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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Journey to the Win - Part 2: Training

by Andy Bensing

Continued from

Over the winter while there was snow on the ground and tracking training was not possible, I worked on polishing Eibe's obedience. I focused on down stays under big distraction and highly distracted recalls as I always do. The handler respect gained through obedience training would be invaluable when working on my 3 goals once there was clear ground. I believe obedience is the foundation for everything you do with your dog.

The ground finally cleared by the first week of March. I was able to run nine 20-hour training lines averaging 1100 meters each in those 7 weeks before the competition.

Line control

Eibe had a tendency to drift off the line to the right, regardless of wind direction. She would stray off with nose to the ground, sometimes as much as 10 or 15 yards, then suddenly stop on her own, loop back to her left and go directly back to the line and continue on. I called it saw toothing because of the shape it made on my GPS.

Saw toothing

The fix for this was easy. I started consistently scolding her verbally with a harsh "NO" as soon as I saw her drift off to the right. I had to be careful with wind direction when doing this. If the wind was right to left, there wasn't a problem. With a right to left wind, Eibe drifting the line to the right could be corrected with no chance for a accidental correction while she had the line in her nose. If the wind was left to right or from the front or back, I had to be careful not to unknowingly correct her while she did have the line in her nose. In these situations, I would let her go quite far off the line, maybe 10 yards, before scolding "NO". Even if she did have the line in her nose at that point, I felt she would interpret the correction for being too far from the line in the first place. The tricky part of this technique was dealing with Eibe's soft temperament when not in drive. The nature of this technique is such that it shuts down the dogs drive to "drift" and counts on the dogs drive for the blood line to take over and bring her back to the line. This shutting down did cause Eibe some problems the first few times I corrected her for drifting. She stopped drifting when I scolded her but went out of drive completely and it took some coaxing to get her back into drive to follow the blood line. After the 2nd or 3rd training session using this technique there was no longer a problem with her shutting down. She figured out the "NO" was specifically for drifting, not for being in trouble in general. There was no more shutting down and actually I was able to accelerate the pace of training by raising the harshness of my voice on the "NO” without danger of her going out of drive for the blood line.

Directed "Search" Command and Check Improvement

As I mentioned before, Eibe naturally had an inefficient method to work checks and a tendency to get stuck in circles run by game. I needed a formal directed "Search" command to work on both of these problems. Getting stuck in circles would be instantly solved when the search command was learned in that I could take Eibe out of the circle and direct her to search in the direction I indicated until she hit the line coming off the circle. The problem I had on real tracks in the past was that she would go right back to the circle where she wanted to be and not in the direction I wanted her to search. I also planned to use the directed search command to teach or perhaps better said, imprint, an efficient search pattern for Eibe to use at checks. I knew from my work years ago teaching search patterns to drug detection dogs that search patterns could be taught relatively easily.

To teach the directed search command I set my training lines up so that there were numerous 90-degree turns or sometimes even acute angle turns along the way. I also made it a point to put extra scent (blood or hair) on the point of the turn. The goal was to have Eibe overshoot the turn as far as she wanted and then when she indicated/realized that she was past the line, lead her in a efficient pattern until she re-acquired the line and made the turn. When doing this, it is vitally important that you wait until the dog starts the check herself and then you immediately take over and you as the handler direct the search pattern not allowing the dog to fall back into her old inefficient ways. If you take over and initiate the searching pattern before the dog indicates by itself it has overshot the turn, you may inadvertently teach the dog to come to you for help when it loses the line. Obviously not something you want the dog to learn. By waiting until the dog actually starts the check herself, all you are doing is showing the dog how you want her to do it. I made it a point to be well back on the tracking line as we approached the turn so as not to influence her at the turn and when she began to make the check herself, I quickly took control and moved up closer to her on the line and with an authoritative but friendly tone of voice kept repeating the word "Search" as I led her in the pattern I wanted her to learn.

Desired search pattern to be taught

Part of the success of this technique is in the fact that the dog is hearing the word "Search" at the same moment she has decided to search herself (at the beginning of the check). It's the same concept of repeating "Hurry up" to a young puppy when you take him out to urinate. He hears "Hurry up" as he is thinking about and actually urinating anyway and before you know it when you say "Hurry up" the dog will actually urinate on command.

I place extra scent right on the turn for 2 reasons. First, I hoped to be subtly teaching the dog that when lost, go directly back to the last place you had it. Some dogs do that naturally but Eibe didn't all the time. My thoughts were that as the dog passes over the extra scent she would of course take a little extra note of it and when lost shortly thereafter it would only be natural to be drawn back to the last "good" spot. Secondly I was hoping the dog would think of this extra scented spot, the last place there was a good scent, as the center of her search pattern. Most people would agree that a good check dog starts from that point of loss and makes increasingly larger concentric circles from that point out until it re-acquires the line. That is what I wanted to teach my dog. The exact pattern you should teach your dog if you try this really should be based on the individual quirks and tendencies specific to that dog. I describe below exactly what I did with Eibe merely as an example of my thought process, not as a recipe of how it must be done.

Eibe's natural way of working a check at a turn was to search to the right first for about 90 degrees then randomly go here or there checking other places and she kept intermittently going back to that 90 degree slice of pie and searching again and again. Not a very good way to do it unless the line happened to run through that 90 degree wedge. She sometimes went back to the point of the turn to look but not always.

Eibe's inefficient natural search pattern

As I mentioned before the other tendency Eibe had when tracking was to drift to the right of the line then go directly left back to the line when she realized she had lost it in that "saw tooth" pattern I described earlier. Since Eibe already had a strong habit of searching left when off the line after drifting right and loosing the line, I decided to use that habit and teach her to search to the left, counter clockwise, at checks. Eibe picked this pattern up faster than I expected. After working on it only a few times, I could see her starting to use the pattern on her own. Her checks also got tighter at the same time, probably as a result of the line control work I was doing to reduce drifting.

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