Peaks and Valleys of NoseWork
Updated: Jul 2
Last weekend Winnie and I did our first trial since "lockdown" and it was a heavily deliberated upon commitment to attend this trial in Sterling, CO requiring a round trip of more than 2600 miles of travel. We climbed to the highest summits in the Rockies and plunged to the deepest valleys of high desert floors on our way across the continent.
We also had to manage social distancing in hotel environments and have a means for safe food supplies. Luckily, we handled it all quite well, it was scary at first but we found our significant planning paid off and we were not more at risk than when we have been when venturing out for groceries lately. And the trial and subsequent trip through the Canyon lands of Utah on our way from Colorado back to the coast of California was a welcome reminder of the freedom to move about that will hopefully be the look of days ahead.
Hosted by Hoppin' in the Hills, we had been looking forward to the NW3 trial with even more excitement than usual since so many trials have been canceled. With clear guidelines from NACSW in place to ensure everyone's safety, the trial didn't feel too much unlike the trials before Covid. The very first searches of the day were 2 containers searches, back to back. Containers #1 search a was a circle of 13 assorted boxes in varying shapes and sizes. Winnie was energetic as we entered the room and I felt calm and relaxed as we worked around the circle one way and back the other, making two complete circuits. Winnie was hunting the entire time, keeping a steady but deliberate pace and had no changes of behavior that I read, I called "finish" without an "alert" and we went out the door to do the next container search. Container #2 search was 13 identical boxes in an "L" shape on a walkway by an exterior wall and around the corner. Again, Winnie was into it, hunting and on task but no behavior indications or interest. We went up and back and up again, Winnie passing her nose along the tops and edges of each container and I called "finish" after our third pass on the way out knowing at that point we had made a mistake. The container searches couldn't both be blank. As it turned out neither one was blank. We had left behind two hides, one at the top of the circle in the first search and one in the last box of the "L" around the corner in the second. For whatever reason, we didn't find the hides. I tried not to think about it and instead remembered how good those two searches felt while we were doing it.
This spring and summer have been quite unusual for us all, total shut-downs and self-quarantines. People's lives have turned upside down with many losing their jobs and all the financial ramifications that come with loss of income. Many have lost friends and family who couldn't survive the disease that is plaguing the world. It has been hard to watch the effects of these times, my kids struggling to keep ends met, grandkids missing out on school and extra-curricular activities, neighbors moving away. My elderly relatives have faired well health wise as it pertains to Covid, but the mental and emotional effects of these months of social interaction deprivation has yet to be realized.
I am grateful and so fortunate to have had the internet. Over the past 3 months I have participated in online chat forums, have joined interactive groups where we share our videos of searches and share comments with each other, have done online skills challenges, and enjoyed training pages through FaceBook where we get lectures and training assignments. I have kept busy with nose work and have made Winnie a satisfied, and happy sniffing dog. I am so thankful for these trainers who have put in the effort to keep us going when we all needed an escape, a reason to take a break from reality and the opportunity to benefit and continue to learn during this lull.
Today I watched a short video on points to consider when competing presented by Holly Bushard posted on the June NoseWork Fun! page she hosted and immediately thought about the trial Winnie and I had just done. Among the tidbits in the short clip, Holly said, "it's really hard to repair a bad experience trialing in training." The trial is not the place to set our dogs up for a bad experience. Recovering from a bad trail experience is hard to do, we simply can't recreate a trial setting in order to rewire the negative and replace it with a positive to undo what damage we may have done. I thought about the message Holly was conveying and how it really applied to me and Winnie at the Sterling trial. Starting off the trial day with two container searches we called "blank" was setting us up for a bad experience. We may have been rusty from nearly 4 months of no trials or training, it may have been the traveling. I may have exuded nervous energy or been distracted. Maybe it was my nerves about not getting a walk through, the virtual walk-thru is better than nothing and completely understandable but no substitute for real walk throughs. Staying in those container searches when Winnie had already given it her best effort may have ended in us still not finding odor. I could have ended the search calling a "false" if Winnie had become anxious. I could have started the remaining 4 searches of the day with a confused dog. The trail experience could have began and ended in a bad way.
I saw Holly's short video of advice about this subject after the trial but am fortunate to have had many trainers and gone to NACSW seminars where the emphasis is always on the happiness and well-being of our dogs. Winnie and I celebrated our way back to the truck after those container searches. With purposeful effort, I shrugged it off and pushed through the thoughts in my brain and made the rest of the trial a fun day with my dog and not sheltering in place as we had done the past 4 months. We went on to have 4 awesome searches the remainder of the day. The next search following the containers was an exterior area search and Winnie nailed it. Winnie excitedly found three hides to earn her 3rd Q for the Element Title and was the third fastest dog to boot. I left that search laughing as I proclaimed out loud, "I knew my dog can search and that was fun!" By the end of the trial, we had ended with four perfect searches and the comments from the judges were positive, even the comments for the searches in which we missed the hides: "Nice search pattern" and "really nice handling". Those comments from two searches that appeared to be a failure gave me as much confidence as any.
The message here is to reiterate what Holly and Stacy Barnett, Christina Bunn and basically all the talented NACSW certified instructors too many to mention have said in different and poignant ways; NoseWork is about our dogs not us. It's about them doing what they naturally do while we stand by only to offer support with a front row seat to watch in amazement how much our dogs want us on their team. And to the many trainers, Mary Swinyer, Debbie Stoner, Lisa Kretner, Jen Huot, Candy Bennyi to name a few, I have had the pleasure and good fortune to learn from who tirelessly set up challenges that increase our dogs' confidence and provide us the opportunity to learn how to better read them, an eternal thank you. Let us all keep sniffing, loving our dogs, and carrying on the mission so beautifully put down in words by the founders Ron Gaunt, Amy Herot and Jill Marie O'Brien: The NACSW is all about the dogs in everything we do and everything we believe in.