Startline Strategies

Startline Strategies

A good startline routine is important for a successful search.  The startline should be reproducible so that your dog knows what is going to happen, yet it is important to keep it flexible to account for variations in searching conditions.  When I start Iona on a search, I imagine that I am firing a rocket.  I need to have the right power and the correct trajectory to get the job done.  

Lets talk about power first.  First you need to tell how much gas your dog has in the tank (arousal).  I know that during trials, Iona generally has lower arousal (because she has been sleeping in the car for hours), however when we are training with friends in areas that she is familiar with, her arousal is higher.  You can (and should) do plenty of things to change your dogs arousal before you walk to the startline so that they are not lagging or bubbling over.  However, you can have an effect on the speed at which they explode into the search area by how you start them.  I have found that by holding Iona back, she really shoots into the search area.  I do this more for trials or when she is lagging.  If she is already ramped up to an 11 or obviously is 100% ready to work and focused, I will sometimes just touch her harness or even do a walking start.  Here is an example of a walking start.  Check how I put some drag on the leash to make sure that she hits that first container.  

As I alluded to above, it is important to send your dog in the correct direction.  If you have the luxury of a wide start line, then be strategic about where you start and where you send your dog.  I try to direct her to an object that is in the front of the search area.  If she hits that object, she will often continue to work nicely.  Often momentum just carries her away when I start her in an open area.  This is why I started her to the R instead of straight ahead.  In this search you can see me fumbling with my watch a bit, it is good to practice timing yourself before your searches if you plan on doing so during the trial. 

Another interesting observation is that if Iona perceives that the search area is small, she will search smaller.  However, she runs big when she thinks the search area is wide open.  Check out the difference in these back to back searches.  Watch her run past all the cars, what a nut!

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AKC Excellent Trial Acton

Today, Iona and I competed in the Valley Hills Obedience Club AKC Scent Work trial in Acton.  Overall it was great. It started at 09:30, easy drive, easy parking, lots of space, respectful competitors, low stress, and good hides.  This was actually two trials in one, so we were able to get a bunch of runs in.  Iona was really spectacular in all her searches.  She was super fast and efficient and placed first in at least 4 classes (I did not stay for the results of the second trial).  I just wanted to briefly talk about the searches to give a heads up to anyone that might be trialling at this level. There are food and toy and dog smell distractors in each search area but you could always see them. 

We did not enter buried hides for a few reasons:  Iona and I have not been practicing them, at this level buried hides are in the ground and I have some concern about valley fever, and I suspected that the ground might be super hard, making for near impossible hides.  Indeed, the ground needed to be drilled to make burials and for the first trial, no dogs Q’d.  I did not stay around for the results of the second trial. 

1. Our first search was Interiors.  In Excellent, you have two rooms with a total of three hides.  There are no blank rooms.  That means that one room will have two and the other will have one.  You will need to call finish after each room.  This was a fun search.  The first room was a kitchen, and Iona buzzed through the out of bounds area to pick up odor and work it to an elevated hide (3 -4 feet) on the island.  She quickly picked up the next hide which was inaccessible in some cabinets.  The second room the women’s bathroom and the hide was in the hinge of the stall door. This one was interesting because I could tell that she was on odor in the vestibule before the start line at the entrance to the bathroom, instead of muscling her to the doorway, I took a step back and said start.  She started working the pooling odor in the vestibule and by the time she crossed the start line, she was moving straight toward the hide! If you do try something crazy like this, make sure that you cross the start line as well as your dog!  You will get faulted if you do not cross the startline. 

2. Containers was two long lines.  They consisted of all manner of things, fabric bags, sleeping bags, tackle boxes,  I don’t even know what.  Iona alerted in three of them pretty quickly. 

3. I felt that the Exterior search was pretty close to the buried section and at the start line to exteriors.  The search area was an L shape composed of the side of a building bounded by a sprinter van with some chairs and stuff.  I could tell that she had caught odor from the buried hides which were about 15 feet away.  However, i pointed her in the right direction and she quickly picked up a threshold which was under a pile of wood and then a converging odor hide in a crack of the wall which made up the boundary. She then started working the wall of the building and found another (somewhat) elevated hide (about 3 feet) .

4. Next up was Handler Discrimination.  This is self serve, so I take off her harness and I use her regular leash.  I also did some practice searches around the parking lot right before we went up to run the real search so she knows that she is not looking for odor.  The search area was an outdoor hallway bounded by the building and some big plants.  There were two benches in the search area and the hide was under one of them.  She just reached underneath and ripped it off and spat it down on the ground. I did not teach her this, but it sure makes calling alert easy. 

5.  For the second trial, we were the first dog up for Exteriors.  I could tell this was going to be a tricky area because there were a three lines of picnic tables pretty close together.  Picnic tables are hard for us because she zips through them really quickly.  The area had some old benches, some rocks, a shed.  She seemed to be lost for a while, but I think she was just a little slow getting into her grove.  She had been snoozing for a long time before I got her out of the car and ran her straight over to this search.  However, eventually, she did find all three hides. 

6. The next interior was a little more tricky, now the vestibule and the men’s bathroom were the search area.  She located the first hide in the toilet paper dispenser, though there was a bunch of pooling odor in the bathroom, she stated re working the same hide a few times before being convinced that she had already sourced it.  The second hide was an inaccessible on a podium type water cooler.  Iona had a hard time sourcing this one and I had to bring her around to the other side to get on to source. 

The second “room” was really just half of the big room which was delineated with cones.  This was a big circle of about 40 chairs.  Iona ran around the circle a bunch without finding much until she finally caught odor as the judge was calling 30 second warning. She worked odor from under a chair, to the backrest and finally to a closed closet door.  I called alert and finish with about a second to spare.  This was a pretty tough hide and I felt that the times for these interior searches were a bit stingy. 

7.  This Container search was a long “J” shape.  Iona alerted on the first box and after I called it, I blurted “finis…”  the judge did not stop the search but I was sufficiently shaken up enough to not notice that when I though she was re-alerted on a box, it was actually a different box! Oh well. This is the beauty of AKC trials, if this was an NACSW trial, I would be beating myself up ruthlessly, however, because all of her other amazing searches still count, I can just chalk it up as a learning experience. 

8. The last search was another HD search.  This time the cotton ball was stuck to a car.  I though that it was going to be tricky, but she found it in three seconds.   With this search, she earned her Scent Work Handler Discrimination Excellent Title!  Now on to masters!

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Three Hides High Wind

Three Hides, High Wind

Iona and I were practicing three hide searches today in preparation for an AKC excellent trial this coming weekend.  Danielle set these hides for us and I did not know where they were.  The conditions were a little unique for Santa Barbara, the wind was high, and this area was sheltered, forming quite a lot of swirling.  You can see Iona caught the first and second hides quickly. However she started to cast about pretty wide for the third hide and I brought her back into the search area. The most interesting moment in the search occurred at 0:55 when she stuck her nose in a hole and paused for a second.  At the time, it was really obvious to me that this was not an alert and I did not call it.  However, when I watch this video, it does not seem all that obvious.  Why do you think that I didn’t blurt “alert” on this one?  

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NW3 Interior Search

NW3 Interior Search

This was Iona’s search from her recent NW3.  Since there are an unknown number of hides and the max number is three, finding three is such a relief.  This was a really solid search from Iona and I was really proud of her.  You can see her first catch odor at 0:24. However, she does not source it.  Rather, she makes a few big loops around the room.  This is pretty normal for her as she likes to move and I find that it is best to let her swing wide to pick up odor instead of trying to restrain her to the search area.  You can see a sharp COB around 0:54, when she hits on the trash can.  Watch how I start to back up as she sources.  This is important because it takes the pressure off her and gives her space to source.  The judges reported that the third hide gave dogs the hardest time because it was in a transition zone where dogs were not really searching.  I felt that these hides (and all of the hides in the trial) were more than fair.  They were all nose height or below.

 Originally, I felt that the scent cones in this search were not overlapping, however after watching these videos a few times, I think I figured out why Iona left the first hide and why so many dogs had difficulty with the third hide.  This is a big converging odor puzzle!!!  Iona leaves the first hide because she catches strong odor from the trash can hide on the far side of the room!  Watch her pull me hard as I barely make it around the rocking chair! (0:39).  Although her loop looks random, she is really just rounding up odor to source it!  Next, she immediately returns to the startline and finishes up where she left off, quickly sourcing the threshold hide.  Now the third hide is being overshadowed by the powerful trashcan hide which she passed several times without picking up.  She is only able to find it after excluding the other two hides!  As a result, a dog that has not practiced searching through converging odor and keeps returning to previously found hides might have a hard time with this last one.

Here is another angle on the same search.  Since Iona is a fast dog, I am constantly working the leash to keep it above her head and to keep the correct amount of distance from her.  Note how many times I let the leash out and pull it back during this relatively short search!

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Done with NW3s

I am done with NW3s

 Iona and I competed in our second NW3 yesterday (11/24/18).  I had been anxious about this trial all week long and really was stressed throughout the day.  As usual, Iona was phenomenal.  However, she was not perfect and we did not title.  This experience really crystalized a feeling that I have been having for some time now:  I am done with NW3s (and for that matter NACSW).  

First off, I want to make a few things clear.  NACSW is a phenomenal organization that is responsible for getting thousands of dogs into the sport.  Without NACSW, Iona and I would never have even known about this sport!  I owe them a lot.  NACSW consistently has quality trial locations and judges.  I also want to give a shout out to Agile Paws who put on the trial and all the volunteers who helped.  It really was a tremendous trial.  My real issue is the NW3 rules. For a team to pass their NW3, they need to be perfect all day.  They run 6 searches: a container, a vehicle, an exterior, and 3 interior searches.  All searches have an unknown number of hides. Interiors have between 0 and 3 while the others have between 1 and 3.  Finally, you do not know the results of the day until all the teams have run every search at the end of the day.  This is stressful. Titling is difficult because the margin for error is very small.  As a result, few teams pass.  There were two out of 35ish teams at yesterdays trial that titled.  There is also a significant bottle neck effect.  To move on to Elite trials (which have arguable more lenient rules), your dog must get three NW3 titles.  As a result, there are long wait lists.  We have entered close to 10 NW3s and have gotten into two of them.  One both of our NW3 attempts, we missed one hide.  Sigh.  

I practice nosework with my dog because it is fun for her.  I compete in the sport, because it is fun for me and because it is good to test my training.  I learn from my mistakes, so that we can become a better team.  I have competed in about 25 trials with NACSW, AKC, and USCSS.  I am always a little nervous going in, however I am almost always able to change nervousness to excitement and then to happiness as Iona runs.  But it feels different with these NW3s.  Maybe it was the long waits to get into the trials, the mind games of not knowing how I did after the searches, or just the frustration of feeling like all of her great searches were wiped out by a small mistake.  But NW3s are not fun. 

Luckily, there are other alternatives.  While the AKC program is new and the judges are still not super consistent everywhere.  I can say that I have had great experiences with the clubs in my area.  Furthermore, they are closer, held more often and there are no wait lists.  Most importantly, you do not need to Q in every element to title.  Each element is separate.  This is great because it really lowers the stress levels.  If yesterday had been an AKC trial, I would be walking away with three legs.  Finally, NACSW is very strict about keeping dogs in their kennels/cars throughout the trial, they only leave for potty breaks.  For an active dog like Iona, this is very difficult.  At the AKC trials, Iona and I go for long walks after she searches, and hang out by the car. We even visit with friends.  I know that there are a lot of teams stuck in NW3 limbo, to those teams, I would recommend giving AKC a shot.  All you have to lose is your vehicle search!


I should probably give you the low down on the trial.  This was held at a church.  It was put on by Agile Paws.  The club, the CO, the judges, and the volunteers were awesome. It was a nice location and the temperature was cool with somewhat overcast skies all day.  Slight breeze.  There was a really tight parking lot and the potty area was right behind the cars.  The dogs were not allowed to leave the parking area.  Iona was 8th in the running order.  She was eager to search but not overaroused.  She really was phenomenal.  

The first search was an interior with three hides.  I was so thankful that Iona found all three quickly.  What a relief.  This was a large room with a small reception area, tables and chairs, and a cubicle.  Lots of stuff.  I wasn’t too concerned about this search area.  My strategy was to treat each little area as a separate area and make sure that they were clear.  Iona picked up odor near the start line but then left it to push all the way to the back of the search area. I let her go and after a few looping passes, she found her first hide in the back of the room on the lip of a trash can.  The then returned to the threshold which was in a filing cabinet near the threshold.  The third hide was under a bookshelf along the wall in between the two.  The judge said that if teams worked the area linearly, dogs missed that hide.  No problem there.  Iona does not do linearly. 

Second search was exterior.  I felt that this would be the most difficult search.  It was a large outdoor area with tables and chairs (the waffle kind that let air through).  4 large columns with a roof thingy, a entrance way and some plants, hose bib, and chairs near it.  I started Iona towards the wall where she quickly found a hide under a chair. Then she just worked pooling odor for the next 2 min and 30 seconds.  I correctly figured out that this was from the first hide.  Proud of myself on that one, however, I felt that there might have been another hide and did not know if I made the correct call till the end of the day. 

Next up was vehicles.  Three cars, one in front of another, and the third off to the side.  Iona fond a hide on the license plant of the first car in about 10 seconds and then wanted to search the rest of the cars in the parking lot.  I made her search the other two again and again until time ran out.  

The following two rooms were very small and Iona found a single hide in each of them.  At this point I was thinking that something was up.  Single hides for the last four searches?  We must have missed a hide somewhere.  

Our last search was containers. They were different boxes in a big loop around some children’s play equipment.  Again, I had to kinda muscle Iona to the boxes as she wanted to search the whole area.  However she found the two hides and then…. falsed on a single tortilla chip in a box.  This is pretty weird because we have been training this A LOT.  But….she does love tortilla chips.  I think if I had waited another beat, she might have moved along, however she was in such a grove up to that point that I was just trusting her fully.  Oh well. 

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Blank Room Comparison

Blank Room Comparison

Last weekend, I attended a great seminar with the amazing Julie Symons. I highly recommend her classes at FDSA.  One of the more interesting lessons was a blank room comparison where we ran a blank room, and then later ran a regular search in that same room.  Here are Iona’s two searches for comparison.  
In the blank room search, it is interesting to note that she never really stops moving or hones in on an area.  She can seem like she is in odor sometimes, because when there is no odor, she starts working harder to vacuum up any stray molecule.  She also starts checking deeper into corners and starts popping up more and more often as the search gets longer and longer.  After I called finish, I gave her a treat even though she did not find anything. 
For the regular hide search, she gets on odor almost instantly and starts sourcing.  In a room this small, I would expect her to find a hide in about 20 seconds.  She does the same with the second hide.  After that, she actually looks pretty similar to how she looked in the blank room search (moving and moving without stopping).  I purposefully overworked her a bit in both of these searches because I figure that I will do that in a trial and I want to know what her limit is before she falses.  In retrospect, I should have stretched the blank room search out to 3 minutes to see what she would have done.  

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Lofting Effect


Fran Bryan set some blind hides for me today and I ran them as the sun was setting.  This search ended up being much harder than expected and the way that Iona ended up sourcing the hide completely blew my mind.  I believe that this is an interesting example of the lofting effect.  You can find an excellent description HERE.  The wind was moving from R to L in this video.  The reason that the scent is rising is that the ground is cooling quickly but the air still stays warm.  As a result, the relatively warm air is rising.  On that day, this search area was the only one with this strange scent conditions and I originally thought that this was an example of the chimney effect.  However after seeing this effect happen several times with night time searches, I am fairly certain that what we are seeing here is lofting. 
You can see that Iona searches right underneath the hide without picking up odor and eventual sources it by climbing up on the table to catch the rising odor. She then follows it down from there.  You can see her trying to get high up earlier in the search but she can’t quite catch odor. Note that I have sped up the first 2/3 of the search to save you some time. 

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Odor Kit


When you are setting hides, it is important to have the right tools at your disposal.  This is how I organize my kit so that I am always ready to go!

Here is where I store all my Oil.  I made this kit because my old one was leaking smell really badly and I needed an extra space for Cypress (AKC uses this odor at the Master level).  In each of the jars, there are scented cotton balls with a few q-tips.  Each oil tube has its own lid and the droppers are stored separately.  There is a small tweezer for handling q-tips.  I should also note that when I am transferring oil with the droppers, I use gloves and make sure that I am in an area where it would not be catastrophic if I spill. 

I use tins a lot for class because there is a lot less residual odor with them.  Also, they are great for vehicles and for quick and easy searches.  I do store them all in this Pelican case together and the odors do end up mixing together some.  This is a positive for my intro class because when I start them on the birch tins they easily move on to Anise and Clove at later classes.  Birch is Silver, Anise is Black, and Clove is Red.  They all have magnets.  I do find that the q-tips in these tins tend to degrade rather quickly and I just toss them regularly and replace them with fresh ones. 

Finally, this is my traveling kit.  These are large pill fobs that are waterproof and they do not leak odor.  I keep a variety of shrink tubes in each one and I find that they keep their odor for a long time.  Below the red canister, you can see a few different shrink tubes all stuck together.  Each odor has a separate canister.  I also have tweezers, quake hold, and a smoke pencil.   What else do you have in your kit?

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HD Magic

HD Magic

So this is the first and only time that we have performed this trick.  I was a little surprised that it worked as well as it did!  Yes, we need to work on the delivery.  It is a normal deck of playing cards despite Danielle’s theatrics.  Try this trick on your own and tell me how it goes!

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NW3 Training – Converging Odor


NW3 Training - Converging Odor.

I have been training Iona daily with NW3 level puzzles.  Stacy Barnett’s 250 class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy has been awesome for guiding our practice. One area that she can have a hard time with is converging odor and so I have been practicing this skill with her.  In the following videos, I will show you a few situations that I set up for and comment on our performance. 

In this first search area, I set up a converging odor puzzle in a corner.  Furthermore, one tin had a bunch of holes in it while the other tin had zero holes.  This alcove is at the bottom of the stairs and near the mouth of a parking garage, there is a big eddy in that back corner.  

This search is really interesting because she completely sources the closed tin hide and then leaves it to go to the tin with all the holes, only to return to the closed tin hide in the corner.  This really does show the strong pull of accessible odor.  In this next search, I set up two crack hides.  As the odor lifted up and out of the cracks, it pooled in the corner by the door.  You can see her work these scent cones on the way out and on the way in.  When practicing for NW3, it is a really good idea to get your dog used to working a known area after they have already found all the hides.  Generally she is pretty good about ignoring scent cones that she has already worked but these must have seemed different enough.  You can also see her catching snippets of odor further down the hallway.


Finally, I set up a search with two hides in the same plane.  They are tins are both on the close corners of the benches.  She really whiffed this one.  However, I think that the issue here is not that she had a hard time sorting through converging odor, but rather that she did not get deep enough into the corner.  Once she got her nose into the pooling odor around :45, she was able to source the second hide very quickly. 

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