Well, I certainly don't like to write about failures, but there it is, slapping me in the face. Cooper failed his Type 1/CE USAR test last Saturday. I posted my immediate disappointment to FB, of course, but it has taken until today to feel up to making a more complete comment.
With our late snows and not being on the rubble pile until recently, I stlll felt very good about the test. He was searching well and problem solving, and barking strongly. Tom built search boxes so that I could practice at home and not have a visual confirmation for Cooper when he alerted to scent. I was quite confident that he would pass easily.
We had several extra boarding dogs in the kennel and more barking commotion than normal. I noticed that when I took Cooper out to train he was already tired, so several days before the test I moved him to the house where he could rest. I elected to drive down the morning of the test in order to keep our routine, thinking it would feel like a drive to training for the boy. Everything seemed in order for success.
We were third to test and arrived without too much extra time. Got him out and pottied. He peed again on our way in to test, so the excessive urination seemed out of the ordinary, but nothing more than that. Persons testing are not supposed to be able to hear other testers, but due to the location I was parked I heard the dog before me bark for two subjects on the limited access pile. I didn't know if there had been barks prior, or whether that dog alerted to food or clothing in the pile. While no assumptions are drawn, in the back of my mind I was pretty sure that there were at least two victims there. I reported in to the evaluators and Cooper seemed ready to go, on his toes and revving his engine! At the limited access pile I had to remain in one area while Cooper searched, and stay there until he gave a bark alert of at least 3 barks to indicate he had located a live victim. It was taking too long. Cooper never takes that long to find a victim, I thought. The evaluator with me said not to worry, that it had *only* been three minutes. THREE MINUTES? Something was definately wrong!
He finally alerted, which allowed me to move to his location, reward, mark the spot and send him to "find another." Only he wasn't searching as he normally does, following the scent to whatever reaches it was carried. Instead, he stayed central, didn't push out to the perimeter even when I tried to get him to move there and he just stood there and looked at me. I said "he's done", more to myself than to anyone else. One evaluator said "what does that mean?" I knew it meant what I said. Cooper was done. Done, freaking done. Not working. Need a dictonary? Instead, I said that I was waiting for the time to expire, sent him out on one more futile attempt and then called time. I knew we had missed at least one victim.
I felt like crap but put on a happy face and told Cooper what a good job he did. I gave my debrief to the evaluators. I recommended that when the second dog is brought in to confirm the alert, that it search the perimeters because Cooper didn't push out that far. Then one evaluator asked me how I felt about the search. I FELT like shit. I FELT crushed, like a loser. But what I told her is how I thought I did, not how I felt. I lied and said I thought his body lanuage indicated there were no victims where he had searched. The risk is that either they think I am a total moron for not reading my dog, or the confident bluff works in my favor if we pull off the rest of the test.
We had a brief rest and proceeded to the full access pile. I began by walking Cooper off the pile and letting him airscent. He alerted, ran up and barked at a location, then left it!! He alerted to another location, which I marked and called. I never called the first location because he didn't stick with it. He has never left a victim like that. I suppose he suddenly got a nose-full of the one he ran to, a stronger scent, but in hindsight I should have either encouraged him or called it. I think that was a big mistake on my part, in not letting him know at that moment that he was doing a good job. There was a victim there. I cut the search area from the top as the scent seemed to be rising, and he alerted at another victim. This victim did not follow instructions, and actually answered me when I called out! It was nice to have the confirmation at that point. Cooper was not working independently as he normally does.
Then Cooper moved to a location downhill from the confirmed live victim and stood and barked. I believed he was just barking at scent from the higher victim and verbally relayed that. I do know now that there was no victim there and I don't know what else might have been going on.
Another teammate went next, and I watched as his dog moved confidently and quickly and was simply wonderful. He barked strongly, and located the victims we had missed with ease. At that same instant that I felt pride for their search, my heart sank. It was obvious we were not going to pass and it made me sick to my stomach. I hate, hate, HATE these tests. I enjoy trialing in schutzhund and when my dog doesn't pass, I can identify the reasons and know what I need to do. In this USAR test, I had no idea how to fix things. Cooper had worked so well in practice. If it is a matter of the deeply buried victims having a more diffuse scent pattern, I am unable to train for that because I am limited by the rubble pile we use. Unlike my teammates who live nearby, some within blocks, I have to drive over 2 hours each way just to do that much. And I have been happy to do it, under the belief it would make a difference. Jinx passed her Type 1/CE with the same group of people, though. I have struggled to recognize Cooper in his own right in this area, and had developed trust in his abilities. This test proved me wrong and rocked me to the core because what I believed I had was not there when I needed it.
I waited to be present when the evaluators were thanked, and the team members and the persons who passed were congratulated and received their certificates---- everyone except me. And then I left. In the rain, everyone was gathered under one small tent and I could not bear to run that guantlet of sympathy or silence in order to get my evaluation. At other tests, there was privacy to make these discussions. I drove north with my little dog, hoping the predicted rapture would swallow me up.
This was Cooper's second run at the Type 1. The first time I didn't feel so bad to fail, as we had just completed our FSA and he was tired. He searched extraordinarily well and I was proud of his work. This time, I was left to wonder if I had been deluding myself, as well as wasting the time, good will and money of my team members. Most of all, I felt I had let my team down. I am not one to run from a challenge but when practice looks so good and reality so bad, where do you go? I am flat out tired. Tired of driving. I don't want to have to drive halfway around the country to be this embarrassed.
Going home and regrouping was in order. Getting back to our roots. Cooper has a BH and a foundation in schutzhund, but I had put that on a back burner until after this test so that he was not barking at something he could see. I wanted him to have every possible chance to succeed. On Sunday we joined the schutzhund club training and relaxed. It was so much fun! I was happy to see he remembered his work and later this week I'll see what his tracking looks like. Cooper turns 4 in August and I have to consider how many working years I have with him. People don't know what to say.... sorry? better luck next time? My schutzhund friends and people who know me have sent messages affirming that I am a good trainer and we'll get it next time. I'm just not sure what "it" will be.
I still love my stripey boy. And isn't that what is most important?
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