Friday, May 15, 2009

Commands and Communication

"Training your dog's nose" may be an inaccurate title. The average dog knows how to use his nose just fine, just as readily and easily as you use your eyes. The trick is not in teaching his nose; it's teaching him a vocabulary.

My last scenting dog, Sunny, started off with "Search" to find airborne scent and "Find another one." The latter was useful for tracking: find another thing with the tracklayer's scent on it, and another, and another -- surprise! Those footprints in between link them up. From there we developed "Track."

What I didn't specifically train for some time was article search without a connecting track. However, one fine day, I needed to have a key in my car to run the air conditioner and another to lock it while I was not in it. In finally shutting everything down and leaving the car, I lost one of the two keys. Several hours later, returning to the car, I discovered this. Note: gray plastic-and-steel key, gray parking lot, nighttime with depth-perception-destroying sodium lights. I went home and collected Sunny, then went back.

I showed her my keyring and told her "Take scent," a command she already knew. Then I pointed to the ground as though we were tracking and said "Search" as though we were air-scenting. She looked puzzled for a moment, thoughtful for a second moment, then put her nose down and began casting around.

A few sweeps of the nose later, she took a few steps straight ahead, looked back at me to say quite plainly, "Is this what you wanted? You need new glasses," and lay down on my key. Twelve feet from where we'd started, it had been completely invisible to me. To her, it stood out just fine. Since we could communicate pretty well, she had figured out the key was probably what I'd had in mind, and since I use positive training, she was willing to take a chance on guessing.

When evaluating a training system, whether for scentwork or otherwise, it's worth asking, "What else can I get from this?" In this case, by working from a "Find another one" tracking system from Mary Adelman's method and also making sure my dog knew air scent was a useable and viable option, I "bought two, got article search free." Later, when we took up trailing, which relies on air scent deposited along any surface to which skin rafts can stick, it was far less work than it would have been starting from scratch because my dog knew about scent flows and footprints. Extending the metaphor, we took trailing at a discount.

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