A New Project

I mentioned the addition of a new puppy into our home a few stories back. What I didn’t mention was the involvement with a local group that focuses on training dogs to assist local search and rescue efforts.

It began when I contacted a local trainer because of some questions I had about behaviors Toner (then about 4-5 months old) was displaying towards people she did not know. Toner has been exposed to people from the day she was born. I was bringing her into the shop with me each day where she’d meet customers and I also took her on regular walks so that she could be exposed to people in an effort to properly socialize her.

So it really took me by surprise when she started barking and acting defensive towards new people. As far as I knew, she had not had a bad experience to prompt the behavior and it only seemed to be getting worse. So I pursued trying to get some outside opinions on what might be causing it and what I might be able to do to curb it.

During my visit with the behaviorist I mentioned that I was training Toner to hunt for shed antlers. We have Mule Deer in our area and each spring the males will naturally drop their antlers and begin new growth for the year. Following local regulations, anyone has the opportunity to hike out and pick up any dropped antlers they find. Dogs become a great tool for these hunts because of their athletic ability to cover so much more ground than a human can, but also because of their powerful noses. It seemed like a natural fit with my love of the outdoors to train my dog to search out that scent, giving her a fun job when we go out hiking.

When I mentioned this scent training with the other training I was doing with Toner she asked me “have you ever considered doing search and rescue with your dog?” It kind of surprised me because I had pursued search and rescue in the past because of the resources I had in off road vehicles, knowledge of the local area, and outdoor abilities. But I was gently told that “now wasn’t a good time” because of some leadership dramas and organizational challenges that the local SAR (search and rescue) group was going through. Further, I have always thought that it would be REALLY cool to have a dog that could track people. I mean, how cool would it be to tell your friend to take off and go hide somewhere. To give them a half hour start and have no clue where they went, or in what circumstances they were hiding, but you’ve got this secret super power in your dog that will lead you straight to them!

She explained she was apart of a group that was training dogs and handlers to become a reliable resource for local SAR efforts, the days they met to train, and what would be required of someone joining the group. I had opportunity to attend without Toner at first to get a feel for the format and then with Toner to see how she handled the training. Eventually, while there were time commitments and some lingering reservations, I decided to join feeling it would be good for both Toner and myself to be apart of the group.

I continued attending the trainings as often as I could with Toner. While I could see potential within Toner to become a true trailing dog, I almost viewed it as more of a socializing opportunity for her and a chance to work with her in the midst of the distractions of other dogs and other people. I knew that building an ability for her to trail someone would be possible, but it still seemed like a goal that may be out of our reach.

As I was becoming comfortable with that idea I was informed that there would be a 4 day seminar hosted by the INBTI (InterNational Bloodhound Training Institution) for our group. They were flying out two professional trainers to work with us for four straight days. Showing us how to make our dogs true trailing dogs from start to finish. Super exciting!

As the days neared for this seminar I started to become really nervous. I felt that Toner and myself were so amateur. I have never trained a trailing dog. In reality, I’ve never really trained a working dog. Scent work for hunting shed antlers and man trailing were new to this dog and the only training I had done in the past was basic obedience and a few party tricks.

Add on top of that that Toner was now only 8 months old and still struggling to have leash manners in a group of people…….. yeah, I was worried they would take one look at her and feel like they wasted their time.

The first night of the Seminar consisted of a slide-show presentation outlining the basics of man trailing, how the training would look, and what the dogs would be capable of if we followed the steps they would outline for us. As I looked around the room I learned that there were two, real world Bloodhounds that would be joining us along with a Belgium Malinois. These were local dogs with their handlers who had attended seminars like this before. This just deepened my nervousness that I would somehow be frowned upon for even attending at this stage in our training. But it also excited me to get to see the real deal in action.

The next morning we met in the parking lot of a local grocery store. We all had our dogs in our vehicles and we all stood, moving our feet in anxiousness but also in an attempt to keep our blood flowing on this cold morning. We had a brief introduction and then we were told that we would now run our dogs for the instructors so that they could get a feel for the stage that dog was in. Of course when they counted off the handlers, giving them an assigned place in the order we would run, I ended up being number two. My heart dropped.

The first dog ran, and while it was distracted, it trailed fairly well. It was now my turn and I pulled Toner out of her crate and allowed her to meet everyone present in an attempt to at least eliminate one distraction this morning. They chose an individual to run for Toner, someone she didn’t know. As they instructed the individual what to do I could tell that he was not following very well. He also had to leave a scent article (an item that the person has had good contact with for the dog to sniff before hitting the trail) of which he didn’t have one. Instead another person grabbed a towel that was supposedly clean for him to use. He wiped his hands on it briefly then dropped it to the ground and went on his run to leave a trail for Toner.

Toner still dazed on what she was doing there took a brief sniff of the rag and I set her off with a quick “search!” command. She launched forward but immediately I could tell she had no clue what she was even looking for. It was a painful 3-5 minute search. She finally did make it to the runner, with some help from me, and with that the pain was over and I could sit back and watch the other dogs……still feeling a bit embarrassed to be there.

The two Bloodhounds and the Belgian Malinois were the last to go. I stepped up, my attention heightened, and anxiously waited for the first Bloodhound to start it’s trail. The handler went through the pre-start ritual of dropping the harness over the scent article, circling the dog around the area, and then getting the dog harnessed for the run. I was a little surprised at how relaxed and nonchalant the whole process was, but I accepted it as these were the real deal so it must be right.

The handler then gave the command to start trailing……a start that, to me at least, was super anti-climatic as the dog meandered forward with the same confused mannerisms Toner had displayed. What surprised me even more was that the second Bloodhound and the Belgian Malinois followed in the same manner. I was dumbfounded! But I quickly realized that I wasn’t the odd man out. That Toner and I had an even playing field moving into the weekend. I realized that we wouldn’t be singled out as inexperienced or amateurs. My excitement for the weekend suddenly renewed and I dove into the training with new enthusiasm.

During the days that followed I found that the first run on that first morning was a result of Toners puppy excitement, an inexperienced runner, and a bad scent article. She was, in a way, set up for failure on that run. Because as the days progressed on she had many opportunities to show how capable she was of trailing even amidst the distractions of an urban environment. Having a couple of runs under her belt, working out some of the excitement of new areas, new people, and new dogs, she launched into a display of athleticism and drive.

I did my best to soak in as much information as I could. I asked questions, followed other dogs and their handlers on their trails even if I felt there wasn’t a need to. I observed as much as I could and participated as much as I could. I read evening assignments from an accompanying book and did my best to apply all I had learned in the next run. I even began wearing a chest mounted Go-Pro so that I could go back and review the footage, much like an athlete would, in an effort to pick out things in my runs that I could improve and correct.

On the last day I came to a realization:

Toner was the youngest dog in the group. I had the least experience in training and handling a trailing dog out of all of the other handlers. Toner and I came into this seminar as the underdogs and yet we somehow ended up as the top team of the weekend. Now, this is by my own observation. The instructors did a great job in critiquing and commenting on the teams as to keep an even playing field. There were no awards given and no favorites played.

I know by making that statement I probably sound quite conceded as well. But hear me out. I am not stating that Toner ran trails with perfection each time. We experienced plenty of mistakes, frustrations, and errors through the weekend that need correction and critiques from the instructors. Toner and I are nowhere near being in a position to respond to a SAR call and no where near advancing beyond foundational exercises.

But as I observed the other teams make their runs; the attention the handler gave to the information, the way the dog would respond to the handlers inputs, etc. I observed that Toner and myself were producing the most consistent results. Toner was anxious to work and anxious to do as I asked. She proved to have a drive and an ability that was so impressive to me and to the others that observed her. She got the concepts and did not react to distractions and items that disrupted the other dogs.

I can’t even begin to articulate the respect I gained for Toner over the last few days. She’s proven to be a dog that is truly capable of amazing things. I’m a bit sad to admit that I have doubted her in the past because of some behavioral issues we’ve encountered, one of which that started this entire path. But this weekend proved to me that we are a match and that we are capable of amazing things.

It also made me realize that having a dog that can trail like the pros is actually a reality. I now have the tools I need, the information I need, the resources I need, and proof that Toner is capable of it. It’s now up to me to make it happen.

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