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Canine Trauma




Canine Scenting Ability Makes
Teaching Tracking a Treat


Julia Priest

Try this experiment:

Gather a bunch of colored pencils, as many colors as you can find, with as many shades and hues as possible. Greens from pale chartreuse to deep forest; reds from delicate rose to dark magenta, and sunny yellows, burnt orange, ceruleans and siennas, at least twenty of them. Now, show them to a friend, and ask him to pick out the pink one. Okay, now ask him to find one a shade lighter or darker. What’s the problem? There is none. For us, for humans, unless we are impaired or colorblind, this is as simple as breathing. We have the capacity to discern subtle shades of color naturally. Your dog cannot do this.

Now, take seven or eight of the different colors, and on a piece of white paper, draw a squiggly trail from one corner to the other, using each separate color to make a separate path, and run them close together. Again, ask your friend to locate one color, say, yellow, and follow its path with his finger, without straying onto or mixing it up with the red or the blue one. Again, hardly a challenge. It is easy to distinguish the one color from the other, because we are able to identify each one, and even if the shades are subtle and similar, if we have good light and good eyesight, we can accomplish the task. Your dog can’t do this either, no matter how smart he is.

But take a bunch of twenty identical wooden dowels, each with a number on the bottom, and rub your hands on only one, noting the number, handling the others with tongs. Place them all on the table and ask your friend to smell them, and tell you which one bears your scent. Tell him you’ll give him a thousand dollars to get it right the first time. Not only will he think you are nuts, but even if he believed the part about the money, he simply could not do it. Not for all the money in the world, not on pain of death, or under torture, can any of us begin to use our olfactory senses to the capacity that a dog can.

Your dog can not distinguish shades of color like we can, not for all the weenies in the world, or by force or coercion or any motivator, but -- ask him to follow a track in dry grass laid hours before, with no visible cues, and locate small objects which appear to be like other objects on the ground, but differ only in that they have been handled by the person laying the track, and for the mere promise of play with a tennis ball, or a small mound of kibble at the end, the average good working dog can do this reliably again and again. He can locate an object which in every way is physically identical to other objects near it, but for having been touched by his handler, as is demonstrated in the AKC Utility Obedience scent discrimination exercise. He can, for the joyous hope of a game of tug with his handler, locate money which has been handled by people who were handling narcotics, and at the same scene may locate very small amounts of narcotics which have been wrapped, sealed, hidden and stored within layers of other material. He can smell a felon hiding under a pile of pallets in a warehouse, or a lost child buried under snow where sight and sound are useless. He can do this with his scenting ability, and we can not, and that is the remarkable gift he bears.

Understanding this will help you understand that we do not need to teach our dogs to track. They come factory-equipped with all the necessary ability and paraphernalia to use their noses; we just need to show them what we want found, and inspire them that finding it is worthwhile. If anyone doubts this, let me relate a little tale.

I had just spent the better part of a cold soggy morning locating a good field, and carefully laying a beginning Schutzhund 1 track, placing bait after all the corners as I was going to teach my charge about how to do these correctly. I slogged back to the car to let the track age a bit, and as I went to get my dog out and snap on her line, I looked up to see a neighborhood mutt who had wandered onto the field, apparently curious as to what I had been doing out there.

I watched in horror as this mismarked scruffy-coated sorta Boxer-sorta shepherd-sorta retriever mix snuffed around in the dirt, hit the scent of my track, and proceeded to work his way down it, gobbling up the cooked chicken which festooned the footsteps, up to and including the three meticulously laid corners, which, by the way, he nailed. I gave him 81 points, only because he missed the scent pad and part of the first leg, and of course there were no articles! I dare say this dog had never had a tracking line on, nor ever heard the words such or find it, but he darn sure knew how to follow his nose when he wanted to.

So, the moral of the story is: understand your dog’s motivation for tracking, understand that he can track and you can’t, and try to learn how to use what he has to your best advantage by convincing him that he wants to find what you have laid down. Be a partner in the marvelous skill that he has, rather than a dictator, and let him teach YOU what you need to know about scenting. Once you have that, the rest is just details, and if you learn how to read your dog’s indications, the two of you will be a team that’s hard to beat!

© 1998 Julia Priest, von Sontausen German Shepherd Dogs.




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