Your First NACSW Trial – COVID Version

Ok, I was going to send something I’d already written out for previous students, but then realized there were several changes thanks to COVID, so I’ve updated it to reflect the changes. Sorry for all the strikethroughs!

Since several of you are either entered in an ORT or getting ready for your first NACSW trial, I thought I’d post some trial videos of Quattro and Coach.  One is at a school, the other at a camp, which are  both typical trial location atmospheres.  One is in hot, humid weather, the other is in cold and windy weather – also good examples of what you’ll find come trial day!

In an NACSW trial, there are 4 elements: Vehicles, Exteriors, Containers and Interiors.  Back when these videos were taken, Interiors were not allowed to be filmed.  When I ran my first NW dogs, NO videos were available for purchase, so I was very happy to be able to purchase trial videos at all.  Not all trials have a videographer available, so I was lucky on these two.

You arrive to the trial, and a volunteer will tell you where to park.  I think they are checking folks in here now, at least, that’s what we did at the trials I was in this fall and the ones I volunteered at. Not sure if they will give you a number, but in the past, most hosts will give every competitor their run order # to put on your car. This way, if the volunteer flipping numbers is looking for you, they know where you are parked. If you have a reactive dog, one that needs more space, they will ask if you’d like to park with the other reactive dogs.  The thought there, being that the owners of reactive dogs are EXTRA careful when walking by other dogs, and managing the ins and outs of their cars. You do not need to park with the reactive dogs if you have a reactive dog that needs extra space! But, please put a red bandana on them or attach it to your dogs harness or leash, if they haven’t worn one before. Dogs are not allowed to meet and greet anyway, but the red bandana just indicates that your dog would like some extra space.  

You check in, sign a waiver and get your run order #. I typically take a picture of the run order, so I know what dogs are a couple ahead of me.  Even if I don’t know the people on the run order, I’ll see the dog breed, and know to look for them crossing the parking lot ahead of me, to know when I should get ready.  They will have a set of flip numbers that you’ll need to keep an eye on, to know when to get ready. But, the volunteers flipping the numbers will try to get an eye on you so you don’t miss your turn. It’s nice if you let them know that you are watching and let them know where you’re parked, as your number gets close.

Do not bring your dog out of the car 8 million times, that will only tire them out.  Yes, you want your dog to potty, but try not to continually bring them in and out of the car, past other people and dogs.  I will bring my dogs to the potty area after I arrive, and then a few dogs before my turn, depending on how quickly the searches are moving.  It’s a little trickier at Elite, because there are speed searches and LONG searches, so I usually watch the dogs ahead of us move, to get an idea of how long it’s taking between dogs.

There will be a walk thru, where you get to see the flow / path from parking lot to each element, and you get to look at, video or take pictures of, each element. While we always had a walk thru, we only recently got the chance to photograph and/or video the walk thru. **Update** there will be a video posted here: of your search areas. The Certifying Official will walk the trial site with the host and Volunteer Coordinator, and decide on the search areas for the weekend. They will video the searches and let you know the boundaries and start lines on Friday evening. This gives you a chance to have a good idea of what you’re walking into with your dog before you get to the start line. I look for ‘things’ like chairs, tables, objects that I might want to make sure my dog has checked… BUT, I let the dog lead the way first. If my dog looks lost, or we’ve been searching for a while, I want to be aware of what we may have missed, and be sure he’s checked it. But I know your dogs – they won’t need assistance! I like to review the video right before and after my search, just so it’s fresh in my mind before we go in, and then I can review and remember where we had been when I come back to the car.

After the walk thru, there will be a Judge’s Briefing.  

You will be told when the “briefing” will be. This is where the trial host will introduce themselves, the Certifying Official, and the judges. The Certifying Official, who is the one who places all the hides, decides on the vehicle placement, Interior room to use, etc, will go over some reminders and answer questions, and then introduce the judges (2) for the day.  They will ask who dog #1 and dog # xx are, and ask how much time they need to get ready, and things will get started!

There are warm up boxes available to use right before your run.  Remember, they are WARM UP / RECOVERY boxes, not PRACTICE boxes. You’ve done all the practice, your dog knows what odor is and what a white box means, this is just to let them know that Hey, we’re here to do that sniffy thing you like to do!  Please don’t move the boxes around, when people do that, you get lingering odor in the grass or gravel, depending on where they are set up. If you move the hot box around, you are leaving lingering odor on the blank boxes, and the next dog could false alert, making the handler nervous before their run! You can do an approach from a different direction, to make it a different set up for your dog.  I typically do 2 passes, and then step away from the boxes! I also reward a quick sniff on the hot box (usually marked w/ a smiley face) – I don’t wait for anything fancy.  The boxes are pretty out in the open on the edge of the parking lot, so there can be a lot of distractions. I don’t worry too much about my dogs performance here, since it’s so different than the Container search they’ll be doing inside. The idea is just to give them a reward at source (the hot box) to sort of prime them… it is not a test, again, don’t worry about any look backs, freezes, etc.

Typically, they split the entrants into 2 groups, and run say, numbers 1-15 on one element and then numbers 16-30 will do another element. Once the groups have finished their runs, the numbers continue, so dog 16 will run what dogs 1-15 did, and dog 1 will run what the other group did. The judges and volunteer crews will break for lunch once those two elements have run, and after lunch dogs 1-15 will do a new element, and dogs 16-30 will do the other element, and switch until everyone has done all four elements.

Please remember, NW trials are based on the honor system! When you come back from Containers, and your friend / parking lot buddy has just done Exteriors, DO NOT give anything away about your search!  Even, He was so fast, he alerted right away! Or, Oh, that was tough, he took forever to ‘tell me about it’.  Stuff like that can get in people’s heads – Oh, it must be the box right up front! Or, Oh, this is going to be tough!  I want to go in with a clean slate and just focus on my dog, I don’t want other people’s opinions and experience floating around in my head.  And if your parking lot neighbor starts to talk about their Exterior search – “I thought he was going to pee on the… ” – plug your ears and say lalala, I haven’t run yet!  If someone asks me if I’ve run yet, and how I did, I just say, We had a lot of fun! or if they press, I might say, “no No’s, so that’s a good thing!”

After everyone has searched everything, you can hang around and wait for the score room to finish up. The CO will do a brief re-cap / summary, and will read off who came in first – third place for each element, as well as overall for the day. you will gather for a Judge’s De-brief.  This honestly is one of my favorite parts of a trial… even if I’m volunteering, I stay to hear what they have to say.  The CO (Certifying Official) will talk about the hide placements, what she was thinking when she chose those locations, and a little about how the odor worked. He/she will turn it over to the judges, who will talk more specifically about how the odor moved and how the dogs worked it, and give some tips, although they are not allowed to go into in-depth training speeches. It is helpful to know, for example, that a lot of dogs had to work thru trapping odor on the red car, just like yours did, or that several dogs worked odor off the tree before getting the hide, like yours did.

And finally, there is the award ceremony.  There are ribbons for the top 3 placements in each element, if anyone gets a Pronounced designation in all 4 searches, there is a Pronounced award (see the NACSW website for details). And finally, there are 1st, 2nd and 3rd place awards for the teams who have the fastest combined times.  The first place winner also gets to bring home the hides – all the Qtips used that day are given to you in a metal box as a keepsake 🙂 Due to COVID, the CO will make an announcement as to who placed 1st, 2nd and 3rd in each element, and then the overall placements. The ribbons are now self-serve, and they will line up your scoresheets alphabetically on a table. So, even if you did not get a ribbon, make sure you get your scoresheets! Many times, the judges will jot down brief notes on your search, and you can look for the illustrious P. The Pronounced designation is when the judge feels the teamwork, the dog’s motivation and focus for the search, the leash handling, the whole package, stand out. Definitely something I look for on my scoresheets!

Here are videos from Quattro’s NW1 trial in PA, back in 2016.  We’ve grown a lot as a team since then! But this is a little of what to expect at NW1.  Back then, there was no Interior videoing allowed, so this is Vehicles, Exterior and Containers. As I recall, this was an early June trial, with sudden hot, 80% humidity weather – yuck!  Looking back, wow, lots of improvement needed on vehicles, on both our parts, but I like how you can see him following odor to source, and not false alerting on the pooling / trapping odor. I liked our Containers search, and he was pretty direct in the Exterior search, although took a few seconds to pinpoint it on the table.

Quattro NW1 Containers
Quattro NW1 Exterior
Quattro. NW1 Vehicles

Here are Coach’s NW1 videos from November of 2017. This was a “local” trial, at a Boy Scout camp in Manchester, NH. Coach had turned one years old that day, making him just eligible to trial. I was super relaxed, thinking, who cares? He’s young, we have plenty of time to do another NW1 trial if we mess up. A lot of my students were also trialing that day, so I figured let’s just go and have fun, and hang in the parking lot w/ my friends. Since it was a local trial, several other students were there as volunteers, so it made for a fun day.  You may recognize Cynthia Fox’s voice in the Vehicle search 🙂 And Coach did really well! The Exterior search was the last search of the day, we went directly from Vehicles over to the Exterior search, and it was a cold, windy November day. We actually got held up before starting Exteriors, as about 15 score sheets blew deep into the woods and had to be tracked down!  But this was a fun day, and his focus and drive were a predictor of how he continues to search.

Coach NW1 Containers
Coach NW1 Vehicles (one shot)
Coach NW1 Vehicles (2nd shot)
Coach NW1 Exteriors

Here are Coach’s NW1 videos from November of 2017. This was a “local” trial, at a Boy Scout camp in Manchester, NH. Coach had turned one years old that day, making him just eligible to trial. I was super relaxed, thinking, who cares? He’s young, we have plenty of time to do another NW1 trial if we mess up. A lot of my students were also trialing that day, so I figured let’s just go and have fun, and hang in the parking lot w/ my friends. Since it was a local trial, several other students were there as volunteers, so it made for a fun day.  You may recognize Cynthia Fox’s voice in the Vehicle search 🙂 And Coach did really well! The Exterior search was the last search of the day, we went directly from Vehicles over to the Exterior search, and it was a cold, windy November day. We actually got held up before starting Exteriors, as about 15 score sheets blew deep into the woods and had to be tracked down!  But this was a fun day, and his focus and drive were a predictor of how he continues to search.

(There are 2 Vechicle video views, it’s not uncommon for the videographers to do that to capture the space, and at Elite, many times there are up to 3 videos, that some videographers will splice together for you)

Quattro was young, not quite 18 months, and had been neutered 2 months earlier.  Coach is intact, and as I mentioned, barely 1 yr old here.  This is different from when I did my NW1 with Jinxx, at 10 yrs old, and my adopted Great Pyrenees at 6 yrs old. They all had various experiences and maturity levels that they brought with them, and I’ve learned a LOT since 2010 and Jinxx’s first trial!  What I like about NW, is that it is you and your dog. Yes, there are placements for each element, and an overall 1st, 2nd and 3rd place awarded, but keep in mind that the environment (sun, wind, shade, etc) can all change from dog to dog, some dogs are in their prime, some are seniors, some handlers have trialed multiple dogs in NW, others are brand new to ANY dog sport, so really, in the end, it’s how you and your dog do in each search that matters.

Ok, and lastly, here are some old videos of my first NW dogs, just so you know I didn’t always have fast dogs! Jinxx was about 9 or 10 here, in the first NW trial on the east coast. The judge didn’t want to say ‘No’ when we fringed on the vehicle! He is a really nice guy and I always enjoy trialing under him when he judges. Isabelle / Izzie, the Great Pyrenees, we adopted when she was 5 and her owner (our neighbor) passed away. She was totally shell shocked here – she hated electronic beeps from the timers, cameras, the coffee machine at home, etc. But, we got it done! Seeing my hand behind my back drives me nuts – please use both hands on your leash, you do NOT have to ‘hide’ the treat behind your back!

Izzie NW1 Containers

Here is my very first NW1 Vehicle search. We fringe alerted on the wheel well, about a foot+ away from source. Which was a seam hide!! Note you don’t see those very often anymore in NW1.

Jinxx NW1 Vehicles

Here are some general trial guidelines, no matter what level you are at.

  • Read the rules!
  • Do NOT bring odor to the trial site!  Your dog knows what odor is, they know they get rewarded for finding it, you do NOT need to practice in the hotel the night before, and you do NOT need to practice at the trial site – big no-nos!  The warm up boxes are just that – to be used once or twice on your way in to your search, and if you want, on the way out.  Quattro won’t let me pass them by coming or going without sprinting to them to get an easy treat!  Please do not pick up or move the odor box.  Leave it in place, and if you want, you can move the blank boxes around the odor box, but really, you are only doing one or 2 passes, so they should not be touched.  You risk spreading odor on the ground, so the next dog may alert to a blank box that is sitting where the odor box had been.
  • Bring a chair, lunch, water for you, water for your dog, a bowl for your dog, extra clothes from rain gear to snow gear, your shade cloth if you have one, fans if you have them, leashes, treat pouch if you use one, really good special treats (more on that later), and a good attitude!
  • Remember to take your dog out only when you really feel like they need to go to the bathroom.  After you’ve used the facilities yourself is a good time to take them out, then one or 2 dogs before your run.  They really don’t need to be in and out of the car a million times.  Just passing other dogs coming and going to the searches can be mildly stressful / stimulating for your dog, and remember, it’s a long day.  You want them sharp, and keen to search and work for you, not burnt out walking laps back and forth, navigating other dogs and people, smelling all those dogs smells, seeing golf carts whiz by, having dogs bark at them as they walk by cars.  My dog sleeping in his crate is just fine by me!
  • Once your dog is comfortable (water in crate, shade cloth on if needed, windows open or closed depending on weather) and you have time before the briefing, you can review the search area videos. After your search, look at them again.   I find they are good to go back to when I forget where the hide was!  Many times the searches are a blur, and I get back to my car, thinking, WHERE did he find that hide?  I take a look at the search area videos, and it all comes back to me.
  • Find some positive, calm people to talk to and hang out with.  I personally do not like drama, or people who are all gloom and doom, so I tend to avoid them.  I don’t want to waste the mental energy dealing with that, or get sucked into their misery.  The more normal of a day I can make it, the better off I am, and I’m sure my dogs are, too.
  • Remember, you’re finding birch, not bombs, and whatever happens, happens.  Yes, you’ll make mistakes you wish you could turn back the clock and fix, and Yes, you will hear ‘No’ at some point in your NW career, but try to think objectively about WHY you heard No, and why you made the handling error.  It’s near impossible to recreate the trial, and you don’t want the ghosts of trials past haunting you in your next trial, but if you can break down what went wrong, you can work on that.  Did you call it too soon, before your dog got all the way to source?  The good news is, you were correctly reading that your dog was in odor.  Now it’s just a matter of watching to see when THEY make the decision that they’ve gotten to source.  Did your DOG make the decision too early?  Maybe in your next practices, be sure to only reward at source, and maybe go back to pairing for a while.  Did your dog have a freak out moment about slippery floors, people, noises, small spaces?  You can work on those things w/out nose work, by bringing your dog to your bank , pet supply store, outside a shopping mall etc.  Bring lots of treats, and work a distance your dog is comfortable with, rewarding forward motion.
  • Trial rewards – I use something different than I do in practice.  I don’t want to leave crumbs, I don’t want a lot of crunching (esp when there are multiple hides) but I want something special that my dog loves.  I’ve settled on roast beef (I have the deli slice it 1/4″ thick, then I cut it into little cubes), sliced string cheese, and gold fish crackers.  I throw the crackers in w/ the roast beef – that way, they absorb some juice, and get a little soft.  I also throw in some Stella and Chewy’s Meal Mixers, which also absorb some roast beef juice.  But – use what your dog likes, preferably something not crumbly, that they can eat quickly.  No one wants a fault for dropping treats, even if your dog drops it, you could get a fault! You can still get your NW1 title, but getting a fault will affect your placement. So be careful handing over treats, and in a trial, I only give one or two treats at source, to be sure we don’t drop any. At home, I am very generous and can be sloppy w/ my treats.
  • Another point on nerves – what is the worst that can happen?  The judges have seen it all, and being professional working K9 handlers, they too, have heard ‘No’ in tests and trials during their careers.  I think I’ve made every mistake, from blurting a false alert to talking my dog into a false alert to forgetting to search one whole side of a vehicle to searching too long and having my dog pee.  It’s not the end of the world!  You don’t have a bad dog, you are not a bad handler.  Even Tom Brady has an off day.  Take a deep breath and regroup.
  • No matter if you come home with a ribbon or it turns out to be your worst showing ever, it is all a learning experience for you and your dog.  Take a few key highlights (or lowlights, as the case may be) and make a plan from there.  Be sure your highlights outnumber your lowlights by 4:1.   It’s easy to have that ratio reversed, and that’s not good. Your dog does not care about any stinking ribbon, anyway! And trust me, the judges are all pulling for you. Neil, the first judge in Jinxx’s Vehicle video, has always remembered our first searches, commented on our improvements, and remembered Izzie’s story. The judges love what they do, and are rooting for you and your dog!

I hope that helps give you a better idea of what to expect!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s