You can live in the margins and still have your persuasion reach the heart of the matter. Trey Gowdy
I know we've all felt it, the uncomfortable feeling we get in unfamiliar situations, the unease with the unknown. Resisting the urge to flee, we press on pushing ourselves beyond the boundaries and into what can often feel like self inflicted punishment. Following an absence of more than a year from participating in an AKC Scent Work Trial, it felt like we were doing it this past weekend for the first time. In the past, we had become comfortable with what to expect as we made our way competing up the Levels but everything had since changed. I felt pushed outside by the many changes and wanted desperately back in. Back in the margins where I comfortably live.
Feeling lucky to be doing something fun, a non-essential activity, our hobby, I insisted on rationalizing away the angst I felt leading up to the trial. Due to circumstances that happened and will collectively go down as the weirdest, wackiest, worst year in history, much has changed in the way we do this sport from lessons to practice to trialing and we have spent the year adjusting. Winnie and I have even gone to Colorado twice for NACSW trials since the slow reopening following the complete shut-down and we had been stretching our combined boundaries of comfort with everything. We developed some skills in planning, staying places we felt assured there was minimum risk of exposure to large numbers of people, arranging curbside delivery of take out food when we ran out of meals we preplanned and packed. And at the trials we have attended, the implementation of new guidelines was almost seamless and I have been nothing but impressed with how they were run, the precautions taken and the cooperation of everyone in attendance. The changes made have come in bite sized pieces and all has been going along smoothly. At least until I unknowingly bit off more than I could chew. We came upon a trial that included one too many changes and it threw me into a funk. No cross country drive to navigate, no hotel stays or meal planning to occupy space in my mind, it seems the execution of this trial should have been routine. But the pages of pre-trial instructions, the clear as mud schedule of when to arrive, the app to be downloaded on the iPhone instead of checking in in person, the absence of any pre-trial search info and no volunteers throughout the trial to point us in any direction, it was all too much and I was struggling to adjust.
This is in no way a story of complaint, these changes we face are required as clubs who put on trials jump through hoops to adhere to the new guidelines for safety. I am immeasurably grateful to be able to trial again. The efforts put forth by the hosting entities is much appreciated and the above tribulations are not unique to this particular trial. For me though, on this day it seems to have been a collective gathering of circumstances which presented a vortex threatening to drag me into it's spiral and down into negativity. As is always my philosophy, I refused to acquiesce instead choosing to fight the current, swim like the dickens away from the dark and toward the light of optimism. Most notable on this day for me was a spontaneous happening, a moment as simple as it was profound. Like an unnoticed man falling overboard watching the ship slowly fade out of sight, I looked away and was surprised to find an unexpected life-saver. I instinctively grabbed onto it not knowing it would lead me here.
Here as in where I sit, in retrospect, and recollect this day. My little Puggle Winnie, the spark in my heart sleeps peacefully on her pillow beside me and though my mind is full of thoughts, revelations, I am so full of myself sometimes it's a wonder Winnie even bothers with me, still it's as if Winnie demonstrates the peace I feel within.
The first search we went into that day was the containers, Winnie was sniffing her heart out. She was in odor but was ricochetting back and forth in one quarter of the circle of containers and just couldn't decide which one had more odor. Rather than see Winnie's frustration grow, I did the one thing I knew to do, I called "Finish" even though the parameters of the search were 1-3 hides and we found none. The judge (I'm sure she felt bad for Winnie) wanted Winnie to go back to the area where she had been in odor so she could get to the container that had odor. For Winnie and for me, it is less about finding odor than it is about me trusting Winnie, believing her, not calling "alert" unless she is convinced, and believing her when she says "I tried." Winnie does not like "help" finding odor and stops searching when I take the lead from her. I would rather leave odor and make Winnie happy. The judge was generous to offer us the chance to work it out, and she was right that that moment was as good a time as any. As handler, it is my job to support Winnie and in hindsight I now know what I should have done to allow her to finish the puzzle and find the odor without "taking over" the search but I want to learn that on my time, not Winnie's or the judge's for that matter.
And then came the life-saver. In the words of support for my convictions to honor my dog, Amanda Hutchinson tossed me a rope. Amanda, whom I first met where she was trialing at Lost Coast Kennel Club AKC Scent Work Trial in September 2019, explained to the judge on this day my philosophy. "If you read her Blog, you'll understand," Amanda said. I felt honored to be recognized for my words by as distinguished a person as Amanda and proud was I to be living up to the messages I write.
Winnie and I went on to the next searches at the trial this day finding some but not all odor. Still it didn't ruin our time and on the last search, a tricky "L" shaped exterior amphitheater area full of many leash obstacles for me to navigate, benches that presented challenging air movement, and an elevated tree hide, Winnie came in 3rd fastest dog. When all results were tallied for the day, this trial proved to be a challenge for all the dogs. Not a single dog completed a search in more than one element, only ten dogs went home in Masters Level with a Q, and one of the elements had no qualifying runs at all. Odor is tricky, unpredictable but it is not the devil. It is not doing anything maliciously, deviously and though it seems like it sometimes, odor is not the enemy. More accurately described, odor is conforming, pliable, harmonious. It moves with air flow, curves and collects around objects, pushes in and out in a buffering pattern following changes in pressure. I love odor, it is physics, it doesn't defy nature, rather it epitomizes it but on trial day it can seem like a formidable foe. If the trial this day was an us against them event, "us" being the dog/handler teams and "them" being the odor, it is only accurate to say "they" won.
Sometimes the odor wins. True. Also true is that in nose work we must always be willing to adjust. Set our goals, work towards them, celebrate when we reach them. Swing for the bleachers, pass to the end zone. When it's down to the wire kick for the field goal. And always remember in this sport of scent work that we love it is also okay to move the goal posts for the win. On this day, for the win, I moved the goal posts completely off the playing field. For me the win was the confirmation that I have been taught by some of the greatest people in the sport and have learned what is truly important. On this day we came, we searched, then we went to the beach. It all added up to a great day with my dog.
I participate mildly in Nose Work, I'm in it for my own benefit and I feel comfortable (and sometimes a little selfish) on the sidelines. Nothing compels me to be further involved than just participating or volunteering but it turns out I, too, can have an effect on the hobby and folks who share the joy of the sport. With the words I write, I can pass on the Nose Work philosophy I so dearly value. On this day I received unexpected input verifying I do have something to offer and for this day with these words my persuasion reaches the heart of the matter.
Honorable mention and congratulations to Oliver and Carrie who completed the Masters Exterior search and came in 2nd, and thanks to Carrie for being the familiar face that greeted me in the parking lot upon arrival.