Monday, October 21, 2013

JRTCA Nationals - AKA Mudfest 2013

Did you ever want to find out what it would be like to participate in a trial held in a bog? No. Neither did I. But that is precisely what this year's JRTCA National trial felt like. Let me back up and tell of my journey across the water from south-central PA to western MD.

This would have been a more practical mode of transportation than my Forester

The trial started on Friday, but I didn't have much planned for that day. Sprout was pre-entered in lure coursing and then I planned to run both terriers in the tunnelers agility warm-up, which is a pay-at-the-gate type class. Lure coursing ran until 3 and tunnelers normally starts around 3. The drive SHOULD take a little less than 2 1/2 hours, so I figured as long as we left town by 11 or so, we'd make it there in plenty of time for the lure coursing run and then we could do our tunnelers runs. Unfortunately, that day also happened to coincide with record rainfall for this area. Water and flooding everywhere - and the rain just wasn't letting up. York County was especially hard hit. As a consequence, traffic was horrible and travel was treacherous. At one point on Route 30, somewhere west of York, we came to an area where there was a lot of water on the road, but still passable. It just so happened that when I was driving across, an 18-wheeler was coming in the opposite direction. There was more water on that other side of the road than on mine and as the truck passed me, it sent a tsunami of water over and under my vehicle. I made it through fine, but my check engine and a couple other lights on my dash came on. It was running as normal, but it certainly made me nervous to continue driving it. I had no choice at that point. I wasn't about to turn around and drive through that water again.
Not my Forester, but a reenactment of exactly what I saw. Not good.

We ended up getting to the trial site a little after 3. I was disappointed since that meant I had missed my lure coursing run. As I got out to walk the dogs and get my bearings, I noticed that lure coursing was still running. I wasn't sure if I needed to check in first, but I figured it was worth a shot at trying to get my run in. Unfortunately, because of the chaos, I didn't get any pictures or video of Sprout's attempt at lure coursing, but it looked kind of like this:
Okay. Not really that bad. But the start of the course did involve running through some water and mud. The track was basically square around the perimeter of a field. It started at the lower corner, turned then went up a gradual incline where there was an agility tunnel to run through, turned again and ran along the top of the incline where there was another tunnel to pass through before turning again and heading down the slope to the finish. Sprout started out well. He chased the lure through the water and mud and up the slope. Then the momma's boy part of his brain kicked in as he got to the far side of the field; he realized I wasn't with him and how far away from me he was and panicked. He had two back-to-back runs. The first time he ran back to me as he got to the first tunnel. The second time he made it through the tunnel then panicked at he approached the far corner. He tried jumping over the temporary fencing to cut across to me. The people running the lure tried to get him to chase it again. He started to, but then gave up and came back around to me. So much for our adventures with lure coursing. I thought he'd really like it, but apparently he didn't like it as much as being with me. Hokey seemed interested seeing the lure running. However, she is kind of a princess when it comes to wet and muck and I didn't want to immediately turn off her interest by trying to run her in those conditions. Maybe another, drier, time.
The queen of speed. If I can get her to chase a lure, she'll be a force to be reckoned with.
I wandered around until I found the check in building and picked up my packet. There I ran into a friend who informed me that the tunnelers run was moved to the next day, so we left and headed for the hotel.

At least Saturday dawned a little brighter. It was nice to see the sun here and there throughout the day between the rain showers. I was kicking myself that I didn't enter Sprout in Agility I. Yes, he would have to do the A-Frame and DW, which I've only begun to train, but I think I could have easily "faked" an obstacle performance of each. I think he would have rocked. Instead, while I waited for the tunnelers course to open up and Hokey's Agility II class, I decided to try brush hunt with Sprout. He had no clue whatsoever about what he was supposed to be doing. He probably needs a proper introduction to rats. Who would have thunk he wouldn't just go out there and immediately hunt down a rat in a cage? Oh well. It was fun to try.
Sprout wandering aimlessly around the Brush Hunt area
Next came our tunnelers runs. I ran both dogs twice. I started with Hokey, who did pretty well, although about halfway through she paused for a little bit. I thought maybe because she was suddenly confused about why we were doing so many tunnels.

Then I ran Sprout twice. He did well with his first run. Excellent for his first time at a trial, especially with the multiple distractions such a excited dogs at the brush hunt area nearby and the less than idea footing due to the wet weather. He, too, seemed a little confused about why we were doing so many tunnels in a row, but took it in stride. He had one off course tunnel entry in that first run. His second run included a couple moments of distraction, but he worked well and was fast and this time got around without going off course. So proud of him!

Then I did a second run with Hokey. That's when things started to go awry. She stopped after the 1st tunnel and refused to go on as I encouraged her to continue. Then she took off back to the gate. She did come back and start working again, with a couple more weird glitchy things, like stopping to bark at the judge, but then she did finish strong. I'm still not sure what went wrong. Something freaked her out - the mushy footing, trialing outside for the first time, the general atmosphere? Maybe she was sore somewhere? Who knows? Being at the hotel was a new experience too and she became somewhat obsessed with the light and shadows under the door. So maybe the entire experience was just too much for her to handle at this point.

Things went even worse in our Agility II run. I got her to the line and released her. She ran around the 1st jump and over to the fence at the opposite side of the ring (where the gate was). I got her to come back to me a few times, but was unsuccessful at getting her to take any obstacles. She was definitely having a meltdown. Poor girl.

We ended the day by taking both dogs to the Thunder Tunnel area. Both dogs were introduced to the rat in the cage that would be at the end of the tunnel. Sprout, Mr. KILL ALL THE THINGS, completely surprised me by acting terrified of the rat. He's my highest prey drive dog at home, so that threw me for a loop. Hokey, Miss Nearly Zero Prey Drive, at least showed some vague interest (and Sprout got slightly more brave seeing her checking out the rat).

The women running Thunder Tunnel were SUPER super nice and encouraging. I can't say enough good things about them. Sprout went first. He did the entire tunnel with A LOT of encouragement. He'll do just about anything for me. What a brave boy!

Hokey made it clear she wanted no part of doing the entire tunnel, so we just had her do the short section from the ball pit to the end a couple of times. She was a good girl.

Sunday, the final day of the trial, started out gloomy and got worse - drizzle to rain - as the day progressed. Hokey was entered in Agility III in the morning and Colors in the afternoon, but I wasn't sure if I was going to attempt to run at all given the even mushier footing and her quirkiness the previous day. I walked the Agility III course and decided I had nothing to lose by at least attempting it. It did not go well. Again, when I released her from the startline, she ran to the fence on the other side of the ring. This time she wouldn't even come back to me. I wasn't going to push her anymore. It was disappointing since I know what she is capable of, but she'd made it clear something was bothering her and that she didn't want to work. I scratched her from the afternoon class, but did stick around to do a "fun run" in the rain with Sprout so I could at least end things on a good note. It was a game called Dare-to-Double, which I gathered comes from Teacup Agility. He did great. His greenness showed a little bit as he was reluctant to take the long tunnel that curved away from the inside of the ring when I handled it from the inside, but then he did take it when I went out and did a front cross and stayed to the outside. I was told that our score would have been a Q in a Teacup trial. So proud of my little man and how he handled everything. It's hard to believe he's only been with me and in training for 3 months!

Each dog got a placement ribbon in the tunnelers practice run, so at least they each got a memento to bring home. I think it's pretty cool that Sprout's first ribbon is from a national event. I got an expensive car repair bill that I have no idea how I'm going to afford. My take home from the trial is that Hokey needs a little break from agility, so we are working on some other things right now to build her confidence back up and cement our working bond again (watch for an upcoming blog post on that). But I'm already looking forward to going back next year and rocking agility with Sprout and potentially doing some other things with Hokey. I'm just hoping for much better weather and definitely better driving conditions.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sniffing Out Success

Ollie has a brand new title! We went to our first nose work trial on Sept 28th and were successful. Now, in addition to his plethora of agility titles, he has NW1 listed after his name. I'm nearly as proud of this title as I am of his ADCHs and LAA.

I've been trialing in the USDAA masters ring for the past several years, but I have to say, I found the experience of this nose work trial to be vastly more stressful than any agility competition. Why? I don't know. Maybe because EVERYTHING counts and if you miss one of the 4 elements there goes your chance at your title. Maybe the cost; compared to a day at an agility trial, a nose work trial is pretty expensive ($95 for NW1), so if you blow one element, there goes the entry fee, which for me is a good chunk of change I'd rather not lose without something to show for it. Maybe it's the fact that, in this area anyway, nose work trials are few and far between and when they do occur there is a long waitlist of teams who didn't manage to be selected through the random draw process, so, if you aren't successful, it could be a long time before you get the chance to try again. What didn't help my stress any was the fact that Ollie was dead last (#38) in the running order in both the morning and afternoon. Some trials will split the entries into two groups and while one group does 2 elements, the other group does the other 2 and then they switch in the afternoon. This particular trial didn't work that way. All dogs ran through the interior and container searches in the morning, then the vehicle and exterior searches in the afternoon. That meant the hides, especially the afternoon ones which were put out first thing in the morning, had been sitting there for hours before Ollie got a shot at them. Luckily I'd been putting out hides at home before I left for work in the morning and then letting him search for them when I arrived home, so he had been prepped for this. Still, waiting around for hours for my turn didn't do my anxiety any favors.

The trial was held at a sports/amusement complex near Gettysburg. The good news about
this location was that it didn't involve a lot of walking over long distances like some nose work trial sites do. The bad news was, because the locations of the search areas were so concentrated, I believe that is what contributed to the decision not to split the competitors into two working groups. Also, the site was a bit odd, even a little creepy, in places.

When I arrived, I parked in the "reactive dog" section. True, Ollie is a veteran when it comes to trialing and is used to being crated in my vehicle in close proximity to others with dogs, but with nose work being more sensitive to the needs of reactive dogs, I figured why not keep my reactive dog as calm as possible while waiting our turn by catering to his personal space issues. As with his ORT, he wore a red bandana to alert others that he is a reactive dog and to please keep their dogs at a distance.  There was a check-in and then a walk-through where we got a look at all 4 search areas and had the chance to ask questions. Then, after a period of time, the trial got underway.

When our turn came close, I took him over to the warm up/recovery area where there were 4 boxes set out, one of which contained birch odor. This let him know what we were about to do. Each search area had 3 or 4 stations that you move through where dogs are kept at a safe distance from each other while waiting their turn. We moved through those on our way to the interior search area. The interior search area was pretty creepy in my opinion, but the final staging area was even worse. It was in a room with black walls and glow-in-the-dark graffiti painted on them. The only lighting was from a single overhead black light. Needless to say, the atmosphere didn't alleviate my growing sense of dread. Pictures of the actual search area can be found here. Yes, with the dim lighting, black graffiti covered walls, weird panels and old banquet chairs and arcade games randomly strewn about, it was a like a creepy graveyard for amusements of the early 1990s.

Happy Sniffing - hope you make it out alive!

Like this, only about 20 years older
To fit the atmosphere, it turned out to be our most nail-biting search of the day. First, I opted to do the search on leash, which in hindsight may have been a mistake. The hide was up inside an old banquet chair in the middle of the room between one of those weird panels and an arcade game. We had 3 minutes to find it. Ollie opted to check the perimeter of the room first. Then he actually got near the hide. I suspected that it was the general location of the hide because it looked like he started to clean up some dropped food (! - why weren't those crumbs cleaned up??!!!!). It's hard to recall, but I *think* I may have pulled him away a bit to get him back on task. That's when he veered from the area of hide and started to focus on an arcade game, Sonic the Hedgehog, right across from the chair. He spent a lot of time and energy on that game. As a consequence, I now hate that game.

Most hated arcade game EVER!!

After spending a lot of time on the arcade game without alerting, I pulled him away for a sweep of other areas. Nothing. Then came the dreaded 30 second alert that no one wants to hear. I felt my stomach sink and panic rising. I took Ollie back to the area he was interested in and again he looked at the Sonic game, but then, thankfully, turned toward the chair, sniffed his way up the leg and alerted at the hide with just under 20 seconds to spare. PHEW!

Then it was immediately on to the container search. The containers were on the floor in part of a large gymnasium and had been arranged in the shape of a jack-o-lantern, i.e. a circle of boxes surrounding other boxes forming eyes, nose, and a mouth. I was surprised when I walked Ollie into the room to find many spectators seated in chairs watching. Very different from the ORT. I walked to the startline, took a deep breath and started the search. I let him go straight up the middle and then choose which half of the outer part of the circle to work first. He chose to go right, which turned out to be an excellent choice. About halfway down the arc he alerted on the correct box. The search lasted 11 seconds in all - the 5th fastest out of the 38 dogs - and it earned us a "pronounced" score and a round of applause from the spectators. It brought much relief after our less than steller interior search. Pictures of Ollie searching containers at the trial can be found starting here - go to the last two pages of the container search photos to see him.

After a very long wait for lunch break and the 37 dogs in front of us to search, it was our turn for vehicles and exterior. The vehicle search was set up like this, with the hide in the front of the driver's side wheel-well of the 3rd vehicle from the startline (starred):

We paused at the startline and then forged ahead toward the line of vehicles. Ollie bypassed vehicle 1 altogether. Then something in the miniature golf area behind the vehicles briefly caught his attention between vehicles 1 and 2. I got his focus back and he went to vehicle 3 and started searching. He found the hide in less than 14 seconds - the 4th fastest vehicle search of the 38 dogs! Since I don't get a chance to practice vehicles as much as the other elements, I was thrilled with how fast he found it, especially since he bypassed the other 2 vehicles to start his search on the correct one.

Three down, one to go! I felt pretty good about the exterior search, since that tends to be his strongest element. Even though we'd been practicing elevated hides, I was hoping it would be closer to ground level since his beagle nose is best at those. The final waiting area involved standing next to a weird life size giraffe statue that towered over us. Kind of like the picture on the right, only more weather-beaten and with more demonic eyes.

The exterior search area was only slightly less creepy than the interior one. At least there weren't any black walls and glow in the dark graffiti involved. But there was a lot of cement and some playground equipment that looked like it was designed to give children a sure case of tetanus. But, actually, the lack of plant life in the search area was a huge bonus for us because Ollie can be a quick and sneaky marker if he smells that another dog has peed  anywhere in the vicinity during previous century. Elimination equals elimination, so it was a relief to me to know that he would be much less likely to do that in this particular exterior search area.

As I approached the search area, the judge made some kind remarks about Ollie and his happy smile and wagging tail, which made me smile and helped to put me at ease. We crossed the start and Ollie started to work the left side of the perimeter of the search area. As he worked his way forward he came to the start of a wooden fence. He immediately honed in on a crack in the railing then followed it down to a crack in the cement and alerted. Afterward the judge jokingly commented that his head whipped up to look at me standing behind him so fast that he nearly gave himself whiplash. He completed the exterior search in 11 1/2 seconds - the 5th fastest exterior search of the day - and earned another "pronounced" score. You can see pictures of Ollie doing the exterior search starting here - go to the last two pages of the exterior search photos to see him.

WE HAD OUR TITLE! I was ecstatic and relieved. And so proud of Ollie. What a great little dog he is!

And now I get to put myself through all that terror and stress again next weekend with Poppy. At least the upcoming trial site looks very pretty and not intimidatingly creepy. Poppy CAN be a lightning fast searcher, but she is more erratic in her search patterns and not always as exact in her alert behavior, whereas Ollie is methodical and his alerts are very easy to read. So stay tuned for another nose work trial report. In the meantime, I've been prepping hard this past week. I'll leave you with a video of Poppy and Ollie working some interior searches.