A couple of weeks ago there was an excellent tracking camp organised in Sweden by SWDI (Scandinavian Working Dog Institute). The camp was followed by a detection training week arranged for professional dog teams. I had a great opportunity and privilege to take part in the training. Although I promised to share some of the more sophisticated motivation techniques with you in this blog post, I would like to share some of the highlights of this training camp first. We will get back to the motivation after these two posts, I promise!
For the first three days we focused on hard surface tracking in a small town called Lindesberg. There were total of eight professional dog teams from Sweden, Norway, the UK and Finland, mostly from police, customs, army and private security services. Some of the dogs were experienced with scent work, some of them were about to do tracking from the beginning.
The training started by teaching a dog to react on an article. The article could be basically any small object which not so easy to see from the ground, most often a small coin or a piece of a kong toy. The exercise was much the same as introduced in one of the previous blog posts “Starting the scent training“.
The next step was to teach the dog to search for an article in a triangle shaped area scented by its handler. The reason for this is to teach the dog that the article can be found only in the scented area. This will help the dog later to stay better on the track. The scenting of the area was made by the handler stepping and possibly touching the ground a bit with his/her hand. Then the dog was brought to the area. Besides the scented area, the dog got no additional help – there was no food, added water or rubber from the shoe soles rubbed to the area. Just the scent that came naturally from the handler.
It should be noted that the surface we trained on was not free of distraction scents. Because it easy for dogs to discriminate their handlers fresh scent on the ground with some older human scent distractions, it is better to courage them to do that right from the beginning.
There was only one article placed in the scented area on asphalt that was approximately 1,5 meters wide and long. The article itself was about 2 x 2 mm (double the size and you would be mocked that you are using an article that is a size of a football!) If it seemed too hard for the dog to find the small article, you could decrease the size of the triangle or place in the area some more articles. It was important to get the dog to succeed and build up the expectation for the dog to find something valuable in the scented area. The idea of this exercise was to get the dog to sniff intensively and use its nose instead of eyes, which it still could do with a coin.
When the dog had learnt that the article could be found only in the scented triangle and was able to stay inside of it, it was time to do the first tracking exercises. By making a triangle and walking out of it from one of its corners, the dog was naturally lead out of the are. When there was no articles in the triangle, the dog would eventually follow the scent on the track and find an article on it. Bit by bit the length of the tracks were increased and the amount of the articles varied.
As soon as the dog got the idea of tracking, it was time to make turns and surface changes: from asphalt to grass, from grass to gravel, from gravel to asphalt and so on. It was essential to make all possible variations of the surface changes ibecause some changes could be harder than others for the dog to solve.
To increase the success of surface changes, an article could be placed right after the surface change. It was also possible to make the track more interesting to the dog by doing something different than just walking while laying the track. You could touch the ground with your hand or stand still for a while in a one spot, make a lot of turns and vary the distance of the articles.
The dog was of course rewarded for all the articles it found, but it was important to reward it also when it was on the track and working well. The reward in these cases was usually a toy thrown in front of the dog to keep the dog facing the fresher track.The reward was mainly an intensive and interactive play with the dog. However, for some tasks that required a calmer reinforcement the food was occasionally used as a reward.
If I compare the way SWDI teaches the tracking with the traditional way of doing it (placing pieces of treats to the footprints), everything seemed more simple. Maybe not for the handler, but especially for the dog. It was important to keep the task straightforward: If the surface changes, the articles are still kept the same size to keep the accuracy the same. The dog should be using only the exact track (max. about 20 cm off the track) and not go with the wind or scent plumes, to make it easier to stay on the track all the time. Handlers movements and guiding are faded off quite soon, to make the dog independent.
If the training is unambiguous to the dog, it will understand the point more quickly, it will succeed better in a given task and it will become more self-confident and independent. Sounds easy, but often we train too many things simultaneously, and confuse the dog.
Did you know, that there is no research done on how long the scent lasts on different surfaces after it has gotten there? There are many books that give you “facts” about it, but it is all based on opinions. No one has ever made a study on that yet, which is quite surprising, taking into account how long people have used dogs on tracking.
Some Nose Work
Between the two courses with SWDI, we had one day off. To make the best out of it, we headed with my travel companion Teemu to Borlänge to meet some Nose Work professionals of Dala Hundservice.
Before attending a weekend long Nose Work course we had some great training sessions at the fire departments training facilities. It was great to see how assertive and talented scent detection dogs work in a place with variable surfaces and unfamiliar scent environment with no problems. Nose work is a dog sport for all the dogs out there and it is supposed to be fun to train and compete with any kind of dog. It was amazing to see how a dog team, trained for only Nose Work scents work as any highly trained working dog. Even though Nose Work is “just a dog sport”, you could not tell the difference with a talented Nose Work dog team and a talented professional dog team.
Part II about scent detection will follow soon…