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Scent Work Trials - What to Pack, What to Expect.

The purpose of trialing can be different for all of us. Some people like to trial because of the community and friends they have, it's a great chance to catch up and hang out all day (a little harder right now with the pandemic)! Others like to go to a trial to compete and win. While others still want to test their skills to help show areas where they need to train. Whatever your reason, your first time trialing can be hard, especially if you don't know what to expect!

Before you get there

Let's talk about preparation. There will be a few things you need to be prepared for: You. Your dog. What to expect. Once you get to the trial it's unlikely that you will have a chance to leave, so it's important for you to have packed everything that you might need at the trial.


How long will you be at the site? You will need to keep yourself hydrated, caffeinated (optional for some of us), and energized. You know yourself, but also be thoughtful about what YOU need to be performing at your best. This sport is mental, for you AND your dog. Here is what I pack for food for myself every trial (even if I don't need it, I have it on hand):

  • Water - Cold preferably

  • Tea - Warm or Cold, but definitely my caffeine

  • Juice or Vitamin Water - Something with sugars that can be a quick pick me up mentally if I feel sluggish

  • Protein - Best way to keep your mind sharp for the full day. I usually bring a protein bar, some cheese, and some nuts.

  • Carbs/Fruit - Something to keep me feeling full and be easy to eat. Apple, cut up fruit, banana, muffin, etc.

  • Happy food - Chocolate is mine. Not always eaten, but a good pick me up if the day is hard and I'm feeling frazzled. It's like a little treat tucked away.

Your list should also include:

  • Weather Appropriate Clothing - warmer or cooler gear, especially if I'm there all day. Can include a hat (sun/warmth), jacket, rain gear, cooling towel, shorts to change into, extra pair of sandals for the drive home.

  • Trialing Gear - I bring my training apron (helstar), and running shoes.

  • Journaling book - to write my notes in after my run

  • Something to entertain you through the day (if you're not the social type) - I like to listen to podcasts or audiobooks on my phone and play games on my phone. It's my way to feel calm and not get anxious.

Your Dog

Your dog's list will also include the list of stuff to keep your dog comfortable in the car since you'll be spending lots of time there! It is extremely common for you to be expected to crate out of your vehicle. This means your dog stays inside the vehicle all day (secured in a crate or tethered), OR you can set up a crate just outside your vehicle. Some locations will allow you to run your A/C or heater, but review your premium so you know what's expected.

  • Treats - SO IMPORTANT!!! Make sure they are already all cut up to the right size, chilled if they need to be, and easily shoveled into your pocket/treat pouch/apron. TOY if you use a toy to reward your dog.

  • Leash & collar/harness - This is your dog's gear. Don't forget it!

  • Water & Bowl - Enough water to drink, and wet them down if you need it

  • Downtime snack - I use a kong for my girly between runs to keep her occupied for the breaks between searches. Bully sticks, a bone, etc. whatever you have already tested at home.

  • Cooling (if it's above 65) - Aluminet shade screens are key in my book. I will never go to a trial without them! But also front window reflectors are nice, a fan can be essential with more humid weather, and even a water mister can be nice. You can also set up a tent over some/all of your vehicle, especially if you choose to set up a crate outside of the vehicle for your dog to have more airflow.

  • Warming - I don't experience this too much, but an extra blanket or two is good (you can use it too!). Your dog might need a jacket, especially if they are thinner skinned.

  • Extreme weather - BOOTS. This is something you HAVE to train at home and have your dog familiar with if you plan on using in a trial. I have had to use them a few times in the summer, but boots can be helpful if your dog struggles with slick surfaces (gymnasium floors are the worst!).

Other stuff to help you feel prepared

You can do a little research ahead of time to help you feel prepared. Here is a list of a few things I like to have with me:

  • Run Order - not always possible, but when you can, it's nice to have

  • Copy of the premium or email from the host/trial secretary

  • Copy of the rules on my phone. I download these into adobe acrobat on my phone and I can quickly search for anything I need to know.

When you get there

When you arrive at a scent work trial, it can range from extremely structured (NACSW) to very casual. Understand that each club in AKC is different and will manage their trials differently.

Parking - You might be instructed where to park or you might be given free rein to park anywhere. Be considerate of your space. With COVID, many groups are asking for a minimum of 6' between vehicles. Before this, it could be common to have to park extremely close so that everyone would have a space in the parking lot. If you have a dog that likes to bark when someone walks by, think about parking further away to allow your dog a chance to relax. If you plan on running your A/C or heater, you should set up downwind from other competitors. Some trials will not allow you to leave your vehicle running, or only allow it in certain areas. The exhaust from your vehicle can easily blow into another vehicle's open window.

Socially Distanced General Briefing

Checking In - Expect anything :) haha. You might need to check in with a specific person (usually at a desk near one side of the parking lot), you might be greeted at your vehicle by a volunteer, or you might not have any check-in at all.

Briefings - Before COVID it would be common to have a general briefing that would contain all the important information about the site, where the potty areas are, where the human potty areas are, where you are and not allowed to walk, the order of things, and to introduce your judges and volunteers for the day. Now, it is common to have many of these things written in a briefing that is emailed out to all competitors. Be sure to read this! There may not be someone to answer the questions on site. With COVID, the number of volunteers is often reduced to keep the number of people on-site at a minimum (required by many venues).

Example of an Advanced Interior Search (AKC)

Your Searches - There will be a briefing for the level/element you are searching, this briefing can be done virtually (NACSW does all of them virtually now), or it can be done as a group, or it can be done individually by the judge when you walk up to the search area. All of these things are allowed, so be prepared to not be able to fully see your search area until after you arrive with your dog in hand.

  • Own your search - Take the time to understand your boundaries, what is in play, and where your start line is before you start. The judge will be happy to make sure you are clear on this. Survey the area and get your bearings before asking your dog to search.

Back to Back - It is not uncommon for you to run more than one search in a row (search multiple elements before going back to your vehicle). This allows for the day to be more efficient (aka faster), and limit interactions for COVID. It is becoming more and more common to run all AKC elements in one go. This can be a lot for a dog!! Be sure to read your premium & trial information. If it is run back to back, it is a good idea to practice this.

Efficiency (AKA the trial trying to run quickly) - Own your time. The volunteers are trying to get as many through as possible in as short of time as possible. That is their job (and we thank them for it!!) BUT also know you and your dog. Feeling rushed can make for a tough search. This doesn't mean that you should doddle or waste the time of the volunteers or judge. Be proactive.

  • Keep track of the run order, know how many more dogs are in front of you and what dog is right before you.

  • Give yourself and your dog enough time to potty, don't leave it until the dog in front of you has gone into the search area.

  • Have your leash, collar/harness on your dog, have your treats ready.

  • Don't make the volunteers track you down.

  • BUT also avoid getting your dog out too early and making them stand around (which will impact your dog's ability to search at their best).

The more often you trial, the more you will start to understand YOUR dog and what they need and how much time you need to set aside before you go in.

End of the day

After trialing, we are eager to know how we did! Depending on the venue, you might know if you qualify in a run immediately (AKC & lower level NACSW) or at the end of the day (NACSW unknown # hides). It has become even more common lately for the clubs to email out results to all competitors are the finish of a class, allowing them to leave the trial site (limiting the number of people at the site).

In AKC, results are not able to be posted or shared until the class has finished. This can be only an hour, or it can be up to 8 hours if the searches are open all day!


Each club (AKC) is handling this differently. Sometimes ribbons are available for self-serve, other times clubs are mailing out all ribbons. Maybe some are available on the 2nd day of a trial.

NACSW used to hold ribbon ceremonies, which were great opportunities to cheer on fellow competitors and hear what the judges thought from the searches. With COVID they have paused them, but hopefully, they will be back! NACSW ribbons are available for pick up as soon as the results are available. Don't forget your score sheets in NACSW, often some great information can be found from judge's comments!

I know I definitely didn't cover EVERYTHING you might bring with you, but hopefully this can be a start and let you feel a little more prepared for your first (or first in a long time) trial!

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