If you have been trialing in the sport, then you are probably familiar with the common dread… that sinking feeling that comes with Container searches. You’ve probably also told yourself that “containers should be easy”. And that usually will make a handler feel worse! Containers though are NOT easy. In fact, they are probably one of the most challenging elements that there are to search.
Why are Containers so difficult?
The primary reason why containers are so difficult is that a container “search” isn’t actually a search at all… A container search is actually a series of decisions where the dog has to discriminate between their catalog of target odors and whatever else the dog is searching. Not only does the dog have to make a decision with each container, the dog also needs to work variable odor availability and strength of odor. AND the dog has to ignore distractions even if there is no target odor available. Oh and of course, destruction of the search area is heavily frowned upon!
Then you layer the pattern of the containers, the parameters of the search (known vs unknown number), and the scenting conditions, and you have a recipe for a VERY challenging “search”.
Let’s explore these issues a little…
Containers, because they are a series of decisions, is actually a selection exercise versus a hunting exercise. The question becomes “which one” as opposed to “where is it”. This means that there is performance pressure (dog AND handler) with containers… performance pressure that isn’t quite the same as normal hunting type searches. Also, all of those wonderful benefits that you get from Nosework… triggering the Seeking System and all of those incredible hormones?? Well they apply to hunting… NOT selecting! As a result of this, the dog (and often the handler), starts to feel like they have to pick SOMETHING… this is a huge driver of false alerts!
You can see this sort of behavior in this NW3 Container search that I ran with Joey. In NW3, searches can be 0 to 3 hides. It turns out that this search was blank. Once Joey starts to search, you can see him start to default to alert behavior on nearly every box. I wisely called Finish in this case, signaling to the judge that I was stating that the search was blank. In the presence of no odor, Joey defaulted to guessing.
Another possibility that you might get in this situation is the dog completely checking out and getting distracted or wanting to leave. When this happens, many handlers panic and bring the dog back to the boxes… often until a false alert occurs. Here’s another NW3 (blank) container search. This time you can see Powder trying to peel off from the search. If I had stayed in there longer, we would have risked a false alert.
The odor availability can be variable!
Not all containers are created equal! Each type of container will emit variable amounts of odor. This translates to a different size scent cone. Some containers will generate a scent cone almost the same as a standard hide while some containers allow a scent cone to form that is scarcely detectable. This means that the dog may need to work harder to find the hides contained in some containers while with other containers, the dog may not even need to actually sniff the container directly.
For example, cardboard boxes act like odor sponges. When you “cook” a hide in a cardboard box, the entire container becomes saturated with odor and the container itself becomes something of an “odor blob” with a huge scent cone.
In this example, Prize is running her Odor Recognition Test (ORT) on Clove. There is an air vent in the ceiling that is pointed directly down on the set of containers. This is blowing odor out to the sides and away from the boxes. Prize is naturally an air scenter. Watch how she works air currents to find the hot box rather than checking the boxes. Although effective for an ORT, this sort of searching strategy would pose challenging at levels where there were an unknown number of hides. I have since changed Prize’s searching behavior so that she checks containers, however there is maintenance required as checking containers is contra to her normal searching style.
Other containers emit much less odor. Certain types of luggage (such as flat bags) can be particularly challenging in this respect. Although in NACSW you won’t have luggage (except perhaps on occasion in Elite), in AKC, luggage and hand bags are fairly common. If you trial in SDDA in Canada, you absolutely will experience luggage! I’ve also seen searches run in Sweden where you might have flat bags in tall grass… WOW!
In this example from the “old days” in NACSW when luggage and flat bags were common, I was doing an NW3 search with Judd. Based on 2015 rules, Containers could not be blank. In this case I search back and forth several times before he finally caught odor from the last and container (flat bag) which was thankfully the only hide!
Because of these reasons… and many more… containers are actually VERY difficult! In order to truly master containers, you need to tease apart the components of a successful container search. Containers are NOT simple and as with other parts of this sport, they LOOK easy even though they are not!
(This blog is a reprinted sample lecture from NW345: Container Wizardry that I ran in the February 2022)