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Training a dog for scent trailing.
Training a dog for Scent Trailing work.
Training a dog for scent trails
1. Evaluation for suitability.
1. Temperament around people.
2. Aversion to to strangers and startling situations.
3. Basic obedience, not too much obedience.
4. Temperament around dogs and cats.
5. Physical attributes. Endurance. Heat tolerance. Coat. Age. Health issues. Neutered or not?
6. Interest in play or treat motivation.
7. Excess energy. Difficult dogs can be good at this.
2. Beginning runaways.
3. Introduce scent article.
4. Wait command.
6. Split trails.
7. The importance of knowing the scent trail in advance.
8. Distractions and decoys.
9. Aging trails.
10. Reading signals.
11. Using push or an indicator.
12. Decomp training.
13. Ongoing training.
15. Don’t use your dog too soon.
Kelsy and I were trained by Kat Albrecht. I would not change much from her book on training your dog to search for lost pets. In practice, the way we find remains is not really dependent on the training for decomp, as it was taught to us. My dogs have found remains either when the scent trailing dog follows the scent to that location, or else the cat detection dog shows interest in a particular location during a grid search. If we find remains, a special signal hasn’t been necessary. It’s not like we’re trying to find a cadaver that’s been hidden under a new slab of concrete in the back patio. If there will be remains, in almost all cases, the remains will be visible once the search dog points them out. Even though that’s how it works in practice, it wouldn’t hurt if you trained your dog to give a specific signal for decomp. I wouldn’t make it a priority in training. What follows is basically a recap of how Kat Albrecht says to train a dog in her book, Dog Detectives: Train Your Dog to Find Lost Pets. (If I seem to copy any of Albrecht’s exact language, it is not my intention to plagiarize her work. Definitely she is the source of much of my knowledge on training dogs for pet detection, and I am adding details and modifications based on my experience.)
When you are considering training a dog for scent trailing or cat detection, a smart way to approach the situation would be to have a specific set of qualities in mind, and go to your local shelter and evaluate the young dogs available there. That has never been an option for me because I provided a home to the dogs that needed me, and I had to work with what I had. I couldn’t say, “You’ve got to go, to make room for a new search dog.” Fortunately, Kelsy was almost ideal, in terms of the qualities I would want in a search dog. Mu also had great qualities with just a few drawbacks. Fozzie was certainly able to do the scent trailing, but a 15 pound poodle is not ideally suited for working in woods full of brambles. Tino is fantastic for searching in almost every respect, except that he overheats too quickly. If I were in a position to go to the shelter and pick out a dog with the ideal traits for search work, I would look for the following:
1. Young, under 2 years old, preferably.
2. About 60 to 70 pounds, large enough to get over or through most obstacles, not so large that you couldn’t lift him over a fence. (Tino, at 105 pounds, is a monster to work behind, as he pulls so hard. I love him but he wears me out.)
3. A breed or mix with a long nose. Not a boxer a bulldog or anything brachiocephalic.
4. The coat should be medium length, thick enough to soften the impact of blackberry thorns, but not so thick that the dog will overheat.
5. A mixed breed dog is fine, in most cases. Of course, a bloodhound would be very good at this job, but bloodhounds have their issues as well.
6. The temperament should be friendly, but not too focused on pleasing people. You want a dog that enjoys your company, but when he gets into the work, he should have a high drive. If a dog is too focused on getting direction from you, he will be less effective, or require more training, as a search dog. A good search dog will probably be difficult to live with.
7. He should be food motivated and excited about treats. A dog that is indifferent about food is going to be harder to train. If you could pour a bowl full of kibble and he would come back and nibble on it throughout the day, that’s probably not going to be the best search dog. The dog that wolfs down his dinner in a minute or two is the sort you are looking for.
8. It would be best if he was interested in some sort of play, such as fetch, or tug o war. You can use this play behavior as a reward during training and on searches.
9. You want the dog to be interested in cats or dogs, or both, depending on what you are training him to do. A dog that was completely disinterested in cats would not be a good choice to train for cat detection.
10. Manageable behavior in public is advantageous. You don’t want the dog who would easily qualify for the Canine Good Citizen Certificate, but you don’t want a dog that is a menace to society. Certainly you couldn't use a dog for search work if he was highly likely to injure an animal or person. You don’t want a bad citizen or a good citizen, but a free spirit somewhere in between. My dog Sky would be ideal for cat detection or scent trailing, and she is the perfect weight and size. However, due to her traumatic history, she completely freaks out every time a car or a dog or a person approaches, so she could not do a search in public.
Kelsy, my black lab, my first search dog, fit all of those requirements, except that she was 3 years old when she started training. Still, she worked for 8 years and went on more than 350 missions. I worked with a beagle who was great at the job. Pit bulls can be very good. I know of a dachshund that had a long, successful career. If your dog is not ideal, he or she might still be an excellent search dog. Tino is great, except for the overheating part. I love him far too much to trade him in for a dog that doesn’t overheat so quickly. It just means we have to wake up at midnight on hot days so we can search before dawn.
Once you have a dog that is a good candidate for search work, you can do more evaluation to make sure that investing 6 months or 18 months in training the dog is going to pay off with a solid working dog. Your candidate should be able to pass these tests.
1. Sit and stay on command, off leash. Come when called.
2. Appropriately interested in other dogs, wanting to play, not fight.
3. Excited about cats (if training for cat detection) but not too excited, as in wanting to eat the cat.
4. Able to be around people. A dog that is super excited to meet every human could be hard to keep focused on the search. Happy to meet people or a little aloof is fine. The dog can’t be aggressive or too fearful around people, or he won’t be able to stay focused on the search. As a test, someone in unusual clothing, such as a jacket over the head, approaches the dog while staring into his eyes intensely, approaching slowly in an ominous manner. If the dog is nervous or barks or hides behind the owner, that’s okay. What wouldn’t be okay is if the dog completely freaks out and can’t get back to training. The dog should be accepting of the scary person once he adjusts his clothing normally and behaves in a typical friendly manner.
5. A dog training for scent trailing should show interest in a brief little game of chase, where the target dog runs a short distance across the parking lot and hides behind a car, and the potential search dog is excited to chase after him and find him in his hiding spot.
If a dog showed no interest at all in cats, you could potentially train that dog to find lost cats, but it would be an uphill battle. There are plenty of dogs that show an appropriate excitement about cats, that would be easier to train. A dog that showed no interest in playing with dogs could still be trained to find lost dogs, but it would just be a lot of extra work. It takes 18 months to train the typical scent trailing dog. If you are investing that much of your time in training a dog, you want to start with a dog that has a reasonable chance of success, not a dog that you are going to have to do extra work to maintain interest.
The description below of how to train your scent trailing dog leaves out some details. I didn’t want to get into it too deep since many people taking this course will not actually be training a search dog. I wanted all of you to know what is involved in training a search dog, in case you might want to at a later time, and also just so you know how the dogs work. If you are training your dog, it would be best to work with an experienced search dog handler in person, which I would be happy to do if you live in the greater Seattle area. I can also help with tips and suggestions if you send me video clips of your dog training, if you are not close to Seattle.
When you start training a dog to follow scent trails, there is no scent item involved. It starts as a game of chase. Your dog is introduced to the target dog. Give both dogs a small treat. Then, the treat bag is given to the handler of the target dog. They get the attention of the training dog, and run off. When they are about halfway to their hiding place, maybe 100 feet away, the training dog is allowed to start chasing, and the command Search is introduced. Of course, he doesn’t know what search means yet, but this is to get him accustomed to hearing it in that context. As the training dog is catching up to the target dog, they disappear around the corner, behind a car or a building or a bush. The training dog catches up to them pretty soon, and everyone celebrates and is happy, with treats for both dogs. It needs to be fun for the target dog, too, because we don’t want him displaying any negative behavior upon being found. If your dog does not follow to the hiding place on the first try, that’s okay. Shorten the distance and try again a few times. Once your dog is getting the hang of the game, you will eventually introduce a white item, such as a sock or a napkin or a paper towel. As you are starting the game, when the target dog runs off, you toss the white towel up in front of the training dog, where it’s right in his field of view as he watches the target dog, and then you start the chase. These runaway games should cover longer distances over time, and if your dog is doing well, you can increase the amount of time you are waiting before you release him to chase the target dog. He is on a long leash during these chase games. Maybe the third or fourth week, depending on how things are going, you can put the target dog’s scent on the white towel. To make sure you aren’t giving your dog mixed messages, use a sterile gauze pad, free of any other scents. Your dog is naturally able to follow scent trails, and you are just formalizing the rules of the game, so your dog knows what game you are playing. Even when you are using a white cloth with the target dog’s scent, you still let the search dog see where the target dog is going, most of the way. After he gets the hang of sniffing the white cloth before starting the chase, you can position the search dog behind and obstacle so that he has to use his nose to follow the scent to the target dog on a short trail. He should do fine, making this next step. If he ever seems to lose the idea of the game, just back up a step and slow down. Pretty soon, he will be tracking dogs by scent on short trails.
Over time, you will lengthen the distance that your dog has to follow the scent trail, and you will lengthen the time before he starts on the scent trail. Try to be consistent with your commands. When you present the scent item to him, always use the same words or phrase, such as, “Take the scent.” Some dogs take off like a rocket as soon as they get the scent. Others wait until you are ready, and you say Search. If your dog just takes off, that’s fine. Be sure to say Search as he is starting, so he knows that word is a cue. In these practice sessions, you want the search dog to be successful 100% of the time. There will be miscommunications and distractions, but you want him to succeed as much as possible, rewarding and praising him. Increase the length, time, and difficulty from one week to the next, but if he ever seems to get frustrated or become more interested in distractions than the game, back up a bit and make the game easier again.
Training day should be the most fun day of the week. He should love seeing his dog friends, and the other handlers. There ought to be lots of play time and treats. As you increase the difficulty, you want to challenge him, but you never want to discourage him. It should always be a winnable game, with lots of celebration at the end. As you progress, as long as everyone is having fun, you can add extra chalenges that reflect the circumstances he will face on an actual search. He should know the wait command, where you stop in the middle of a search, and switch the leash from the harness to the collar for a few minutes. You will want this command for when you cross busy streets, or if you need to wait to get permission to enter private property. Other challenges include, making the scent trail longer, with more turns. You can have a turn in the middle of an open field, which can be tricky for a scent trailing dog. The scent trail can have dead ends and backtrack. You can age the scent trail a day or two. You will eventually want to add distractions such as decoy dogs near the target dog. The target dog can be picked up and carried for part of the scent trail. You should switch handlers for the target dog so that you are sure the scent trailing dog is following the dog and not the handler.
Another important skill is for the dog to learn that there won’t always be scent of the target dog when he is presented with the scent article. He needs to learn that it’s okay to tell you that there is no scent, and you need to learn how he tells you this. Often they will tell you with a shake, or some dogs will turn around and look at you. You will come to recognize this negative sign, and you will see it when you are working a scent trail and you hit a dead end where the target dog backtracked, or you overshoot a turn. It is important for you to read this negative sign very clearly, so you can say if a dog was not in a certain location or didn’t take a particular path.
When training the scent trailing dog, in most cases you will want to know the exact path of the target dog, so that you know when your dog is on the right trail and you can praise him. if you don’t know the scent trail in advance, you may get off the scent trail and not know it for some time, and you will miss the opportunity to give your dog gentle feedback, usually tension on the leash, telling him that he needs to double check that he’s really on the scent. When he gets off track, and then gets back on the right trail again, you need to praise him so he knows he’s doing the right thing, playing the game the right way. Problems arise when the search dog handler doesn’t know the actual route, and you get off course and find your dog is perplexed, and you don’t know how to get back on track. There will come a time when you won’t know the scent trail in advance, but for most of your dog’s training, the scent trail will be known. You need to find ways to make sure this is communicated properly. You can use phone apps that track a person’s position, but these don’t always work like they are supposed to. The best way to be sure of the scent trail is for the instructor to go with the target dog handler while they create the scent trail, so, as you are running along with the search dog, you can let them know if they missed a turn.
The training is not just for the dog to learn a skill. The search dog handler needs to be able to read a dog’s signs, to know when he is on the trail and when he has lost the scent. If you can’t read your dog, or if you could be fooled by mixed signals, then you might not be able to read your dog during an actual search, where you won’t know which way the lost dog actually went. There are tricky situations in an actual search, where your dog might not give you a clear signal one way or another. An example is when a scent trail has drifted away from where the dog originally walked. Typically, the scent trail will slide down a slope. Scent can also be transferred, tracked by the feet of a person or another animal. You may not be able to read your dog’s signals exactly, 100% of the time, but you need to have a pretty good idea, most of the time.
Should your dog be certified as a scent trailing dog? Yes, but I don’t know of an accredited agency that would be qualified to do that. I can say that a certain dog passed a test with explicit parameters and achievements, but I am just me. I think it’s more important that you have confidence in your dogs ability and in your ability to read him, than to say was certified. You will be passing a test every time you do training, and when you use your dog on actual searches. If there was a national organization that certified search dogs to an agreed upon standard, I would be in favor of that.
You should not be in a hurry to use your search dog before you have had plenty of training. You will feel pressured to use your dog before he is ready. I know I used Kelsy before she had finished training. She wasn’t successful, and I think it may have set us back a bit in our training. Following a scent trail is a remarkable skill, with many challenges for the dog and the handler. In training, you introduce difficulties one by one so that you and your dog can learn to do the work in less than ideal circumstances. An actual search is going to have challenges, but you won’t even know what those challenges are. Is the scent article accurate? Did the dog backtrack or circle? Did someone pick up the dog? There are so many unknowns. You are likely to fail on your first search, and you probably won’t know why you failed. You don’t want your dog to feel discouraged at this stage.
When people use search dogs to find lost people, the search dog usually does not find the lost person. When they try, though, there is almost always a human volunteer on standby to be found by the search dog, to keep the dog’s motivation up. The search dog for humans is almost always successful in finding a volunteer if the actual lost person can’t be found, for whatever reason. Ideally, you would want to set up your searches for lost pets in the same way. If you can’t find the dog you are looking for, it would be nice to have a target dog on standby so you can do a practice search afterward, and your dog can always be successful. In reality, it won’t always work out for you to have a target dog on standby. Even after your dog is well into a successful career, you will still want to continue with training so that your dog can have those wins. Following scent trails should be a game where the main goal is to have fun, even if it is serious work with life or death consequences potentially.
Whether you are just starting out, or have been using a search dog for years, I recommend getting a camera such as a GoPro that you can use during training so that you can review how your dog is working and see subtle signals that you might miss as you’re trying to not trip over the leash or slip in the mud. If you don’t have a GoPro type camera, you can simply hold up your phone and record as you work, but having the GoPro on a harness leaves your hands free. If you are just starting out, I highly recommend you keep a log or journal of how your dog is doing during search training. Definitely, once you start working cases, you want to keep notes on everything, including the results of the search, the weather conditions, how your dog worked, if you encountered any troubles, what your dog’s reward was, and if you had fun. These days, it is easy to keep notes on everything. At the very least, after training or after a search, as you are driving home, you can make a voice note on your phone to capture key details from the training or the search. You will get the most benefit from these records and notes if you keep them organized, but if you at least make a video of training, or parts of training, or a voice memo as you drive home, you can have something to jog your memory, and possibly fill in the more completer record later.
Here is a public record of the training of Raphael the Cat Finder. I hope he will have a long career and find hundreds of lost cats. Although Raphi is not a scent trailing dog, his page gives you an idea of some of the records you could keep. This video shows Valentino in training. Sadly, although he has been to training hundreds of times and been on a at least one hundred searches, I have not kept a detailed record like I should have. I hope you will do better than I have done.