Eligibility vs. Preparedness
YAY!! You just finished your title! You’re eligible to compete at the next level. But should you? Do you and your dog have the skills necessary to move up? Do you know what those skills are?
Whether you compete in AKC Scent Work, K9 Nose Work (NACSW) or another venue, here is a non-comprehensive list of some of the challenges your dog and you will be faced with at the higher levels:
Multiple hides. When there is more than one hide, the odors can converge, causing a more difficult scent picture for the dog. Does your dog understand that there are two, possibly more, distinctly different hides? Does your dog know how to work each scent plume? Does your dog know not to return to a previously found hide and expect to be paid? Do you know if your dog is working two (or more) converging hides. Is he returning to the same hide with expectation to be paid, or ruling out the previously found hide(s) in order to pin down the unfound hide?
Trapping odor. Does your dog know how to use trapped odor on objects for information that will lead him to source, or does he get stuck working that trapped odor? Can you tell when the dog is stuck and do you know how to help him?
Pooling odor. This is a similar challenge as trapping odor. Does your dog understand that odor has pooled and is he able to work it back to source? Do you understand pooling odor and can you help and support your dog in figuring out the problem?
Odor obedience (ignoring distractors). Trials can be held in all sorts of environments, and each comes with their own set of natural distractors: farm animals, dog traffic, pee zones, kid traffic, wildlife, etc. Can your dog work through unintentional environmental distractors? In addition to those, intentional distractors are a mandatory part of some higher-level searches. Can you tell the difference between interest in odor and interest in something other than odor?
Accepting pressure from handler. Although we typically want the dog to lead the search, there are times when the handler needs to take the lead. No matter how gentle we are about it, leading can feel like pressure to the dog. Can your dog handle that? Do you know when and how to apply pressure, how much or how little, to support your dog?
Longer search times/larger search areas. The search times get longer as the search areas get bigger and difficulty gets greater. Is your dog able to search longer before finding source and getting a reward or will he begin offering non-odor related behaviors in an attempt to get paid? Do you know the difference between a true alert on odor and an offering of default behaviors?
Inaccessible hides. Will your dog try as hard as possible to get to source, even when he can’t physically reach it? Do you know what that looks like and when to call it?
Blank areas/Unknown number of hides. Can you tell when your dog is saying, “There’s nothing more here to find.”?
Leash skills: Are you able to pay out line and pick up slack smoothly without interfering with the dog’s search? Are you able to “invite” the dog to search an area without pulling on the leash? Do you know how and when to deal with a tangle?
Odor movement. Have you learned how temperature, humidity, objects, terrain, materials, etc. can affect odor? Do you know which way is downwind?
Body language. Are you aware of how your body language can influence the dog’s searching and indication?
A lack of skill in any of these areas can lead to false alerts, which can cost you a Q or a title. Most false alerts, if not all, rest solely on the handler, not the dog.
Handlers should know some of the common causes of false alerts, and their role sometimes in why they happen:
The dog is confused (trapping odor, pooling odor, convergence, etc.). The dog needs lots of experience with these types of puzzles in different environments. Put the time in and train for these puzzles so your dog can successfully work them out.
Handler failed to see Change Of Behavior. Missing or misreading an important COB can cause a handler to “sell” the dog on the wrong location. Video is your friend! Have someone video your searches. Watch them at slow speed so you can identify all the changes of behavior. Watch again so you can critique your own handling.
Did you “sell” the dog with inadvertent cues?
Were you “presenting” and cause the dog to stick to an area that had trapped odor, not source?
Did you inadvertently cue the dog with your body language, i.e. standing and facing an area where the dog showed interest?
Were you waiting for the dog to sky-write their indication instead of noticing the less obvious changes of behavior that preceded arrival at source? Many times the dog’s indication will be less dramatic in competition (due to new environment, distractions, stress, etc.) than it is at home. Video!
Did you misinterpret the dog’s behavior? Was the dog really at source or was the “indication” his way of trying to end a stressful situation: “Please give me a cookie and let’s get outta here!” Did the dog look at you because he wanted help, not because he was indicating source? Did the dog perform an operantly conditioned behavior (i.e. sit, down, etc.) because he was confused, not because they were at source?
Did you “blurt alert” before the dog was finished working out the problem?
As you can see, there are lots of skills for you and your dog to learn if you want to minimize false alerts and be competitive at a higher level. If you go into a trial with a dog who’s trained and well prepared, not just a dog who’s eligible, you’ll be one of those glowing faces with a new Q ribbon, maybe even placements, and your dog will be tail-waggin’ happy!!!