We recently spoke with Larry Allen, dog trainer and working-dog handler extraordinaire. He took time out from his busy day as the emergency management director for a West Virginia county to have a phone chat with us about one of his favorite subjects, training working Bloodhounds. Allen and the rescue Bloodhound, Holly, were featured on “Underdogs,” an episode in the PBS Nature series. In 12 short weeks, Allen turned the “hyperactive” Holly into a working dog who is now a member of the Massachusetts State Police team.
Q. Holly didn’t seem like the typical pet dog. Do you often find “talented” dogs in shelters and rescue situations?
A. I can tell you that we had five come into rescue in the past week who ended up there because they either had too much energy, or the people who had them were having a minor challenge controlling them.
Q. Do Bloodhounds only work with a lead attached to a harness? Are there ever opportunities for them to run off-lead ahead of the handler?
A. I only know of two handlers in the US who have their dogs trained to work a scent trail off-lead. These dogs—at least, all of the Bloodhounds I have been acquainted with for 20-plus years—become totally oblivious to the rest of the world when they have been given the odor their human wants them to pursue. I’ve had my dogs walk off riverbanks—thank God I had the lead on them to prevent them from going over a 100-foot cliff. They get so focused on finding that odor that they will go until they literally drop or encounter a physical obstacle, be it a cliff or a vertical face or whatever. The lead just stops them.
Q. So being on a lead is for their own safety?
A. The lead is for the safety of the animal, and it is also one of the most effective superconnectors. The dog shows me, through the tension she maintains on the lead, whether or not she is sure [about the scent]. And likewise, the dog can tell if I’m upset or having a bad day. It is no different than anything else with the animal. If I’m having a bad day, best thing I can do is to put him up, pat her on the head and come back another day. Because that feeling will transmit right down to the animal and they are thinking “oh no, I’m not making mom or dad happy…”
Q. How are the signals transmitted? How can you sense, through the lead or other mechanisms, that the dog is actually getting close to the subject—what is that connection? And do you help her?
A. I will use Holly as an example—she was a challenge to keep up with. The putting the harness on is a visual and physical cue to the animal that she is going to work. The target, or scent of who it is that she is to find, is given to her—you see me in the film basically putting Holly’s head in a plastic bag to try to eliminate as many environmental odors as possible. I want to get her to focus just on the odor contained on the item in the bag.
So when her head starts to come out of the bag, the starting command is given to her. That is the only time that word is given during the entire trail, whether it is 100 feet or 10 miles. And from that point, depending on the tension, on how hard she is pulling on the leash—because if she is not really sure, she will start slowing down—you will pick up slack in the leash. Sometimes it may be an environmental thing she has never encountered before, maybe it is a smell of a particular plant or flower. So then it is the human praise, the “Good girl, you can do it, come on, baby let’s go, let’s go to work,” that reminds the dog that I’m okay here …
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.
Q. Like clicker training, marking each and all of those little things adds up, and then needs to be reinforced. Training is needed throughout their life, isn’t it? Is Holly still being trained?
A. Every day, because a Bloodhound is like a piece of lab equipment that you have to maintain, to calibrate and keep dusted; otherwise you go to use it and it’s broken. There are always new fragrances, new techniques—if a person jumps out of a sports car, it’s different than if a person comes out of a semi. And day versus night, snow versus rain versus dry leaves. As I tell these operational folks—whether they are SAR or law enforcement—when you get that initial certification on your dog, she is a deployable asset, and congratulations, you just entered kindergarten. Now the training starts! Because up until that point, the dog and the human are building the team, developing basic skills and meeting a certain number of criteria. Then they go out in the field. There is nothing more humbling than to show up on an actual case and realize, “Oh, I’ve never trained for this.” I’ll guarantee you that within the next two weeks, you will be training for that.
Q. Some people say that a human can actually “break” a dog. In other words, the dog has to trust you, and if you give the dog the wrong cues, the wrong direction—and the dog invariably knows better—that confidence between the two of you can be broken. Have you seen this with Bloodhounds?
A. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that. One of the dogs I placed and trained earlier—a rescue dog who came to me with some emotional baggage but did a great job getting trained—went into a situation in which she basically decided she wasn’t getting enough work. This dog was high maintenance, and needed lots and lots of work. She decided that she no longer felt like working for the human, and she shut down and was sent back to us. I tested her and found her to be happy, wiggly, dragging me around the field. Now she’s with another law enforcement agency and is doing fantastic because she is getting the work she needs. It is a very delicate bond, a very delicate balance. But Bloodhounds will go to their death to protect their human partners.