Containers, Colorado style
"Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun." This is the list of ingredients for a Big Mac hamburger sandwich made by the McDonald's chain of restaurants. In 1967 at a McDonald's restaurant in Uniontown, PA the franchise owner, Michael Delligatti introduced the Big Mac to the menu when the regular McDonald's hamburger wasn't able to compete against other hamburger shops in the area. With instructions to use only McDonald's ingredients, Delligatti was given permission to deviate from the prescribed menu but he went rogue. He got larger buns with sesame seeds from a local bakery and spread a Thousand Island dressing type sauce on for flavor. The Big Mac proved to be a money maker and the McDonald's corporation eventually embraced it adding the Big Mac to the menu of all the restaurants nationwide. The above quote listing the Big Mac ingredients first appeared in a printed add on a college campus and was later put to music for a jingle seen in TV commercials in 1975-76. As a teenager my friends and I used to sing the song to see who could say it the fastest. At the time I wasn't aware the restaurants offered a free hamburger sandwich to anyone who could recite the jingle in a specified amount of time. Knowing that now I see the reason for our speed game but I never cashed in on the offer. The special sauce on a McDonald's Big Mac was easily reproduced using catch-up, mayonnaise, pickle relish and maybe a dash of worcestershire sauce but what does this have to do with NoseWork? It's all in the sauce.
There is this strange phenomenon I have noticed with NoseWork and Containers searches. Mention Containers to a nose work group where ever we assemble; classes and lessons, seminars, trials, and you will hear a collective symphony of grumblings and sighs and groans from the participants. In the beginning most dogs are introduced to the sport with containers searches. For NACSW events, you must first pass an Odor Recognition Test where dogs must be able to successfully find the three target odors in what you ask? Containers. Given that so much of the sport revolves around containers you would think we'd all be aces at it however I believe Containers are the least liked of all the elements.
It seems like Containers searches present more opportunities for things to go wrong. It has been my experience trainers spend a lot of time running us teams thru containers searches. So why then does the mere mention of the search bring such strong response? Again, it's all in the sauce.
With containers, the handler automatically knows the source of odor is going to be in the container (duh) and because we focus on them, the dogs learn to focus on them, too.
The odor however doesn't stay in the container and can collect on the other containers or on objects just outside the search area. As the dog begins to work the area, his nose can brush up against the containers leaving behind nose juice and drool. When the dog continues to search, and he has enough experience, he will calibrate the odor. He may stop at a container then back track to one he passed or move ahead to the next one as he zeroes in to get as close as he can to the strongest source of odor.
He will have smeared the top or edges of many containers before settling to alert on the one with odor. Or he may alert on one without odor that just has a strong pool collecting around it. And then there's the containers with distractors which can also get an abundance of attention. With all that back and forth, one can imagine the amount of interesting odor that is being deposited. Now add many dogs taking their turn at the search. It can be said without a doubt that by the last few dogs there is a veritable smorgasbord of delightfully interesting odor to inspect the result of which can lead to the team running out of time or worse, a false "alert"call. As is always the case in NoseWork in any element, the variables within a search are too numerous to list and play a huge role in our success. Containers searches are no different and special sauce is just another uncontrollable aspect. Good practice, consistent handling and luck of the draw can help reduce the special sauce effect but controlling our minds is the best defense.
Winnie and I recently competed in a NW3 trial where we were running 30th out of 35 in the containers search. The containers were in an upside down "L" shape in relation to the start line and as we readied ourselves, I could see the sheen from smudges on many of the lids of the plastic shoe containers. As we crossed the start line, Winnie was focused. I could tell she was working as her nose passed over every container we went by. I kept a slow, steady pace on the inside of the "L" moving parallel with Winnie as she moved along the outside of the "L". We then turned at the corner, and with five containers to go Winnie stopped at the third to last. I turned my shoulders towards her but continued stepping slowly forward, my feet stayed pointing away. Winnie was decisive, "alert" "yes", I payed my dog. "Find another," we continued as we had from the beginning to the end of the row and beyond. "Finish," I called there was no need to go back. Winnie had been working with full attention and had shown no signs of interest even on the containers with visible special sauce. Winnie was pretty sure that wouldn't pay and this time getting payed was more important. This containers search will probably be our all-time favorite and not just because Winnie placed, she was third fastest dog that day.
I will remember this trial because it all felt so good during the searches and culminated with the container search. I was thinking that day, but not too much. Winnie was searching but not overly working. We were faced with challenges but met the odds. All the stars aligned, we were having a Big Mac day with all ingredients on our burger including the special sauce. If Winnie hadn't passed near enough each container, I may have felt the need to double back. If I had doubled back, Winnie may have decided to inspect some of the other smells on the containers. Winnie may have wanted another treat and hit on the last container to see if I'd agree thet container deserved attention. Winnie may have gotten frustrated with me and could have started batting containers around like a cat does a mouse because she knew there was nothing else for which to get rewarded.
To make a Big Mac you need all the ingredients. To have a great time searching you need all the ingredients, too. Not all searches can be Big Macs but they can still be a pretty tasty sandwich with or without special sauce.
Allow me to share a link to some good advice if your dog, like Winnie is a container smasher: Scentsabilities Nosework
Photo credits: Marcella Winslow