“Are you ready?” the rather intimidating Anchorage Police officer, who was judging our first search asked me.
“Yes. Pongo, sit. Pongo, watch. Good boy. Now, GO FIND.” Pongo takes off knowing his job at hand. He lingers at a pile of games on a shelf. “Could that be the hide?” I ask myself but Pongo is off pulling me around the room. His sniffing increases as he sticks his nose between the refrigerator and the wall. He moves around the refrigerator definitely on the birch scent. Pongo sticks his nose under the hot-water base board heater and not so gracefully, pulls it off it’s hinge. He’s found the hide.
“Alert!” I call pointing to the heater that Pongo had just destroyed.
The APD officer then completely threw me for a loop by asking, “Where?” Well…right here where Pongo’s nose is I wanted to say but I point to where Pongo first caught the scent at the heater, which was behind the heater and toward the floor.
“Ahhh…down in there.” I reply with a questioning tone in my voice. Please let this be it, please let me have identified it correctly as I only have a 4-6″ margin of error.
My heart leaves my throat with that answer. I was very fortunate though because the hide was actually in the heater, sitting on the coils. I lucked out that I pointed within the allotted distance. We made it through our first search, three more to go.
This is our first K9-Nose Work Trial and while it was a mock trial, I had the nerves of a real competition. The trial was held out in Palmer at Spring Creek Farm. It was a gorgeous setting to spend the day working, sitting in the sun, and meeting others who are interested in the same sport.
We knew this was going to be a challenge for Pongo. Not so much the nose work part but the part where he has to be around 30 other dogs. We came prepared with the clicker, a bag full of treats, and a reminder to Pongo that we are here to work. Our latest strategy for handling his reactivity is to encourage Pongo to look at another dog (at a safe, comfortable distance). When Pongo looks at a dog: click, Pongo orients back to us: treat. He caught on rather quickly. Even though he had to wear a red bandana, which communicated to others that he needs a little more space than other dogs, he only had 3 reactions to other dogs. Two of them were my fault because I didn’t give him enough space; the last one, I guess the other dog looked at him funny and he went off. It was a lot of work to keep his reactivity to a minimum but it was great training for all of us.
I tell myself, “Don’t cry, Jen. Just don’t cry.” as the tears well up in my eyes. I felt like I had just failed Pongo. Pongo caught the scent during our second search: the vehicle search. He was showing a lot of interest in the wheel well so I called “alert.” It was too early. I was about 8″ off from the hide. The judge was very kind in showing Pongo where it was so I could reward him at the source but that still didn’t take the sting out of my mistake. Steve comes over to comfort me, which made the tears behind the dam rise. I don’t do well when I make mistakes in competitions. I tend to beat myself up and go over and over what I should have done, could have done differently. We still had two more searches to complete so I needed to suck it up and put my game face back on.
After lunch, we moved on to our final two searches: exterior and container. The exterior search is the most daunting to me because the hide, which is one Q-Tip end dipped in birch scent could be anywhere in the search area: under rocks, in the grass, in some totally obscure place. You have to trust your dog. I could tell right away when Pongo was given the “Go Find” cue, he was not mentally in the game. His tail wasn’t wagging like it usually does when he’s searching and he seemed highly distracted. It had been a long day already and a hard day for Pongo trying to keep it together. He was tired. I encouraged Pongo to “go find” a couple of times and followed his cues as he made his way around the perimeter of the search area. He stopped, interestedly sniffed a rock, and pawed at it. “Alert!” I call. Once again…too soon. My heart sinks as I realize I had completely misread his signals again. As I walk from the search area, I overhear someone say, “It looked like that could have been it.” I agree but there’s no comfort in those words because I had disappointed not just myself but I felt like I had let Steve and Pongo down because of my lack of patience and my nerves.
Our last search was the container search. I knew Pongo had this one in the bag. His alert signals are very obvious: smash the box. He rocked the container search with a time of 17.9 seconds. It was a positive way to end our day!
I am so very proud of Pongo for all of his hard work both working the scents and, most importantly, remaining calm around 30 dogs while on leash. I feel like we made a couple steps forward in our quest to help Pongo overcome his leash reactivity. Plus, I learned what I need to do at our September 17th Odor Recognition Test (ORT): stay calm, be patient, and work the whole search area before alerting. Pongo has always come back to a hide if he passed it. I need to trust him and his nose!