dry run, crate in your cars, set some hides for practice, don’t rush through, have a cup of coffee and talk about your concerns. Then run the dogs through one or two elements with someone being the timer and the videographer. Watch the video as part of your day asking each person to contribute some positives about each dog. Many instructors do this in class, so ask about doing a practice run of one or more of the elements.

Go review the trial photos for the last couple of trials on the NACSW website at There is a great deal of information in those photographs; scanning through each element you can get a good idea of some examples of search areas. If you see something you haven’t practiced such as, exterior on gravel, or vehicles on dirt, or containers on carpet then get out and practice in those types of environments. The NACSW is also working on getting some sample videos of trial searches available on the website site soon.

Know how your dog works!
It’s hard to be objective about our own dogs. The dog doesn’t have to be the fastest in class, the most determined, or have found the most challenging hide the instructor set last week. It’s more important that you have grown as a team. From the introduction of birch, to this point your dog has become a detection dog. They go to work with focus in new search areas quickly and work for extended search times. They are odor obedient and therefore work through distractions and source odor with focus. All dogs lose focus from time to time when searching so if they re-focus after little or no interactions from the handler and continue working to source then they have learned that odor is more important. In addition the odor is important enough for them to tell you about it, “Hey! It is right here!” Your dog’s communication is clear enough to you the handler that you have enough confidence to read your dog and say, Alert! Even if your call had a question mark after it for the ORT, consider where you are today. If this describes your team then there is a good chance your dog is ready. If you’re still not sure this describes your dog, have a friend video and watch to give you another perspective. Ask your instructor for their feedback.

How do you deal with disappointment?
How about that team member holding the leash, are you ready? It’s just another day of searching for your dog. Having a positive attitude about the outcome of each element is more important than getting a ribbon. Failure is the lack of success, however learning from your dog and having fun is a successful day. The dog didn’t fail, even if you missed them telling you about a hide, fringed or false alerted. Instead you might have needed to be more patient for your dog to source, or the dog may not have had enough experience for the particular hide placement. Maybe the distraction was too much to overcome at that time: dog pee, acorns, a flock of sparrows flying under a vehicle, or a loud sound (fireworks in the adjacent neighborhood, a train near by, or thunder). All of these distractions and others have happened during trials at one time or another in my trial experience. The dog was still successful. What you learn as a handler is just as important for the next trial. You will have the opportunity to reward at source in the search area at an NW1 and/or at the practice boxes after the search.

You will most likely be nervous or extremely nervous, the day of trial. Seeing the search areas will shower your thoughts with what-ifs. Try to focus on why you are there: to have fun! If you are going to get really upset at yourself, consider volunteering at a trial before you compete. Being able to see other teams work will give a better perspective of the trial day and talk to others about their experiences. Giving a little perspective to the competitive environment can only help frame your expectations for a later trial day.

Learn from the Experience!
So you have decided you’re ready, now what? Your expectations are even more important. When you participate in the walk through on the day of trial and try to guess where the hide has been set, “oh it must be in the desk because the drawer is open a crack”. Your expectations will cloud your perceptions of the dog’s behavior. Remember the point is to have a fun day of searching with your dog as a team. If one of the team members is trying to out-think the nose then encountering difficulties will be inevitable. The big expectation might be about getting that title ribbon, we are human as we measure success based on the acknowledgment of others, no getting around that. The pass rates for NW1s vary on any given day, averaging around 50%. So if it’s pouring rain on the trial day, less people will pass, not because it’s too hard, but because most competitors probably didn’t train enough in rainy conditions to give their dogs enough experience working in the rain. Having a dog that objects to going out to potty in the rain, I can’t imagine the look she would give me if the trial were in a downpour (with no lighting/thunder of course). I would hope to have fun, and my takeaway might be to share with everyone I coach that next time we have class and it’s raining, we are going to practice in the rain.

The trial is a test, but you are measuring your dogs’ progress, it’s not a graduation. In another way, you must be measured in your attitude for that day. Things happen in the moment and if you get too disappointed or too excited it will affect the day’s experience. Yes “experience” it is not a performance! K9 Nose Work is not about performance; birch is not an explosive device nor is anyone going to get arrested based on your call of Alert! Even for those highly competitive folks out there, you are still competing against yourself. Each search is a different dog with a different handler, with a varied experience, strengths and weaknesses, the wind can change each minute altering the conditions, or a dog can pee in the search area plus a myriad of other conditions. When the ribbons are awarded it’s about the fastest time for that search, and although the searches are meant to be as close to the same for each dog as possible, there’s still an unknowable variability each time. So if you get a placement, your dog did extra great to be sure, and I always think of it as he was really on the game for that search and we benefited with a fast time that earned us an extra acknowledgment. That doesn’t make us better than all the other teams but means we shined enough to get the extra bonus. Supporting the sport includes being proud of all the other competitors if you were not acknowledged that trial day. If you get more that one placement or first to third overall, nothing minimizes that for your team’s work was outstanding and you should be proud.

Even as an instructor it’s not always a clear-cut decision when watching a team work to answer are they ready. Consider your learning style, do you need to see examples or can you read about a situation and be comfortable about the process. Can you watch someone tie a knot and tie that knot with little or no practice? My learning style is to learn by doing, so when I decided to trial for the first time, it was to measure our progress as a team. I was willing to pay the entry fee, travel the thousand miles to the nearest trial to have the opportunity to learn all I could about how the trial works. I also volunteered at that first trial weekend to learn more about the trial process. I felt my dog was odor obedient and that the odor was important enough for him to overcome most environmental distractions. I was still concerned about his reactivity but knew I could manage him. I was least sure about being able to read his communication consistently at source, but I was willing to risk taking the jump to competition to evaluate the progress from our year long training. The trial was a blast and Atlas and I had a lot of fun. I learned many lessons, including what I needed to work on, where there were gaps in my training. Oh, and he didn’t get a title that first time, we did get a placement in vehicles, so overall it was a great success. Even for the elements we missed in retrospect he worked well, just didn’t overcome the distraction that day. Regardless of the outcome Atlas was rewarded at source each time. What I learned is that I have a great deal of fun competing with my dog. When he did earn an NW1 title at our 4th trial attempt the pride in my dog was immeasurable! The bar is set high to make the accomplishment of training our dogs as a detection dog just that much sweeter. Seeing my fellow nose work enthusiasts being recognized with titles is part of the great day. Some of those teams I had never meet, some were friends. I am always excited for all of the competitors because a K9 Nose Work title is such a wonderful way to honor your dog!

Thanks again to Jason for sharing this post with everyone. Don't forget to thank a veteran today (and everyday). And don't forget some of those veterans are dogs - so thank a dog, too! Human and canine working together are capable of amazing things, be it to save lives or to enrich a personal relationship.

Happy Sniffing!


  1. Great post, Jason. Love your emphasis on fun and learning from your dog.

  2. Thank you for posting on this topic! My dog, Pongo, passed his ORT for birch and anise in September. We are currently taking classes and want to enter a NW1 trial event, but I have been asking myself exactly this question: are we ready? We have entered a practice event called a "Sniff n Go." Thank you to all those trainers who are helping to grow this sport!!

  3. Excellent post! Congratulations on your NW1 Title!

    If I could add two more suggestions:

    (1) It sounds like you had to travel a very long distance to Trial. But for those who have Trials closer to home, volunteer at as many Trials as you possibly can. You get to see the inner workings of a Trial, much more than as a spectator. It's great to see so many different dog/handler teams; you can learn a lot by watching them.

    (2) For those with reactive dogs (like me), wait to Trial until you are very comfortable during searches. My suggestion is more about you than about your dog, really. The reason: Yes, I was very nervous the day of the Trial, but as soon as I gave the "Go Search" command, I immediately relaxed. I knew what I had to do, and had confidence that my dog knew what to do; we had a Plan, because we'd practiced over and over. It was a great feeling! Those with reactive dogs may know what I mean; it's so hard to relax with our dogs sometimes. But as soon as each search ended, I was back to my nervous self, wondering if one of my dog's triggers might be around the next corner.

    Again, congratulations on the NW1 Title, and great blog post; I wish I had seen it before my first Trial!

    1. Good Suggestions, thanks for sharing your experiance. Volunteering is a great way to learn, not just for NW1 but each level after too. Each time I trial or volunteer we learn more. Thanks to Jeff for the K9 Nose Work Blog and the opportunity to share.