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

In the last two articles, I hope I have explained that dogs are very skilled in the world of scent but that they do not use all of their skills because for them there is no need to. No dog would wish to neither look for drugs nor follow a human track that is three hours old. It is not to say they cannot do these but where is the benefit to them. For them their skill must be like owning a Ferrari and only driving it around in first gear.

For us humans, we have no idea what the world of scent looks like as perceived by a dog. Only and maybe, we could sometime in the future develop a machine that can analyse scent and then it might be possibly to understand more fully our dog’s unique ability.

Never the less we can use their skills but we need to motivate them to follow or find the right scent. That is fine as far as it goes but it is so important we know we are praising our dogs for the detecting the right scent when there is a choice of scents available.

Whilst for some of the things that we want our dogs to do, we can give a reward immediately but for others like tracking, why should a dog track if it does not know there is a reward at the end?

Thinking back to those imaginary islanders who can detect diamonds how can we get them to find the diamonds for us? The simplest way is to place a diamond on a chunk of chocolate and lay a trail of them. At the end, we just leave a diamond but this time no chocolate. One of the islanders then follows the trail of chocolate in doing so picking up a diamond, which we take off him, and he goes to the next piece of chocolate.

At the end, he picks up the diamond where there is no chocolate and we take it off him and take the chocolate from our pocket and give it to him then walk away. Once the islanders are addicted to chocolate it is logical to suspect that will be inundated with diamonds.

When I was trying to move on from half hour Utility Dog tracks to hour and a half Working Dog tracks my first Trials dog Lumpy was still air scenting most of the time. I had laid three tracks one evening and when PC David Clayton came to run his track, he suggested to me that I let Lumpy track free without a harness and line and we simply watch what happens.

Lumpy took the first leg like a rocket but missed the first corner only picking up another section but was way off the track and running all over the place. He was turning an eight-acre field into a giant search square. He knew his meal was out there but could not pick up enough body scent properly to find it.

David then said if I see lumpy put his nose down and his tail goes up when he is directly on the track I should praise him. Eventually on the top last but one leg, he did put his nose down and up came his tail. I shouted “Good Boy Lumpy, Track on” and he was off. He almost over shot the last corner but turned and found the last leg. We then moved across the field to near the end, we could see the track, and Lumpy was right on it. He even followed the curve in the track as if he was a train and found his meal.

I had watched him change from air scenting to footprint scenting, from then on Lumpy´s tracks improved dramatically, and I knew what to watch for to know when he was on track or had lost it. It was there that I remember wishing how I could have taught him this from the start only to track footprint scent.

Recently I laid a sixty-metre track for my dog Winston and I know he air scents so I expected him to do this on his very first track. I did not wish to say anything unless he was actually tracking my footprints. All I wanted to do was observe how he was reacting to all the scents available to him.

Though he was going forward, he was air scenting but occasionally he crossed the track where he made an excellent indication of the footprints so I let out more line and praised him. He followed it for a while before lifting his head and began air scenting again. Eventually slightly downwind, he scented his ball and was very pleased but of the sixty metres, he must have only followed the actual track for about ten of them.

How can I get him only to follow the footprint scent?

Just over a year ago, I went to see my friend PC Trevor Ellis retired who was in charge of Manchester Police dog section. He had become very interested in Schutzhund trails gaining Schutzhund II with his own dog.

He was showing me videos of the dogs Tracking, Obedience, and Protection competitions. Whilst we were talking, he told me the way they motivate the dogs for tracking. This is to place at the back of every heel print a small titbit. This was brilliant as this means that for each footprint the dog receives a reward. As the dog travels forward it finds more and more footprints for more rewards. This also means the dog’s nose is right into the pool of footprint scent so that air scenting becomes too slow as the dogs head keeps bobbing up and down.

Because the titbit is at the back of the footprint when the dog detects each one, it must move back slightly to find the reward. This motivates a dog to become very accurate and precise in its tracking. Gradually the tracklayer removes some of the titbits so it becomes every other footprint and so on.

Watching Winston working I need him to change from air scenting. I like this method of motivation as Winston loves food. There is no chicken and the egg situation as it immediately rewards the finding of each footprint. To find the titbit the dog must use the footprint scent because it is more efficient in finding each titbit than searching the area using air scent.

As with the islanders they got their reward for simply finding a diamond on top of a piece of chocolate and soon associated chocolate with diamonds in the same way as the dog is associating titbits with the scent of a footprint.

We could so easily say we are teaching our dogs to track but we are not. We are only motivating them to follow the right scent.

As in the first article, I said that we should not try to teach our Grandmas to suck eggs, just ask her to suck the right ones for us.


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