February 16, 2019
Alex has come very close to getting his Nosework 3 (NW3) title from the National Association of Canine Scentwork (NACSW), but today he took a giant step … backward.
It was an interesting day.
The trial site was about 30 miles from me, so a 40-minute drive. I got up at 5 am so I would have time to take all the dogs out for a decent walk before breakfast; it didn’t make up for the fact that they were to spend the day alone, and that is one of the biggest reasons I dislike trialing a dog: the other dogs sit home alone. I have a petsitter who comes in and gives them a break and some cookies but still …
I put Alex in the car at 7.05 am and headed off for the trial site. When we got there, the parking area was one of the least attractive spots I’d seen in a while. This matters, because at NACSW trials, you crate in your car. I did a NW trial at Alpine Valley once, and it was a beautiful venue on a perfect spring day, a pleasure to sit in a lawn chair on the grass next to my car, with Alex in his travel crate beside me; and I guess I think all NW trials ought to have that combination of great weather and delightful environment. Ha. Today’s parking lot looked like something found in an Eastern Bloc country in the 1970s, and Chicago’s February weather was happy to add insult to injury. With temps in the upper twenties, I was not only crating in my car, I was sitting in my car with the engine running for a good part of the day. Lovely!
And this is a big deal because of the pace of NACSW trials. There are 35 dog-and-handler teams entered, and two judges. Interiors, in NW3, comprises three separate rooms/searches. So one judge is assigned to Interiors, and that generally takes up his/her entire day; the second judge will run two searches back to back – today it was Exteriors and Vehicles – but even so, that moves faster than the molasses-in-January production that is Interiors.
On checking in, at 7.50 am, I found that Alex and I were number 28. Ugh. The briefing was held from 8.30 to 9.30, and the first dogs started searching at 9.45. Dog #1 went to Interiors, and Dog #8 went to Exteriors/Vehicles. With twenty dogs to go before Alex and I were called, I told one of the trial volunteers that I was going to the Starbucks that my GPS said was less than four miles away, and did she want me to bring her anything? No, she said, but I should ‘hurry back’ because sometimes things moved faster than anticipated. She had clearly been bogarting *that* joint. I got back at 10.15 am and Alex and I were called for Exteriors/Vehicles at 12.05 pm. My dog had been in the car for five hours, albeit with frequent potty and walk breaks, but how much can you walk in a gravel parking lot in an industrial-type area, and in 27-degree weather? My dog was bored out of his mind, and I couldn’t blame him.
We crossed the start line in Exteriors and less than fifteen seconds in, Alex alerted and was correct. I felt a lightening of my spirit: things were off to a good start. He wanted to work, he was working. He paused to examine a shrub closely, and at the instant that I pulled him away from it, he lifted his leg on it. Alex likes to mark things. If your dog marks in a search area in a Nosework trial, you NQ that search. Twenty seconds into our first search, and there went any hope of the NW3 title today. That lightening of my spirit fled the scene.
On to Vehicles, where Alex gave a very good impression of a dog who was bored and didn’t have any interest in the proceedings. Twice he stopped at a spot on one of the vehicles and his nose went into overdrive, and twice I thought he would alert, and twice he stopped and seemed to say ‘meh’ and moved on. He did eventually alert, correctly; but we finished the search of the three vehicles with only that one find, and if there was only a single hide on those three cars, I’ll be very surprised. It’s possible – there can be one, two, or three hides in a NW3 Vehicle search – but I think it unlikely. Back to the car.
More vehicle time: another two hours. My own boredom was becoming intolerable. (Hell is boredom, for me; I’ve never been any good at dealing with it. Penned in my car on an ugly grey cold day in February, my resources are scant.) At 2 pm we were called for Interiors. Three rooms, and I planned to let Alex work off-leash for all three. In the first room, he headed for the opposite wall and on a small item of furniture there, he alerted with a paw-scrabble and a look at me. Too bad there was no hide there! No treat, NQ Room One, move along to Room Two. Search time was two minutes for each of the three rooms and at 1.59.37 in Room Two, I called finish without a single alert, or anything resembling one, from my dog. No idea if we’d just encountered our first ‘clear’ room in NW3, but I’d be pretty surprised if it was. In Room Three, I left the leash on and walked him around the room in something closer to a search pattern than his random desultory examinations of the first two rooms had been. He found two hides, correctly, and I called finish to end it there.
Going back to the parking lot, we were told that Containers would be starting at 2.30 pm. Twenty-seven dogs to go before Alex and I got to that start line; search time on Containers was 2.5 minutes. Say 3.5 minutes per dog, with the shuffling in and out in addition to search time. Over 90 minutes. Alex and I would get to Containers at 4 pm, and based on his truly awful performance so far, I could only guess what he would do there – take a dump on a box, maybe? I didn’t think our no-good very bad horrible day would be redeemed in Containers, so I pulled him from the lineup and we were home by 3 pm.
Alex was ‘off’ – actually, WAY off – all day, and I have seen this before, and I know the training dilemma it presents to a handler: how do you re-start your dog, re-motivate your dog, when the dog has mentally checked out and is barely going through the motions? I know the answer, I have been training Alex for five years. I take him home, return him to his group, get them all some outdoor play time, and let Alex restore his equilibrium in his own time. He’s not the less-than-stellar search dog he was today; but neither is he a working dog. When the Search Dog Foundation is desperate for recruits, the cry does not go out: ‘get us all the Finnish Lapphunds you can find!’ Alex loves to sniff, and he hates to be bored, and when boredom short-circuits him, the love of sniffing isn’t strong enough to overcome it. (Besides, he wears that nose 24 hours a day, he sniffs all he wants whenever he wants!) I felt the same way in grammar school, and the look Alex gave me in Room Two of Interiors was the same look I gave my fourth-grade teacher when she told me to put away the library book I was reading under my desk and open my spelling workbook.
So no NW3 for us today, but I’m with Alex on this: that was the most BORING day inflicted on us in quite some time! Does it have to be that way? Can’t they get a better logistical arrangement of dog-handler teams, somehow? What about having the handlers report in staggered groups of twelve: first group at 8 am, second at 10 am, third at noon. Can that brain-numbing blather from the trial CO; put it in a written handout and make everyone sign it when they check in. We’re adults, we’re in NW3, we really don’t need to be told to not let our dogs meet other dogs. GMAFB. Walk-throughs? Video the damn things and show them to each group of arrivals on a TV. There have got to be better ways to run a trial than what we experienced today! (I am not taking a swipe at the host club or any of the people working the trial; they were all terrific and nothing they did caused any of the down-time. NACSW’s trial model has that down-time built in, and isn’t it time someone proposed a solution to that?!)
Me, I’m going to only enter trials in the spring and fall months, and only go to scenic venues on days of perfect weather. At this rate, Alex will be 12 before he gets that NW3, but who’s in a hurry?