Updated: Aug 14
So, you've been practicing hard with your dog. You're nailing those threshold hides. Your dog's odor obedience is top notch. Distractions? What distractions?? You've got this! Your dog is ready to head to the next trial…but are you?
I devote a lot of time in my trial prep classes on physically and mentally preparing for trial outside of actual training. I talk about what to pack in your vehicle, what kinds of rewards to bring, when and how to feed your dog, mental exercises to help you remember your searches. Do these things really matter? From my experience – YES! There are so many factors outside of actually training your dog for scent work that can affect your performance at trial, let's take a look at a few of them.
Travel. How far are you realistically willing to travel for a trial? A lot of teams have no problem travelling all over the country. That's not me. Nope. Daisy loves her car rides and she's an awesome traveler, but I am not. I do believe my fiancé has recorded me saying, "I'm not entering anything else over 6 hours away." I wish he would play that back to me as I'm entering every trial that opens on the East Coast. I might be the one competitor out there that receives a confirmation email and says, darn it – I got into that trial! There's such a desperation to enter everything and hope you get in, but is it really worth it? It may be for some, but it's not for me. So if anyone hears me saying I'm entering "X" trial that's over 6 hours away – please hold an intervention for me! When I drive long distances I tend to try to drive as far as I can without stopping. Quick stops for gas and junk food. That kind of driving is stressful and unhealthy. Not a great way to prepare for a trial the next day. I usually find myself arriving in town late. Of course then I feel bad Daisy has been cooped up for so long, so that means a long walk for her and more junk food for me. Oh, and now I'm wired from all of the coffee I drank while driving and can't fall asleep. Great start – NOT!
Accommodations. Let's talk about accommodations the night before a trial. Okay, maybe I'm spoiled, but I have to stay in a decent hotel the night before a trial. I mean, it doesn't need to be the Taj Mahal, but it needs to be clean and quiet with a room away from the lobby. Why do hotels always want to put dogs in rooms near the lobby or the elevator? My favorite place to stay is a rental. I have found some pretty nice AirBNBs close to trial sites that are less expensive and dog friendly. When I wake up in a clean house with a beautiful view and lots of land I can let my dog run in as opposed to a gross smelly motel that I'm afraid to take a shower in…it makes a huge difference in my mental preparedness for trial. I have the data to prove it!
Routine. Having a routine is very important for both the handler and the dog. When our routine is off, everything seems off…especially that "potty routine." After years of trialing, the importance of my dog's "schedule" hasn't impacted me until recently. My thought always was that she's so into sniffing and loves playing the game that she would never "go" in the middle of a search. And she hasn't. But…we had a trial recently where I did not give her ample opportunity to do her business before her first search because our schedule was completely off. While she didn't have an accident in the search area, she was not sniffing. Her nose was glued to the ground and she was just running around the room. We took about ten steps out of the building we just searched and she instantly "took care of business." The poor thing couldn't concentrate because she really had to go! She did great the rest of the day, but of course after the "bad search" my head was no longer in the game. Lesson learned! If we had followed our normal trial routine she would have had a long walk in the morning and we wouldn't have had this problem.
These are just a few examples of things that have mentally knocked me off my game. I can go on and on. Like that time I forgot my dog's bag with her treats, treat pouch, timer, poop bags…pretty much everything I need to run her in a trial. Not being prepared for weather, hot or cold, has affected me. Not remembering my lunch, extra dry clothes, you name it – it all has affected my performance. I mean, who wants to search in wet jeans? Ugh…
I talk a lot in my classes about being mentally prepared. Things you can do in your vehicle between searches. How to pay attention during your search to ensure you've covered the entire area. When you're not "on your game" these things become very difficult to do. I have been so careful recently to write down all of the details of every search, which direction we went, in what order we found our hides, where did my dog show interest, what areas was she purposely avoiding. I find this is so much more difficult to do when I'm not "right." We also tend to run pretty clean, we don't get many "nos." When we do get a "no," it's totally me!! My dog doesn't false alert. When I'm under pressure and not on my game that's when things get sloppy.
This blog makes it sound like we are the worst team playing this scent work game. We're not! Daisy is pretty darn good! Even while toting around her inept handler she has managed to do amazing in trials. And when we're both 100% – I'll even take a "little" credit for our good performances. So I write this so you can learn from my mistakes. Prepare YOURSELF as well as you would prepare your dog and your trial experience will be that much better. Pack everything you need, take it easy driving, find good accommodations, eat a healthy meal, get a good night's sleep and stick to a routine. Remember: your number one priority should be to have FUN! while trialing. I find that trials are always more fun when I know I am being the best partner I can be for my dog. What helps you mentally prepare for a trial? Do you have a routine you would like to share? I'd love to hear what others do to "get their head in the game!!"
Lori Timberlake is an Summit-level competitor and instructor who is also an approved AKC Scent Work Judge, UKC Nosework Certifying Official and USCSS CSD and Judge. The owner of Do Over Dog Training, Lori is extremely active in the Scent Work community and Scent Work University is beyond fortunate to her as part of the team!