I competed last weekend in an AKC trial and had a really nice time. I had 15 runs shared between three dogs. We had a blast! Throughout the day, I called two No’s. People showed great sympathy about my No’s and asked what caused my dogs to false alert. When I said that my dogs didn’t actually false alert, they were curious about what I meant. How do you get a No without a false alert? And why aren’t you upset about a No?
This started me thinking about No’s and the role that they play in successful competition. Unlike many, I don’t think a No is anything to be too worried about. I consider them to be part of the game. In fact, if I am not getting any, I worry that I am not performing as well as I could be. I also don’t consider a No to be evidence of a false alert.
A No simply means that a handler called a hide that wasn’t close enough or wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the DOG said the hide was there. It means that the handler did. What’s the difference? Well, quite a bit! The decision to call Alert can actually be fairly complex. There are several factors that influence when a handler is willing to make an alert call. Here are just a few of them.
1.) Risk Tolerance- How willing is the handler to take a chance? This probably always depends! When I was competing for my NW3 Elite titles, I had virtually no risk tolerance! I wanted my dogs to club me over the head and reassure me 7 different ways before making a call! While I don’t suggest that this is a good handling strategy, I will own my weakness! When perfection is required, it is hard to be risk tolerant! However, in an Elite trial or an AKC trial where an error carries less impact, I am pretty willing to call early in an effort to be competitive.
2.) Time Constraints- What does your clock look like? Are you running out of time? In this case, you may have to decide if the hide is more or less likely to be there and just make the call. You might not have enough seconds to really let the dog sort out the puzzle before making your decision. At this point, you have to just do your best as a handler and interpret the behavior you have observed as best you can. If you make a wrong call, it just means you read incomplete information imperfectly! Oh well, this happens!
3.) Goals- What are your goals? If your goals are to qualify, you will likely wait longer to make your calls. If your goals are to bring home placement ribbons, you will likely call faster, knowing that the fastest calls usually win the ribbons. If you are playing for placements, you are going to encounter a few no’s! It’s the tradeoff for taking chances and just part of the game. A handler who calls early will get the calls wrong sometimes. This doesn’t mean that the dog false alerted!
4.) Odd-Ball factors- Sometimes, a handler will call early because there is something unusual going on in the search. I called two alerts very early last weekend because it was -12 below (-37 with windchill factor)! We weren’t staying out there any longer than we had to. I got one of the calls right and one of the calls wrong. My dogs didn’t lie to me; I gambled and got half right! A few seconds of patience would have gotten both right, but that’s on me, not my dogs! If you’re in a search area that is stressing out your dog, you may want to make different calls. For instance, if your dog is afraid of slick floors, and you’re on slick floors, you are probably going to call Alert on interest rather than on the full repertoire of behavior. That’s just good handling! Sometimes it will work out, sometimes it will draw a No. But regardless of outcome, it’s STILL good handling.
5.) Balancing Conflicting Considerations: Sometimes, there is enough time pressure at play that a handler has to chose between saving the clock and being sure. Think of inaccessible hides. If you wait a long time to make the call, you lose time. Sometimes, there is hardly enough time to cover an area. If you spend too much of it on a single call, you will miss the chance to make others! If becomes important to balance that all out. Even if you get a No, you save time to get a Yes, and the Yes is worth more than the No in an NACSW Elite trial.
6.) The Trial Breakers!- In some trials, there will be a wild hide or two that are going to really push the skills of the top teams. If a handler wants to “bag” those hides, the handler is going to have to call Alert on subtle behavior. What is your risk tolerance? If it’s low, your team is not likely to get the points for that really high hide or that really inaccessible hide. That’s perfectly fine, but it’s also perfectly fine to take a shot at it and sometimes miss. It’s all about your strategy. The No is just part of the game if you are reaching for 100 points.
“No’s” aren’t something to be avoided at all cost. They are part of the game. While we all prefer a day full of yesses, a few No’s probably just means you were reaching for Blue. In my mind, that’s a valid trade-off. I love that the Scent Sports allow for all levels of goals. Each team is allowed to define their own standard and all of the standards are equally worthy of celebration!
Next time you encounter a No, consider asking yourself how it happened. Consider that the No might actually be an affirmation of your handling strategy! But no matter what, don’t ever let them get you down!
Photo by Shawn Rossman