Monday, September 28, 2015


Do you have a dog? This is random, apologies, the thing is, tracking was one of the most fun most excellent trained things we did with our dogs. Not all at once but one at a time. Oddly this idea came about by the phone reminding me of my Belgians. Their alacrity. It's an impressive tool but tricky. It takes a knack to handle and once the knack is attained then the combination of user with tool is satisfying and fun.

Same thing with the dogs. All three Belgian sheepdogs and the German shepherd especially was the best of all at tracking, while the eagerness of the phone to do all things at once reminds me of Belgians so eager to please they score poorly in trials at first for crowding, for anticipating, for handler overcorrecting for the dog doing too much, making a game of their serious and unnaturally rigid obedience. To score high you have to train the fun and spontaneity out of them. Who wants that? Better for structured games that are fun not rigid not score oriented. I love it when my dogs really goof around. It's the whole point of having them.

Here's how to get them to use their nose for a game.

Surprisingly they don't automatically use their nose. Their best way of finding things. They have to be shown. Except hound dogs. Hounds track automatically. The other breeds almost do it automatically because their nose is their main sensory organ.

Throughout this game the dog will sniff the air to catch a trace of scent. When the dog stops sniffing the air and starts sniffing the ground, that's when the dog is tracking.

Start off very stupidly. The dog sees you the whole time. Have the dog calm and sitting and stay. Pull out a toy. Get your hands all over the toy. Rub it all over. Under your shirt. Get your scent all over the toy. Let the dog see, hype him up a little about the toy. Sniff, sniff, sniff.  Have him stay while you hide the toy in plain sight. Go straight forward, no turns, and put the toy down in plain sight. Return to dog and playfully have them "go find the toy."

Oh boy, that phrase is going to turn out to be fun.

Success. Do it again if you like. Call it a day for that simple straightforward activity.

Next day. Same thing now with one 90° turn. Maybe go behind a tree, or if inside behind a chair. The dog sees the toy being hidden.

Over sessions, keep making it more difficult. Adding turns and concealing. The trail is the one you leave by walking with the toy radiant with scent like a long comet tail that takes a sharp turn disappears and glows with scent under leaves or a pillow. Now it's a set-up thing the dog knows the game. The next step of difficulty, the thing that keeps this interesting for all parties, the dog comes onto the scene cold. You show the toy, concentrating on its scent, play a bit with the toy in the dogs face, let them have it, take it back, rub your scent, "here, smell." you leave a trail of the toy on a freshly vacuumed floor or a freshly rained on yard or an area of field not trampled. This is where my brother and I took the dog out to some park or some field near where we lived, with other dog trainers a few times, mostly on our own. The dogs had a great time being out and doing something apparently important where they get to be the hero of the whole deal.

On the field trip type training the goal was the dog would find me. It was insanely important the dog find me. I'm lost and helpless behind a rock. What joy when the dog frenetically sniffs the air for my scent and decides the best way is put nose to the ground and sniffs the ground, finds a turn then another and follows my stink to me! Can't you imagine how impossibly joyous that is? The reunion is exquisite.

In the back yard I would roll the toy on the ground in a straight line, make a a 90° turn in my trail then another 90° turn in my trail and hide the toy, rolled up the fence and placed on top of fence post, rolled to the house and dropped inside a window well, rolled up the trunk of a cottonwood tree and placed in the first crook, up the side of a shed and placed on the roof, at the base of tree, a trail rolled on the ground up to the trash bins, up the side of a trash bin and hidden inside. Having sniffed that toy and now being separated from it, the toy becomes the most important thing on Earth and the dog will use all its facilities to get it.

You see the agility trails on t.v. and they look like the dogs are having a great time. And there are the judges and spectators alike knocking off points whenever the dog does something imperfectly. The moderator points out errors. The result of that training no matter how fun no matter how excellent is robot dogs with their spontaneity trained out by point reduction. Any activity like that, like frisbee catching becomes so organized the fun is squeezed out of it. I don't want that. This tracking game derived from such an organized activity, except no points with our game, just the fun part, errors allowed, is one of the best things we did both inside and out.


rhhardin said...

I trained my first Doberman Susie to track. I used Koehler, who trains it as an extension of the forced retrieve, motivating with responsibility rather than fun.

Susie followed the track and picked up any socks she found along the way.

A trick for laying turns is turn when two distant objects line up; then you can tell whether the dog missed a turn later without having to leave a mark there.

A trick to defeat sight-finders - a doubled over sock with the toe cut out, slipped on the dog as a blindfold. Don't track near obstacles though.

Rather than laying and aging tracks, I wound up wandering into a large field and dropping a sock, returning to Susie on her sit-stay, and telling her to "Find it!" She'd dash out
more or less following the track, whiz past the sock and double back, pick it up and return with it.

That was fast and most fun. She carried the sock around for the rest of the day, usually.

deborah said...

That's useful knowledge, Chip, especially for a family with little kids.

Chip Ahoy said...

rhhardin, very interesting.

That's the way the Belgians retrieved. Go past it then scoop up on the way back.

I don't know why all three goofed on retrieve.

The only time they did a retrieve, they were retrieve-resistant, the only time is when in the presence of actual retrievers. Then they're show offs.

They sit next to you alert, crowding their shoulder into your leg, one paw on your shoe. Contact with your physical person their reason for being. When in their own minds competing with proper retrievers they leave on command like a flush of black liquid reversing direction in air right over the target landing with mouth at the ball facing return direction in one fluid motion a swimmers push off the wall a black blur that slams into your legs presenting the ball to your crotch.

It is a truly stunning sight to behold. Poetry in motion. It blows my mind. It blows everybody's mind. A hunting guy with several retrievers, a few at all times, and a trainer besides told me it is the most amazing thing he's seen and I could do that all day. It is just so naturally athletically beautiful and graceful and excellent. They don't miss.

Retriever leaves.

Belgian becomes instant retrieving incapable. Nothing goes right. They like the game, they like the play, the attention, being talked to, they DO NOT like the precise perfect little pinpoint thing you want. Go find my sweater! It's always amazed me, and they all do it.

rhhardin said...

Vicki Hearne _Adam's Task_ has a nice essay on the Koehler retrieve in "How To Say Fetch!"

Also see the chapter on Washoe.

Highly recommended book, those two essays appearing in Raritan in the 70s as well. It's chiefly on the unexpected virtues of a no-nonsense training method.

Hearne is a lefty and so always writing in opposition to everything that's supposed to be true for a lefty, owing to being also a dog trainer.

Aridog said...

I have to admit (hides face) that "tracking" was my very least favorite aspect of Schutzhund Trials and training, with obedience then protection being highly favored. Obedience is the most important and the phase I enjoyed most. Trials "tracking" is contrived, with any air scenting discouraged...or any even slight looping at a corner...and that contrivance is unnatural for any German Shepherd dog I've ever owned. My thinking is born out in WPO/DPO police dog trials.

rhhardin said...

I am told that what a dog responds to is the crush scent, on grass and the like.

That can't be completely true because they can do crossing tracks and get the right one ("stay on the track I start you on"), and of course also track across pavement.

Maybe it's a beginner's thing with dogs.

Aridog said...

rhhardin .... I've "heard" the same thing about "crush scent" however my experience, at least with German Shepherds, is that they discriminate carefully between tracks in competition. In real life tracking they also will sniff air scents almost at the same time and can even follow a car quite a ways. Best tracking GSD I knew was 4th in the world at the FH2 (tracking) world championship trials in Belgium a few years ago...he was knocked back to 4th for making v-e-r-y slight head bobs and small loops at each corner in front of a judge with no sense of humor and wanted the nose down 100% of the time. The slight loops were to double check the track diversions, on a course with multiple zig-zags, to be sure he stayed on track (and they did not slow him down)...they are not Bloodhounds after all. "Dera" was his grand daughter and did the same thing when we were just playing around on a moderate track on dry grass...and she always found all of the "articles" laid out and displayed them.