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?
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?
Q. So being on a lead is for their own safety?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?