Element Trials – 4 trials in 2 days **CLASS VIDEOS**

VIDEOs of “vehicle practice” the Thursday before the trials:


What a busy NW weekend!  I missed these trials last year.  Since they are typically the last trials in New England for the year, they tend to have long wait lists.

This year, I was lucky to get into 2 of the 4 trials, L1-Vehicles, and L2-Containers.

The Element Specialty Trials are fun.  You do 4 searches of one element.  The times are shorter, and you do not have a walk through, so they tend to move quickly.  These are great warm ups to a full trial – if you are lucky enough to get into one, before a full trial – and just great practice in general.  Everyone has to start at level 1 and progress through level 3, so even if you have an Elite dog, but have never done an Element Specialty trial, you are starting at level 1.  Element trials typically only last a half day, so they are also great for dogs who are not used to being in a car all day.   In a full trial, the dog spends a lot of time in the car waiting for their run.   Add in the travel time, and some dogs really struggle with staying calm and quiet in the car, yet are expected to be focused and motivated when asked to work, when they’ve left the house at 6am and don’t leave the trial site until 4 or 5p!  All for a typically less than 5 minutes of searching!

I was also fortunate to get into 2 element trials back in May, one month before our NW1 trial. Quattro has no problem sitting in the car quietly; he’s been doing that since he was 12 weeks old and I brought him to Cobleskill, NY when I trialed w/ Izzie.  But, I wasn’t sure how he would respond to working after so many dogs had also worked the same hide (at that point, I was training on my own and not in class) and how he would respond to my nerves.  I felt calm, and didn’t think I was nervous after so much trial experience, but I also knew I would get a few butterflies when my number came up.  How would he react to that?  Luckily, it didn’t seem to be a problem, and we had a lot of fun!

But back to the Foxboro trials.  Saturday morning I was in the L1-V search, along with students Samuel, Aggie and Billie Sue. Samuel and Aggie had both done NW1 trials this fall, but both missed the vehicle element.  They were coming into the trial with that niggling thought in the back of their minds… can my dog even DO vehicles?  Vehicles have never been my dogs and my strong element – of all the trials I did w/ Jinxx and Izzie, we never placed – not even sure if we came in top 10!  So I was hoping doing 4 quick searches would help Quattro and I in the long term.  Billie Sue recently obtained her NW3 title, and Quattro recently obtained his NW2 title.  So, when you look at the results, try not to compare yourself to others: since all levels are entered,  there are dogs and handlers who come in with a LOT of NW experience, as well as NW teams who are just getting their start.

The searches were short: one vehicle in 3 of the searches, and a truck w/ trailer attached for the 4th search.  The times were short, too: 1:30 and 2:00 minutes.

It was fun hanging in the parking lot with fellow Maine-ers, as well as many many long time nose work friends.  There were several people there who started NW w/ Jinxx and I, which was bittersweet, considering I had just said goodbye to Jinxx the day before.  I had many moments where it was tough to keep it together… I definitely was not ready to tell anyone and still expect to focus on our searches.  I hope Pam and Mary felt more at ease hanging w/ all the Elite and NW3 competitors – they were all very relaxed, using this level one trial more as warm up / tune up / final trial experience for 2016, a day to hang out with friends and do some searches with their dogs.  Which is how every trial should be, but, we are human and get in our own heads too often.  It was so funny going back to NW1 and even NW2, to be with so many nervous people, who had so many questions!  I was hoping the element trials w/ seasoned competitors gave them a different feel in the parking lot, which would carry through to the searches.

I am happy to say that everyone passed all four searches, earning L1V titles!  With some very respectable times, too.  I think for the all the dogs, as they moved from search to search, they gained focus and confidence, and got in a groove. Another fun thing about the element trials! And I think the green dogs did well in the car and parking lot, they seemed quiet and relaxed in and out of their cars, which is just more good experience for them.  Since so many dogs start nose work later in life, the whole trial experience can throw them for a loop – sitting in the car, not being able to “say hi” to other dogs crossing the parking lot, people not really wanting to pat them or talk to them, for fear of distracting them – it can all seem very odd to the average pet dog!  They soon settle into the routine, but those intangible factors can all have an impact on your first trial experiences.

Beth, Janis and I volunteered in the afternoon, for the L1C searches.  Lots of good searches; the handling has gotten better and better over the last few years, with less directing, less tight leashes, less “show me” because the handler isn’t sure, less false alerts.  There were a couple handlers who I wish could volunteer and see some other training styles, or if there was a debrief at the end of the day, along w/ score sheets and judges comments, I think would have learned a lot, but, we all start somewhere, and sometimes the learning curve is bigger for the handler than the dog.  Fortunately, there are a lot less of those painful searches (where the handler is dragging the dog to every container, on a tight leash, repeating the Find it command over and over… )

Sunday was L1E in the morning, where I volunteered, and Isaac and Billie Sue got to play.  Unfortunately, I missed their runs, but as some can attest, sometimes I bring bad luck to my students!  So maybe it wasn’t a bad thing, because both Isaac and Billie Sue earned their L1E titles.  Again, I got to see some really nice searches – loose leashes, dogs who were pretty quick to make a decision, handlers who were, for the most part, quick to call Alert.  There were some Elite level dogs, but also many newbies.  The search areas were fairly small and simple, again, good for building confidence in dog and handler when you do four of the same element.

Sunday afternoon was L2C, with Catcher and Quattro competing.  I had been practicing my new theory for a couple weeks, and wanted to see how it worked in a trial experience.  Back in October, after watching several NW3 Container searches, and seeing the low pass rates, I decided there was something not right about Container training.  How can a dog so confidently find all the hides in a camp cabin or classroom or storage room, yet false alert on a stupid box or bag?  At this level, the dog knows odor, he knows he only gets paid for finding target odor, so why the false alerts, many times not even on a distraction such as food or toy? Sometimes I could see where it might be attributable to the handler’s motion (or lack of motion) – something the dog was reading as, “you are about to get rewarded”, so the dog would do his final response behavior… because, in training, don’t we many times do this:  Dog finds source.  We know where it is, but since the dog was quick to pull off source or quick to look at us and not stay at source, we then pause and wait for the dog to go back to source.  We are waiting for a stronger alert behavior before rewarding.  The dog does this pattern many times in training, so when in a trial, they pause to sniff something of interest, the human pauses to observe, the dog then thinks, “oh, she wants me to do that behavior” and so they do a strong final response, and voila, the false alert.  That is my theory, at least.  Hey, I had Izzie, who out of the many (many) NW3 trials we did, only passed ONE container search, so I should know from experience!  So, to avoid that, I decided to train containers like an Interior search.  I placed some containers around the room, some had odor, some had distractions, some were blank.  There were also hides in the room, not in a container.  I wanted Quattro to go to source, no matter if the hide was up under a chair or in a suitcase.  If he was nosing at the hot suitcase, I sometimes would reach over and open it so the tin was accessible.  I did this when he was focused on the bag, and it became a kind of race for him to get to the tin.  Sort of like when you open a new bag of treats for your dog, and they are right there trying to get it from you.  I also put the tins so they were accessible – an open pocket w/ the tin holes facing straight up, and open purse where he could stick his nose into it and on the tin, etc.  And if the hide was inaccessible in the room, but he was sourcing it and made his decision, I would open the drawer, move the chair, slide over the table so that he could stick his nose right on source.

So how did the experiment work?  Drumroll… we passed, and came in 3rd place!  He was super speedy and focused, and you could see him sourcing on the containers.  In the first search, I had forgotten if it was a one or two hide search.  He alerted right away, yes, and I said out loud, I don’t remember if this has one or 2 hides?  But no one said anything, so I said to myself, well, we have plenty of time, I’ll just work this as a NW3 search – unknown number of hides, maximum 2.  We kept searching, and he alerted pretty quickly after that.  Yes and Finish.  All in :18 seconds!  There was an outside container search, something he’s done since he was a puppy (the banner on this site shows hime at 4 months hunting for food on containers in the agility field at it’s a dog’s world)  There was one big suitcase lying on it’s side that he sniffed all along the seams of, back and forth, around the zipper, and I thought – he’s trying to get to source!  He finally stopped moving on a spot, Alert Yes.  There was another suitcase in one of the searches – inside, I think? where he stuck his nose into the outside pocket – again, I have to believe the hide was in that outside pocket.  The only drawback I saw to my training method, was that he did not go from container to container – he would search the area / room, but since the source was only on/in the containers, he would quickly narrow his search down to the containers.  He treated it like an area search, where the hide happened to be in a container.  Which I am ok with.  I used to love container searches w/ Jinxx.  She would go methodically but at a good clip, from container to container, and was very clear when she was at the hot ones, nudging, hugging, nose poking it.  Doing something methodically is not Quattro’s style.  Could I train it that way?  I suppose.  But that would involve inserting myself – either by body motion or voice or  leash control – into the search, and I really don’t want to do that with him.  We do too many tricks and agility, and I am afraid he would immediately fall into trick mode.  As it is, I have to be careful with my reward sequence and timing, to be sure the freeze does not become a cute trick to earn a treat.

I found out at the end of the day that there was a food distraction (chips) in one of the searches, and a tennis ball – brand new – in a white box in another search area.  That might have been what got Catcher.  He had also been in the car for a day and a half by that point, so maybe he was eager to get his reward.  We need to have more tennis balls in search areas, Janis!

The entire weekend was a bright light and good distraction from what could have been a very mopey, sad weekend.  While in one sense it was lousy timing to do a trial the day after putting your dog down, in another way, it was the best timing.  Jinxx and I had done a NW3 trial and workshop there, and Izzie and Craig had also done a NW3 trial there, so we had two good ghosts guiding us along.  While neither Jinxx nor Izzie titled at their trials there, the lessons I learned from them live on and carry Quattro – and also my students – up beyond what we were able to accomplish.  For me, I am happy when the ghosts of Christmas past come to visit, to check in on my progress, making sure I’m living up to their teachings.

Sniff on.img_3530

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