Ten days ago Andy Bensing and his German import Eibe von Merreche won the Deer Search Blood Tracking Competition with the Prize 1, 100-point-score performance. Andy is a close friend of ours, and since he imported Eibe two and a half years ago we have heard occasional updates about Eibe's training and performance. Some of them did not sound too good. For this reason I asked Andy to write an article for this blog about his training approach with Eibe. I was curious myself and thought that we all could learn something new here. Andy's article exceeded my expectations in the depth and detail. It is nine-page long so I am going to post it in three installments, few days apart. Thank you Andy for a super job!
For those who have not met Andy, a short intro is in order. Andy knows dogs as he is a professional dog trainer, and he operates a busy boarding kennel in Reading, PA. He is addicted to blood tracking and is President of the United Blood Trackers. He is a blood tracking judge for the UBT, Deer Search and a hunting judge for the DTK/NATC.
Journey to the Win - Part 1
Identification of problems and development of training strategy
by Andy Bensing
I had great expectations 2 ½ years ago when I got off the plane with my newest wirehaired dachshund puppy. I had waited a year for this repeat breeding. My new puppy, Eibe, was a full sister to a very precocious 6 month old bitch that I had first seen in Germany on an apprentice judging assignment the year before.
I began blood tracking training with Eibe right away and by 8 months old she was doing 800 meter overnight lines with no trouble and could not have been doing any better. She was all the dog I could have hoped for. Then, like a light switch, for the next 12 months there was almost nothing. I would lay training lines every few weeks to check, but she was terrible, with little or no interest in following the blood line. I tried everything to no avail during that time to build drive for the blood line. I tracked her hungry for food, went back to easy drags, put caged critters at the end for her to bark at, nothing worked during that time. To keep her nose well connected to her brain I spent that summer after she was a year old having her chase 4 or 5 rabbits per day since blood tracking training seemed to be a waste of time.
In the fall of 2008, Eibe was almost 1 ½ years old but I did not even consider putting her on a real blood trail that season unless I already had visually marked the natural line and was using the line only as a training exercise. After that hunting season, at about 20 months of age, things finally started to turn around and begin to improve with Eibe's training. Her focus and desire for the blood line began to come back and I could again see glimpses of the brilliance she showed up until 8 months of age. It was difficult waiting out what is often called "that adolescent period". As the months piled up during that period of time I have to admit I began to doubt if she would ever turn back around. I bought two other dogs during that time to hedge my bets just in case she didn't.
By the spring of 2009, Eibe was getting better every time we trained. She was not yet anywhere near as good as she was at 8 months but I could see what I hoped was the light at the end of the tunnel. Then the next complication, a 3 month layoff from serious training to whelp an unplanned litter of pups. I knew Eibe was due to come into heat anytime soon and I was watching her daily but to no avail. Unbeknownst to me, she was having a silent heat. Vinnie, a 7 month old wirehaired dachshund I had picked up in Germany as a backup if Eibe didn't work out, accidentally bred Eibe and she ended up having 6 pups by cesarean section (yet again another complication to her training). By good fortune the pups turned out terrific. Five of the six were super trackers and doing amazing things already by 9 weeks old. The pups were born on June 18, 2009. As a result of gestation, cesarean section, nursing, and spaying, we didn't get back to training until mid August. I snuck 4 training lines in during the heat of late August and by the start of my tracking season, September 15, Eibe, now a little over 2 years old, appeared ready enough to work real, unknown lines for the first time.
I was very satisfied with Eibe's first tracking season. It started with several relatively easy finds and a bunch of non-mortally wounded deer we chased around building drive in her and confidence in me of her abilities. Overall we found 9 deer together out of the 30 calls we took. Half of the calls we didn't find were either positively confirmed still alive by Eibe and I or the hunter called later to say the deer was seen again. We did have 2 calls where we just plain missed the dead deer as later confirmed by the hunter. At the time, those 2 calls were very disappointing but in retrospect, they contributed greatly to me developing a training plan for after the season. Those two misses helped me realize that when Eibe was close to the line and concentrating, she rarely got sucked into tempting cross trails. But when she was working the line loosely with poor line control as she sometimes did, she would sometimes fall for a cross trail, even convince herself (and me) it was the correct line. I was sure that's how we missed the two dead deer mentioned above. Some handlers might have passed these 2 missed deer off due to young age and lack of experience of the dog but my thoughts were to fix the problem before it became a habit.
Another problem I encountered during Eibe's first tracking season was her getting stuck in circles or loops that escaping game sometimes makes to elude a pursuing predator. Even when I picked her up and tried to cast her 50 or more meters out away from the loop to pick up the where the deer broke out, she would just want to go back to the known part of the line in the loop and keep going around. This told me I needed to teach her a formal directed "search" command so she would search in the direction I, as the handler, was determining until she found the line and then she could have her head and follow it.
A third goal of my spring training was to improve Eibe's efficiency at a check. This wasn't a problem I discovered during the tracking season, but a problem left over from her "adolescent slump". As a young pup, Eibe rarely was off the line by more than a few feet. Even at sharp turns, she rarely overshot by more than a yard or two and easily would re-acquire the line and make the turn. As Eibe got bigger and could cover ground more quickly she would over shoot turns farther, especially during her slump. It was during these 15 or 20 meter overshoots that I learned of her inefficient check work. Eibe would work the check with intensity but miss large areas in her searching leaving it up to luck for her to re-acquire the line. She also would start her search from the point she realized she was off instead of going back towards the last place she had it. So in summary I had 3 goals to work on going into spring training.
1. Improve Eibe's line control
2. Teach a formal directed "Search" command
3. Improve her check work
All these things would make her an even better blood tracking dog for next hunting season, but in addition to that, I had decided to enter Eibe into the 2010 Deer Search Blood Tracking Competition in April and I needed to improve all 3 goals if I wanted a chance to win. What follows is how I worked on those goals.