NW3 Trials Warren NJ, Dec 1 & 2
I volunteered at Monday’s NW3 trial, as Judge’s Steward for Doc for both Vehicles and Containers. This trial was interesting, in that there were some familiar faces (seasoned NW3 competitors) and many new (to me) faces – those who have not been to many NW3 trials. So a mix of handling skills and dog experience.
My take away from these 2 days of trials, are that there are 3 types of successful NW teams.
Dog Driven: This team has a strong dog – a dog who is driven and motivated to get to source, no matter what. Doesn’t matter what the weather, what the handler is or is not doing, doesn’t matter how many times they go around the same containers or same vehicles, or same blank room, if the handler pulls on the leash, trips on their dog, drops a treat. It doesn’t matter if there are food distractions, dog slobber distractions, pooling odor. This dog is CLEAR and definitive when at source, and does not get talked into a false alert. He is so focused on source that whatever else is going on does not matter. This dog is an independent hunting machine!
Dog & Support Staff: The other type of team is the dog who needs more support, and the handler who knows how to get the best out of him. The dog may be older, timid, mellow, a good worker but not as much experience under his collar, or so happy to play they are borderline out of control. This team is successful because the handler knows their dogs subtle signals, knows how to read interest but patiently wait until the dog does their final indication, knows when to control the out of control dog by using the leash or their body movement in the search area, knows when to let the shy dog venture out and work independently, knows when to move their worker dog on to a productive area. This team may not have the fastest dog, but because their training has been steady and supportive, without the handler helping and cueing their dog, the dog is efficient, purpose driven and trustworthy. This team rarely false alerts – because the handler knows how to read their dog, and because the dog understands the handler is present, but not there to cue him into an alert. Many times this team does not look super fast, but titles and places none the less.
Well Balanced: The third type of successful team has a strong dog AND strong handler. The dog is single-mindedly driving to source, regardless of what is happening around him, and his handler is single-mindedly focused on the dog, being sure to cover every container, move the dog into all areas of the search area without over-directing the dog or boxing them into a corner. This handler is confident in their dog – confident when reading their final indication, confident to let the dog work independently, confident in moving their dog along when they are stuck, confident in calling Finish. This dog rarely false alerts because he’s not reading cues from the handler or other dogs, he’s not fooled by pooling odor, and when he does alert, he is so clear, the handler has the confidence to call it when they see it. If something unusual happens in a search, both dog and handler can recover and regroup – they don’t let it rattle them.
Where do you and your dog lie on the spectrum? I think most people fall into the middle category – their dog loves the game, is good at the game, the handler is hooked! But, to be successful in 4 elements at a trial takes some work from the handler. What kind of work?
Training – this handler has to be extremely careful about influencing their dog. Are you standing near the hide in practice? Are you opening your treat pouch when your dog is in odor? Worse, are you stepping closer to your dog when they are in odor and still sourcing? Are you steering your dog with the leash in your exterior practice – only allowing him to work where you think the odor is? Are you restricting him from searching boxes you KNOW are blank, and limiting his searching to the containers near the hot one? Are you verbally correcting him off a food distraction or other distraction in the area? The more you influence the outcome of the search FOR your dog, the more he will rely on you and check in with you.
If, however, you allow him to search blank containers and come upon the hot container on his own, and are quick to reward with something he REALLY likes, if you allow him to problem solve and patiently wait for him to source a hide, if you move freely and naturally in the search area to “unstick” him when he’s stuck, you will have a more even balance of workload. The dog is doing the sniffing work, but the handler is supporting the dogs work. Setting the dog up for success by building strong fundamentals – sometimes doing simple searches that focus not so much on hunting, but maybe focus on getting the dog to drive to source (push thru several boxes to get to source, a tight space, make them work a little to get to it) Building excitement by doing multiple simple hides in a row and moving quickly from hide to hide. Ignoring your dogs response to food and other distractions but heavily rewarding at source. Setting up problems – just 3 containers – where you have a high container hide next to a low container or a low container hide next to a high container. Watch your dog work out the pooling odor on his own, and reward at source. Practice in new locations so your dog learns the game happens anywhere, and is comfortable getting right to work without having to scan an area to feel safe before they start searching.
By doing these things in practice, you will develop into the 3rd type of NW team – your dog will be come more confident, stronger, faster, more efficient, and you will become more confident, stronger, faster to call alert without the internal angst of whether it’s a false alert or a real alert. You will be the successful, well-balanced team – the team with both a strong dog AND strong handler. It doesn’t get any better than that.