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.



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