Monday, March 4, 2013

The ORT Experience

This past Saturday, Ollie and Poppy participated in their first official nose work event. It's called the Odor Recognition Test or ORT. ORTs are sanctioned through the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) and are the first step toward competing in nose work trials. NACSW trials have 3 levels and each level adds a new odor for the dog to learn. In order to verify that the dog knows the odor it will be searching for in competition, it must pass the ORT on that odor prior to being allowed to enter a nose work trial. For nose work level 1 trials, that odor is birch. My January post on nose work shows Ollie and Poppy working searches on birch odor. The ORT not only demonstrates that the dog is able to recognize the target odor for which it is being tested, it also tests the communication between handler and dog - i.e. the dog displays some sort of behavior to indicate where the odor is hidden and the handler is able to read the dog and and say "there it is". Or, actually, the official verbal statement that must be given in an ORT is the word "alert".

First, it it important to understand that, unlike agility, nose work is NOT a spectator sport. In fact, it is the opposite. Because of the sensitive nature of the location of the hidden odor, every effort is made to keep that information from leaking out. The only people in the building when the test is running are the judge, the NACSW certifying official and the few people working the trial: the timer, gate steward, ring stewards (at least one to reset any non-odor boxes moved by the dog being tested and another that only resets the box containing odor if needed), etc. Competitors are told to primarily stay in their vehicles while they await their turn and after they go through the test they are told only to let people know if they passed or not with a thumbs up or a thumbs down. They should not discuss anything about the test conditions themselves.

When you check in, you give the ORT secretary the dog's official NACSW scorebook for the results to be recorded. Then there is a briefing giving you all the basic information on what to expect.
Poppy & Ollie's scorebooks
Like in agility, there is a gate sheet with a running order. There is also a "warm up" area where a small number of boxes are put out, one containing odor. You can practice on these shortly before going in for your test so that your dog understands what it's there to do. You may also use them for "recovery" purposes after the test, but warm-up teams have priority.

The gate steward calls you into the building when it is your turn. You are allowed to bring one person with you to record your test. If you have such a person, they are actually escorted into the building ahead of you and seated before you are allowed to go in. This is to minimize the distraction to the dog being tested. When called, or once your guest is situated, the gate steward escorts you into the building and takes your coat and anything else you don't want on your person or dog while testing, then asks you if you have any questions. After that, it is EXTREMELY quiet in the building. You walk to the startline where you may pause for a maximum of 10 seconds. No one will tell you to "go". Like I said, it is quiet. And purposely so. It's about you and your dog concentrating on the work without a lot of other distractions. The time starts as soon as the dog's nose crosses the startline or after the 10 seconds at the startline runs out.

The test itself consists of 12 identical boxes set a minimum of 48" apart. They may be set in a pattern of 2 rows of 6 or in one long row. One box contains 3 cotton swabs with the target odor (in this case, birch). It remains in the same location for all dogs being tested on that odor so that it is concentrated in one spot for the entire test. As a verification of the test, a "dog in white", i.e. a dog who has already passed the ORT on the odor being tested, is brought in for a trial run before the dogs being tested are run.

Then the real test begins. As the handler has no idea which box is the one containing odor, it is up to the dog to indicate the correct box to the handler, at which point the handler calls out "alert" stopping the time. You are given up to 3 minutes to call the alert. If you call the alert on the correct box, you will be told "yes" immediately by the judge and then quickly reward your dog with food or a toy. Then you go to the judges table for your booklet, which will be marked with a "pass" and signed by both the judge and the NACSW certifying official. Lastly, you are met by the gate steward to collect whatever belongings you left with them and are escorted out of the building to give the thumbs up to anyone who cares to know your joy.

If you call out alert on the wrong box, say if you have trouble reading your dog and incorrectly think they are indicating when they aren't or if the dog gives you a false positive, you are told "no" then told which box is the correct one. You are to go directly to that box and reward your dog there. Then you go to the judges table to get your booklet where the result is recorded as a "miss" and must try again some other day.

Unfortunately, I did not bring anyone with me to tape Ollie and Poppy's ORT runs. However, my friend Marilyn was gracious enough to let me use some clips of her sheltie, Mia, doing some practice runs at an ORT run-thru that the club hosting this past weekend's test had held a couple of weeks before. I thought it would be useful to show these in order to demonstrate the basic set up of an ORT. Note that the background, although relatively quiet, is still much busier and noisier than it would be in an actual ORT situation, where you can pretty much hear a pin drop. Here are 2 clips of successful practice runs. Notice the indication behavior:


And here is another practice run, but this time Mia presents a false positive by indicating the wrong box for whatever mysterious reason. In an actual ORT, Marilyn would have been told which box was the correct one and would have had to immediately proceed to it. But, because this is just practice, she continues to search until Mia indicates on the correct box.

My own experience with the ORT started to really fall into place a few days before. I've been crazy-busy at work and have been putting in some overtime and just didn't think I could manage to make it out to a store to buy a red bandana for Ollie. A red bandana is the conventional signal in nose work to let others know that the dog is reactive and they should keep their distance. I sent a plea for help out to my co-workers asking if anyone had a red bandana I could borrow for the weekend. I quickly received 2 replies, so that was covered and one thing I could check off my list. (I found out at the ORT that the host club also had some extra bandanas available for our use if needed). Then it looked like Ollie's replacement harness (I had returned one for a bigger size) wouldn't arrive from Clean Run in time, so I was faced with either working him in the cheap one I've been using that makes him walk like he's in a straight jacket or risking his embarrassment by having to share Poppy's hot pink harness which would have clashed with his red bandana. By some miracle, the replacement harness was waiting for me when I arrived home from work on Friday.
A surprise to me - despite the significant height difference they actually wear the same size harness. Does Ollie look embarrassed trying on Poppy's pink harness?

Ollie lookin' sharp sporting his new harness & red reactive dog bandana
Their ORT practices had been going well. Even Ollie, who has 8 years or so of heavy reinforcement for 101 Things To Do with a Box and so has a tendency to goof around offering behaviors on boxes instead of using his sniffer, was giving me excellent search results.

Friday night, Poppy was so excited about something happening the next day, she kept waking me up as though she was saying "Is it time to leave yet?".

Obviously, since the odor box being used in the test does not move and I would know where it was after running my first dog, I could not test both Ollie and Poppy in the same ORT. Luckily, this club offered an AM test and a separate PM test. Ollie was 3rd dog on the line in the morning test. What was supposed to be a nice, sunny day turned out to be a cold and blustery one with occasional snow spitting from the sky. I had brought some birch odor with me and put it in a small box. I let him sniff it a few times while rewarding him with food, but he started to nose target rather than actually sniff, so I stopped that. I brought him to the warm up area and ran him through twice. The result was iffy; he was really offering behaviors rather than truly using his nose. So I hoped for the best and went to wait my turn in the freezing cold wind.

Our turn came and we were called in to the building. I handed my coat to the gate steward and headed across the floor to where the startline was set up. Once there, I paused, took a deep breath, made sure Ollie was looking at the 2 rows of boxes in front of us and then said "find it". As soon as I saw him sniff the first box and head for the second, I could tell he was actually working, so I relaxed a bit. When he came to the 3rd box, as he started to bypass it, he suddenly pivoted back around, put his paw on the box, looked up at me, then dipped his nose in for a target. I felt that was a pretty clear indication so I called it. The answer was YES!!! I was so elated and proud of my dog! He got a big reward. It had happened so quickly, either the NACSW official or the judge asked the timer how long it had been. The answer: 5 SECONDS!! Amazing. I collected my booklet with the "pass" and signatures and my coat and walked out the door. Someone helping outside of the test gave me a questioning look with a thumbs up and I smiled and nodded. Then ran back to my car to lavish praise and treats on Ollie-Ollie-Good-Dog.

After spending about 3 hours trying to stay warm in my vehicle, it was Miss Poppy's turn to show her stuff. She was first dog on the line in the afternoon test. I was a lot more nervous when it came to her. Poppy is the better nose work dog of the two, however, she suffers from severe environmental sensitivity. She gets very anxious in new settings and then loses her ability to focus. I had no idea what to expect. Her behavior in the warm up area did not encourage me. Instead of working, she just wanted to paw and knock the boxes around. Any boxes. Odor or not. Then when I went to the gate to wait to be called, she was very unfocused and doing a lot of stress sniffing on the ground. She was still not herself when we were called into the building. Normally when we do nose work, she can hardly contain her excitement. She barks loud and a lot. She strains at her harness and leaps around in the air. This Poppy was quiet, unfocused, and sniffing at the ground. When I got to the startline, she wasn't even looking at the boxes in front of her. I paused a few seconds until she was facing forward then gave her the "Find It!" command and she started off down one of the rows of boxes. I was encouraged that she was sniffing each box as she worked down the row, but still worried. When she came to the 5th box in that row, she started shoving it across the floor then placed a paw on it. I called the alert. The answer: "YES". Woo-Hoo! They were impressed with her speed and, just as with Ollie, asked for the time. She had alerted in just over 7 seconds! Another amazing run.

I couldn't be more pleased or proud of my dogs. And relieved!
Booklets showing the "pass" on ORT for both dogs

Now that they are both eligible to enter Nose Work 1 trials, we will get busy refining our work on the 4 elements tested in a trial: container, vehicle, interior and exterior searches. Stay tuned for more nose work fun in the future.

Ollie was super happy about passing his birch ORT with flying colors


  1. Incredible story. Thumbs up!

  2. Congratulations! But be aware that competitors are not allowed to have odor on site at an NACSW event, whether that's an ORT or a trial. Please don't bring odor with you.
    Cindy &
    CieCie NW1
    Jujube NW2
    (both second-hand dogs)

    1. Yes, you are correct. It was the advice I was given by my instructor and didn't know any better at the time.