There is no greater honor than searching behind your best friend. Dogs let us into their secret world with every Change of Behavior and every “Sniff and Dismiss”. They float along the rapidly changing and unstable air currents, tasting and sampling, looking for something that we have requested. Every step they take and each curve of their body tells a story. Only those who have studied and observed have learned how to interpret the masterpiece unfolding in front of them. It’s an intimate experience where whispers and clues comes together in something that is truly beautiful and hard to express. Fellow handlers, you are in a secret club with a secret handshake.

Carpe Diem

The very sad truth is that our dogs live fleeting lives. I am confronted with this reality daily right now as Judd fights the good fight. Cancer will win this one. Just not today. But don’t be sad for him. He is out there searching and the look in his eyes when it’s “His Turn” confirms to me that I am absolutely doing the right thing for him. Every time I see that look, my heart explodes.

It’s important to focus on the right things. If you are searching with your dog, you are enriching his life in ways that most dogs don’t get. You are making every moment count. This also means that it’s so important to keep things in perspective.

Keeping things in perspective

It’s not about the title, it’s about the experience. I will be honest, I’m seeing a troubling trend in this sport towards titling or Q’ing at all costs. I see stressed dogs and handlers that are hoping for “just one more leg” without looking at the emotional creature at the other end of the leash. It’s so important to realize that you are EVERYTHING to that animal. The sun rises and sets through you in their eyes. And one day, they won’t be here anymore.

This past weekend, I got the go ahead from Judd’s Oncologist to trial. He went up to Canada and had a blast. We didn’t kill it the way he’s done in the past. I credit the Metronidazole for that one! But it’s ok because it’s about time spent with him. It’s about the look in his eyes and the enthusiasm as he still, even now, pulls me to the start line.

Judd searching at the 2019 SDDA National Challenge Cup.
Photo graciously taken by Tina Sawicki. Thank you Tina for capturing this moment!

This coming weekend, I get to trial with my 12 year old Standard Poodle, Joey, in NW3. We have been in NW3 for a few years with lots (and lots!) of tries. Joey does have one NW3 title, but honestly there is sadness in the prospects of getting two more. I truly don’t care about the title. What I care about is the way his ears tip back as he prances to the start line. I call them his “Happy Ears” and seeing them touches me like no ribbon or title ever will, and I can’t wait to step to the line with him on Sunday.

Trialing and training ARE different

I know a few of you are there thinking, “your dog doesn’t know if it’s a trial”. This is a sentiment I hear often, however I CAN tell you that you aren’t totally correct if that’s what you are thinking. Our dogs DO love practice, but if you have a dog who has been conditioned to love and enjoy trialing with you, there is something special for them too on that competition day. (There is a BIG IF there. Competition is only fun IF you have made it fun. Your dog will tell you if you have done that.)

That said, I am super happy that Judd will get to search in a local class tonight. I would like to give a huge shout out to Karin Damon of Washington, NJ and Shamrock Pot of Gold. She’s a fabulous trainer with a huge heart, and someone I very much respect for her knowledge and capability.

There is nothing wrong with being Competitive as long as you are there as a TEAM

I have zero issues with being competitive. Honestly, I’m probably one of the more competitive people out there. My point is that this isn’t about the two camps: #1 “I Want to win” and #2 “I am not in it for the ribbons”. That is an argument I see often on Facebook where #2 tries to take a higher moral ground and make others feel bad for wanting to do well or for being proud of an accomplishment. To me, that attitude is all about sour grapes and jealousy, because the fact of the matter is, it’s ok to be competitive as long as your team member has been prepared properly and wants to be there as much as you do. (That caveat is actually a really big one though, and is probably more important than anything else when it comes to trialing.)

Go ahead and be competitive, but just keep your best friend in mind. And if you aren’t “competitive” but you and your best friend love the experience… well… you are well ahead of the game and keep on doing what you’re doing! There is magic there!

The trialing experience is Sacred

The trialing experience is Sacred… what do I mean by that? It means that you need to enjoy the experience for what it is and embrace every chance to step to the line. Sure, come to title, but treasure each moment. For some trials, the prospect of titling may be obscure, and that’s ok! It’s important to keep things in perspective and focus on your dog and your dog’s emotions throughout the event. Sure, you will remember the ribbon, but years from now, when your dog is no longer with you, you will remember the look in his eyes and the joy you had when you held the leash.

So Judges, I turn this back on you

So far I’ve talked about the experience between dog and handler. I want to shift the focus briefly now onto the Judges and Certifying Officials. YOU have the power to make or break a weekend. This means that you need to prioritize odor hygiene and good calls. It’s an immense responsibility because if you touch odor and you accidentally touch something else (maybe in trying out a hide location?) you can wreck a team’s chances of being successful. Good calls are paramount. Remember that the dog is the authority on odor, not you. Learn from the dog and give the dog the benefit of the doubt when you aren’t sure. Shelve the ego and trust what a confident dog gives you.

(** As info, I’m partially responsible for educating judges in AKC and have played a role in judge education overseas in some circumstances. Judges are human… but remember the dogs and continually educate yourselves.)

But ultimately this is about a celebration with your dog

Just this very moment, I received a Facebook message from a friend who said that she loves that I focus on all of my dogs and not just the Labs. That message is so true to who I am as a competitor and the message that I really want to get out there. Competition is an extension of your relationship with that very special creature who shares his life with you. It doesn’t matter whether you have a dog who struggles to find a hide in a new place or if you have a dog who is killing it at Summit League. Your journey is sacred and unique. Embrace that and honor the experience.

Happy Sniffing!