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A bunch of us were standing around on Sunday late afternoon, waiting for results to be posted from that day’s Scent Work trials, talking. A couple of the judges were in the group, and some handlers got to talking about the NQs we’d had that weekend. When we got to my NQs, I mentioned that Carlin was my very first scent work dog. One of the judges got a surprised look on her face, and told me that I was doing really well then. My NQs, apparently, are not uncommon newbie handler mistakes.

Well, that made me feel better. Looking back over the NQs, I had been feeling pretty darn bad. After being told about the hides I missed and the too-early calls I’d made, I was thinking, “How COULD I have missed that? If only I’d done X or thought of Y, we’d have passed.”

So, I’ve made those mistakes. Now I need to start learning from them.

Not searching the whole search area

In both Container Master searches, I called an Alert too soon. This despite the fact that, in our second search, the judge had even told us to take our time to be sure before calling Alert.

I’m not sure what I’d have done differently in the first Container search. Carlin stuck his nose down into the center of the 4-flap box. He didn’t paw it and he didn’t sit, which are his usual indications in Containers, but it looked to me like he was indicating. Turns out, that box had food in it. In his second search, he was very interested in a container and pawed it, but didn’t sit. I called it, and I was wrong.

In the last Interiors Master search, Carlin and I missed the second hide in the bathroom. It was such a small room, and I think I must have assumed that there could be only one hide in there. We left the bathroom without going into the corner opposite from the first hide. I noticed the judge staring at me with a very blank face, so I knew there was something I needed to do. I got really flustered. So I blurted out “Finish”. And got the dreaded, “No, I’m sorry.”

Irish Water Spaniel searching a bathroom in AKC Scent Work

So, lessons:

  • As a trial strategy during a search in Containers, consider that it might be better to make sure Carlin gets a sniff at all the containers before I call any. That way I can see what his indication is that day, and take less risk at calling something iffy.
  • In Interiors (and probably Exteriors), make sure he gets into all the corners of the search area before I call “Finish”.
  • As a training issue, I think I need to work on a clearer indication.

Losing my place

None of the dogs passed the first Buried Excellent search. The hides were buried in very dry, clay soil under an inch or so of bark chips. Carlin worked hard, but he just couldn’t find them. So, other than needing to keep practicing, I don’t really see any lesson there.

The next day’s Buried search is an entirely different story. Those hides were placed in wet, soppy grass, and many dogs, including Carlin, found all three. So why did we NQ that one? Because I got lost.

I had already called Alert on a couple of the hides twice each. That’s a fault, but it’s not an NQ. The third hide was in line with one of the other hides, and I thought it was one of the ones we’d found already. Not wanting to embarrass myself (I think that’s what I was worried about), I just told Carlin, “Yes, you found that one.” and went off to keep looking. We eventually ran out of time, so we NQd.

Irish Water Spaniel doing a Buried Excellent search in AKC Scent Work

So, lessons:

  • As a trial strategy, don’t be afraid to call Alert on a hide more than once. It’s better to get a bunch of faults than to NQ.
  • As a training issue, I need to figure out a way to orient myself in space where there is nothing nearby to orient on. This is a problem for me in life generally. I usually need to use directions multiple times to get to the same place, and I cannot visualize how to set a table without a picture to look at first (Russ has drawn me a picture of a table setting that I keep in the dish cabinet.)

Accepting disruptive indications

Carlin has always been an enthusiastic hunter. Plus, he’s a retriever. Which means that his first inclination is to locate the scent vessel, grab it up, and bring it to me.

I have successfully stepped in and stopped him before he’s had a chance to actually bring me a scent vessel. But I haven’t always been able to stop him from grabbing it or knocking it out its hiding place. He drops it when I ask him to, and he’s never damaged one, but at the levels we’re working, that’s not good enough.

On Saturday’s Exterior Excellent search, he’d have qualified except that he was NQd for pawing one of the hides out its place under a pile of bark chips at the edge of a children’s slide.

Irish Water Spaniel doing an Exteriors Excellent search in AKC Scent Work

And in his second Interiors Master search, in trying to grab the scent vessel from under the lip of a garbage can, he knocked the whole thing over. That’s not good, and under some judges in some circumstances, it could get us NQd. While timing for other searches, I watched several dogs get NQd for knocking scent vessels out of place. I don’t want that to happen to us.

So, lessons:

  • As a trial strategy, remember to call Alert quickly and then “Sit!”. That should at least somewhat disrupt disruption before it can happen (much).
  • As a training issue, somehow or another, I have to teach a point-at or light-touch indication. I’d like to eliminate the pawing and the grabbing. I want to see a recognizable change of behavior that tells me he’s found the hide, tells me where it is, and doesn’t actually touch it with his mouth or paw. But my real problem is that I have no idea how to do this. It means undoing what he’s been doing for a year, and teaching us both to do something else.

When I was talking to my fellow Scent Work friends about my entering Sherwood Dog Training Club’s April 6-7 scent work trials, my line was, “We are not ready. But we’ll learn a lot.”

I think what I meant at the time was: Carlin is not ready.

But that was mostly not true. This is what is true: Carlin was ready. His handler wasn’t.

But before we get into the weeds of the lot I have to learn, let’s start with our couple of really nice successes.

First master search

Carlin was the only dog to pass Saturday’s Interior Master search. Three rooms, two hides (one room was blank, with no hide). The first two rooms had allowed times of 2.5 minutes each, and the third room had an allowed time of 1.5 minutes. We took a total of 5:50:33 minutes, which means I used up all but 9.67 seconds of our allowed time. Looking at that tiny leeway now makes me breathe out in relief. But at the time, I was just so thrilled.

The two big rooms were crowded with unused school furniture: desks, cabinets, filing cabinets, shelves, chairs, and stacked boxes of books. Basically, there were only these narrow paths that snaked among all the stuff. I had the option to run Carlin off-leash in these rooms, and I took it. There was no way I could handle a leash if he decided to run from one corner of the room to another corner by going underneath the furniture.

Irish Water Spaniel doing an AKC Scent Work Interior Master search

Search site for Interior Master. This photo shows about 1/3 of the space.

The first hide was in one of the large rooms. After very thoroughly going into every corner and sniffing around, under, and on top of every piece of furniture, Carlin found the one hide, in a filing cabinet drawer.

The second room was a big-ish bathroom. I made Carlin search the whole thing thoroughly, and we decided that there was no hide in there, and called Finish. Fortunately, we were right.

The third room was the other large room, which was filled with stuff very much like the first one. I knew there could be one or two hides in there. And honestly, at this point, I don’t remember exactly what happened. But I called it after he found one hide and then searched for more and came up empty. So we were done with our very first try at Master with a 1st place pass.

Last Exteriors Excellent search

Our other success was Carlin’s third Q in Exteriors Excellent. The scene was the front of a mobile home, and its porch, front garden with shrubs, and lawn with pergola and large toys strewn about. We were allowed 2.5 minutes, but Carlin took only 1:08:54 to find all three hides: one under a porch railing, one inside a little yellow toy truck, and another stuck to a large climbing toy under the pergola.

Irish Water Spaniel doing AKC Scent Work Exteriors Excellent search

Search site for Exteriors Excellent. This photo shows about 1/2 of the search area.

As luck would have it, my neighbor has a mobile home set up very much like the search site, and he allowed Carlin and me to practice hides very much like the ones the judge set up at the trial. And this pass made me particularly happy because it finished his Scent Work Exteriors Excellent title with a very nice 1st place.

The Learning Opportunities (aka Not Qualified)

I’ll cover these in the next blog post. If I go search by search, that post will be much longer than this one.

“Search machine” sounds kind of mechanistic, but actually, it was a compliment. That’s what one of the judges at this weekend’s scent work trial called Carlin. Even when he doesn’t succeed in finding the hidden scent, he still works hard and methodically to find it.

Now that we’ve moved up to the Excellent level in AKC Scent Work, the searches are, of course, harder. So, while I was a little disappointed, I wasn’t surprised when Carlin didn’t pass every search at this weekend’s trials.

Least surprising of the failures were the Excellent Buried searches. The three hidden odors (cotton with 2 drops of essential oil, placed inside of a vessel of some sort) are buried 6″ underground, along with five blank (empty) vessels. In these trials, the eight vessels were buried in heavy clay soil.

None of the dogs found more than two of the buried odors. Carlin, along with many of the other dogs, alerted on the blank vessels. He searched hard, but I’m not sure he knows exactly what he’s supposed to be searching for. Maybe the soil changes the scent somehow so he doesn’t recognize it. Maybe he’s alerting on the scent of disturbed earth rather than on the target odor.

So, more training. More practice.

He did much better at Interior and Exterior searches. This weekend he passed (each with first places) two Interior Excellent searches. With those passes, he earned his Scent Work Interior Excellent title. He also passed (with a 1st and a Q) two Exterior Excellent searches. He also had one each NQ.

Irish Water Spaniel IWS with AKC Scent Work ribbons

I’d like to say more about each search, but honestly, almost as soon as I get out of a search in a trial, I almost instantly forget it. I remember hides 3.5 feet up on the back of a drainpipe, under a picnic table, and hanging from a downspout chain. Another one was hidden in a piece of PVC pipe, under the lip of a planter, underneath another planter, and another under a layer of landscaping fabric (we missed that one). Others were under chairs seats.

For Interiors, one was in a fire extinguisher cabinet with next to the start line. Two more were under chairs, and one was set into the frame around a fireplace. Another was under a cushion of a rocking chair, under a desk, and on the inside of a toilet stall door. There were more, but I don’t remember them.

So now Carlin qualifies to run Master searches in Containers and Interiors. I don’t think we’re ready. But we’re going to try it anyway in a couple of weeks. If nothing else, running these Master searches will reveal more about what we don’t know.

Humbling and enlightening. And a touch scary.

I’ve been working with Carlin to do Excellent searches in preparation for the upcoming local AKC Scent Work trials. He’s doing well in Interiors, Exteriors, and Containers, but Buried…? It depends.

When we practice Buried alone in my front yard, he’s quick and accurate about 80% of the time. That means, he usually identifies where odor has been buried in the dirt. We’ve done it on grass and on the neighbor’s patches of dirt.

But in practices not in our front yard or where other dogs have been before him, he can get very distracted. He’ll search, but only after giving the search area a thorough once or twice over, identifying which dogs have been there before him and when (and possibly other information as well).

Of course, that behavior is not useful when a team only has a couple of minutes to identify 3 hides buried 6″ underground. So, I’ve been trying to think of ways to get him on task right away.

I can’t tell him not sniff—that’s the whole point of this game. He’s supposed to sniff.

It seems to me that doing all his initial doggy intelligence must be highly self-rewarding, so I decided to try finding some reward that would be more valuable to Carlin than dog-scent sniffing. Some folks have recommended mackerel brownies, smoked tripe pieces, and other really stinky treats. And I bet all of those would be great. But I didn’t yet have any of them on hand in time for this afternoon’s group practice.

So I got out some beef heart, cut it into 1/2″ pieces, dusted it with garlic powder, cooked it all quickly in the microwave, put the pieces into a small plastic bag, and headed out to practice.

cooked beef heart pieces

When it was Carlin’s turn to try Buried, I let him smell the treats again (although I’m sure he already knew they were there). But I didn’t want to put them in my jeans pocket. They were still too juicy. So, I put the plastic bag in my pocket, figuring it would be just as easy to grab a few treats out of the bag in my pocket as it would to just get them out of the pocket.

Once on the course, Carlin did a little intelligence gathering. But then he happened (I think by accident) upon one of the hides. He pawed it very gently, then looked at me and sat. I said “Alert” and reached into the bag for several pieces of beef heart. I had intended to give him about 10 small pieces as an extra-special reward for doing his job. But as I pulled my hand out, the whole bag came along with it and spilled half its bounty of beef heart treats on the ground right on top of the hide. When I leaned over to pick some of them up, even more fell out.

Beef heart raining from heaven! Jackpot! Carlin could hardly believe his luck. And he didn’t want to leave that spot. Several times, he stood up, pawed the spot, and looked at me. I’m supposed to get a shower of beef heart for this, right?

Finally, I got him to move so he could “find another one”. A light bulb glowed over Carlin’s head—it seemed that the nearby bush wasn’t that interesting after all. He searched every inch of that space pretty thoroughly, and found the other hide (we did only 2 for the practice search). I gave him what was left in the bag, told him he was a very, very good boy, and the two of us ran whooping and jumping back to the car.

Dropping treats in a search area is a Not a Good Thing to do. I’m sure the dogs that went after us were given a major hint as to the location of that hide. But fortunately, my training group thought my fumbling and Carlin’s delight was funny. No more plastic bags for me. But hopefully, lots of beef heart for Carlin.

In my dog support career, I’ve built a lot of tools that either didn’t exist to my specifications, or just didn’t exist at all. Some examples are making a holding blind out of camo cloth and fence posts (for retriever work), building jumps out of PVC pipe and long jumps out of white gutters (for obedience and rally), and gutting, drying, and filling dead birds with expandable foam so I could re-use them longer (for retriever and spaniel work).

Now I’m doing scent work, and it comes with a whole new set of stuff I need but can’t find.

It started out with needing protective screens to cover the containers used to hold dirt in Novice and Advanced Buried. They allow the dog to sniff the odor, but not disturb the dirt or topple the containers. My instructor had a set, so my husband mostly copied hers. They’re made of 2 x 6″ fir, metal screen, staples, and gorilla tape.

But now Carlin and I have graduated to Excellent Buried. I’ve been practicing Excellent searches using plastic scent vessels. I wrote about various troubles and eventual success of the plastic vessels I built and the brace-and-bit I use to drill holes before.

But judges can use metal scent vessels, too, so I wanted something metal to practice with. I saw a video on Youtube of a group’s using pill fobs and chain for their metal scent vessels, but they had to use a soil probe tool to dig the holes — that’s fine in nice moist soil, but if you’re dealing with frozen, very dry, or hard packed clay soil, those look like way too much work. A drill should much easier.

The problem is that my bit is too small for those pill fobs (the ones I can find are .63″ to .70″ in diameter), so I wanted to find something skinnier to use as vessels.

Here’s what I ended up with:

They are made of aluminum whistles, which came with the keyring and already have a whistle hole in them (from Amazon) and 30 lb. leader rig (from the local fishing store).

The four that I am using to hold the scented Q-tips also have a plug that I can screw in and out (threaded pipe plugs). The scent vessels also have two additional small holes drilled into them, and an initial scribed in so I know which odor goes into which vessel.

scent vessel on top, blank vessel on the bottom

It’s been raining really hard for the last 24 hours, so I haven’t tried these out yet. If they fail, I am guessing it will be the fishing leader that goes. But 30 lb. is reasonably heavy duty, and the drill bit creates a nice clean hole, so I’m not worried. And if I have to, it’ll be easy to change out the leader with a heavier one.

Finally, health checks

I’m not sure what took me so long to finish getting Carlin’s health checks. He is almost 5 years old. The recommendation is that checks be done just after 2.

But, oh well. They’re done now. He had his thyroid checked three years ago while we were trying to diagnose Carlin’s inexplicable hair loss. (Most likely allergy to chicken–we tried lots of things, including an elimination diet. Once we removed the chicken, his coat came back.)

And today, finally, I had his eyes checked and x-rays done of his hips and elbows to check for dysplasia.

Carlin doesn’t like going to the vet. But the staff at the Idaho Veterinary Hospital in Nampa were wonderful–gentle with Carlin and kind to me. They got us in and out with with very little stress.

The eye vet said “looks good” after the eye exam. And after the hip and elbow x-rays, the radiology vet showed me the x-rays and explained why he thought Carlin’s hips and elbows looked healthy as well.

So now we’ll wait to see what the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) says. If they agree, then Carlin will have his CHIC certification. That lets owners of other IWS know his health status. That way, they can decide if they want to use him at stud.

I’m sure he’d love that.

Carlin has done some good spaniel work in hunt tests over the years. And we are fortunate that he’s been recognized for his talents:

I particularly enjoyed his winning the Trucker trophy because Carlin won it from a club originally founded to promote the traditional spaniel breeds: English Springer, English Cocker, American Cocker, Sussex, Field, Clumber, and the like.

Irish Water Spaniels in the United States have not really been seen as a traditional spaniel breed; they’ve occupied a weird space: being named spaniels but being classified by the AKC as retrievers. Carlin, and the other IWS that have competed in spaniel hunt tests or hunted upland birds afield, have reminded anyone who has forgotten that IWS can and do excel as flushing spaniels.

But now it’s time to pass the Trucker trophy on to another spaniel, an English Springer this time. We took one last photo and then sent the trophy on to Lynn and her Sky to enjoy.

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