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Monday, April 12, 2010

Bonding and relationships within a tracking team

by John Jeanneney, Feb 2010

Advanced training of a dachshund on artificial tracks usually coincides with the tracking of real wounded deer. The natural experience is tremendously important because of its psychological impact on the dog….and on the handler. Tracking a real wounded deer, confronting it and perhaps having to kill it is the consummation of prey drive. It draws handler and dog together into a working team, and this carries over into other aspects of their life together. A dog with whom you have found a deer begins to act in a different way. In the house he follows you from room to room. He watches you intently. He is more responsive and begins to anticipate what you expect of him. And you as a handler change too. You admire and trust your dog, and your dog senses this.

I want to avoid any temptation to illustrate this development with easy and false parallels to certain relationships that humans have with one another. Dogs and people are profoundly different, but they are both social animals and the two  species can come together in a pack relationship. Dogs have inherited their hard-wired social instincts from wolves. Wolf researchers like David Mech have come to realize that wolf pack relationships are much more complex than a simple hierarchy or ladder of boss and underling relationships.

As a wolf pack works to identify a weak and vulnerable deer, then chases it, then pulls it down, different pack members take leadership roles as fits their expertise. The male leader does not necessarily lead in all phases of the hunt. In a similar fashion, the dominant male does not lead in feeding the cubs and disciplining them when necessary. These matters are left to the wisdom of their mother, who is high on the dominance ladder, but yields to others in non-domestic matters.

It is in these more complex relationships of the wolf pack that we find the best model for explaining the handler/tracking dog relationship. It is not just the straight command/obey relationship of some types of retriever training. In tracking real deer the dog learns first that he and his handler have the same prey drive, the same goal of finding the animal. Then the dog learns why teamwork is necessary.

If a tracking dog could talk he might say, “My handler has a terrible nose, and he’s of little use when following a scent line unless there is a lot of blood. My handler gets all excited if he sees drops of blood, but of course I know that this blood is not all that important. Surprisingly my handler is pretty good about determining the direction of the track (he pays a lot of attention to marks that the deer made in the mud, but otherwise he is pretty much “out of it”.

On the other hand my handler is amazingly good at knowing where to go to find a good scent line to track and begin the hunt. Sometimes he drives a long time with me and then, with a man we’ve never met, he goes directly to a good spot to start tracking a wounded deer. My handler is marvelously patient; he doesn’t want to give up when the going gets tough, and he is really encouraging when I need encouragement.

When the game animal is found my handler is very useful. He can kill the deer if it needs killing. And best of all he shares my pleasure in finding the deer. But he doesn’t want to chew on it like I do."

When a dog has figured this out for himself, when he understands his own skills and those of his handler, he has progressed beyond structured training. He will sense that he and his handler can take prey together that neither could have taken by himself. He will know that he is part of a team, and that this team is the most important thing in his life.

Joeri with his second deer. After this long, tough track he understood that he was part of a team.

These team relationships in tracking bring to mind the summer days, 20 years ago, when I hunted woodchucks underground with a pack of dachshunds. The woodchuck pack was held together by a younger, stronger shovel man and a mini wire from Teddy Moritz. The experience really taught the dachshunds to work together. Two old tracking dogs were respected by all for their skill in identifying occupied dens. A couple of sniffs at the opening and they knew that a chuck was down there. They communicated this to the rest of the pack, not by barks but by body language.

Then Polly, the mini, would take over. She was small enough for almost any den, and she would quickly locate the prey. With barks, and a little electronic help, Polly would announce the location of the chuck in the den. Then it was up to the young guy, with his shovel, bar and a good strong back, to dig down to the chuck and open things up so the 20 pound draw dogs could pull out the chuck. The shovel man had a hunting knife, and this was sometimes useful.

The woodchuck team was bigger and more complex than the handler/tracker team, but the team psychology was similar. Each specialist knew his own job and respected his mates for what they could do. A working bond was formed. I believe that this helped prepare the psychological base for tracking wounded deer later in the year.

The woodchuck team in 1988


Bigshrimp said...

I'm also interested one day in using a teckel for den work. Are there useful dogs small enough for the work being bred in North America?

Would be neat to see a 20lb dog drawing an ornery chuck from a pipe!

Great stories :o)

Jolanta Jeanneney said...

For effective den work you really need a much smaller teckel than a 20 lb standard. You need a mini. Talk to Teddy Moritz, she will give you good advice.