NW3 & NW3 Elite Trials, Huntington, MA

Last weekend was the (mostly) annual July Huntington, MA trials, held at a high school.  For several Maine students, this was the site of their first trial experience, FOUR years ago!  Hard to believe.  The judges this weekend were Neil Raymond and “Doc” MacKenzie.  Neil was the judge at my very first NW trial with Jinxx, and I’ve stewarded many times for Doc, so I was happy to see them both.

This year had 5 students trial for NW3 on Friday, and one trial for NW3 Elite on Saturday.  And lots of good results!

Friday’s NW3 trial

I drove out to volunteer and hopefully get to see some runs.  I always like to see the decisions people make under pressure, when there is an unknown number of hides.  I enjoy watching the culmination of all the practices and class exercises come together in a trial.  What the dogs retain, what the handlers retain, what they decide to try, do they play it safe, does what we do in class translate into a successful run in a trial?  And, after watching lots of dogs run the same search, you can see a pattern of what works, what might have worked better, where things can go south, and what would be good to try.  All things for future class exercises and practice!

Unfortunately, my main job for the day was in the parking lot flipping numbers.  Hard to believe, but I had a good time!  My fellow number flipper was a NW friend from NH (Maggie) who recently obtained her 3rd NW3 title.  We are both chatty people, so it was great to catch up with her, and see every competitor come through.  This year the competitors were so attentive to their run order and the numbers, I did not have to track anyone down in the parking lot (unlike last year, where I must have walked miles trying to find the next dog)  I enjoyed sending people on their way to the 3 room searches.  I got a quick glimpse of the search rooms during the volunteer walk through, and from what I saw and remember, they were similar to the UNH / Durham NW3 classroom searches – somewhat large, lots of tables, desks, stools and chairs.  Maggie was sending people to the Vehicle search (3 vehicles, parked behind the school on pavement, next to grass and a frog pond, complete with bullfrogs)  From there, the competitors walked around the corner to the Exterior search area, which was similar, although much smaller, to the York DPW site Beth has arranged practices at.  Pavement, wood pallet things, some cinder blocks, I don’t remember much else from our quick walk through.  Competitors seemed focused, fairly calm, the parking lot was quiet but saw people tailgating and hanging out.  There is a lot of hanging out at a NW3 trial!  Unlike NW1 and NW2, no one comes back from searching with a big smile, thumbs up, or a sad face and thumbs down.  People just walk back to their cars, talking to their dogs, maybe hit the warm up / recovery boxes, and rejoin the conversation w/ their friends.  I used to immediately write down what I remembered from the search – how may hides I found, and where they were.  Because it is very easy to forget!   I’m sure there are some people who come back and tell their friends they heard No, or “no no’s!”, but after several trials in my NW3 career, I opted to just keep it to myself.  No pressure on me, no pressure on other competitors that way.

After a quick lunch, I was dispatched to the gym, to act as judge’s steward for Neil and the Container search.  The containers were arranged in a square around the basketball court.  It was a large area, and the containers were about 10ft apart.  I don’t know why I didn’t count, but I should have counted the containers – it was one of the larger container searches we’ve had recently.  Neil was given a chair for his judging duties, and they gave him a wheeled office style chair.  He decided the best place to be to see everything was to park it in the middle of the square, and spin / rotate around as the dogs worked around him.  Something I would have tried in class for fun, but never thought I’d see in a trial!

Holly and BoomBoom were dog #1.  I think BoomBoom was the ONLY dog to turn left off the start line.  I did not know where the hot containers were, or even how many there were.  BoomBoom alerted to a container one to the left of the start – Yes (no wonder he went left!).  They moved around the square, and he paused at a container a little further on.  Holly paused, and BB looked up.  There was a brief stand off, where Holly observed BB but did not call Alert, and BB moved on.  At the far  right corner of the square, BB gave a sharp alert, and got a YES.  They completed their round, went back to that container that had some interest, but BB walked by it with hardly an ear twitch, and Holly called Finish.  They were correct, and passed their Container search.  It was a very nice search!

Barbara and Oasis were up.  Barbara did a nice job waiting for Oasis to settle her breathing at the start.  She really took her time before crossing the start line, which gave Oasis not only time to catch her breath, but also gave Oasis time to scan the room, both visually and with her nose.  They had a great search!  Oasis was motivated and kept a good pace, cut the corner with the hot container, but caught odor on an adjacent container, Barbara paused – but didn’t stop in her way – and Oasis gave Barbara a glance and headed back to the corner container and gave a nice alert.  Phew!  I was nervous Oasis might have shown too much interest in the pooling odor container, and Barbara could have boxed her in and talked her into an Alert there, but they are beyond a handler mistake like that!  I should have more faith in my students 🙂  They completed their circuit and called Finish.  It was a pretty search, and I knew they had to be one of the faster teams.

Mike and Logan… Logan looked hot, and a bit flat.  He didn’t seem bothered by the slippery floors (something he struggled with very early on), but he didn’t have that spring in his step we’ve seen in the last year.  He got the corner container, then moved past the 2nd hot container with a quick sniff and no change in behavior whatsoever.  Based on the other dogs I saw run, if a dog missed a hide, it was that container.  The corner container I think every dog nailed, but for some reason, the rectangular rubbermaid style container did not draw as much of a response from a lot of dogs.  Maybe it was more diffuse, with the hide inside in crumpled tissue paper, vs  the paint can, where the hide might have been right up by the holes. In any case, I was silently saying, “do a U turn and do another circuit in reverse… “.  Mike and Logan opted to go around again, and when Logan got to the far side of the square, he took a step into the middle, breaking his pattern, and Mike called Finish.  They did not hit the hot box a second time, but based on Logan’s flatness, I can see why Mike would just call Finish.  So they missed that ONE hide. In my head, I was thinking, I really hope they flubbed up somewhere else, because I don’t want them to miss getting their NW3 Elite by that ONE container hide.  A few dogs later, Maria from the score room came in and and a question for Neil on a score sheet.  Since as Judge’s steward, I’m supposed to verify that the information is accurate before sending it back to the score room, I came over to see what the error was that I’d missed.  Maria said, “I just want to MAKE SURE this is what you meant to check off, since this is for his title”, and sure enough, it was Mike’s score sheet 😦  I was so bummed!!  (the error was that the Finish call was NOT called correctly, Mike had called Finish, but it was not the correct call since they missed a hide.  Neil had checked Finish called Correctly as Y)

Andy and Koda – talk about a comeback!  This was the search that last summer, did not go so well for Andy and Koda (we can laugh about it now).  As Andy walked into the hallway outside the gym, I could tell he was thinking about that search and having a deja vu moment (I was the judge’s steward for that one, too)  However, he put the past in the past, and let Koda do his thing.  A strong alert on the corner can (after chasing odor between the 2 adjacent containers) a weak alert/interest to the same container BoomBoom had shown interest in, and then Koda skipped a corner container to pull to the hot container.  Andy called Alert (yes) and then Finish.  He missed covering that corner container and the one next to the hot container near the start line.  I thought, well, that must be his strategy – why search the containers on either side of the hot one, since I’ve never seen side by side hot containers?  Come to find out, Andy had heard No earlier in the day, and just wanted to get out of there cleanly!  Well, it worked!

And last but not least, Beth and Isaac were team #30, dead last.  Isaac has had trouble in the past focusing too much on dog slobber and deciding to alert to it, so I’m sure Beth was thinking it was the worst draw / run position possible.  But maybe all those contaminated boxes with no odor practice searches that we’ve been doing paid off, because they did a very smooth circuit, found the 2 hides, thought about going around again – though better of it – called Finish and got out of there cleanly.  Nice work!

So NO FALSE ALERTS from my students in Containers – yeah!  Barbara and Oasis ended up coming in 2nd place!!  (the results page on the NACSW website is off – I think it’s missing a page of results)  Andy and Koda must have been close behind, I’d like to see the actual results.  I’m SO bummed Mike and Logan missed their 3rd NW3 by that one stinking hide.  Mike was hoping to pull out of the NJ NW3 trial if he titled, but it looks like he’ll be making the trip south.

Once the trial was over, we could talk about the trial, but the results had not been posted yet.  I did not know where or how many hides the other search areas had, and sitting next to Beth in the award ceremony, she wan’t sure how many she’d found in the 3 Interior searches.  It’s amazing how quickly you forget what you called when you do 3 rooms back to back!  Turns out, what ever the number, she was right, and she got her 2nd NW3 title – Congratulations!  Barbara missed ONE hide in an interior room, and missed a NW3 title by ONE hide.  This was a nice comeback form the UNH trial, where she and Oasis had some struggles.  Holly and BoomBoom, if I’m looking at the results correctly, found everything plus one (one false alert in Exteriors)  SO close yet again!  But again, a much better outcome than their last NW3 trial.  They are on the NW3 rollercoaster that I know all too well.  They did get their NW3 Interiors title, which if I’m not mistaken, completes their NW3-element titles.  Andy and Koda had a few blips, which is a shame, because they looked really good in our last practice.

Other highlights:  Barbara and Oasis came in 7th in Exteriors, 4th in Vehicles.  Holly and BoomBoom came in 10th in Interiors, Mike and Logan 11th and Beth and Isaac 12th in Interiors, all just a second or 2 apart!  I’d really like to see the Container results – I’m sure Andy and Koda were in the top 10.

So some overall thoughts on the Container search I saw.  There were a couple dogs who were really freaked out by the shiny, slippery floors.  For one dog, odor obedience kicked in at the paint can hide, and the handler was able to call Alert.  Unfortunately, he was so frozen and scared, that she called Finish before completing the circuit – the right decision in that situation, since the dog was absolutely miserable.  Another dog walked down the hall backwards – apparently, ever since he had hip surgery, he navigates slippery surfaces by walking backwards!  He did the search walking forward, but was very nervous, rigid and stiff.  He finally showed interest in that same container BB showed interest in (but walked away from) and the handler saw the interest, moved forward toward the dog – he showed MORE interest, and she called Alert as she was digging in her pocket for a treat. NO – not the hot container.  I can see where she would call it – you see a scared dog finally show interest in a container and you assume it must be the hot one – but her actions (walking toward the dog, reaching into her pocket) provoked a more solid alert behavior from the dog.  I saw that time and again – the handlers cued the dog into a stronger alert (do I sound like a judge we know?)  Interest turned into an Alert based on what the handler did.  The other thing I saw that was heartbreaking, was handlers not trusting their dogs, and pulling their dogs off odor!  I suppose they thought the dogs response was what the dog shows on a distraction, so they kept walking and in several cases, actually pulled the dog off, and in one case, said leave it!!   There was one dog who tried to alert *3* times to the same container, and the handler pulled him off 3 times.  On their fourth pass, the handler paused at the container, but the dog ignored it.  I think the dog figured, sheesh, you pull me off this 3 times, I guess I’m wrong… won’t make that mistake a fourth time!  You could almost see the cartoon bubble coming up from the dogs head on those 3 times “I thought you’ve been paying me on this scent for the past 2 years? are the rules different today?”
Well, I’ve certainly made some ugly handling errors in my trials, and a lot of them were compensating for a previous mistake in a trial.  So if I false alerted in a container search in one trial, my next trial I was less likely to trust my dog’s alert behavior.  So, without knowing the dog and handler and their history, I don’t mean to judge.  Again, it’s always interesting to see what decisions the handlers make under pressure.  I’m sure the handler realized after the fact that they had pulled their dog off the hide multiple times, and won’t make that mistake again.

A very pretty search I saw was by a terrier – he worked similar to Max, very fast, busy, totally unaffected by the heat and humidity.  He moved quickly through the search area, yet was thorough and very clear when at the hot containers.  It was a really pretty search!

This was a trial where a professional videographer was present.  I would highly suggest buying the videos, the good, bad and ugly.  It’s a great opportunity to see how YOU look in a trial, and what your dog looks like in a trial when you can watch without pressure.  You may not see anything helpful – I know Beth has video where Isaac simply walked right on by a hide, similar to Logan and this Container search, but that is helpful to know, too.  Sometimes knowing you didn’t miss anything (this one was on the dog) can give you confidence – yes, you know your dog!

Throughout the day, people kept asking if I was coming back Saturday.  I wasn’t planning on it, although I really wanted to see Sarah and Roxie compete, and I have not been able to get to an Elite trial or mock trial yet, and needed to see what they are all about.  Partway through the day, the host, Karin, told me that Maggie (who I had volunteered with flipping numbers) was 3rd on the waitlist for Saturday, and there was a chance she would  get into the trial.  Meaning, they would be short a key volunteer.  Was there anyway I could come back on Saturday?  At the end of the day, sure enough, Maggie got into the trial last minute, so I agreed to get up early and leave the house by 5am and come back on Saturday.

Well, I’m so glad I did!  I walked in Saturday morning, and was informed I’d be running the dog in white, Carolyn Barney’s border collie, Breezy!  Carolyn is a CNWI who was trialing with her 16 yr old Jack Russell, Steif, but had brought her NW3-level dog.  Maggie was supposed to be the dog in white, but since she got into the trial, they were in need of a dog and handler who were roughly at the level of the trial, to do a sort of test run.  The Certifying Official likes to see how the odor moves in the room once he’s set the hides, and will determine the times for the search areas after watching a dog work it.  I was flattered and honored to work Breezy, although I’d only see her work at a workshop over a year ago and have zero relationship with the dog.  And, I’ve never even SEEN an Elite trial, never mind practiced for one.  So talk about doing it blind!  Luckily, Breezy is similar to Quattro – super friendly, very focused on the task, and she works like he does.  I was not given a time limit, and I was not told the number of hides.  The first search area was a large cafeteria – tables and attached benches, a few chairs, an ice machine.  We got 3 hides right off the bat, and I felt like she showed interest in 2 places.  I sort of talked out loud, and Troy, the CO, said trust my gut.  Yes, there were hides in those 2 places, and one other hide (under the ice machine)  So 6 hides total.  The next room was super challenging – it was a welding room / machine shop, with workbenches, metal things, machines, tools, more metal things, a couple stools and a chair.  There were 2 areas taped off – she went across into the “out of bounds” areas, but I felt like she was chasing odor. Sure enough, in both places, there were hides on a chair and a stool that were near the tape.  Another reminder to let your dog work and not panic if they go outside the search area!  There were 2 high-isn hides that she struggled with, they were converging along with a low hide.  She got the low hide, but similar to Quattro, would continue going back to the low hide rather than work out the 2 high converging hides.  Those 2 hides ended up being a big challenge to all the dogs… I think only 2 dogs got them.  There were 7 hides in total!    Handlers were given 6 minutes for this search area.

I got to be the judge’s steward for Neil on the welding room.  Those 2 high-ish hides (one under a workbench, the other on a wall under a metal T square thing) had the dogs chasing odor but not getting to source.  Strategy tip 1: Some handlers called their dogs away after several seconds of chasing odor, in favor of moving on and hopefully finding other hides.  Because at Elite, it’s about points – you get points for your hides, and lose points if you false alert.  You can false alert twice! in a search, and continue searching.  However, a 3rd false alert, and you’re done.  It was amazing how smoothly the handlers continued searching after hearing No.  A couple times, the judge would ask Where?  the handler would point, and if they heard No, a good strategy seemed to be, well, my dog must be close and that was probably a fringe alert.  The dog would continue searching the area, pinpoint the hide they’d fringed on, handler would call Alert, and get a Yes.  It was a tight area, and dogs could navigate under, around and through small areas and leave the handlers stuck behind workbenches or machines.  Many handlers did this on leash, several ended up un clipping their dogs because it was so tough to not get caught up on things. Several handlers were worried about their dogs crossing the blue tape, and called their dogs off of searching.  Most dogs had strong odor obedience and went back and got the chair and stool hides (and you could see the handlers mentally apologizing to their dogs for calling them off odor).

Strategy tip #2:  Use a stop watch function on your wristwatch.  6 minutes is a long time, and harder to judge than a standard 3 minute search.  Sarah used a watch, and at 30 seconds, she glanced down, and worked right up to the end.  I saw a couple handlers time out 😦 who had heard 30 seconds, but just used their internal clock to run down the last 30 seconds.

Strategy tip #3:  A couple handlers called out loud the # of hides they’d found.  One person would just say Alert (Yes) 1.  Alert (yes) 2… that way, when they got back to their car, they had a better memory for what they’d found.  One handler went a step further, and would say Alert (yes) 1 workbench lower leg. Alert (yes) 2 brown stool Alert (yes) 3 anvil… etc.  This was even better, since I also saw several people call Alert twice on the same thing.  There were like 5 red metal workbenches, and it was easy to get lost and forget which ones had the hides.  And with 7 hides in a very busy room, I thought that was a great way to keep track of what you’d found and where you’d been.  I think Breezy and I found 4 on our own, Troy told us to “check the middle” and we picked up another, and then I brought Breezy back to the start, where the 2 high hides were.  I found out later that she is working on converging odor, that she has trouble figuring those problems out.  We did get those hides w/ assistance, and I joked that everyone was lucky they had a green team as the dog in white – we may have influenced Troy to give more time to the search areas!

We broke for lunch, and I ran and got Breezy again and we did the last 2 search areas.  A Giant container search – rows and rows of containers all across a basketball court, from wall to wall, and then a wood working shop.  We had the option to do the containers off leash – if I had Quattro, I would have, but I wasn’t sure w/ Breezy, so I did it on leash.  I think we would have been fine off leash since she is so similar to Quattro, but oh well.  We had a very smooth search, and missed one container (there were 5 hot containers, and they had 3 minutes)  One hot container was a white box about 3ft over the start line!  I had’t even entered the gym when she alerted.  Several people didn’t believe it and pulled their dogs off, some went back and got it, most trusted their dog, and a couple dogs took off to the left… the search area was SO big that they didn’t have time to get back to it and ended up missing it.  Most got it, but again, the decisions that happen in split seconds can make a big difference in the outcome.  Unless you were moving a good clip, it was challenging to hit every container in 3 minutes.  I have no idea how long Breezy and I took.  Only a handful of people did it off leash… a couple took a long time at the start line, deciding what to do.  Those who were debating at the start line, ended up saying, what the he**, and going off leash.  For the most part, it worked well for them, so long as the handler remembered where the dog had been and what the dog had missed.  A couple dogs just simply never touched a hot container, and with the space / size of the area, if they didn’t touch it, they were going to miss it.  There were a couple of double Alerts (alerting to a container they’d already called) and a couple people who moved TOO fast, and pulled their dogs off the hot bag, before the dog had a chance to alert to it.  It is a tough balance, for sure!

I don’t remember the wood shop too much, I think there were 4 or 5 hides.

Sarah and Roxie did awesome!  In the metal welding shop, the 2 high-ish hides were the challenge, and I think they missed one other.  But Roxie searched really well, she definitely was trying to work out the 2 converging and just couldn’t quite nail them down.  In the Container search, they glided through and got all the hides, plus one.  The hide she falsed on, was a large, lumpy bag, between 2 hot bags.  I think the large bag was collecting pooling odor, and Roxie was pushing at it, nudging it, really showing a lot of interest.  Sarah moved her on, and later brought her back.  She showed similar pushing, nudging behavior and Sarah called it.  At Elite, one false alert isn’t going to break you, so it was not a big deal.  This was a big comeback from their June Elite trial, where Roxie struggled, and Sarah realized she was going to have to accept less of an alert in a trial than she gets in practice.  They ended up with 80 points and came in 7th place!  A really nice showing, among many talented dogs and handlers.  They came in 5th, 4th, and 9th in 3 of the 4 searches – really nice!   They both looked really happy, worked well as a team, and looked like they were having a blast playing.  Neil and Doc both commented on what a nice dog and handler team they were.

I did not stay to hear the judges briefing at the end, I think they even got to do a walk through with the CO!  So I’m sorry I missed that, but it was long drive home and I was beat.

What a fun weekend, I’m very proud of all my students!  I highly recommend buying the videos of your runs, and I highly recommend volunteering when you can.  A great learning experience, and you also get to see that you are not the only one who makes mistakes.  Sometimes, in your NW career, you hit a low patch, and it helps to put things into perspective when you see really good dogs and really good handlers make a mistake.  You feel bad for them for sure, but it reminds you that no dog and no handler is perfect.  The best trial is when you can relax and trust in your training and trust in your dog, not over think, and not under think.

I have to say, it was really fun to run the dog in white, where there were no time limits, no worries about false alerts, nothing was on the line.  It was just playing with a dog – and who doesn’t love that?



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