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Monday, August 10, 2009

Command and Obey?

by John Jeanneney, Full Cry June 2009

It’s still a mystery to me that hunters are so often mistaken about where their deer went after the shot. They can show you only a little hair and blood, but they know that their deer went “right out along the ridge to the left.” All too often they actually saw another deer and were confused. I talk with many other trackers, and they all report that this happens often.

So what do you do when you and your dog go in to the hit site and begin tracking? You don’t want to insult your hunter, so you start the dog on the line supposedly taken by the deer. Then with his body language your dog says “No!” Your dog wants to go the other way and he knows his business much better than any of the humans present His nose knows. Your relationship with him is such that he will take the initiative and override your commands in such a case. This is what you want in a tracking dog.

Of course this sort of independent initiative is not the relationship that you would want with a Lab trained for retriever trials. In field trial world it’s “command” and “obey”. Follow the handler’s signals exactly. Take a straight line to the bird. If the retriever deviates from the straight course given by arm signals and whistle, a nick on the e-collar will straighten things out. Command and obey. Well, this is far, far away from the psychology of tracking dog work.

Even in early training the puppy should be encouraged to solve his own problems. If he wanders off the blood line or overshoots a right angle turn, don’t correct him right away. Wait and see if he will correct himself. If he doesn’t, twitch the plastic clothes line of the puppy leash and ask him, “Is that right?” The words themselves don’t matter. It’s the questioning tone of your voice which will encourage him to pay attention. Dogs are very sensitive to tone of voice. Only as a last resort, pick him up or lead him back to the line.

Of course a dog must learn basic obedience, to come when called for example. But at the same time he learns that in his own specialty, scent work, he knows best. Here his role is to lead, like a guide dog for the blind. We humans are very nearly “blind” when it comes to scent. Some handlers, themselves, can have difficulty realizing that the dog is the one most likely to be right. They unconsciously pull the dog off the correct line, and after a few of these blunders some dogs will get disgusted and quit.

Now, even in the blood tracking world there are authorities who would strongly disagree with what I am writing. They are comfortable in the command and obey school. They evaluate a dog by tracking tests. To train for one of these tests, where there is always a drop of blood at each stride, it may be effective to work the dog under tight discipline. Here the task for the dog is to find the next drop of blood, and then go one meter to the next. But real trails of wounded game are not like that, there are gaps with no scent, dead spots, back tracks. This is another world, and those who are concerned first with test scores don’t worry much about the natural stuff.

Some blood tracking tests are better than others. In Swedish blood tracking tests, gaps are intentionally placed in the blood line to evaluate the dog’s ability to take the initiative and reach ahead. There are also natural tests, run on game wounded in the course of actual hunting. Tests can be very useful, but it’s too bad when they encourage dogs to be trained as command/obey automatons.

A few years back in this column I wrote a story about “Max, the Dog Who Learned to be Brave.” Early on, Max had difficulty taking the initiative. When he arrived from France as a very young puppy, he was allowed to get lost in the woods almost immediately. I searched all night, but it was 24 hours before he showed up on our doorstep as we ate a sad breakfast. I heard a whimper, opened the back door and in tottered little Max. Immediately he rolled over on his back and peed high in the air. As a result of the whole nightmare of being alone under a farm dump, he lost all confidence in himself. Growing up he wouldn’t stray from my side. When stumped by a problem on a blood line, he would come back to me, put his paws on my knee and ask with his eyes, “Now what should I do?” He wasn’t much of a tracking dog, but he was the best I had at the time.

I remember the night that Max made his breakthrough and began to gain his self-confidence. That night he solved some tough checks by reaching out to regain the line. He found his deer in a vast overgrown field, and he was immensely proud of himself. He became a focused, persistent dog who would work a check for half an hour if necessary, ranging out carefully and then returning to his point of loss until he finally reestablished the line. He was always a “soft” dog, not what I prefer, but he learned to take the initiative, which is so important in natural tracking.

When the handler has no clue where the deer went, he has to trust his dog. I did learn to count on Max when the going was tough. Trust your dog! And work to develop his initiative that’s the basis for this trust.

Of course you can’t blindly trust every young dog at the beginning, but if you learn to read him, you will know when to believe him. With experience he will become more and more reliable, and you will grow together into a special pack of two, each with his own talents. The dog and handler, working together, will begin to accomplish things that neither partner would ever accomplish on his own.

Max' last deer

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