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 …