Wow, hard to believe Coach is at NW2 already! In one sense, how could he be ready, he’s only 15 1/2 months old? Shouldn’t I have waited, and spread out his NW1 and NW2? Is he really ready to handle the pressure of trialing, the long day in the car, the strangers in the room and en route to the search area, all the dog smells, the new environment? He’s an intact boy dog, after all, and there was a dog in heat at the trial! (She had to run last, but still, her footprints were still there going into the building and thru the parking lot)
Here are some things that went into my decision to enter and compete at the NW2 trial, just 3 months after achieving his NW1 title.
Crating, Car & Parking Lot
I want a dog who is comfortable in a crate all day with just short bathroom breaks and work breaks, ideally a dog who can nap until being asked to come out and work, a dog who can stay quiet when there are other dogs around, and a dog who can navigate thru a busy parking lot with dogs in crates with their back tailgates open and not react or start any trouble.
Since Coach was a puppy, I brought him to classes I was teaching where he had to wait in the car, I brought him to a trial or 2 that Quattro was in, where he had to stay in the car and only come out briefly for bathroom breaks, he traveled with me to a trial in NJ, weekly trips starting when he was 10wks old to Saco, where we would do a puppy class at Finish Forward then I would head over to Pawz to teach, to my parents in Hancock, NH, to my in laws in Gloucester MA, and once to Cornwall On Hudson, NY. He did have, and sometimes does still have, issues w/ dogs coming up to the car when he is in the crate with the back hatch open. I worked since he was a puppy on getting his attention, and dropping treats in the crate when other dogs were outside the crate. This happened often at it’s a dog’s world. It would be warm out, so I’d have the hatch open, and clients would come over to peek in at my dogs. Coach was not a fan of that, and let them know! I’d come out and calmly tell him playfully “no barking, don’t bark at Rover, Coachie!” As I dropped treats inside. Or, sometimes I’d be there when someone came up, and I’d get his attention on me, and break the hard stare he would do at approaching dogs. Quattro never had that problem – he would allow people to peer in with their faces staring into the crate, their dogs jumping on my tailgate, and he lays there quietly, not making a peep. So while it moderately (ok, maybe more than moderately) annoyed me that Coach would bark in a nasty way, I worked at it enough so that I can say his name from a distance, and he will break his attention from the offending intruder, make eye contact with me, and stay quiet. For navigating the parking lot, we practice close walking (right and left side heeling) all the time, on and off leash. At a trial, since I have super yummy special treats, it’s even easier to keep his attention on me while we walk to the potty spot and to staging areas, so there is no lunging, barking, staring at other dogs in the potty area or in their crates in their cars. The practice boxes, well, those are another story – here he charges forward. But there are not usually dogs nearby, so I allow him to drive to the boxes and reward quickly at the hot box. That is pulling I don’t mind so much.
The ultimate test was Sunday’s NW2 trial, where I was instructed to park right next to the flip numbers. This meant every dog at the trial (38) were going to be hanging out at our tailgate, waiting to be called forward one by one. To start, since it was chilly, I kept the hatch closed. But there were times when it was getting close to our run that I needed to take him out to pee, then put him back in briefly, before being called forward ourselves. I would wait until there was no dog next to the numbers, get him out, do his thing, put him back in and leave the hatch open while I chatted w/ other competitors until we got called forward. He never made a peep! There was one time I saw him craning his neck and looking at a dog stationed in front of the numbers, near our tailgate, and I got his attention, praised him, dropped some treats in, and closed the hatch. At one point, after we had done the 2 morning searches and were waiting while the judges and volunteers took a lunch break, I was sitting in the car and heard little woofs coming from the back. I craned around to see what he was barking at, and realized he was sleeping! Maybe he was reliving his morning’s success in his dreams or dreaming of glory. Overall, he passed the Crate, Car and Parking Lot test with flying colors.
People – Volunteers & Judges
Anyone who has been to a nose work trial, knows that there are almost more volunteers than competitors floating around, directing human & dog traffic, calling you forward, holding you up, opening doors to the search areas, timing, videoing (both for NACSW and for purchase after the trial), standing ready to fix boxes/containers, collecting scorecards and running them between the search area and the score room and back, as well as the Certifying Official and trial host who want to float around and make sure everything is running smoothly. This is where something that initially made me sad about Coach actually works to our favor. He has never been super interested in people, certainly not affectionate to strangers, and does not naturally walk up to strangers to “say hi”. He may go up and give them a brief sniff, normally without making contact, and he MAY move in closer if they have treats on them. But he is focused on the food, not the person. While I was as little bummed to see this when he was a little puppy and when as he grew, it didn’t get any better, it certainly helps at a trial. He ignores the volunteers and chooses to sniff around where we are staged and waiting, and doesn’t even look at the people in the search area. This is the same at our weekly classes, and the times I’ve brought him in to Saco classes for a run or two. No real interest in the people, even after his search, when they would like to say hi to him. Again, it still makes me sad that he isn’t more interested in meeting people, but it works well for a working dog.
Environment – Slippery Floors, Steps, Various Floor Surfaces, “Stuff” in a Search Area, Tight Areas, Large Open Spaces
So, this is something I had work at with him from the time I brought him home at 9wks old. He was timid, around things looming over him (which could just mean something tall that he had to walk by, like a narrow hallway past a bureau) new stuff, like paper shopping bags when I was unloading groceries, all sorts of sporting equipment that makes its way into our family room (skis, bikes, bike tires, duffle bags, camel back backpacks, bike pumps, helmets, ski boots, fishing bags, lures, poles, coolers, and all the noise that comes along with Craig fiddling, adjusting, pumping, dropping, clipping, snapping and banging said objects around) the vacuum cleaner, brooms & Swiffers, and packages. This included large boxes and containers that I had started using for NW with him. Everything had to be introduced with little to no pressure and he had to move forward at his pace. I rewarded the forward motion, interest and curiousity I saw – rarely did I lure him towards something w/ food. HE had to be the one to show interest, I was just ready to reward that interest. Luckily, he was and is very food motivated, so once he realized that food might come to him for walking by the vacuum or paper bags, that food would fall around those objects when he was near them, he was much more likely to go near them. If he knew there was a treat on the floor near the paper bags, but was “too much of a little chicken” (Craig’s words), I would leave the food. Not coaxing, baby talking, or luring him to get the treat, and no picking up the treat and handing it to him. Cue Quattro: He would come flying in, realize there was food around, and in a whirlwind, it would be chomped. Coach got to see that, realizing he’d missed out, and saw how Quattro responded to these “scary” objects – he ran towards them, and found food! For our formal NW practice, I started with green berry cartons – small, open “boxes” that were light weight and let a lot of odor out. Not intimidating at all! I stuck with those for a week before I started introducing brown boxes. Even then, I had a practice where I had shoe boxes lined up on end, and one fell on him when he was sniffing it. That was a set back to tall / high boxes for several days. Again, I did not influence him if he missed a treat, other than to drop a box near the box w/ food. Even that I had to be careful of, unlike Quattro who runs TO things, Coach was more likely to shy AWAY from things.
For flooring and surfaces, I have a mixture of brick (mud room) wide pine (sand and crumb collectors) and rugs (at least a few areas of floors don’t have dog nail scratches gouged into them). I would also use a flattened cardboard box to add slickness, a scrunched up towel just to make an uneven surface, and we went into Saco for brief visits and searches for food in containers. There, the slippery painted concrete floors and linoleum floors were great to practice on. When he was a bit older, we’d go to my bank (tile entry, carpet inside) Tractor Supply (concrete, I think) Orvis (tile, carpet, stairs, stacks and racks of clothes, mannequins, dog toys and a very dog friendly manager) and the pet supply store near me (linoleum type floors). Doors – he was timid of going into doors outside of home. For our weekly NW class at Tova, I had to carry him in the first several weeks (bright white heavy door leads into a relatively dark building, where the door slams behind you) coax him into Pawz, carry then coax/lure him into Finish Forward. I brought him home in February, so it was freezing, and I was always trying to hurry up and close doors rather than stand there forever with them open, so carrying him in was the least stressful / least pressure for both of us. He gained confidence each week, and pretty soon was walking into Tova and Finish forward with no problems. The Pawz door was the most house-like door, and was one of the earliest he conquered. I had brought him to a NW3 trial in NJ w/ Quattro when he was 11wks old, and we stayed in a hotel w/ tile floors, rode in an elevator, and walked around seeing lots of people and kids. He FREAKED OUT at a fire hydrant, when I went back a month later, I thought, oh, he should be fine with that now. Nope – still barked, backed up, growled, barked, backed up, tried to run… so we just gave it a a WIDE berth and lots of treats. Guess he’s a true country dog, no fire hydrants in the country! When he was 4 months old, I was invited to come speak at Career Day at a local elementary school for the 2nd year. I brought Coach, and he had to walk down long slippery tile halls, then come around a corner and see 20 8yr olds sitting in a circle. They all had food, and were instructed not to reach, touch or talk to Coach. I walked forward with him, and he hesitantly came with me, then ate a few pieces of kibble from some of the kids (the food was in plastic cups in front of the kids, not being handed to him by the kids) After he ate about 8 treats, he laid down at my feet in the middle of the circle! I brought him out to the crate and swapped him out for Quattro. We did that for 3 classes over 3 hours – and each time, he moved forward more confidently, and ate more treats, until the last group, he went around and gobbled up all the treats, we gave the kids another bunch of treats, and he was ok with them touching him lightly while he moved around the circle. There were teachers and other classes moving in and out each time we were in there, so a lot going on. Good prep for a trial, when you think of it.
We did a lot of exposure not related to NW, always rewarding forward motion or attention on me, lots of trail and beach walks, trips to Portsmouth or a shopping plaza or two, time at it’s a dog’s world both inside and in the agility ring, and generally just coming along with me places. With all of that, his timidity has faded. While he will occasionally think something is odd and take a wide path around it or give it the stink eye, I rarely see that and can’t even think of an example. Being patient and not rushing him was my biggest challenge, but it has paid off.
Focus, Drive, Motivation
Coach is a skinny little guy, hard to keep weight on him. He went thru a wicked growth spurt, and I was constantly upping his food and being very generous with treats, but he still seemed skinny and HUNGRY. This certainly helped his searching – first for food, then paired hides. I would work Quattro first, and let Coach watch, then let Coach out of the crate after I put Quattro outside, and Coach would motor around, eagerly hunting for his food. Some times a little competition is a good thing! There would be toys on the floor, treats in bags in the search environment, food in the kitchen, etc. At Pawz, there are the drawers of kibble we sometimes work around, as well as the break room with food smells and toys with lots of dog smells on them. I kept the searches simple, and would move them when I wanted to run Quattro. We worked boxes and open plastic bucket type containers for the first month, before starting to hide food around the house. When a challenge arose, like the shoe boxes falling on him, I kept them in the search area, but would put hides in other areas around the room. Eventually I was able to put food in a shoe box on end, and he was willing to go for it. I did some restraint at times, where he saw the boxes and wanted to search them, but I would hold him back across the chest and say “Reeeeeaaaaaddddeeeeeeeee?” I typically do 2 – 3 passes (times out of the crate) with 2-4 hides in the search area. I normally practice before breakfast or when I get home from class, when they have lots of energy and are hungry. Again, just a few passes. In the morning, I’ll try to end w/ something fun for each dog. For Quattro, that’s garage time (he is obsessed with the garage) and for Coach, it usually means going outside, playing with me, or getting breakfast! As his confidence grew, I buried the hide in a box with more boxes, or set up things like threshold hides, pooling odor, height, problem solving a hide behind a pile of boxes… there is a lot you can do with just boxes!
One factor I did not mention, was MY nerves and stress. At this point in my NW career, I am not nervous – I never thought I’d feel that way, but it’s true. I have concerns – “we haven’t done vehicles all winter!” “Have I done enough container searches, with food distractions in them?” But no butterflies. Plus, my dogs are young. If we make a mistake, there is always another trial. I have found about every way there is to not title, and I’ve learned from every No. It’s not that big a deal! Of COURSE I want to do well, not just title but place and bring home some ribbons, but I’m not as worried about it as I used to be. I trust that my dog will find odor if its out there, I trust that he has a strong response to odor, and read his changes in behavior but don’t over think things. And that is a good feeling!
All that to say, Yes, Coach and I achieved our NW2 title on Sunday, came in 4th place overall (missed 3rd place by 1 second!!) came in 2nd place in Vehicles and 3rd place in Containers – the 2 elements I had concerns about! He was confident, drivey, motivated, relaxed enough to nap in the crate mid day, yet fired up enough to almost drag me down when he saw the warm up boxes en route to our last 2 searches. We got 2 Pronounced, one in Containers and one in Interiors. Steve Cortis had talked about motivation at the end of the day in the debrief – how some of the dogs looked uninterested and distracted at the vehicle search (last search of the day). He said he wants dogs to look excited to search, going crazy to search and go find the target odor. He also likes dogs to search each vehicle, it is a vehicle search after all, but since the odor was on the last car and the wind was blowing to the start line, I knew when Coach ran by 2 cars that we would not get a P from Steve on that search. However, his comments on that search for us were, “That’s the way they should start. GOOD JOB”. I guess that’s as close to a P as I’ll get from him!