So that is what we were doing on Holly’s evaluation trail up in Massachusetts. As she is getting close to the subject (I had no real idea where the guy was other than when we started, they said, “He is out that way.”), as she is coming up, literally from 10 feet away, I see this wiggle starting from the nose and going all the way back. She is trying to run at a full speed and trying to wiggle from one end to the other. She comes flying around this six-foot-high bush, and there is her “runner,” tucked up, sitting on the ground, against this bush. She kind of leans back and takes one of her big front paws and smacks him, jumps back, and goes Woof! Woof! I knew with the tension that she was pulling and her body language—with the Bloodhounds, body language is 90 percent of it—that she found him.
Learning how to read the dog’s language, interpret her clues, is critical. If she was going to make a turn to the left, you would see her head cast off to the left, and then back on the track. If you see her look the second time, you had better be prepared, because the third time she looks, she will be making a turn.
And the helping part—in the training trails, virtually every one of them, you know the solution to the problem before you run the dog on it. That way, you can help the dog rather than just wander aimlessly. But coming up to a decision point, whether it’s a turn or a T-intersection, you basically just start slowing your pace down a little so it allows the dog time to think about what she is doing rather that just charging through. Then, when she makes the correct turn, it is just that quick one or two words of praise, and boom! You’re off and going again.
Q. At the beginning of her training, Holly had a fear of thunder and loud noises. Have you heard about the recent study out of Penn State that measured cortisol levels (as a stress indicator) in dogs with thunderstorm phobia? They found that the dogs’ human had no affect on their stress level, while living with other dogs decreased the levels. Have you seen this effect with your dogs?
A. That makes sense, because as much as we humans like to think we are the be-all and end-all for canines, basically, they are a pack-order animal. I have an ancient Cattle Dog, who is 12; when I got her as a pup, she was the only dog in the house, and she developed such a phobia. We worked and worked to get her over it. But it started to affect my Border Collie, my disaster dog, and we then worked through that. Now the other Border Collie, our rescue, who we are training to find human remains—when a thunderstorm rolls in, she looks around and sees that the others aren’t freaking, and thinks, No big deal.
It is ironic we have three dogs who are each trained for a different type of work. When the pager goes off or the phone rings, they instantly cue in on my behavior. If they see me putting on a certain type of clothing, or pulling out certain types of equipment, they know which one will be working that day. For instance, if I start pulling out life jackets, my human remains dog goes nuts, because she knows that when she sees that PFD, we are going somewhere. The Bloodhound seems to be thinking, It’s her and not me. I jokingly tell people that with the working dogs, my job is to drive the car, carry the radio and have water. I am firmly convinced that if the dogs had opposable digits, they wouldn’t need me at all.
Q. Why did you start Holly with sight training before scent?
A. Because the first thing that I am trying to help the dog understand is that this looking-for-a-person activity is a game. When it quits being fun, the dog quits being interested. So we start off with the puppy run, the visual—simple Pavlovian conditioning. It is behavior, desired response, behavior, desired response, the harness goes on, it clicks in, she gets the command, and, Oh, I get to chase somebody. It’s quick, it’s fun, it’s easy, praise, praise, praise. That foundation training is where I see the disconnect with a lot of folks. They say, “Oh, they did it,” and jump from A to G. And at 2 AM, when they’re working an actual case and things fall apart, invariably 80 percent of the fault can be traced back to foundation training, or lack of it.