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Tana Tails - AKC Scent Work Trials during COVID

This past weekend Tana and I traveled to an AKC Scent Work Trial to be able to compete for one day after being stuck at home for over 3 months. After being at home, only to venture out to go for groceries or occasionally training with a friend (the friend that came with us), it was a big deal to travel! I have been itching to get out and test all the training we've been doing, but I also wanted to be doing it safely and to reduce our risks as much as we could.

Before we got to the trial

The trial was hosted by the San Gabriel Scent Work Club and was a small trial only offering detective and Handler Discrimination. It was a double trial, which meant 2 detective classes in one day and 2 HD classes back to back.

The club was proactive in keeping the number of people on the trial site at a minimum. Before the trial, we were emailed clear guidelines on what was to be expected. The email sent to all exhibitors outlined:

  • The time we were expected to arrive for each class. We were split into groups, spreading people out over 3 hours for each class.

  • Where we needed to park (do not arrive early)

  • COVID specific guidelines (masks must be worn, 6' minimum distance, no spectators, remain in vehicle unless running, minimal # of volunteers)

  • Results would be emailed once classes are completed

  • A link to our virtual briefing/walk-thru, which also included how to get from our vehicle into the search area! So helpful! For the detective class, this was so very helpful. By the time we got to the trial site, I felt very familiar with the search areas already!

At the trial site

The weekend was warm (95 & moderate humidity for us AZ folks!) and so we planned ahead and brought a lot of water! It was especially useful since we were sitting in the air-conditioned car the whole day. Without being able to set up a tent and have reflective sheeting over the vehicle, the AC really had to be running all day.

The club was really great in keeping things organized, running smoothly, and their clear guidelines really helped all the exhibitors know what to expect. Some of the key things the club did that made the trial not only lower risk during COVID, but also was a huge advantage for running 18 dogs through 2 detective searches! We were in and out so very quickly and didn't have to wait all day onsite!

  • Group exhibitors. We were given our armband numbers and grouped into time periods to arrive. Because this was a detective class, only a maximum of 4 cars were parked in the space during that hour period. We were asked to remain in our vehicles until the dog ahead of us had entered their search. That gave each competitor about 10 minutes to potty and warm up their dog as needed.

  • Limited Volunteers. Our instructions let us know that we should wait in our car until the designated gate steward flagged us down. All volunteers would be wearing masks and we would be required to as well. Fewer volunteers meant the ones on-site were working harder, but it also made for a very organized system with everyone on the same page and reducing confusion.

  • Do not remain on site. To keep exposure limited, we were asked to leave after our runs. Bathrooms were available in an emergency, but we were asked to potty ourselves and remain off-site unless waiting or running our runs during the time period assigned to us.

We were masked, and so was everyone else at the trial site. This was new, not only for the dogs (we had been training with masks to help prepare them), but it was new for the exhibitor-judge communication! Saying "ALERT" loud and clear as well as listening for the "YES" was more important than ever. This took a little extra mental effort. Having a mask that was comfortable, familiar, and secure was so important. Nothing worse than trying to handle and thinking too much about a slipping mask!

After Our Runs

After we ran our search, we were able to hop back in the car and leave. Because the Detective searches were am/pm, we were lucky to be able to have a late check out at the hotel and took advantage of a quiet AC hotel room to relax and potty before finding lunch and heading back to do our afternoon runs. Such a luxury when running 2 detective classes.

The club emailed us all with results from the class as soon as the last dog ran. It was nice to have the results pop up on our phones and we could see how everyone did so quickly. Having an internet connection would be key for this to happen at trials, but I would love to implement it for our trials in the future! No gathering at the results table!

Ribbons were self-serve at this trial, which could be a point of gather for some classes, but at this trial with so few on-site, there was never anyone else at the table.

My thoughts

I'm writing this post to help those who have trialed in the past to learn how this trial was held and help them feel informed on how a COVID-conscious trial could be held. I really felt safe and the whole event had only minimal exposure possibilities. The majority of the trial site was outside, even with the heat, but the searches were really well thought out and allowed for social distancing and REALLY fun searches. Some of the things the club did are not only elements key for COVID safety, but also things that I hope to continue (emailed results are awesome and scheduled detective groups are amazing!).

A little about AKC detective and HD

Just a quick note about AKC detective classes - they are an upper-level class that competitors must have a title in a master level class before they can enter. The searches are 2,000 to 5,000 square feet and must include an inside and outside area. There are 5-10 hides and your judge determines a time for searching between 7-15 minutes. These are usually a huge challenge and really test the dog and handler with their skills and abilities.

Handler discrimination classes (HD) are where the dog has to search for the handler's scent within a search area. Each level has different requirements, but for advanced level and up the odor is either on a cotton ball or Q-tip. The novice level (sock or glove) is in a container search (in a box), the advanced is a small interior search, excellent a small exterior search, and master level is 2 searches back to back where 3 of the handler's scent are hidden, 2 in one search and 1 in the other search. The master level searches are 2 different types (ie. container & interior, or interior & exterior, or exterior & container). In each search, there is the judge's odor also placed in the search area that the dog needs to discriminate from and only alert on the handler's odor. At the master level, there is an additional challenge of a volunteer's odor also in the search area.

How We Did!

Well, we didn't just go to California to play, we went to test our training skills! We have been working hard for the past few months, preparing for the eventual possibility to trial :) And I'm extremely happy with how we both did! We've not only been working on skills, but also heat endurance, working in booties, working swirling and weird pooling air from hot pavement, and motivation when it's hot!

Detective 1

This search was a series of rooms as well as a long hallway and a small exterior area. It was starting to get warm by this point, but it wasn't hot yet. I was super pleased with Tana in this search, she was quick to pick up odor and work to the source.

We found all the hides in this search (yay!!), but I spent way too much time working one of the rooms (sunny yellow room). She had shown a change of behavior in the room and there was definitely odor present. After missing one hide in each of my previous detective searches, I was determined to not miss another one! I wanted to be sure there wasn't an elevated hide in the space before moving on. I believe what was going on is that the hide placed outside was actually pulling in through the door of the room and Tana was hitting on that hide. She never alerted, but she did tell me the odor didn't belong to any of the hides placed inside.

With our time pushing the limit, I didn't expect to place at all. But a clean run can be worth it and since we had no faults, she was 1st place! What a really fun treat! This was #3 of the 10 qualifying legs I need for our detective title.

Detective 2

Our 2nd run of the day was at 1 pm and the temps were definitely warmer! Our search started with an outside small courtyard with very little in it. The inside was a huge room used for church services. Carpeted floor, stage on one side (not in play), and various chairs and tables around the space. Definitely a fun space for Tana to work off-leash! In this search, we missed only one hide but otherwise did well. I was really happy with her work, even with the heat.

I did notice that she was a little slower at pinpointing odor than she usually is. I have a feeling this was mostly due to me working a lot with lighter odor lately instead of the AKC strength odor. Before our next detective trial, we will be working with only the stronger concentration to be quicker on pinpointing/decisions. A few things to clean up, a little more confidence in sourcing, and I'm excited about our next detective class!

Handler Discrimination

With focusing on running detective, I really haven't been working handler odor! Thanks to a student of mine sharing some cotton swabs, Tana and I were able to work through some issues with discrimination and I thought she did amazing for only working HD 3 days before the trial. We got our Excellent HD title (and 2nd place) and got to play one round of Master HD. We missed the 2nd hide in our first search, so didn't get the Q, but I was super happy with our runs! A fun place to get a title, SGSWC has some of the best HD title ribbons!

I'm looking forward to cautiously trial again and I'm optimistic that we can continue having trials that comply with the CDC guidelines and allow for a safe and fun trial!

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