Isabella and I competed in a trial last night. We did not qualify but we had a lovely run on a challenging and complex course. I am very proud of that run. I gave her space, let her make decisions, trusted her and took the time to celebrate each live tube. Isabella in turn checked a few areas when asked, tunneled on her own, partied at each live tube with me and told me it was time to go. Her final response to each tube was very light. On a particularly challenging high hide in a narrow area, she lightly bit the straw. Got it! On an easier lower hide on the perimeter, she did a wee pounce. Got it! And when she said it was time to leave, not because she was clear, but because she needed a break from the people, from the searching, from the pressure, I said, “Yes ma’am!” We were not clear and I knew that. We ran outside and had a party chasing down treats and engaged in a silly game of play. It was a good run. A very good run.
What just happened here? What were we partying for? We didn’t qualify! No, we didn’t. But for about two minutes we were a great team and instead of pushing Isabella beyond her limits for the sake for a piece of satin ribbon and a new fancy title, we called it a day. She trusts me to understand she needs relief from the pressure of competing. This has been a slow road rebuilding this trust and partnership. I am grateful for the opportunity.
The afternoon before, I had taken Issie into the ring for a little practice and play. She leapt on tubes, dug, bit, kicked and scratched. She was eager to play the game and her final response was a giant neon sign clearly and unequivocally pointing at the live tube. There was no one in the building. No judge or stop watch. Just me, a terrier and a few cookies. When I stepped into the competition ring last night, I had no expectation of seeing this level of final response during competition. There would be spectators, three other people in the ring, a nervous handler, a challenging course… For Isabella, this is a far cry from a quiet ring and having a party with Mom. All these things in the past became associated with frustration, lack of trust, poor teamwork, pressure, stress and as much as it pains me my own negative emotional state as we chased down that RATCH. There was the final response I could hope to see and the one that Isabella was going to offer. Our goal last night was simple: We were going to be a team. We each had a job and we trusted each other to do that job. We were even going to have some fun.
One of the things I love most about this sport is the teamwork. Our dogs have the nose. We do not. We have to trust them and in turn, they have to trust us to make the call and have the party. It does sound simple but Barn Hunt is a challenging sport. That is, after all, why we keep coming back for more. Let’s discuss the common challenges teams face in the ring.
Difficult Scent Challenges
Although Barn Hunt has a reputation as a prey driven sport, at its core, Barn Hunt is scent work. Dogs are essentially presented with a three dimensional scent puzzles where they can climb over, under or through odor filled bales littered with litter and lingering odor. Five common types of scent challenges found in Barn Hunt are:
Converging Odor (intersection of odor from two or more hides)
Close proximity hides (two or more hides generally within 6” to 24”)
Pooling of odor in tunnels, wells, basins
Drifting of odor along bales
Linger or residual odor from prior hides
Scent challenges are just that, a challenge. They may either be deliberately set by the judge or unintentionally occur.
Difficult or Challenging Hides
Someone once told me Barn Hunt was such an easy sport. All the dog has to do is find a rat. How hard can it be? Clearly they had never seen some of the incredibly inventive courses judges have designed for us. The teamwork involved in successfully completing each challenge is, after all, what keeps us coming back for more. Here are just a few challenges of the actual hide aside from odor:
Distance Challenges: Tubes hidden on large or deep structures which are not easily accessible to handlers result in a distance challenge where the dog must comfortably work with far less physical direction than a handler may normally present.
Proximity of live tubes to rat wranglers: Recently I studied the impact of wrangler proximity to live tubes and found that dogs were often polite, worried or fearful of moving toward even wranglers they knew and loved. The radius around a wrangler could be as small as 12” or in the case of one dog, nearly 6’. There are a number of contributing factors to this particular challenge. For safety, most dogs are taught to give wranglers space when a rat is present. Although the intention is that the dog should ignore a rat wrangler carrying a live tube, dogs are often called out of odor as they begin to source near rat wranglers. Over time, a new rule of the game is established: do not approach rats near humans.
To our dogs, and often times to we handlers as well, rat wranglers also behave erratically, including transitioning from statue to cheetah to run across the ring; leaping, jumping or climbing up structures; intense staring; quick darting or hesitant movements to remove tubes, etc. This unpredictability is a challenging prospect for even the most confident of dogs. Add to it the fact that the presence of rat wranglers signifies that the beloved live tube will most certainly be taken away, along with any chance of further reward. My own two-year-old Parson Russell Terrier, EV, refers to rat wranglers at the Joy Stealers.
Perimeter and corner hides: Most hides in competition are found in or around the primary course structures. As a results, structures develop an almost magical gravitational pull for both handlers and dogs alike – leaving the vast possibilities of hides along fences and tucked in corners largely unexplored.
High hides: It is not uncommon to see a change in the final response of high hides, where surface area for dogs to move and complete the behavior are limited. This surface may also move depending on bale stability even on the most well-constructed course, presenting a physical challenge to the dog.
Similar to scent challenges, the level of difficult may either be deliberately set by the judge or unintentionally occur.
Weather and Air Flow
As in all scent sports, handler awareness of weather conditions and their impact on scent and an individual dog’s ability to work scent is important. Factors such as extreme temperatures, direction of wind and humidity levels will play an important role in a successful search. Odor functions differently in warmer or cooler temperatures as well as in wetter or dryer conditions. Additionally, while some dogs prefer hot to cold, other dogs prefer cold to hot and their performance will be affected by extremes at either end. Even indoors, opening and closing of exterior doors, sunlight coming through closed windows, heating and air conditioning units, ceiling fan and such play an important part as to how odor moves. Although not always readily visible, weather and air flow impact a dog’s ability to work scent.
Doors opening and closing. Children or bicyclists ring side. Birds landing in or around the ring. Barking. Silence. Hot dogs on the grill. Large crowds. Shadows. Dropped crate. Human laughing. Human crying. Excited human. Angry human. Disappointed human. Frustrated human. These things and many more comprise common environmental factors which may impact a dog’s ability to work confidently and efficiently in the ring. Any one of these may not be an issue, but two, three or four over the course of the day or weekend result in a type of trigger stacking where even a confident, so called “bomb proof” dog may be unable to work effectively.
The Human Element
Before you power down your computer and never speak to me again (or head for the nearest bottle of whiskey to pre-emptively drown your sorrows), take a breath. Remember, we are only human. We are capable of so many great things, but we also make mistakes and we are capable of learning from them. Yes, we are flawed and yes, we owe it to our dogs to be the very best we can be – not one single human is perfect. Handlers are susceptible to many of the same types of stressors listed above. We also come with many of our own unique stressors as well. There are times where our own stress and emotional investment affects our ability to handle confidently, effectively and supportively. Fortunately for us, our canine teammates are often very forgiving and love us in spite of ourselves. I am offering this with the frankness and humility of a flawed human who also happens to have worked with hundreds of teams.
Excessive Directed Handling
Directed handling occurs when the handler asks the dog to check a specific location or series of locations on the course. There is a time and place for the use of directed handling. Excessive directed handling can and will result in pulling dogs out of odor or worse, directly off a live tube. At worst, in one run the handler is giving very mixed signals to the dog regarding the task at hand (“Am I finding rats or do I need to pay attention to you?”) and at the very least is likely to result in leaving a live tube on the course or weak final response. If it happens often enough, it can have very negative long term results both in and out of the barn hunt ring. Remember, this is a team sport. Let the dog do his part.
Significant Delay in Praise and Reward
This is a challenging one. Dogs do need a moment to think and settle on a live tube. However, waiting to make the call so long that the dog has begun to give up results in a conflicting message to the dog. What behavior did the handler praise and reward for? Finding and staying with the rat OR finding the rat and leaving? Unfortunately, it is often the latter, which leads to a systemic breakdown in the final response behavior. Remember, dogs are likely to offer behaviors they have been rewarded for. How long is too long? This largely depends on the individual dog and if you handle multiple dogs, it is likely to be different for each one.
Lack of Praise and Reward
In the heat of the moment when under a time crunch, whether or real or perceived, the very first human behavior to go is praise and reward. My philosophy is that it is better to time out working as a team than to miss the opportunity to celebrate a successful find. Take the moment allowed you and praise your teammate! Reward every single rat on the course like it is the very last rat your dog will ever meet.
Lack of Support
Typically lack of support occurs when a dog is really working through a difficult challenge. This is the opposite of excessive directed handling where the handler just watches the dog struggle. And struggle. And struggle. A simple “Nice check!” or direction (see, I am not opposed to direction!) to another portion of the structure or area to aid in solving the puzzle can go a long way. Be a good teammate to your good teammate.
Travel Stress and Fatigue
New places, late night drives, yet another hotel room or even simply traveling and competing for weeks on end. It wears on dog and human alike. Rest. Relax. Some dogs do best competing close to home or if traveling, may need an extra day to acclimate prior to competing while other dogs immediately see the straw and are ready to get to work, even after 3 days of continuous driving. Know your limits. Know your dog’s limits. Work with them.
This can be the handler. This can be the dog. Attitude is everything. Bad things happen when one or both members of a team are frustrated. It is all too easy to fall down a rabbit hole of self-doubt, particularly during difficult periods where qualifying scores seem so few and far between. Every non-qualifying run is an opportunity for learning. Making radical, knee jerk reaction changes to handling for a quick fix, however, are not the answer.
One of the most common ways I see frustration emerge in exhibitors is what transpires directly after the conclusion of a difficult run. The human reaction is to march our dogs off to their crates and immediately verbally and physically expel our frustration by engaging in immediate analyzation and self-loathing with other exhibitors. This becomes a post run routine, focusing all energy on the negative. The run isn’t over when a team exits the ring. Everything that happens on that death march back to camp becomes part of the competition experience for both you and your dog.
Remember, your canine teammate needs your attention and YOU need your attention. Take a deep breath, go for a walk, decompress and then calmly and objectively watch the video. For each negative thing you remember, look for at least one positive. Yes, you called a litter tube but did your dog with tunnel troubles immediately perform the tunnel on cue? Yes? Excellent! What else was good? Frustration can and will have long lasting effects on both you and your dog.
Be fair to yourself. Be fair to your dog. Be KIND to yourself. Be kind to your dog.
When you stepped into the start box for you first novice run, you may not have been thinking about air flow in the ring and how it may affect your dog’s ability to find the live tube, proximity of rat wranglers near tubes and their impact on your dog’s comfort level and how important that time in the blind was. In fact, you are probably thinking right now that there is no way you are ever going to be able to remember all of this and that suddenly this sports sounds terribly over complicated. No, you won’t remember all of this in the heat of the moment, but over time with practice, persistence and teamwork much of this will become second nature. It will become part of the flow of your teamwork. Yes, you will suddenly find yourself saying, “Wow! That was a great converging odor puzzle!” or “The wind is really blowing to the east today, I need to remember that.” More often than not, you will find yourself enjoying your dog’s work and enjoying being their partner.
But how does that all come together? Next time in part three, my dears. Next time.
Copyright 2016. All Rights Reserved. This article may be shared in its entirety with credit given to the author and Northern Nevada Canine