IF IT WAS EASY WE'D QUIT
by Holly Bushard
Few of us knew when we started playing this scenting game that we’d all end up as addicts and junkies to the sport. Most of us were just looking for something new to do with our dogs, an enrichment activity. Instead, we ended up with a passion. Lately, this has been on my mind a lot. What is it about nosework that belly-hooks us? What is the sport’s hold?
Because I compete a lot (too much?) I spend a lot of time in parking lots with fellow sufferers. When I hear moaning and complaining, or when I moan and complain myself, I almost always say the same thing: If it was easy, we’d quit. My comment often draws a blank stare, but after a moment, most people agree. The reason we keep playing is because it IS hard. While the foundation is simple, higher levels are HARD! The game is always shifting and changing and challenging us to learn new things about how scent works and about our dogs. We are constantly finding holes in our training and handling, and the pursuit of competence drives us forward.
Imagine for a moment that every trial consisted only of entry level courses. How many miles would you travel to play? How many 95 degree days would you spend in a parking lot? Not many. We stay in the game because we want to see how far we have come and how far we can go. We stay in the sport for growth, not for ribbons. We are so fortunate that our dogs’ love of the game nearly always exceeds our own. They are happy to continue to practice and wait for our skills to evolve.
One of my fondest nosework memories is of my debut NW3 trial with my little Ky. We drove to MONTANA to play. Insane. And we flunked ¾ of the elements. Incredible! I told myself that she had to be sick or that she was too low energy for the level. I had all of these grand excuses, and then I got the videos. I played them and played them until I could truly understand what happened. Every error was entirely my fault. I pulled our entries to upcoming trials and took a break to work on our weaknesses. There was nothing to be gained by repeating our errors. We came back to earn our NW3 Elite in 3 tries with 2 HITs. Learning the lessons that the Montana trial presented set us on a new and better path. Waiting to trial again until we had mastered the new skills spared us unnecessary frustration. As bad as failure feels in the moment, it can deepen our love and understanding of the sport profoundly. Setbacks often make much better handlers of us if we are open to their information. They can draw us further into addiction. If it was easy, we’d QUIT.
As awesome as ribbons and titles are, the heart of scent work is the nuance of odor chasing. It’s about trying to see into the way our dogs experience the world. It’s about a glimpse into the ancestral history of dogs pursuing prey, territory, mates… Our sport allows us to honor the experience of being a dog. We will never fully understand, but it’s so fun to try. As we learn more, the ribbons and titles fall into place. However, the journey is always about learning more and more about our dogs. Every dog and every handler is different. We have different starting points and different challenges. One of the most profound keys to enjoying your time in the sport lies in acknowledging that we are all on our own paths. Not every team is going to thrive in new spaces. Not all dogs will move quickly enough to fully cover a search area. Some dogs are going to be awesome but constantly battle with marking or destructiveness. Some dogs are just absolutely madly talented and likely to win most of the time. Here's some great news: there’s room for all of us. And there’s enough goodwill out there for all of us to cheer for everyone else’s definition of success. While placement ribbons are for head-on competition, there are title ribbons and performance goals for everyone. When we step on a start line, we should first and foremost be competing with ourselves.
Competition encourages us to spend more time and attention to the game because we enjoy at least a few of the aspects of trialing. I carry my belief that we’d all quit if it was easy into my role as a judge in the sport. Because I judge in AKC, it is my job to set hides. When I am setting courses, I truly want every team to be successful. I want a 100% pass rate because I LOVE calling yes and saying Congratulations! However, I also feel very compelled to set puzzles that will challenge teams and keep handlers in the game. I want my courses to reward the teams who are playing the most. In order to do that, the hides must be a true test for their level. A team’s skill level should ascend with class levels. If the courses don’t increase in difficulty, the titles lose value. More importantly, the competitors are more likely to stagnate and lose interest. I hate calling a No, but it’s all part of the game. It is my hope that every No can be viewed as an opportunity for growth rather than a set back in confidence. I wish that every obstacle in competition could be met with curiosity and determination. If a team can’t walk away with a ribbon, it is my hope that they could walk away with training information and inspiration. Trials and tests should reward our strengths and uncover our weaknesses if they are to have value.
When I compete, after almost every trial, I sit down and write out a summary of the weekend. I write about what my goals were, what my thoughts were after the walk through, how I felt and what I was thinking during the search, and how it all turned out. Then, I sit and write about what my dog and I did well. Finally, I write about the things that challenged us and I come up with a plan for improvement. I try really hard not to take anything personally. Doing well doesn’t mean that I’m awesome. Doing poorly doesn’t mean that I stink. All of the results are just information. Success at a trial just means that my dog and I were ready for the challenges of THAT day. The next trial will test different skills. Disastrous results just mean that we were unprepared for THOSE challenges. Time to fill in those gaps and know that maybe next time, the challenges will be better aligned with our skillset. I try very hard to use trials as learning opportunities and to make the most out of them. I have learned that with practice, this gets easier.