Fear, Fender Benders and Following Your Fearless Dog

My Brittany Spaniel, Boo, and I spent our summer competing in nosework on a cross country road trip: from Calgary to California, Seattle to Wisconsin. The experience was thrilling sometimes, and punctuated with scary moments. We tested our limits, and I learned to approach uncertainty more like my fearless dog.

For those of you who haven’t tried scent work yet, it is a rush. We use training techniques similar to those employed by sniffer dogs at the airport, training dogs to search for specific essential oils, rather than bombs or drugs. It’s what dogs were meant to do, and you never know what to expect. Because humans’ olfactory sense is far less powerful compared to canines, nosework teaches handlers to appreciate and trust our canine partners, to navigate successfully through the fascinating, and somewhat foreign, world of scent.

Our road trip began with driving 21 hours and 1272 miles from Calgary, Canada to Napa, California to attend the inaugural IronDog competition (the highest level of Sniffing Dog Sports nosework). IronDog promised an unknown number of searches around Lixit’s warehouse, where pet products are manufactured. In addition to environmental distractions from surrounding dog, cat and bird food, judge’s left unlimited intentional food and toy as distractions. To succeed, dogs needed to ignore the distractions and find the location of hidden target odor (also known as a “hide”).

For example, some hides were inside balls, much to the trepidation of many handlers. One judge allowed 5 minutes to search 3 aisles of the warehouse and find as many hides of odors as possible. The competing teams didn’t know how many hides were there were, nor where. The middle “aisle of tears” had no odor at all, but many teams wasted unproductive minutes there, leaving too little time to search the other remaining areas.

Boo found the hides in the closest aisle, pulling me past the aisle of tears, and on to the final row. He led me to waste very little time, and thankfully, I followed. But my inner saboteur was incongruently pessimistic when faced with so many unknowns.

Judges gave no feedback, and remained poker-faced throughout the subsequent 3 events. I had no idea how we were performing in comparison to other teams. After finding several low hides, I wondered if we’d missed higher elevated hides that I had predicted and trained for. Unnerving worst-case scenarios replayed themselves in my mind:

  • My dog missed most of the hides
  • We false alerted on distractions
  • We didn’t search fast enough
  • We failed, and I’d be embarrassed in front of other judges.

At the end of day debriefing, none of my fears materialised. Boo qualified by finding 15 of 18 hides, earning the coveted IronDog leg. It had been a daunting pressure cooker, but I was delighted by the outcome. We had proven ourselves against stiff competition!

Unfortunately, on the next leg of our trip, I was rear-ended at a stop sign in Seattle. Ignorant of local requirements for accidents, and high on adrenaline, it really scrambled my brain. But luckily Boo was safe in his crate, and there was minimal damage. I called 911, felt like crying, and took the night off to recoup. I hate driving. But I reasoned that long trip was just like commuting to work many times, with fewer breaks. Boo helped me to relax and keep things in perspective, as usual. A few margaritas didn’t hurt either.

Our next destination was Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where I hoped to finish our Superior Nosework, and Masters Nosework titles in a weekend of United Kennel Club nosework offering 16 searches (including exteriors, interiors, containers and vehicles). We had a long way to go and weren’t giving up.

After driving 21 ½ hours, over 1402 miles, we failed our first Superior Exterior search in Wisconsin. My dog lay down searching for odor low under the bottom rail of a fence. I rushed to call the alert before he froze at the final destination. When the judge asked where odor was hidden, I pointed at a spot 2 feet off the mark, not precise enough to pass. It was not a promising start.

Failure amplified the pressure. We needed to pass every one of the remaining 3 exterior searches, or we could not complete the titles and it would take another year to make another attempt. I resolved to be patient and wait until my dog finished working to point the source of the odor, ignoring the clock instead of rushing my dog.

In the next search, Boo spent a whole minute searching a picnic area without finding anything. Then he picked up odor at an outbuilding, but searched back and forth, having trouble pinpointing the precise location. It felt like an eternity, but Boo froze pointing the centre of a vent in the wall. The call was easy. We were on the podium and completed our Superior Nosework Title.

The next day we moved up a level to Masters Nosework where extra intentional distractions are mandatory, search areas are enormous, and teams must find hides in a tighter window of time. Boo’s a trooper. He was visibly slowing down (as I was), but kept on working, passing every search we needed to complete our Masters Nosework title. Over the weekend, we won Elite High in Trial, 7 First placements, and completed 5 nosework titles. Even our last search of the weekend was excellent. We accomplished all that I’d hoped, and our adventure was fun.

Driving home, I reflected, while enjoying the summer sunshine with my boy.  Searches in advanced levels of nosework invoke fear because the handler doesn’t know how many things she needs to find in a short period of time.  We clench our muscles and fight the feeling of powerlessness. We overthink things, adding pressure, without boosting performance.

Uncontrollable uncertainty, over marathon events, without feedback, opens us up to the fear of failure. But knowing the number of hides to find doesn’t always lead to a pass. Changing conditions, like chaotic winds, make every search different. Whether you’re handling a police K9 or competing in nosework, you don’t always succeed in finding the odor. Luck comes into play. The handler’s role is more like a passenger than the driver when it comes to scent work, and many of us are backseat drivers!

In stark contrast, a scent dog never knows the time allowed or the number of hides. It doesn’t matter. On the start line, Boo is always ready to dive in and hunt for whatever’s there. He’s fearless, and since worrying doesn’t improve our chances, I’m better off approaching challenges more like my dog:  with gusto, holding nothing back.  When my dog surges ahead, it’s better to follow running behind him, rather than stopping to analyze or doubt.

What would you do next if you weren’t afraid? What’s holding you back? When you face your fears, you learn about what’s important to you. You can’t succeed if you don’t compete, taking the chance that you might fail. Like a fearless dog, shake it off. Each event is a fresh start, where you have the potential to succeed if you dive in and fetch the prize. As handlers, we can choose to let our fears fall behind and follow our canine partners, enjoying the hunt together. It doesn’t get any better.

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