When I talk to people about their training, often they ask what they need to train for this level or that.. or what they should focus on for the next level in competition. Of course I tell them where the challenges will focus, however I often think that although it’s not the wrong answer, it’s the wrong QUESTION. I think so often people get caught up in advancing the levels that they forget that trialing is just a test and should just be a snapshot of a well developed dog. Perhaps this is also why experienced trainers are always talking “foundations, foundations, foundations!”

Training to DEVELOP the dog by working on foundations doesn’t mean working easy stuff necessarily. It means focusing on important qualities that will carry the dog through the highest levels… even if those highest levels haven’t even been developed yet! It’s training right to left, or rather, training with the end in mind. Foundations aren’t simplistic and they truly CAN be “sexy”.

I am currently blessed with 3 young female Labs as my competition partners. All three are following in the footsteps of my old boy Judd, who I lost 2 years ago to cancer. Judd placed in the top 5 in all of his 4 Summit trials, titling in 3 in them. He was a truly incredible dog. The experience he gave me was priceless. But as all trainers and handlers do with time, we get better. I believe that all 3 girls have the potential to surpass what I did with Judd. That is just the way of things as long as the dogs following behind are stable and want to play the game.

Fast forward to the recent Appleton, WI Summit Trial… Brava earned her first Summit title and I saw glimmers of true brilliance in her. She is only 4 and the world is her oyster. I am excited about continuing her development, and to do that, I will focus on shoring up and building foundational skills which will support her in future competitions. Powder is hot on her heels having just started her Elite journey, and Prize is my newest little gem.

Left to Right: Prize, Powder, Brava

With every dog, a trainer should be trying to give that dog stronger skills than the last dog. What I mean by that is that we should be trying to become better and better at being trainers. There is no “resting on our laurels” if we truly love the process.

I truly love the process… and there is nothing so exciting than to develop a dog and to see all of that unbridled potential bubbling up to the surface. You might be saying, “yeah but they were bred for it”. I don’t disagree with the genetics. Their genetics supply a huge amount of raw talent. But talent without training and the proper foundations is wasted. That would be like saying Michael Jordan didn’t have to practice and train because he was genetically predisposed to being a great basketball player. I’m fairly certain that he didn’t come out of the womb dunking baskets. The same goes with dogs… you can NQ with any dog!

Back to Prize… she is an incredible air scenter and problem solver. Much of my training with her so far has been to give her the tools and support to work and experience the widest variety of scenting challenges that I can give her. I love the way she is learning to tease out solutions to odor problems and her grit for sticking with it until she is successful. But like most gifted qualities, her air scenting approach to searching has a flip side that can make other things more challenging. In her case, her challenge is containers.

Containers are the ultimate in a visually dominated exercise of using the nose. What I mean about that is that there is little to no hunting involved as it is more a case of selection and sorting YES/NO. For a dog who searches with a heavy olfactory emphasis, searches that require visual processing are more difficult. At the lower levels, this isn’t an issue, especially with essential oils. Essential oils give off such a large scent cone that dogs who search almost completely on air currents can absolutely get by, especially when the number of hides are known or when the containers soak up and hold odor, like cardboard.

This way of searching containers takes longer too… because the dog is looking for the scent cones and is not actually checking the containers. The time a search will take will depend more on air currents than speed of searching in this case. Here’s a video of Prize’s ORT’s to demonstrate what I mean. In her first run, when she doesn’t catch odor immediately off of a box, she resorts to working air currents. As soon as she intersected the scent plume, she alerted on the hot box. The air currents were more complicated in the second and third searches. In fact, the A/C was on in the third search and the air was blowing directly down onto the boxes. She is focused the whole time but the searches take a little longer because Prize is trying to work out air currents rather than check boxes.

Her ORT’s were done about 6 months ago. Fast forward to now and Prize is entered in a NW2. She is an incredible hunter and will be very capable in the searches. I’ve recently focused on her container work though because I felt that that was her weakest area. This involved teaching her to be more methodical and how to check the containers. This also involved introducing her to distractions.

This is where I want to talk about training for the future. I know I can “get by” with Prize’s container approach because she is SO driven for target odor. I also know that the distractions in NW2 tend to be fairly mild as far as distractions go. But I also know that Prize is going to really excel at the higher levels and high powered distractions are often found in Elite and Summit. And her way of searching cannot be extrapolated to a search that I did at the Summit level back in 2019 with Judd.

In this search, Judd had to search 68 containers set in a spiral. Because this was Summit, there was a twist… we had no idea how many hides (unknown number no max), but that wasn’t the twist… we had UNKNOWN TIME. Crazy right? There were only 2 hides. The very first hide in the spiral and the very last. Judd found both and I believe came in 2nd Place in that search.

Taking a look at that Summit search, you can see why I felt that I needed to work on Prize’s containers. This is where training with the end in mind comes into play. I had to teach her to focus on the containers. And while I was at it, I also proofed her on distractions. Had I just focused on the upcoming NW2 trial, I might have been setting searches in ways that she will potentially see them and with minimal distractions. However, I am training her with an eye on Summit. Now I know not all dogs will get to Summit… (I have no doubt that she will be quite competitive at that level) however, it shouldn’t stop us from training in a way that we are always reaching higher.

So instead of thinking about trialing requirements, which would be training for a test, I focused on what qualities I wanted for her container searches. I wanted her to check each container and to ignore anything that wasn’t target odor. I also want a passive indication at the hot box. Her indication is currently passive, however knowing her drive level, I might layer on something more formal as she currently does not have a trained final response. You see these are qualities that will carry her all the way up the levels. They aren’t NW2, NW3, or even Elite requirements, they are just GOOD TRAINING GOALS.

Because I focused on the qualities that I wanted in her container searches, my approach to training was different than I might have done if I was just focused on the next level. I used container configuration, distractions, and odor strength to shape her searching behavior. You see, good training goals are level (and organization) agnostic. I did this not to train for Summit, nor did I do this to train for NW2. I did this to train for an awesome container search.

This sort of search that I did with Prize is not like what she will find in competition. This was about practicing fluency in searching behaviors, through focus on seeking target odor and ignoring distractions. Prize has off the charts food drive and her toy drive is also pretty impressive. In this final training search we had 21 exposed toys, 3 stuffed bones, 1 package of freeze dried chicken, 1 entire roll of Happy Howie’s, 2 concealed ball/rope toys, and 11 food distractions (oatmeal cookie, bagel with cream cheese and salmon, shredded cheese, turkey pepperoni, Wellness soft puppy treats, hamburger, peppermint tea bag, steak, tortilla chips, rice dish with pork tenderloin, and roasted Brussel sprouts). Not only did she ignore ALL of the distractions, including toys that she has been rewarded with in the past and her dock diving bumper, but she also checked every box with a beautiful passive indication on the hot box!

Here are the distractions revealed in case you are interested in seeing how they were packaged, quantities used, etc…

Now you might be thinking, yeah but… Prize is an awesome dog! Well you would be right about the awesome part. But keep in mind the food and toy drives she has! Distractions are REALLY hard for a dog who REALLY likes the things you are distracting them with. You might also be thinking, yeah but… I am not trying to get to Summit. Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t… but remember that good training is level agnostic.

Now one thing that I hope you DON’T do… I hope you don’t run out and try a search with 26 exposed distractions and 13 contained distractions… because that would the opposite of what I’m talking about in this blog. Why? Because this video is ONE SEARCH that represents all of the smaller steps that I have taken to build this. Granted, the video IS pretty cool and I am VERY proud of my girl… but the point is to structure your training approach so that it points towards the qualities that you want to build.

But that is the same with all cool dog videos that get shared. They are a demonstration of a lot of hard work and smaller steps. For example, there is this step… using the U configuration to encourage thoughtfulness. This video is actually pretty cool because there are 11 distractions and 1 hot box (this video was taken the same day as the super cool video so they are the same distractions). However, this video is more about a training step than a demonstration of what she can do.

My training choices to get to this point were about the qualities I wanted to train, NOT about the upcoming NW2 trial!

Train with the end in mind… think about the qualities that you want to shape, sculpt, and craft in your dog, and let that vision guide your training choices.