When your puppy first came home, you, and/or, another family member probably watched every last move your puppy made. It sounds the same in almost every homecoming. “Isn’t it cute how he searches every corner?” “Look at his little ears trying to stand up!” “Uh oh…he’s going to piddle on the floor!”
We watch closely because we don’t want the mess on the floor, or our new puppy getting into something that might harm him. Soon, (perhaps thru parental instinct ourselves) we can see when pup needs to go potty. He telegraphs it in his own way, but he teaches us to recognize the signals. We may eventually teach the pup to ring a bell to be let out, but this is only a “Canine-taught human trick.” He taught us to see the need before we taught him anything. He was born knowing how to relieve himself, and instinctively wants to keep his “nest” clean. We may teach him where we want him to do his business, but that is a cooperative effort. The point I’m making here? Our dog teaches us something every day. We just have to be good “listeners” and “observers”. This is a major part of building a good relationship between you and your dog. I cannot overemphasize how much this affects your teams Tracking ability.
Consider how a “Real World” tracking scenario. Typically, your phone will ring at some hour in the bleary dawn, and your presence will be requested. Someone has gone missing, and for the last 12 hours, a horde of Law enforcement officers, Emergency personnel, and well-meaning volunteers will have searched without a single clue. You are told that the lost subject walked somewhere in this area, and presumably went in a very general direction of travel. But nobody knows for sure. The area has been trampled down, any specific scent trail now criss-crossed with that of many others. You are given a plastic bag with a pair of socks, recently worn by the subject. The first good thing about this deployment…
Now you are informed that your trail “probably” begins “somewhere” within 100 yards of a certain spot. You, as the Handler, have no clue where. Your dog is more than capable of finding the scent, but do “understand” when he gives you a signal indicating the spot? And, Do You Trust His Nose enough to follow him blindly? Have you OBSERVED his body language and reaction to a scent? Have you learned to “read” his tracking posture? The relationship that the two of you as a team will be tested here and now, at the beginning of your search effort. In the mish-mash of scents, his positive indication may be as subtle as the lift of his tail, a flicked ear, or a nose lift. Without a strong scent, you may not get the strong reaction that a team of strangers would need. If, in fact, you have been given inaccurate intel as to the starting point, you and your team may find Nothing! Would you be aware of whether your dog missed the scent, or that there IS NO SCENT? Only by working together, training together, and living together, will you ever have this relationship. And the brunt of the work is on YOU, the Handler, because your dog already reads you like a Dick and Jane primer. Unlike competitive Obedience, Schutzhund, or one of the other dog sports, the handler is both unable to direct the work of the dog, and incapable of fully understanding what he senses. What we have done, hopefully, is helped our dog understand what we want him to DO with the information he gathers. Again, a good relationship with the dog, enables him to understand what we need from him. Have you ever found yourself saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself…”? Without real trust and understanding, the dog will be unable to communicate accurately with you what he senses. He might as well be working alone, tracking squirrels. Conversely, you have ZERO chance of putting your nose to the ground and sniffing out your target.
I wish there was a set of instructions that I could print here that would teach you to read your dog in One Easy lesson. That won’t happen, Sparky. You need to WORK at it every chance the both of you get. What I can do is offer a few exercises that you can do together to build communication. But before that post, we must consider “How to lay a Track Properly”…That will be our next subject.