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Musings on Trust: Gator's Lesson

Updated: Nov 9, 2018

Recently, I sent in a video of a challenging container search for review from a judge and coach who has never met me or my dog. I also judged Nosework and Scent Work trials several weekends in a row. Because these events happened simultaneously, the topic of “trust” was amplified in a really interesting way. While I haven’t fully resolved my thoughts on all of this, I decided to capture at least some of them before they fade away. This is a ramble, but possibly an interesting one.

First off, I really, really hated my video review. I met almost every statement my reviewer made with a “Ya But.” We all know that YaButs are about the most frustrating words any coach can hear. YaButYaBut means that the learner isn’t learning; the learner is defending. And almost all learners defend themselves most vigorously when something hits a little too close to home. After I got over my initial wave of disdain for the advice I received, I recognized the likelihood that there was important information somewhere in the message. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be reacting so strongly. My reviewer told me that my NW3 Elite dog didn’t know how to alert on containers; Gator didn’t know what paid. I about lost my mind. This dog survived containers in 3 ORTS, one NW1, two NW2s, and 6 NW3s with one false alert and a single miss. Being told that my dog didn’t know how to alert on a box made me insane. Because I was on the road judging, I didn’t have a lot of time to spend marinating on this. I had to go judge.

At every scenting trial, you are bombarded with “Trust Your Dog” t-shirt, caps, and comments. Trust Your Dog is written on the backs of hands and on score sheets. Even so, if you watch a few searches, you will see handlers ignoring the concept. Dogs will spin, stop, sniff, look at their handlers, paw at source and try to dislodge a hide, and not draw the Alert call or get rewarded. It can be very disheartening. As a judge, you have a huge edge on the competitor: You know where the hides are. This knowledge makes reading alert behavior so much easier! It can be incredibly difficult to watch handlers refuse to call hides when the dogs have so clearly found them. This is where “Trust Your Dog” comes in. This is why “Trust Your Dog” gets written on so many score sheets. Why don’t handlers trust their dogs? I mean, they are wearing the phrase on their t-shirts! And certainly, they know that they HAVE to. So why aren’t handlers simply doing it?

The answer is fairly simple: The handlers trust their dogs as long as the stakes are low. But when the stakes are higher, handlers want more reassurance. The alert that was “good enough” to trust at home isn’t “good enough” to trust in a trial because the desire for a “Yes” is significantly higher. The “No” that cost nothing in class costs between $20 and $140 in competition. Because of this, the handler wants MORE behavior. Here’s the problem: The Dog Doesn’t Know This.

Because the dog doesn’t know, he works odor and alerts like he always does. Possibly, he is going to offer even less strong behavior because he is in a strange place with strange people with a handler who is acting strangely. Our dog doesn’t know that he has to bring a stronger alert to a place where the handler is often acting extra distracted and stressed. We as handlers trend towards expecting much more of our dogs than we expect of ourselves. We “Criteria Shift” our alert expectations and our dogs can’t be realistically expected to meet our new standards.

This tendency is amplified even more when we are recovering from or remembering a mistake we made in a previous trial. For example, if we called a false alert at the last trial, we are much slower to call alerts in the future. If we left a hide behind on our last attempt, we over-search and delay the finish call for the next sets of trials. We react strongly to previous bad experiences and allow our past to heavily influence our trial handling. This “ditch to ditch” approach to performance handling is nearly always a mistake.

Because I have the privilege of judging, I see lots of handlers who doubt their dogs. And in the face of that doubt, their dogs give up or make errors. Sometimes, they simply let go of a hide since their handler’s clearly didn’t agree with their assessment of it and won’t call it or pay it. Sometimes they go somewhere nearby and alert there, hoping their handler’s will approve of that choice. The dogs start acting differently than they do in practice because they no longer recognize their handler’s handling system. The pattern that was established in training is no longer in play. Unfortunately, when this happens, it’s easy to blame it on the dog. We fail to see that we were the ones who changed first.

It is easy to call LIAR and blame the dog for the problem. We say things like “This only happens in trials,” and we are right, because we only doubt our dogs in trial settings. Then we wonder why our dogs don’t perform to the same level in competition as they do in training when really, we’re the ones who have changed the game. I watched some of this unfold while I was judging. I got frustrated and wished that the handlers would just trust their dogs. Internally, I was screaming, “Just call it! What does your dog have to do to get your attention?!?” Then it hit me like a club. This was my exact dance with Gator.

Gator missed a container once in an NW3 trial because I didn’t complete a second pass. This error cost us our title. So, I started over-presenting the boxes in trials. Then, once I started doing that, Gator started semi-dropping on cold boxes because he thought he was doing something wrong. Then, since he was semi-falsing, I started challenging every alert. So Gator started letting some hot boxes go because he started to think he was wrong or that I wanted a different behavior. So clearly, I thought I needed to keep over-presenting boxes! And thus the cycle fed right back to the starting point. I broke my dog’s confidence. I broke my dog’s trust. And a problem that could have easily been solved in training became a recurring trialing issue because I changed my handling instead of just repairing a minor crack in our foundation. The issue belonged in the training room, not in trial strategy. Ditch to Ditch reactions are almost always a mistake.

Looking back, those three words, Trust Your Dog, have been on my judging sheets, but I just dismissed them because the judges Didn’t Understand. They hadn’t been there to see the missed hot boxes or the stutter alerts. They didn’t know my journey so they shouldn’t comment. They didn’t understand our issues. But ha! They were exactly right. Exactly right. But I needed more words, more volume, and a little serendipity to get it. Sometimes I can be so slow.

If you handle in trialing the same way that you handle in practice, sometimes your team will false and sometimes your team will miss. Why? Because these are things that happen in the sport because teams and conditions are never perfect and errors are part of the game. If you over-react to these inevitable happenings, you can take an incident and turn it into an issue. If you aren’t prepared to trust your dog, trust your training, trust your handling, and trust your resiliency, just trust that your time and money are better spent investing in those things prior to trialing. When errors happen, chose to respond to those errors in training, not in trialing.

This is advice that I have given many times. I just hadn’t realized that I wasn’t following it myself. It took a coach from the east coast, a stranger, to tell me that.


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