Using Trial Experiences to Improve our Nosework Training

As I've always said about Nosework, we are half the team! That means our success at a nosework trial has more to do with us than our dogs. There is so much involved — setting up training plans, handling, strategy and our nerves — we can make or break the search! Once our dogs know their job and have the skills, we need to focus on OUR skills and to glue it all together from start to finish to excel at a trial.

If you've trialed recently, and were disappointed with the results, it's time to take a look at your own performance!

By reviewing our trial experiences we can 1) own our mistakes, 2) improve our handling, 3) learn to read our dogs better, 4) develop our mental game, and 5) set appropriate goals.

Let's discuss each area in a little more detail. 

Owning our mistakes

We all make them! The best reflection of this came from a student taking NW460: Woulda Shoulda Coulda – Learning from Trial Experiences, who stated that mistakes don't "... have to be mysterious and we don't have to blame them on random things."

If we don't own them, we can't fix them. If we blame them on other factors — the weather, the hide placement, etc — then we will be blaming those things again the next time we trial.

Instead, let's practice different hide placements, in bad weather, in distracting areas, etc. Let's fix US. How is your handling? Did you get enough sleep? Are you hydrated and nourished? Are you able to be in the moment and be there for your partner? These are all things we can learn and improve for the next time out.

Improving our handling 

I focus a lot on handling — whether it's obedience or agility or nosework. Being a good handler is key to take a team to the next level. 

Here are a few of the top handling errors I see in nosework:


The biggest culprit. You may feel like you aren't crowding, but you probably are! Crowding can talk a dog into "falsing" or prevent them from solving a scent puzzle. I see dog after dog literally suck into odor/source when they are given more space.

Place a hide on a tire and stay very close to your dog as you take them around a car - are they searching to catch odor and honing into source? Or are they connected back to you and following your pace and social cues?

Place the hide again on a different tire and give your dog ample room to search independently. Do they do better?

I recently worked with a large breed team where the handler actually couldn't see when her dog was on a low hide because she was too close. On the next low hide she stayed laterally 6+ feet away and her view was greatly improved; she was able to call it confidently and quickly!

This applies to small dogs too.

Stand "on top of them" and you'll lose sight of the big picture. You should never have to move in close or bend over to see if your dog is at source. Judges place hides that they can also see from a distance. Know your dog's indication - stand back and you'll be able to see all you need to see!

When to let your dog drive and when to intervene

It's not always easy to decide when to let your dog drive and when to intervene — and we won't always get it right. For example, we want to cover an area, so we bring our dog back, but our dog might be going/working toward odor!

I often see handlers pull their dogs off odor, when they need to let them drive.

You have to read the situation and your dog to assess the best decision. Is he picking up his pace? Let him go. If he seems distracted, loop him around the side he's on to bring him back to an area he missed.

Sometimes we just follow, blindly, relying solely on the dog. This can result in the dog getting stuck in one area when we need to intervene and influence them to search other areas/airspace. If you are searching in inclement weather, it's often better to intervene a bit more to keep your dog on task.

Not covering your search area

Don't let the time run out before you have covered the area. Don't get stuck in an unproductive area. You will waste time over checking an area and, worse, get a false alert! If there IS a hide, your dog will find it within 30 seconds or so.

You can always take your dog back to an area of interest. If you find the rest of the hides (known #), then you don't have to clear the rest! 

Learning to read our dogs better

Know your dogs alert!

Can you picture your dog's IDEAL indication?

Our nerves, a novel/overwhelming location, or challenging hide location can lead our confidence in calling alert to falter. We can get punchy and call too soon. We can freeze up and be too afraid to call — second guessing our dog due to previous "nos" that put us in paralysis. We can call alert when they aren't even near source! We can misread a pooling situation and talk ourselves into a hide.

You need to know the many signs your dog may "tell" at source. They are different if low or high or inaccessible or if containers or interiors or vehicles or buried or exteriors... But all are a degree of their response to finding source!

This is why it's important to KNOW and picture your dog's ideal indication.

This also means there is risk to calling early! Being IN odor is not the same as being AT source. I often see handlers "time out" and call early when their dog is still honing into source. You're almost guaranteed to get a "no."

You need to know how your dog looks when catching (coming into) odor, when finding source and then after finding source.

Most dogs stop sniffing once they find source; some have a trained or passive indication, and others stay focused on the one spot, sniffing, pawing, biting, etc. Know how to recognize your dog's changes of behavior throughout the search.

Delay your call

To build confidence in your "alert" call, practice delaying your call just a bit to see what your dog will do.

Will they insist or leave? Go slow - don't delay too long at first (1-2 seconds) and see what you get.

Delaying your call will allow you to test for possible distractions. It can also come in handy if you missed seeing their change in behavior/indication, as well as if their alert seems vague compared to their normal indication. Any indication must be preceded by a sniffing nose and ideally a dog who insists and fights to stay/get to source.

Developing our mental game 

It's the same for any sport - having a mental game will put in you in the right "place" to succeed. Staying positive and being in the moment are key to a successful run.

  • Keep things in perspective - we are fortunate to have our health, time and money to play with our dogs! Appreciate every time you can walk into a search/ring with your dog, as someday you won't have time again.
  • Make sure you are prepared - there is nothing that will make you more nervous than being unprepared!
  • Reframe nerves as excitement … those butterflies in your stomach - they will give you an edge. If we didn't have them there, we wouldn't care so much about our game!
  • Visualize your performance - from the start to the finish to the brags!

Setting appropriate goals

We all want to qualify and, even better, to place or win! But that goal is too large.

It's an outcome goal and won't guide us through the search. Knowing your mistakes, your gaps - what goals can you set that will improve a part of your performance?

Maybe your goal is to ensure you cover the search area, to give your dog more space, or not call too early. Whatever your goal is, that small part will increase your success more than any outcome goal.

In summary, when you review your trial videos, asses what you did well and what you could do better. Those reviews will lead you to your goals for your next trial, and give you confidence also on all that you do well! We just don't handle the same in training as we do in trials!

That means purchasing or getting your trial video footage. Purchase them at NACSW. Have a friend or fellow competitor video you at AKC trials. They are INVALUABLE! You can inventory and organize your videos so you can easily return to them for review.

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