You're trialing with your dog. You're confident in your training. Yet, you go to a trial and things go terribly wrong. What do you do now?! The answer: it all depends.
First of all, breathe.
We must all recognize that our dogs are just like us: living, breathing, thinking little beings who can have both good and bad days. This means a poor performance could simply be due to a dog not feeling well, either physically or mentally. For instance, your dog could be battling a stomach bug that you were unaware of, perhaps tweaked their back jumping off the couch the night before or they were startled the morning of by a large boom while they were out for potty and haven't recovered yet. Point being, no amount of training will overcome these issues. Your dog simply needs time to feel better. How much time? Again, it all depends. All you can do is take a step back, observe them and slowly re-introduce them to Scent Work using fun and engaging games once they are feeling better.
"But I'm entered in a bunch of trials...my entry fees!"
Only you can make this call. You are your dog's advocate. Their guardian. The person who looks after their best interests.
I would only urge you to evaluate the situation in a way that is unbiased. Try to the put yourself in your dog's position. Imagine if you had the worst flu ever, every part of your body ached and someone entered you in a biathlon where you had to do super complicated math questions every few minutes in addition to all the running, going over the obstacles and so on. Doesn't sound like a lot of fun, does it?! So it may mean you have to pull your dog from some trials or cut the number of classes that they are running in. But again, this decision is entirely up to you.
"I don't think that my dog is sick or was upset by something...they just didn't find the hide!"
Did you order a video of the searches in question? I really hope so. They will give you a lot of helpful information. Our memories are not something we should solely rely on. By reviewing the video, you can see exactly what happened...and what didn't happen. Perhaps your dog was trying to tell you that the hide was in the corner you missed, but you were obsessed with having them check that chair over and over and over again. Or, maybe you forgot to cover the corner at all! Point being, you cannot come up with a suitable plan if you do not really know what happened in the first place.
"I don't think it was my dog at all! I think it was the judge!"
Alright, this is when you REALLY need to take some good long, deep breaths.
Handle Yourself Maturely and Professionally
Is it possible a judge or hide official made a mistake? Sure. They are people just like us. Does that mean that we should blast them all over social media or shame them in other ways, calling for fire to rain down upon them and all their family and friends? No.
It is true that, sometimes, hides are not the best at trials. It could be that conditions changed dramatically from when they were first set, so now the odor picture is entirely different. It is also possible the placement was just not a good one to begin with. Regardless, these things are not done purposefully or with malice. Trial officials, at least 99.9% of them, are NOT trying to fail you or your dog. Rather, it pains trial officials when dog and handler teams do not do well. They are rooting for everyone to Q and when a team doesn't, they feel terrible!
That being said, we need to recognize that human beings are officiating and as such, they can make mistakes, can have different levels of experience and expertise and so on.
"It shouldn't matter! My dog and I should not be penalized because of a trial official's mistake!"
Tell that to the football team who loses a game because of a referee call.
Look, I'm not advocating for sloppy officiating, pushing wholly unsuitable people to officiate or forgiving those who do not know, or simply do not follow, the rules. Not in the least.
What I am saying is that we all need to understand there is only one thing we can control at trials: ourselves and the decisions we make on behalf of our dogs.
So, if I was at a trial with a dog who I felt had the training they needed to succeed, was healthy and I was in the right frame of mind, yet we still didn't do well, this is what I would do: I would review the video to see what happened. It very well could have been that the hide placement was not the best. If all the hides we did poorly with were set by the same trial official, and the overall Q rates in those searches were super low, I may make a note of it and not trial under them again in the near future. They may still be learning. But I highly doubt they took glee in failing a bunch of dogs.
What I would NOT do is jump on social media, call this person out by name, ream out the club for having the audacity for hiring them, so on and so forth. None of that helps. It actually makes things worse.
"Fine then Ms. Up on Your High Horse, what would you do?!"
If I truly thought that there were things that were extremely problematic at a trial, I would bring them up with the Trial Chairperson. Not the Judge or official as I am leaving the search, that is a big no-no. Not other competitors either. Griping and complaining may make you feel better in the moment, but it again only serves to complicate things.
The only person I would speak to about this is the Trial Chairperson. This conversation would also be done after I took at least 10-minutes to breathe, think about what happened and ensured that I had my wits about me. Yelling or being accusatory toward people is only going to result in them becoming defensive...how much do you retain when someone is screaming at you? Not all that much. The 10-minute pause can help calm your nerves to ensure you are not screaming, snapping or being snippy. Instead, your goal should be to come across as mature, professional and discrete. The Trial Chairperson is the one person who can address the issue, whatever it is. Does this mean that you will get an automatic Q? No. A re-run? Probably not. But, you speaking up about a legitimate problem can ensure it is addressed.
Notice I said legitimate problem. That is important.
You simply not Q'ing is not a good enough reason to go running to the Trial Chairperson. There must be a clear lack of following the rules laid out for the organization you are currently competing in. Complaining that something was done that Organization A never would have done...but you are competing with Organization B and their rules clearly allow for it is also not a valid concern.
"UGH! Give me an example then!"
Let's say you are running in a Novice Interior search for AKC Scent Work. There should be 1 hide and no distractors. Yet, when you get to the start line there are 5 tennis balls strewn around the search area. You run your dog anyway and they find the hide! YAY! You call "Alert", Judge says "Yes", you reward the dog and leave search, waiting for your Q ribbon. Yet, the Judge says you did not Q since you never called "Finish".
This is a ridiculous and over-the-top example, but you can see how clearly this is not following the rules. There are multiple distractors when there shouldn't be and the "Finish" call is not required since there is only one hide.
In this scenario, DO NOT SNAP AT THE JUDGE! Breathe. Reward your dog for being awesome. Go to your next search if there are several back-to-back, otherwise head back to your crate area and give yourself 10-minutes to breathe, collect yourself and think. Do NOT neglect your dog though! They did their job and deserve for you to tell them how awesome they are. Once you are ready, calmly and maturely, find the Trial Chairperson and ask them if you may speak with them for a moment, there was issue with one of the search areas. Don't get into telling a story or elaborating. Stick to the facts: in your Novice Interior search, there were 5 tennis balls and the Judge NQ'd you since you didn't call "Finish". Saying something like, "From my understanding, this is not following the rules set by AKC." That's it. Simple and to-the-point. It is now in the Trial Chairperson's lap and they will address it.
"But what if they don't?!"
If you truly think a Trial Chairperson just ignored you and did not address the issue at all, then you may send an email to the competition organization. Again, stay away from inflammatory language. Stick to the facts. Give them the information they will need to follow-up with the trial official and club in question.
Try to give people the benefit of the doubt though. While this is probably consuming every available second of your time, these people have 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 or 90 other competitors they need to deal with. Meaning, it may seem as though they did not anything, but the Trial Chairperson may already be circling back with the trial official and the competition organization. Don't just assume people are not taking your concerns seriously. Give them some time to get it right.
Don't Blow Everything Up
Whether a search did not go well due to you or your dog not feeling well, a search not being designed well or you simply not doing something you should have in that given search, please don't immediately run and blow up all of your training.
Being critical and truthful about your training and what holes may exist is one thing. Running from one training tip and technique to another is never a good idea.
Neither you nor your dog are perfect. You will likely get a few "No" calls in your Scent Work career. That. Is. Okay. This helps keep you humble, evaluate what holes may exist or the fact that you and your dog ARE okay, the Scent Work gods were just not with you on that given day.
What I'm hoping above all else, is that we keep the trialing experience a pleasant one. If we all do our part, trials can stay fun. When there are mistakes, seeing them as such and not crimes against humanity will help tremendously. Conducting ourselves the way we want others to treat us also goes a long way to keeping the atmosphere fun and positive.
Just know that people who put on trials, those who officiate the trials and those who volunteer to help trials be successful want you and your dog to succeed. Mistakes may very well happen and they will want to correct them. Give them a chance to do so. Be honest with yourself and only enter those classes and trials you and your dog are truly ready for. Be honest with yourself about what holes may exist in your training and whether you are mentally prepared. If you are under the weather or just run down by life, it may be best to skip that trial or at the very least evaluate how you both do with that in mind.
If we all do our part, Scent Work trials will remain the fun and supportive experiences they have been for years.
Author: Dianna L. Santos, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, CNWI
Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U, Dog Sport University and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU, DSU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.
In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!