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

Some of these old sayings are very useful reminders to us that we should never become over confident about our abilities or status but occasionally look at our selves and question is what we are doing correct.

We always say we are training our dogs but in fact dogs have some unique skills that we find useful but we do not train a dog at all because it has been using such skills like scent information and detection for millions of years. This begs the question as who is the pupil and who is the student.

Suppose there was an island, where there were precious and semi precious gems in abundance just beneath the surface of the soil. The local inhabitants, who do not speak our language, have no use for them but they do possess a unique skill in being able to detect such gems. They can even choose which ones to find but they are only interested in the ones that we find as valueless.

We now have a chicken and the egg situation as how do you explain to them that for finding us the valuable diamond stones we will give them what they want in return. The problem is that until they find a diamond and bring it to us, it is only then they receive anything.

Possibly showing them a diamond then somehow or maybe one of the locals goes and finds another one then we immediately shower that person with gifts that we hope will encourage him and others to find more of them for us.

I know some people will be thinking yes but at what point are people of a simple culture going to stop working because they have too many gifts. Well the gifts could be food that has a short lifespan so if they do not use it up at the time it they will have to thrown it away.

The other alternative is to threaten their families with death or pain if they do not find us the diamonds. How do you threaten unless they understand the threat or that it has any connection to finding the diamonds?

Dogs are very much like those imaginary islanders with very simple survival goals and instincts. They have amazing skills that we have very little knowledge about yet we wish to utilise those to our advantage. The question is how or what is the best method to encourage them to do as we ask and how do we communicate with them to let them know what it is we want them to do for us. We can use bribery or use pain but again only after they know what it is we want them to do.

So many of our problems that we find with our dogs is this language barrier and lack of understanding of our dogs needs that would encourage them to happily use their skills for us in return for something they need. However, like the islanders we do not teach them their skill we only benefit from their use of it.

Many months ago, I was talking to a SAR Instructor (Search and Rescue Dog Instructor) and was reading one of their articles about teaching dogs to find people trapped, or injured, or dead.

As humans and whilst alive we give off many different odours that not only define a human but to a dog it can recognise every different person from their personal unique scent. So to track or search for anybody in general there has to be an odour that distinguishes all humans that dogs can use to find any human. We also know we have dogs that will track and search for a particular person by knowing the unique scent it has to find.

When we die then, as time passes, there are very many rapid changes in odour from body invasion and decomposition. There are also other continuing changes due to the environment like a human buried in the ground, in a lake or even in solid concrete. Temperature or the time of year also creates many other changes so there are multitudes of odours that not only define live or dead human bodies in general but also define each single individual.

The problem for SAR training is that some dogs give wrong indications for a body that is not there. They suspect that the dog is indicating possibly clothing, bedding, or anything else that in the course of training a dog for any type of scent work, that you might find with a body. Following such so-called errors, they then quite correctly state, “Handlers do not always realize on what scent complex they actually train their dog.”

The second point they make is that “the dog actually makes a choice from the scents that are in the scent complex.” It is here I disagree as they have already recognised handlers do not know what scent they are praising their dogs for detecting. It is during the training and the way they set up the exercise, the handlers inadvertently make the choice for their dogs as to which scent complex they rewarded their dogs for indicating. If it is the wrong scent from a whole complex of scents then they will have indication errors because they are using the wrong training method.

Dogs have been living in a world of scent for millions of years and they do not make mistakes. We on the other hand are only scratching at the surface of understanding their skills so who is teaching whom and how do we persuade our dogs to follow only the root or average scent when there are in fact so many scents or collections of scents to choose from.

What ever scent work we are asking dogs to indicate to us, years ago the belief was dogs should only be trained for one particular scent then stick to it. Now we know a drug dog is capable of detecting all sorts of drugs as well as weapons, blood as well as hidden, injured, or dead humans so we are at least still learning.

It is if dogs have a long list of scents that if we could narrow it down and like the islanders tell them only to detect diamonds then we would praise our dogs when they recognise that one particular scent. I believe dogs can and will tag any scents or combinations of scents where it learns it will receive a reward. The problem is which scent is the dog recognising when the handler praises the dog.

It is here that we as dog handlers must not think we know it all and promote ourselves as trainers when in fact, we are leaning from our dogs and by learning we then are able to solve more of what we call problems or errors that are of our own making because of our lack of knowledge.

We must never have the impertinence to think we are teaching Grandma to suck eggs, we are only suggesting she sucks the right ones for us.

Next article, the applications


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