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Don’t try to teach your grandmother to suck eggs. The tracking applications

In last weeks article I wrote that dogs have unique skills they have been using for millions of years and humans are still only leaning how we can utilise these for our own benefit. We do not teach dogs how to use their senses because that is and has always been a major part of their everyday world.

Dogs have always been able to track and search when the need arises and when it motivates them for a good survival reason. Dogs that can detect drugs, weapons, explosives or people would never normally have any reason to do this except we have found ways to motivate them using rapid response bribery. Do something and immediately receive a reward.

It is very easy to make dogs sit or down or come on command because as they do this we praise them without any time delay between the action and the reward. This generates their motivation so they will happily repeat this again when requested to do so.

Even searching for drugs, weapons etc the dog only needs to find each item in a very short time because we make it so easy for them and then it gets its reward. We are not teaching the dog to search only recognise each scent for which it knows it will receive a reward.

A problem we have for the tracking people and to find any objects they may have dropped some hours previously, a dog has no logical reason to do this. It is not to say that dogs cannot do it, they just have no reason or motivation to do so.

In the wild, wolves see humans as extremely efficient and competing predators. Whilst they would pick up the scent trail of game to follow it to hunt, when picking up the trail of humans, wolves would move off in another direction.

A dog can easily detect the track of a rabbit that passed some minutes ago. If it is hungry and wishes for a chase it knows how big the rabbit is, which way it went and how long ago. No dog is going to track a rabbit that went past half an hour ago. Even though it has the ability, it knows that by now the rabbit has long gone.

The next problem is most dogs are naturally air scenting to follow body scent, whether it is a human or a rabbit but body scent decays rapidly and dissipates with weather conditions. Whilst we have dogs that follow body scent, the normal time lapse between laying the track and running it is relatively short. Body scent is not the scent we need a dog to follow in Working Trials or for a working Police dog; we need them to follow the scent of footprints.

A further problem is when we lay the first track for our dogs the track contains not only the footprint scent we want them to follow but also there is a huge tunnel of body scent, which is naturally hard for them to ignore.

Yet one other problem is how to motivate a dog to detect a track and follow it when they do not have any good reason even to go forward. When Winston looses sight of me on our walks, he is motivated to find me and does so by picking up my air scent. It must appear odd to a dog to ask it to track myself when I am now right behind him.

We can show our dogs we have their meal and that it will be at the end of the end of a short track but there is still a delay in action to the reward. This means the dog may have already forgotten all about the food by the time it comes to run the track.

You may think that finding food at the end of every track would act as great motivator but it has to get to the end first to find it. How many times does a handler push a dog along a track before the dog cottons on to the idea that tracking leads to food. This is a classic chicken and the egg situation.

Even having encouraged our dog to proceed along the track we have to question which scent was it noticing. If you say “good boy” for going forward towards the food the dog is most likely and naturally following body scent. This is adequate for half hour tracks but when the next step is an hour and a half track, body scent will have gone unless there are ideal conditions.

For tracking humans when the track is three hours old, we need dogs to follow a different scent.

When we walk through an area like a field, our feet do a lot of damage. As well as squashing the ground, we break plants, kill insects, or move scent from one place to another so that each footprint becomes a disorganised scent pool in comparison to the surrounding area.

Along with this footprint scent in the early tracks of half an hour old, it is engulfed in a wide tunnel of body scent that is always down wind of the actual track. Whilst body scent decays rapidly, the damage created from footprints is capable of generating scent for hours.

If we have excellent weather conditions, it is possible to lay a track at seven in the evening and run it successfully at seven the next morning.

Tracks are also dependent on the type of terrain so a lovely grassy field will keep the footprint scent generating far longer than a dry soil with little or no foliage.

For a long time it was normal for inexperienced dogs and handlers to run Utility Dog tracks by air scenting. As we increase the tracking time, dogs had no option but to change over to following the remaining footprint scent. This human lack of knowledge between the two types of scent meant we failed to recognise this change over believing simply that we as a team were becoming better and more precise at tracking.

I found this with my first dog that he was air scenting for the half hour tracks and we were often down wind of the track and failed to follow the track accurately. Along with my inexperience in handling, we regularly became lost and failed the track. I only qualified Utility Dog Open and Championship after many attempts and only under ideal conditions.

Therefore, would it not be in the handler’s interest to find a way to reward a dog for finding the very first and every succeeding footprint in order to motivate it from the outset to only follow footprint scent and totally ignore the much easier air scenting of Body scent.

The answer, next week.

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