Sometimes (most times) I feel like Facebook doesn’t give a very even picture of an actual event. For example, this weekend…

Friday, Key and I loaded up in the car to head up to Camano Island, Washington (north of Seattle) to do a nosework (NW3) trial. This is our second trial in the last three weekends (in other words, of the last three weekends, we’ve done nosework twice.) That MIGHT be a little too much for me.

[Explanatory note: It’s impossible to say which trials you might get into, so you basically have to enter everything within a reasonable distance and take your trials where you find them. To start off this year, for example, I got into the first three shows I entered and have been waitlisted for the last four.]

The traffic was absolutely hideous. Google gave the drive at 4.5 hours; it took us more than 8. We arrived at the hotel tired and grumpy and stressed out. [Note: I don’t know what lunatic Google talked to, but when we drove back first thing on Sunday it took 5 hours with 1 coffee break and 1 potty break (like normal people and dogs.)]

I’ll leave out a various details about the hotel, but my recommendation is to give the Best Western in Mount Vernon a pass (unless you enjoy being double charged and slogging through a lake/mud puddle trying to park.) We tried to do a little birding around Skagit WMA, but other than a lovely Northern Shrike, we didn’t see anything too exotic (the place is lousy with Bald Eagles and Tundra Swans, though.)

Saturday morning we got up early to arrive at the show site. It was a nice, modern school that provided lovely bathrooms (never to be understated), adequate parking (also nice), and a good potty area. Oh, yes, and searches too.

It was that last part that was the problem.

February 1-2

To better illustrate the meltdown that happened on Saturday, I’ll move back two weeks to the trail we attended February 1-2.

Experienced dog friends will look at the above diagram and know just what was what. For my non-dog friends (who, inexplicably, are still reading) this is a diagram of the various searches. You can see the search order, the number of hides, and even a rough layout of the rooms.

On January 1, the NACSW changed the rules slightly. It’s not worth going into, but let’s go with I was excited about them. The most exciting change, for me, was that if we got a “no” (meaning I misread Key and called “alert” when there wasn’t anything) we could keep searching instead of leaving in defeat. Additionally, for the first time, any given search could be “blank” (meaning that there was not odor in the room.)

The day started with an interior search. Key does really well with interiors in practice, but I seem to fall apart with them in competition. It almost never helps when interiors are the first item. Key worked well, but we searched the room and he wasn’t giving me a strong “alert.” There was one area that he seemed interested in, but I couldn’t tell if he was searching for crumbs or scent. After a while, he seemed to settle on sniffing a media center, moving up and down it. I called, “alert” and was told “no.” At this point, I was stumped and called finish, thinking maybe this was a blank room. What I later figured out was that this was a classic “pooling odor” problem. The scent was being moved around by the heating system; instead of staying in a “cone” around the stool, the heating system was blowing it around the room and it was (like snow) drifting up against the media system. If I had helped my dog by doing a 180 and having him search what was in BACK of him, he probably would have got it. But we had already passed the stool twice. Thus, a wrong call. But, as I consoled myself on the way back home, I had finally learned what pooling odor was.

Next, we went to the exterior searches. This is easily our BEST event. And whenever there is a photographer there, my cute dog gets the best pictures.

Next was the true blank search of the day, vehicles. This ended up being a frustrating search not because Key didn’t nail it, but because of his dopey handler. Key walked in, took one sniff at the vehicles, and appeared ready to leave (clue 1). We toured around the vehicles, where Key gave every sign of searching the walls (clue 2). We got to the last vehicle and Key sucked into the wheel well of the vehicle, gave it a sniff, and turned to me. It wasn’t a strong alert, but it was within his normal scope. I called it, and was told “no.” So, knowing now it truly WAS blank, I called finish. Later, I learned that dog #3 had nosed that wheel well and thereafter, every dog had alerted to that area. Thus, I learned that dogs need to be trained to NOT alert on dog slobber. If this confuses you, just consider that the first areas of training are having a dog find things in a box. The box is used by the whole class. Thus, in addition to finding things, the dog learns to associate other dogs’ slobber with reward. The same thing sometimes happens with dogs finding the little “tins” we hide scent in, regardless if they have scent or not. They smell the metal and alert. But, again, I learned something and knew we’d go home and train for it.

Key NAILED the next two searches, which happened to be container searches, which is what we had been struggling with and have been spending a lot of time on.

He searched every box and gave a strong, clear alert when there was scent.

The day ended with a second interior search, which was a locker room. Key did great, ignoring some sound and floor distractions. His handler, however, missed an alert as he entered the room because she was concentrating on where she would go next and took her eyes off her dog. Bad handler. But Key found the other hide (technically, he found both, he just didn’t get REWARDED for both) and was happy.

It was an unsuccessful weekend in some ways, but I felt like I had learned a lot and had things to come home and train on.

Thirteen days pass

Then I re-entered this chaotic mess I am currently calling life. I’ve trained Key exactly once.

Back to this weekend

So, for the last two weeks I’ve THOUGHT a lot about training my dog, but what I’ve DONE is paint and go to work. While this makes some areas of life successful, it doesn’t do much for dog training.

Saturday morning, after the miserable drive of the day before, I woke up pretty groggy. Too much driving added to an unfamiliar bed. We headed out to the trial on time and I gave myself a lecture about how we were here to have FUN (dammit)!

Full disclosure, it was a LONG day. Most trials try to get over by about 3:30-4. This one was still going on at 5. When we finished our last search, I left without staying around for the awards, the judge’s de-briefing, or getting a photo of the layout. I’m hoping I can get it from one of my friends, but we’ll see.

The day started out with a (blank) vehicle search which was oddly reminiscent of the one the weekend before. From there we went into a container search that was on slick floors with plastic boxes and a distractor. It wasn’t pretty.

Unfortunately, after these first two searches, I became very discouraged. Key was working SO well, and I was just not doing my part. I was tired from the day before… and from painting on a deadline… and from life. The destructive comparison with other teams and handlers began and I cried. I called a friend, who gave me a little pep talk, reminding me that Key didn’t care as long as he got treats. She reminded me of where he had “come from”, barking and men and people in hats and black dogs; now, he calmly walked past all of those because he trusted me (and I had treats). She reminded me that I was always free to leave.

The pep talk did the trick, and we stayed for the rest of the day. For once, our interior searches were right on the money. While I don’t 100% know we got everything, we didn’t get a “no” and Key’s handler allowed him to (correctly) solve at least one problem. If we got all hides, that will be our first pass in interior. [Note: Key actually has his 3rd level element titles in everything BUT Interiors. That’s how bad it’s been.]

We finished the day with an exterior search where I called one hide; I’ll be interested to see if we got that right. He actually gave “small” alerts in two other spots, but I (still) think those spots were odor drift.


Thanks to a friend, I got the NW3 map.

The first vehicle was blank. The container search was an inexplicable mess. I honestly can’t remember how we did on the second vehicle search. Key DID finally get an interior Q (yeah!). And that exterior was as we called it. So… three good searches (of 6).

Also, thank you everyone who has already commented. It’s great to hear other voices (instead of just my own) say things like:

NW3 is a hugely different set of problems. It’s not uncommon for teams that sail through NW1 and NW2 to have a hard time. In fact, having a hard time with NW3 is the norm. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Just enjoy the time with your dog. And remember, there is no rule that says you HAVE to go to a trial just because you got in! ~ B. Stone


You are on an amazing journey with an awesome dog. You laid out all your stumbling blocks and all the stuff that went beautifully. The importance of your post is that you are understanding this game and that is the true work. It really is about the journey, not the destination. You are a great team. ~ D. Stillinger


We have a trial in mid March, so that gives us some time to train (and not just in an imaginary way.) Then there will be at least a couple months break. I’m getting SO close to the end of painting crisis. And yes, there are things happening after that (still need to write that blog post…) But a break is on the horizon.


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