Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Nosework Story

For the last eight months or so Riff and I have been in training with Environmental Canine Services, West Coast division.  A friend of mine invited me to Aroma's coffee shop, oh-those-many-moons-ago, and asked if we were interested.  My callous reply "Does it pay?  I'm totally interested in making some money."  (Although, if truth be told, doing something positive for the environment rings bells for me.  Claxon-type bells.)  She assured me that it would, indeed, PAY.  "Okay.  I'm in."
As a result, Riff has been trained to detect and alert on illicit discharges in storm drains.  This is not the same as the NOSEWORK training lots of other folks have become involved with, although it started in a very similar fashion.  LL took me out to several parks and introduced Riff and I to Nosework.  She said we were getting six weeks of training in three days.  He was good!  She was pleased.  (Note:When you train for Nosework, you get to enter trials and win titles.  When you train for ECS, you get to take a couple of big tests for certification, and then hope you get called for a job.)
There is a group of six dog/handler teams that were trained in this work.  A couple of the handlers have a couple of dogs, and there are young puppies coming up into it's really more than six.  The outfit running this enterprise - ECS, based in Michigan - originally wanted just two or three teams.  Ah, well.  We're on the West Coast.  What can I say?  We experiment.  Riff and I were the only team without Nosework experience.  Everyone else had Nosework titles.  On top of that, I broke my upper arm (near the shoulder) the first weekend the Michigan guy came out for training.  I was in a lot of pain and Riff and I did not do particularly well.  We were almost cut from the experiment. 
But Riff - sweet, sweet Riff - is good.  He is smart, and he learned the game.  He knew when the sample was "positive" and when it was not.  He knew when the stuff in the open manhole cover was "positive" or not.  I had no clue.  So I decided to totally trust my dog...and he was right, right, right....and then right again.  Some of the other dogs consistently "false alerted"....but not Riff. 
The handlers studied too.  I know a hell-a-lot about water management and storm drains now.  We were given huge binders to study, and Power-point presentations...acronyms and photographic examples for the field....what-ifs and because-ofs.  Some basic science with administrative bureaucracy thrown in.  Ask me about water sometime!  I'll never again look at a creek or a storm drain the same. 
The BIG TESTS were held last month, in conjunction with a "presentation" at Cal/EPA in Sacramento.  Riff was chosen as a "demo dog," because he's been doing Really Well. 
Cal/EPA is in a big schmancy building....marble tile, sweeping staircase, multiple floors, etc etc.  Really quite impressive.  (I thought California was broke.  And it may be, now...but it certainly wasn't when this building was made.)
Riff and I flunked.  We were not certified. 
Well, I passed the two-hour written test.  "Handily," was the only feedback I got.  But we flunked the field test. 
Riff and I were blown away by the sounds and energy of a downtown Sacramento alley.  Every other part of the field test was good.  But that alley......    killed us.   I quickly realized that we are not "city people."  We have a quiet, country-type lifestyle... 
We were one of only two teams that didn't pass.  For several days I felt devastated and like giving up on the whole lousy idea.  It was totally my fault.  I didn't react properly, I didn't "cover" for Riff.  I felt terrible.  I never expected to cry over this goofy experiment, but I did. 
The guy from Michigan encouraged me to stay in training.  He said he really likes Riff and doesn't want to lose him.  The team seems encouraging, too.  They are still meeting once a week or so, to train.  (They all know they have much more to learn.  LEARNING.  Ah, yes....learning.  LOVE LEARNING.)
So....we're still in it.  Even though we feel more than a little out of it, while we're in it.  (Are we REALLY welcomed?  Do they REALLY think we'll make it?  Sometimes I can drive myself nuts with that line of I put it away.  Shove it away.  I try to live in the moment, just as my dogs live in the moment.) 
Last week a couple of other teams and I met up at a park in Sebastopol.  We had lots of "distractors"...a pond with ducks, a protective goose, culverts, and noisy preschool children.  Riff aced it.  He always aces it.  (Except in that Sacramento alley...where we were so tired, and so confused...) 
Riff takes time out to smell the flowers....
They say there may be a new ECS job coming soon (for those that are certified...not for us).  It will involve "creek work" so everyone is anxious to get their dogs working in creeks. 
Riff and I went to Brush Creek and looked around.  Even though we won't get any job any time soon.  It was pretty.  We liked it there. 

Brush Creek

We're spending some time in alleys, too, in and around Santa Rosa.  Certainly not the same as that alley in Sacramento (with its dark shadows, noisy metal garage doors and big-truck air-brakes)....but better than nothing.  We've taken to hanging out downtown, and at shopping malls, and at the bus terminal.  I walk him on a lot of different surfaces.  (Riff doesn't like shiny surfaces.  Is this because of the snow and ice in the yard up north, when he was a little puppy?)  What a nervous Nelly he has been!  But he's calming down, and becoming BRAVE.  I am, too.  We're helping each other. 

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