ORT Prep and Considerations

It’s getting to be trial season and Odor Recognition Tests (ORT’s) and trials are starting to open for entry!  Teams across the country are asking themselves….  “Should I enter?” and “Should I just do Birch?”  These are my thoughts and I’m sure there are a TON of other opinions on the topic.

With both Judd and Why, I entered them soon after they were working 12 boxes on each odor…  Both were very far from NW1 ready when I entered them in the ORTs.  Now I don’t have to worry about whether or not there is an ORT close by before a trial….  what a relief.  Judd actually passed all three ORT’s within 6 weeks of starting Nosework and he passed with flying colors….  (I start dogs on Odor Only….  dogs who start this way frequently are ready for their ORT’s within 2 to 4 months after starting the sport).  I recently started my Standard Poodle in Nosework and I’m planning on October for his ORT’s.  Is this too soon?  What a controversial topic….


The answer is….  can your dog find odor within 3:00 in a novel location with 12 boxes….  or do you think it’s a possibility?  If the answer is YES, then enter.  You have nothing but your time and $30 to lose….  on the flip side you have the opportunity to be exposed to a trial like atmosphere without too much pressure…  and…  the judge will allow you to reward a the correct box even if you get a “No”.  So in reality, it will be a positive experience if you go in seeking the experience.

If your dog understands all three odors then by all means, enter all three as long as your dog can handle being crated in the car all day (this is a skill they will have to develop for Nosework).  Getting all three out of the way initially reduces anxiety later!

So what is an ORT like?

Well there are 12 boxes, and you get 3:00 to call alert.  That is plenty of time for even some of the most environmental dogs to relax into their job.  Yes, it’s timed…  but it’s just Pass/Fail and times are not published.  You will need to crate out of your car and you will not be allowed to spectate.  There will be a Gate Steward to help you know when you are “On Deck”.  There will be warmup boxes before going in….  When you come in, a Judge’s Steward will remind you that you have 3:00 once you pass the start line and to BREATHE….  Passing an ORT isn’t going to solve World Hunger!

(the picture above is a screen shot from Why’s Anise ORT video)

So what is the best way to prepare?

1.) Know your Odor…. and practice on ORT boxes

This may seem obvious but it’s incredibly important.  Those white boxes have to have VALUE…  and so does odor.  When your dog sees white boxes, he should know contextually that white boxes mean searching.  That is half your battle right there!

2.) Start mild generalization

Take 3 or 4 ORT boxes on the road…  Stop in parking lots, parks, your friend’s garage…  anywhere NEW and DIFFERENT.  Get your dog used to paying attention to ORT boxes away from home.

3.) Increase your generalization

Parks and parking lots are perfect for this…  Build up to 6 boxes, in two rows just as you will see in the ORT…. then when you have success, work up to 12 boxes!  Make sure you set up a start line with cones or another marker.  This will solidify the picture for YOU and will help you with your start line routine.

4.) Develop a Start Line routine

What settles your dog?  Start Line routines are often neglected in training but are SO IMPORTANT.  My suggestion is to start the dog on one side or the other.  If you have a dog who has done obedience, try starting them on the right rather than the left.  Wait until your dog is oriented ahead of you and looking at the boxes…  release and cue to search.  You want your dog trotting ahead of you.

5.) Do Mock ORT’s…  enlist help!

Enlist a significant other or a friend to help you…  set up 12 boxes and ask for a “Blind” search…  meaning you don’t know where the hide is.  Remember to Breathe, watch your dog’s body language.  Are you getting extra sniffing on one box?  Did you see a head snap towards a box?  If you move will your dog stay at the box?  Once you are successful…  odds are you will pass your ORT!

Do’s and Don’ts for an ORT


… read the rules!  Go to the NACSW website and learn about parking lot etiquette 

… reward your dog…  but NEXT to the box, not on it!  And PRAISE!!!

… give your dog room to work!  You don’t want to crowd your dog

… breathe and realize that you can always try next time :)

… thank the judge when you are done!


… let dogs congregate…  this isn’t the dog park and in Nosework, dogs are required to be given space…  especially dogs wearing red bandanas

… drop food or your leash…  this is a No No!  It can contaminate the search area for the next dog!

… touch the boxes…  boxes are NOT to be touched!

… be rude to the volunteers….  this should go without saying, but recognize that these folks are taking time out of their day to be there for you!

The important thing is to generalize to prepare, go have fun, AND LEARN…..  you may just pass and be on your way to Nosework competition.

Good luck to all teams!

First Foray into UKC Nosework

This weekend I decided to try something new!  A UKC Club near me was hosting their first UKC Nosework trial.  Since I haven’t tried UKC Nosework, I decided to go ahead and enter and see what it was like.  Versatile K9 Sports Club hosted a 2 day UKC Novice Only Nosework trial in Andover NJ.  Containers was offered three times, Exteriors twice and Interiors once.  I entered Judd in everything but one of the Container trials (I entered Why in the third one) as you only need two legs to title.  Even though Judd is an experienced dog, we had to enter Novice (B Class).  As it turns out there were plenty of there NW3 dogs in the same boat.  Why was also in the B Class even though he has no Nosework titles because I teach Nosework professionally.  Because both of my boys had all of their ORTs we were exempt from the Pre-Trial requirements.  Pre-Trial is essentially an ORT but its run day of show.  With UKC, you have to specify your dog’s alert on the entry form.  I put Judd’s as “Nose Orients To Source” and that seemed to be acceptable.

The trial was run in a similar fashion to NACSW.  There were red bandana dogs and the dogs were requested to stay in the cars unless pottying or waiting to run.  It was smaller than a NACSW trial so there really wasn’t a need for extensive staging areas.  The volunteers did a SUPER job and ran a fast and seamless trial.


Containers was first…  Unlike NACSW where there can be up to 20 containers in any configuration in NW1, in UKC Novice Containers, there are 12 boxes in a single line.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  The trick of it is that the boxes are spaced only about two feet apart so the odds of fringing are exponentially higher!  Judd motored down the line in Judd fashion and earned his first Container leg.

The second trial (PM trial) consisted of Containers and Exteriors.  Judd had no issues with either and Finished his Novice Containers (NC) title and earned his first leg in Exteriors.  The Exterior area was small, smaller than NACSW, and hides could only be 2 feet off the ground as opposed to 4 feet.  Our times were fast and Judd stayed in the ribbons.

The next day Containers ran again in the morning and Why took a turn.  Why is VERY green and not yet NW1 ready.  This was a super opportunity to give him trial experience without the pressure of a NACSW trial.  I’m thrilled to have had this opportunity for him.  Although he has all three of his ORT’s and searches very well at home, he’s still new to searching novel locations and needs more generalization before he’s “trial ready”.  Having a green dog again when you are used to a strong NW3 dog can be a little humbling!  However he took his turn and earned a leg in Containers!  I’m VERY, VERY proud of him.  UKC Novice is a bit easier than NW1 in general so if you have a pre-NW1 dog, it’s an excellent opportunity to get trial experience!



The afternoon consisted of Interiors and Exteriors.  Both search areas were small and again, hides could not be above 2 feet and had to be accessible hides.  One of my students edged Judd out of 4th place by 0.4 seconds in Interiors…  a fact, as an instructor, that I’m very proud of.

In Exteriors, I brought Judd to the line.  It was very hot and humid and he was panting a little.  But at the start line I saw his nose twitch and I knew he was in odor.  Getting your dog in odor on the start line is one thing that I’m always encouraging my students to do.  I released him into the search area.  He had sourced the hide from the start line and I called Alert when he nosed a small pile of rocks.  Our time for that search was 4.06 seconds, earning Judd High In Trial for the afternoon trial!  He also earned his Novice Exteriors (NE) title.


Overall, the CO was very knowledgeable and she gave excellent pointers to the competitors as each class was pinned.  As I always do during a debrief, I made mental notes of the judge’s comments in order to incorporate the nuggets into my own instruction.

The trial was valuable….  for the experienced dog, Novice Level provided easy, confidence building hides.  For the inexperienced dog, it provided attainable challenges in trial environment.  At the same time, competition was fierce for placings in the B Class giving the experienced competitors a challenge and a competition rush.  There is something to be said for going for speed in a more relaxed trial environment.  I expect the higher levels to be quite challenging!


I’m looking forward to more UKC Nosework trialing and moving my boys up the levels!  This was a super experience at a super trial.  We had a blast and will be looking for more!

Photo Credits: Active Paws Photography, Michelle Ostrander…  Thank you Michelle for some beautiful photos!

Stairstepping Your Way to Generalization

We all know that we have to search in “novel” locations…  we have to generalize.  So how do we know we are doing it “right”?    Our approach to generalization has a direct impact on our ability to prepare for a trial.  If we do it well, our dogs will emerge confident and ready to trial.  If we are less than successful we may experience frustration and may never find ourselves at a trial.  So what’s the secret?  What if we have an “environmental” dog?


There are a few ways that people will typically work on generalization:

  1. Attend a “travel class” where the instructor sets the hides.  In this case, if you’re lucky, your instructor knows a bit about dog behavior and will be able to modify the exercise for your dog or have enough students that you can be put into a class with dogs of similar temperaments.  This approach is generally successful although these classes can be difficult to find.
  2. You can take private lessons.  This is generally the most expensive option although it can be highly effective because the hides will be set to challenge YOU and ONLY YOU.  This option frequently produces fast results regardless of the temperament of the dog as long as the instructor has experience with dog behavior.
  3. You can team up with a training buddy.  This is great fun if you have someone you can train with.  The challenge is that at least one of you needs to experience in hide placement.
  4. You can work on your own without guidance.  This can work if you are already experienced and are not training your first Nosework dog.

So what do you do if you don’t fall into any of these categories?  Are you doomed to failure?  Should you quit while you’re ahead?  Go home and cut your losses??  ABSOLUTELY NOT.

The answer is in careful planning and “stairstepping”.  The concept of stairstepping is simply going from Point A to Point B, one step at a time.  Going up a flight of stairs, what is easier, taking one step at a time or skipping steps and taking two or three?  Stairstepping is based on the concept of changing just one element at a time and load balancing the difficulty of the rest of the elements.


Successful Stairstepping follows this equation:

SUCCESS = Drive and Motivation + Skill - Environmental Distractors - Hide Difficulty

Your dog comes with a certain amount of drive and motivation…  there are times when this is intense enough to override environmental stress.  Other dogs may have less drive and motivation but their sensitivity to the environment may be less.  As you can see, success is heavily dependent on the dog himself, how distracting the environment is and the hide difficulty.

The crux of it is in Hide Difficulty…  Hide Difficulty is a product of hide placement and scent dynamics.  If you are lacking in Hide Skills and Scent Theory, don’t panic!!  You can still place successful hides for your dog.

First of all, list out the skills that you need for your level….  and rate yourself and your dog!  A few examples from NW1 might include:

  • Sticking to the vehicle during a search
  • Threshold hides
  • Corner hides
  • Elevated hides
  • lots more!!

Pick ONE thing to focus on…  let’s say you’d like to focus on threshold hides….

Now, set your dog up for success!  Is your dog environmental or easily distracted?  Look a the equation and figure out what type of environment you should be searching.  If you have an easily distracted dog, pick a small area with low distractions such as an area with pavement, away from people and other dogs…  something where the likelihood of extra interesting odors, or novel odors, will be less abundant.

Place a start line with a pair of cones.  This is especially important if you are working on threshold hides!  Setting a start line and defining the search boundaries is good practice anyway because it gives you a sense for whether you are making the search area too big or too small.

You might want to start with the start line downwind of the hide, meaning that the wind is blowing across the hide and towards the start line.

Now try to picture the air flow…  is it complex or is it simple?  Complex air flow makes for a difficult hide

The next most important step is to AGE YOUR HIDE.  By aging the hide, you are allowing a scent cone to develop.  Your dog needs a scent cone in order to find the hide without having to resort to luck.  Too much practice with non-aged hides produces nook and cranny dogs…  dogs that look in nooks and crannies for odor rather than sampling for a scent cone and then working the scent cone to source.  If you can, age your hide about a half hour but NEVER less than fifteen minutes.


Congratulations!  You’ve just set your dog up for a successful search!

Now, start to stairstep.  Pick ONE thing to change….  be it hide difficulty, location difficulty, search area size, etc.  But ONLY pick one thing.   If you change too many parameters at one time your success equation might fail.

Also remember to sometimes take a step down!  Taking a step down the stairs can mean putting out motivating hides and increasing your rate of reinforcement.  It’s essential in your dog’s training to occasionally give him an easy payday.

As your dog gets more and more experienced with novel locations and difficult scent puzzles, you will actually become challenged to create a challenging situation for the dog.  But to get to that point takes time.  If you stairstep, you WILL get there.

© Stacy Barnett 2015