Alphabet Soup – NACSW, PSD, ORT, CO, TOT… Huh??

A couple questions came up the other night in class, about the various organizations that host scent work trials, and what the differences are.  Since my background is in NACSW, I can speak most confidently about that, but I’ll give some broad generalizations on the others that are out there.  As with any dog sport, read the rules, and then review the rules, before trial day!

National Association of Canine Scent Work (otherwise known as NACSW) was the first organization to see detection work as being a sport just about every dog can participate in. The three founders worked dogs professionally, and thought, wow, this could be a great activity for a pet dog, not just the purpose-bred working dog.  They started holding classes, came up with a competition, fine tuned the rules, and 11 or so years later, it’s a nationally organized sport, that has inspired several other organizations to pop up and create some of their own rules.

Because NACSW was started by professionals, and because one of the founders had a dog-reactive dog, they really wanted to make it welcome for dogs who could not handle a sport like agility or conformation, where there are so many dogs around and a potentially stressful environment.  They wanted the dogs to be able to work without feeling pressure from the handler or feeling pressure from other dogs.  They also wanted pet dogs to do a sport that was based on professional searching, and real world search areas.  So here are a few ground rules that follow from those foundations:

  • Dogs must pass an Odor Recognition Test (ORT) before they enter a trial.  The ORT consists of 2 lines of 6 boxes each, (or one line of 12 boxes), and one of the 12 boxes has odor.  The dog and handler team have 3 minutes to find the “hot” box, and once the handler believes their dog has found it, calls Alert. The judge either says Yes or “No, I’m sorry, its the ___ box”.  As of 2020, a dog must pass all 3 ORTs (birch, anise and clove) to enter a trial
  • In between searches, dogs must be in a secured car, either crated, in a closed vehicle where their heads cannot hang out, or barricaded in a car (some people have their dogs loose in the back of their SUV with the hatch open, but have a barrier / gate across the opening).  When it is about their turn to run, they can come out and do a potty break, go over to the warm up boxes (3-4 white boxes, one of which is marked as the hot box) and then stage to go in.  There are never dogs milling about, hanging around outside crates, sitting on laps, etc. When your dog has done their run, they head back to the car.  You can bring them out for potty breaks at any time, but dogs are not permitted to socialize or make contact.
  • If a dog is reactive to other dogs, they may wear a red bandanna, indicating that they need extra space.  If you see a red bandanna dog, take a wide berth, or ask the handler if you are ok where you are.  They may appreciate more space to pass to and from the potty area or search area.
  • The search areas: at the NW1 (or novice) level, there is one hide in each search area, and there are four search areas. The team must find each hide within the time limit in order to title at that level. Finding 3 of four does not give you a ‘leg’… you DO need to be perfect in one day to earn the title NW1.
  • The search areas consist of – an Interior, Exterior, Vehicle and Container search. Since the sport is based on “real world detection”, the trials are not held at dog training facilities, and there has not been target odor (Birch, anise or clove) there in at least a year, if ever.  Vehicles are provided by volunteers, and must not have had odor on them in the past 6 weeks.  Occasionally, there will be a vehicle or more on site that will be used, such as a day camp bus, tractor, farm truck, etc.  The hide remains in the same location for all dogs
  • There is a Certifying Official (CO) who places the hides. You will not be able to see the hides, but your dog will be able to smell them!  2 search areas will be run at the same time, so there are 2 judges.  The judges are professional K9 handlers – from a law enforcement, military working dog, search and rescue or bed bug detection background.  Many were K9 trainers in their respective field, and they ALL LOVE watching our dogs work.  You consistently hear how good the civilian / pet dog people work the leash and read their dogs.  It is a great compliment!  And I think they are amazed at the variety of dogs who excel… yes, they love their shepherds, mals and labs, but they are blown away by the Bichons, mini poodles, dachshunds and mixes that are super sniffer dogs.
  • In the search area, you are watching your dog, and when you see that change in behavior, detailing, and “I’ve found it – now pay me!” behavior, you call Alert.  The judge will say Yes, and you can pay (reward) your dog, or they may say No, I’m sorry, it’s over here.  There are score sheets the judge fills out that you will receive at the end of the day, and many times the judge will write comments or notes on them. This will have your time on it, too.
  • Once everyone has run all four elements, it is ok to discuss how you did.  There will be a debriefing at the end of the day, where everyone gathers, and the CO will come out and discuss the hide placement, their reasoning behind why they placed the odor where they did, and then turn it over to the judges. They will discuss what they saw dogs doing, both good and some areas people may want to work on. There is an awards ceremony, where there are placements (1st, 2nd & 3rd) for each element, and then overall placements for the total searching time for the day, as well as title ribbons handed out. You collect your scoresheets, and head home.

Because these trials require space to run them, and require a facility that is allowing dogs for the event, trial locations can be a challenge to come by.  Many schools are open to allowing dogs to traipse thru for the weekend, other venues that are popular are kids camps and fair grounds. Baseball stadiums have become popular for NW3 and Elite, ski areas, historic museums and a trolley museum are also venues that have been used.  Because of the behind the scenes work that is involved, trials are typically held only a few times a year per level.  This can be a bummer, if you miss your title by one element, and know you have to wait 6 months before another trial pops up within driving distance. But, think of all the time you have to practice and work on whatever it was that tripped you.

What I like about NACSW trials:

  • the professionalism of the judges and COs. That is not to say they are intimidating or standoffish, quite the opposite!  They truly enjoy working with the civilians and pet dog folks, and truly enjoy giving out tips and advice, and are all rooting for us.  The CO undergoes over a year of training, they fly to CA to do their first round of training by the founders of the sport, then have to set up mock trials and submit video to be reviewed, there is a test, and they must shadow experienced COs at trials in other regions of the country.  It is not a cheap endeavor to become a CO! But I feel good that they understand the rules, will set level-appropriate hides, and keep consistent across the country.  They are not out to trick handlers, or “see if they can find this!”  They too, want a good success rate
  • I quickly grew to appreciate keeping dogs crated / in the car during the trial.  My previous dogs did agility, and I would hang out with them ring-side, trying to prevent them from meeting every dog, sometimes letting them meet, giving them treats, having them do their tricks, walking them around the trial grounds several times, etc. It was no wonder they’d get in the ring, and be less than excited to work!  All that stimulation, mental work, arousal, correction for being over aroused / over excited, treats, walking around, seeing other dogs do their agility runs, meeting people and kids, had them exhausted before we even entered the ring!  Doing NW has given me a much better appreciation for my dogs needs, and how to get them to their peak performance.
  • I LIKE the challenge of having to find all four elements in a day.  I LIKE that we are in a novel environment, it does feel like real-world, professional searching when you are working a classroom or locker room at a stadium. But there is also consistency that I can rely on.  I know there will be plain white boxes for the Container search for NW1.  I know the vehicle search will have real vehicles, I know the hides will be set appropriately for my level and search areas will be appropriate for my level.  You also get a walk thru before the trial starts, so you get to see the flow (how you get from parking lot to search area and back), and get to see what the set ups look like.  I like the consistency in volunteers – they will not have a timer swap out partway thru a search – they use the same timer for every dog, to be consistent starting and stopping the stopwatch.  The volunteers are trained before they head to the search areas, and have committed a half day or all day to volunteering.  There tends to be a consistent core group who volunteer often at many trials, so you get some very experienced volunteers, that help things run smoothly.
  •  I like the camaraderie in the parking lot.  Yes, it can be a long day, sitting at your car waiting for your turn, but you will most likely see someone you know. If you make a mistake and need to repeat NW1 to get your title, chances are you will see a lot of others you remember from your first trial, who also made a mistake and had to try again. And as you progress up the levels, you’ll know more and more people.  I have people I consider friends from NY, NJ, VA, MD, PA, MA and NH due to NW trials.  Since everyones primary goal is to title / pass all elements, there is a lot of empathy and sympathy when someone misses or hears “no”.  It is fun to rehash (after everyone has searched – remember, you can’t talk about the trial during the trial, since the hides are all on the honor system!) what your dog did that impressed / surprised / disappointed / made you proud.  If you know other friends who will be there, it’s common to tail gate, and hang out in chairs behind someone’s car and talk dogs.  Yes, there are trials where it is really cold, and I stay mostly in my car, or trials where its raining, and I stay mostly in my car, but sometimes that quiet time is helpful.  I will email a few students who are not at the trial, with my feelings or challenges of the day as it goes on, and that “venting” can be helpful.

Performance Scent Dogs, the next venue to crop up, is similar in that it has basically 3 levels (Novice, Advanced and Excellent) and then a few other ways to title and progress.

  • It is similar in that it uses the same 3 essential oils (birch, anise and clove), and you must pass a Target Odor Test before you enter a trial.  Where it starts to differ, as at the TOT. Rather than plain white boxes, the TOT is done using folding metal chairs.  The hide will be on the bottom of one of the chairs.   You can run a TOT the same day you trial, unlike NACSW where you need your ORT in advance of a trial, or, you can just do your TOT then volunteer for the rest of the time. Oh, and if you have passed your ORTs, you can enter a PSD trial.  Unfortunately, the TOT test does not count to enter an NACSW trial, you do need the ORT.
  • PSD trials can, and many times do, take place in a dog training facility.
  • There may be different trials offered on a weekend day, and they may or may not include an Exterior, Buildings, Container, or Speed. You do not do all on one day, and you do not need to do all to get your Novice title.  You can earn a leg (or Qualifying run / Q) towards a title by passing one of the trials. So rather than doing 4 separate searches in one day to earn your title, you can do one search, earn a Q, do another search in the same discipline if offered, and earn a 2nd Q. 3 Qs earns you your Novice title. This gives some flexibility, so that in the winter, you may not see an Exterior trial offered, but many container and buildings trials.  Sometimes you can crate your dog indoors, and there is sitting area for the competitors indoors – you don’t have to sit in your car by yourself, so it’s a bit more social.  You rarely see an NACSW trial from Dec – Mar, because of the potential for bad weather, since they have 2 elements that will be held outside.  Of course, being New England, you never know… I had a trial Thanksgiving weekend last year, where they had a difficult time finding an outside area that didn’t have 12” of snow on it, and then there were my April and May trials, where it was barely 40 degrees and spitting snow!
  • Some trial locations allow for dogs to be contained when in the building, ie, crated, but in my one experience, “crated” was a rather loose requirement. There were many dogs meeting and greeting, hanging out on laps, and situated not far from the search areas, all well within site of one another. If this would stress your dog, this might be a challenging venue. If you have a very social dog who can get to work sniffing amongst the distractions of other dogs nearby, many times with another dog searching on the other side of a hanging tarp or other thin barrier, this venue would probably be fine.  If you have an environmentally sensitive dog, who startles at loud noises, is bothered by dogs barking or is distracted by noises and sounds, this may not be the venue for you. You CAN always opt to crate / keep your dog in your car, and bring them in for your run, but be aware there will most likely be other dogs around.
  • Once you finish your run, you can go to the search area and volunteer or spectate.  This was a nice benefit, because I could see how other dogs worked the same search I had just finished. There was one search that we missed, and it was good to be able to watch 5 or so other dogs work it, some who had the same problem I did, and others who passed.
  • The search areas are generally smaller, and because they are contained with little walking (ie, from car to staging area to search area at NACSW) things move quickly.  They can fit up to 6 separate trials in one level in one day!  Also, because they are generally inside or around a dog training facility, the footing is a lot smoother than say, a kids camp or fairground will be.  There is a lot less walking (of course, this is somewhat site dependent) at a PSD trial vs an NACSW trial.
  • The judges are the ones who set the hides. They do not have a walk thru, so you step up to the line, and see what your search area looks like when it is your turn to run.  They do not have requirements for what constitutes a Container – it could be lego bricks, empty tins, small gift boxes, Chinese take out style boxes, the sky is the limit!  This makes for some creative, challenging searches!  Sort of a mystery surprise when you walk up to the line 🙂
  • The trial I was at, and from what I hear from folks who trial in PSD, was very relaxed. If you were out pottying your dog and missed your run, they would slide you in later.  NACSW will certainly do that, but because of the preprinted score sheets, it is a little more work when someone gets jostled in the run order.  There will be 40 NW1 competitors who need to move thru the elements, so they are a little tighter keeping things running and moving along.  If that might stress you out, PSD might be a good venue for you. If you enjoy hanging with your friends and their dogs, inside where it’s warm and dry, PSD might be a good venue for you. If you like to trial often, and obtain Qualifying runs that lead to titles,  PSD might be the better venue for you. Especially if your dog is older – I know I felt the pressure to be perfect when my dogs were getting on in years.  There are waitlists and trials are fewer and farther between – if I don’t get my X title now, who knows when my next opportunity may be, and my dogs aren’t getting any younger!  With my young dogs, I don’t feel that pressure, and tell myself, oh well, if we miss something, they’re young, we have plenty of time to play again. And I’m pretty physically able to move around, so uneven ground, stairs, long-ish walks don’t bother me.
  • People are very welcoming!  Not that they are not welcoming at NACSW trials, but I felt a more relaxed vibe at the PSD trial I was at. I think because people were both competing and volunteering, it was familiar territory to many people and dogs, and everyone was pretty close together while they were waiting. NACSW, especially at NW1, has more nerves apparent in the parking lot.  You will have people like me, who are on their third and fourth NW dogs, and you will have folks who have never done any sort of dog competition before!  So ORTs and NW1 trials tend to have a blend of seasoned competitors and very green handlers. I didn’t have the sense that there were a lot of newbies at the PSD trial, probably because there are so many weekends that see trials.

I will speak about the other 2 venues briefly, since I have never participated in them.  United States Canine Scent Sports (USCSS) is sort of a hybrid of NACSW and PSD, so I’ve been told.  The rules around dogs remaining crated or away from the search areas until it’s their turn to run, are more like NACSW. But, there are all sorts of games – Heap o’ Hides, Speed, and others, that are fun and challenging.  These trials can be held at a dog training facility.

AKC was the most recent to get on board, and has very specific rules at each level regarding the size of the search areas, height of the hides, etc.  They scented cotton swabs they use are MUCH stronger than what the other venues use.  These trials are mostly held at fairgrounds, hotels, community centers and the like.  They also have a Handler Discrimination challenge, where the dog must alert to an item of the handlers hidden in a box by the judge.  And, there is a water hide trial test, and a buried hide trial test.  Similar to PSD, the dogs will do one search and can obtain a Q (qualifying run), so they are able to fit in many trials in one day, with multiple levels offered. There is no test to pass ( ORT or  TOT) prior to entering a trial.

Anyway, I hope that is clearer than mud!  While I like the professional judges and well trained Certifying Officials of NACSW, I definitely see the fun in being able to go out each weekend to test yourself on blind hides in a trial setting at PSD.  There are more trials close by with PSD, and a warm relaxed atmosphere. After doing NACSW for 10 years now, I am pretty relaxed and feel the environment is pretty warm and friendly.  Although, being waitlisted for a nearby trial then getting into a trial in PA or NJ can  be a little frustrating!  It all depends on what is worth it to you, and what you think your dog will succeed best at.  You can certainly trial at all different venues – you will certainly see overlap in the people and dogs entered, if you do.  Sniffing is sniffing, and each venue provides it’s own challenges.  I hope that makes some sense!

As always, you are NOT obligated to trial, ever!  You can take classes indefinitely, and play at home with your dog without ever entering a trial.  Your dog will still love you for it!


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