Trial Take Aways – More than ribbons

First off, a big THANK YOU to Beth Dutton for hosting 2 days of trials at a great site!  Beth had been frustrated by the wait lists for NW3 trials, and said, well, I guess I have to be part of the solution in order to fix the problem.  When she decided to step up and host a trial, she asked me what level I thought she should offer.  She had some friends who needed an NW2, but she also knew that NW3 would be guaranteed to fill and have a healthy waitlist.  I suggested a NW1 and NW2, since we had not had those levels offered in New England since… last year?  So, that is what she went with.  In some respects, NW1 is an easier trial – there only needs to be one room, less vehicles, a smaller Exterior, plain boxes for the Container search… on the other hand, there are more competitors (45! vs 27 for Elite) and more green competitors to manage in the parking lot, lead from search to search, field questions, keep positive, and give them a good experience.

I think the goals were achieved!  Thanks to my awesome volunteer crew on Saturday (and Mike had a great crew on Sunday), we had some very experienced NW competitors who came out on their day off just to help out.  Their knowledge of a trial and competitor experience, really helped set a good flow, good pace, and kept everything running smoothly.  As a Volunteer Coordinator, it was so helpful to say, I need you guys to block the vehicle search – here are the tarps, bungees, and some vehicles, go to it!  I was able to walk away and focus on the other 3 directions I was being pulled in!

I was able to float around once the trial got started, and see some searches.  Here is what stands out to me from the day:

Travis & Eliot – looked happy & confident, quick and definitive at the vehicle hide, and did a beautiful job in the Exterior search.  The wind was gusting during the first few dogs runs (Travis was #2) pushing the odor from the step stool into the picnic table and out of the search area.  The search area was under a pavilion, as rain was in the forecast.  Travis did a great job letting Eliot work the outskirts of the boundary, the post of the pavilion, the bench, table legs, table top… I think any less seasoned handler may have been convinced the hide was ON the table, but Eliot kept working and trying to figure out how to follow odor through the table.  He finally came down off the bench and around the front of the table to the stool.  Very nice job handling, and fun to watch him really work to source!

Cathy & Phil – so judge Neil is the one I always quote, who says, Don’t be “mother hover!”  I used to have to remind Cathy to give Phil space… early early on in training, when we have to be quick to reward, you sort of have to be close to your dog.  Now that Phil is more independent and will stay at source longer, Cathy has not been on top of Phil, and will let him work across a room.  I was hopeful that nerves wouldn’t get the better of Cathy at the trial, and old habits wouldn’t resurface.  Well, not to worry!  Phil looked a little tentative approaching the Vehicle search – the wind, the people, the stuff falling out of the trees?  But then I saw a shift, and he was in his “locked and loaded position” at the start.  Cathy released him to search, and he made a beeline for one of the cabins – definitely crittering!  But Cathy held her cool, gently redirected him to the vehicles, reminded him once or twice to “find it”, and he rocked up on his haunches in front of the license plate.  He didn’t stay with it – here is where a trial does not always look like class or practice at home – and walked on.  After another pass, Cathy brought him back – I’m sure she knew that was it – and this time, he got up on his hind legs, and gently waved a paw.  Alert! Yes!  Yeah!  Exteriors was even better – Phil really went right to work, and was similar to Eliot – worked outside the boundary just a bit, since that is where the wind was blowing the odor, then worked the picnic tables.  Phil, being little, instead of working the bench and table top like Eliot did, walked under the front of the table, and Cathy had to squeeze between the table and post to follow – actually, I think at one point, Phil was on the far side of the table and Cathy guided the leash up and over the table from the opposite side.  Phil did a nice air paw motion at the stool, Alert- Yes – yeah!

Shonda and Rankin – Rankin was the only dog I saw who worked odor up the giant pine tree that was near the hot car.  He had been a little distracted – by the wind, the lake, who knows – and when Shona turned him away from the lake, he ran to the pine tree, scanned up it, turned, and pretty much went straight to the license plate.  He was also one of the quickest off the start line of Exteriors, going right to the hide, and garnered a “that was a nice search” from the judge as they walked away.

Kathy & Gemma – While I have not seen Gemma work odor before, I had seen her at the Sippery Surfaces workshop I did last weekend.  She looked a little tentative / hesitant starting each search, but was clearly and quickly in odor.  Kathy did a great job of staying at the end of the leash, and letting Gemma work it out.  She chased odor around the front bumper, and then to source.   In the Exterior, she approached a little tentatively, then saw her flyball friend and Exterior timer, Sarah, and crossed the line and came for a quick visit.  That got her juices flowing, and she took off from there… nice handling, nice leash work, nice alert (on the second pass 🙂 )

Christina & Molly – I know Christina was nervous as the trial approached, worried that Molly would just stress out and not work.  Well, be careful what your mind focuses on… they approached vehicles, and Molly was very tentative, timid, gave Neil a little tail wag before deciding she was afraid of him, and really was too focused on the lake, the leaves and pine needles falling, the dogs barking in the parking lot… she did seem to want to go to the second car (a lot of dogs did), but once she got there, there was no change in behavior, and she was very flat.  The way the wind was blowing off the lake, if your dog didn’t pick up odor at the start line, and you moved to the back of the hot car, you were upwind of the hide, and your dog was not going to pick it up.  The second car and ground around it had interesting smells, but not target odor, so a lot of people spent time over there with nothing to show for it.  Molly was just about working in front of the license plate with the hide, when the 30 second mark was called.  She looked around like, who said that? and walked off.  No fault of the timer, it was just the way it worked out.  After timing out, I thought, ok, Containers are next, that will be good for them.  Not so much 😦  Molly was still too nervous to work.  So, after lunch and on to the Exteriors.  I heard Christina coming before I saw her – she was championing Molly, cheerleeding her along, buoying her up – “are you ready? are you ready to have some fun?  We’re going to do this!  Are you ready to do this?  Let’s do it!”  All the way to the start line, and you could see Molly all loose and wiggly, wagging her tail and body.  Neil said, Now that’s a different dog!  More cheerleading before crossing the start line, and lo and behold, Molly found the hide and came in 18th on that search out of 45 teams!  The same thing happened in Interiors.  What a nice way to end the day.  No ribbon, but a huge learning experience.  Christina now knows what to do with Molly at a trial (keep it light, fun and happy!) and has a training plan – not only get Molly doing NW in locations other than home and class, but bring her out to new locations on a more regular basis, not even doing NW, just exposure.  I have no doubt that their next trial will go really, really well.

Oh, and I should have started with Dave and Reo, the Dog in White team.  Due to the compact set up of the site, they were able to run all 4 elements back to back to back.  It sounded like they had fun – there was no pressure to say Alert, and at one point, when Reo was trying to pinpoint the hide, the Certifying Official asked, I would probably call alert there… and Dave was able to defend his position, saying Reo was still working.  There was a fringe alert – but Reo left it as soon as the Alert was out of his mouth and went to the hot box.  Dave also mentioned his leash handling during Vehicles… prompting leash handling practice in class!  I’m glad they got to play and go through the trial, and have the same experience but without the pressure of yes/no.  You still have pressure as dog in white, since you are with both judges and the certifying official(s)!  But it’s more fun to be free to say alert with no consequences.

Sunday’s NW2 – This was my trial day, so it was nice to show up over an hour later than I had on Saturday, and just be able to relax in the parking lot (while Mike ran around getting things done)  It was a beautiful but windy day.  My parents were kind and generous enough to donate their Blazer to the vehicle search, and we got to hang out all day.  It was good to catch up with them, but they also spent a lot of time observing some of the searches.  I got to hang out with students Kendal and Calvin, Donna and Teddy and Sarah and Rita.  Poor Barbara had to back out at the last minute – we missed you and Midnight!  This was Kendal and Donna’s first NW2 trial, while Sarah and I have been through several with prior dogs.  I think that makes a BIG difference, in the training, preparation, and mental sharpness during the search.  I can’t speak too much to the searches, since I couldn’t watch any, but I had a LOT of fun with Quattro!  He was super fast, confident, clear, and we had a blast.  I was SO much more relaxed than I was with Jinxx, I hope that carries through to NW3.

I’m really happy for Sarah and Rita – their first NW1 trial did not end well, and Sarah was really frustrated w/ her.  Fast forward a few years and lots and lots of practice and trial experience w/ Roxie, and Rita was a star!  Didn’t matter that she was dead last in the run order, she did not focus on dog footprints at all!  They came in 3rd place overall, and 2nd place in Exteriors!  Super job!

Teddy had to take care of business during the Exterior, but came back into focus in the Vehicle search – coming in 2nd place!  Very exciting!  And Donna learned a key take away from NW2 (and NW3) – there could very well be a hide on 2 of the same objects, from one search area to the next.  There was one NW3 trial where every Interior hide was on a chair.  The handlers start thinking, “oh come on, my dog is just alerting to a chair because the last hide was on a chair”. Trust your dog, and don’t think!

Calvin had a good Interior search and Exterior search, but lost focus on Vehicles and falsed on Containers.  We can work on a training plan to get back on track there.  Lots of container practice where the reward comes quickly, and the reward comes for instinctual behavior, not trained or operant behavior.  Vehicles seemed to be most peoples weakest area… it was definitely a very distracting environment, with the wind coming in off the lake and lots of acorns and interesting smells on the ground.  We lucked out that there were only 2 cars for NW1 and 3 cars for NW2 (due to the challenging environmental conditions)  However, we have to think about how to get our dogs hunting right off the bat, and figure out ways to keep the dog moving around all the vehicles.   In NW2, there can be up to 4 vehicles, so we (not just Calvin) also need to work on a pace to make it around them all, and stay motivated when there is a lot of blank area and only one hide.

I’m very proud of my 2nd place finish, first place Container placement and 3rd place Interiors placement.  Jinxx and Izzie sure taught me a lot; I have them to thank for most of Quattro’s success.  Plus of course, trainers Holly, Gail, and Michelle – for setting up training challenges appropriate for Quattros level at the time, for giving feedback and noticing things I may not have picked up, and questioning approaches I was taking at times.  And the judges.  From my very first NW1 trial with Jinxx (where we missed 2 out of 4 elements), Neil gave some great insight that made me think, and adjust my training.  Doc may give the same comments over and over, but when you think about your search, and match up the comments to what your dog did (or didn’t do) you can see why he writes what he writes on the score sheets.  And Sergio’s insistence on independent hunting has really shaped how I train Quattro (vs what I did w/ Jinxx and Izzie early on).  There are a LOT of “no”s behind the ribbons I brought home on Sunday… No’s for false alerting on Containers with Jinxx and Izzie, No’s for talking Jinxx or Izzie into a false alert in Interiors, No’s for fringe alerting on a vehicle search with Jinxx, No’s for blurt-alerting when Izzie paused to sniff something of interest… so many no’s, but they all taught me a lot.  About myself, my dogs, my training, my goals.

I’m so happy to have received Pronounced designations in 3 out of 4 elements with Quattro on Sunday… and the one element that I did not get a P in, was Exteriors, where I didn’t believe Quattro, we had a stand off, and he moved off source (insert Doc’s words here: Dog willing to leave source)  So, even though I did not receive a no, I still learned from that search.  TRUST your training, TRUST your dog.

All the training, knowledge I’ve gained watching competitors at trials I’ve volunteered at, and comments I’ve received from the judges all came together to give me the quickest NW2 title yet.  I’m a little sad leaving NW2 behind, knowing how some of the excitement leaving a search area knowing you passed is gone.  But I’m confident that this confident, independent, solid little dog will do well.  Ribbons or no ribbons, I will always take something away from a trial… The best search dog ever!

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