Only the NOSE really KNOWS Part 3
Part 1&2 of this article was a discussion of the fundamental concepts of tracking and teaching tracking. I'd like to focus part 3 on a crucial part of Schutzhund (or VPG) tracking, articles. I believe that this is also one of the fundamentals. After all, the description of the task in the trial rules calls Schutzhund tracking "tracking for lost articles". So we better make sure that our dogs have a good grasp of what they are.
Considering how varied the responses are I get from people about what articles should mean, I figure I will just give you my version of it and then go from there. The article concept I will discuss is for dogs who indicate articles and do so by downing at the article. First principle: An article itself should have no meaning to a dog. It is nothing more than a piece of material. What should have meaning to the dog is the odor of human contact on that piece of material. Tracking is as I have stated before nose work. That means scent is what the dog is processing. With the endless variety of materials a dog could possibly come across, it would be impossible to effectively teach them the smell of all these materials. The human contact odor is one constant that will always be there and should therefore be the focus of our teaching. I am deliberately using the broad term "human" contact odor, and not the "tracklayer's" contact odor. There are some very gifted dogs in this world who are actually capable of memorizing the odor of one human and comparing that against the odor of other humans. Most dogs are not capable of doing that, they will however be able to identify and indicate objects which have had recent human contact. For the purposes of Schutzhund tracking and police evidence searches this is sufficient. Second principle: The scent of human contact on an object is an olfactory command to lie down. Read that one a couple of times, it sounds very simple, but try to truly understand what I am trying to say. The smell of human contact on an article a dog finds on a track is a platz command for the dog. Which in this context takes the place of the audible (spoken) command.
I know this sounds a little weird. Think of hand signals for a second though. We can make a dog perform an obedience command by making him obey the verbal command and showing him a hand signal until the hand signal replaces the audible voice command. So if the sense of hearing command can be replaced by another sense, the sense of sight, why can't it also be replaced by the sense of smell?
I have had a technique to accomplish this for years, and it is still how I do it. But two years ago on a seminar trip to New Zealand, I got together with some of the instructors at the Agriculture Detector Dog School there and had a great revelation. The Agriculture Detection Dogs learn their work in a very unique way, which is in principle identical to how I teach articles to tracking dogs. The "Beagle Brigade" of the New Zealand Department of Agriculture is world famous for their unbelievable ability to find and indicate all sorts of contraband. From fruits to insect eggs and all you can imagine in between; a very important task in an island nation that tries to remain as disease and pest free as they are at present.
Let me tell you what they do, to give you some food for thought. They begin their training with citrus fruits. So how does a Beagle learn to indicate an orange by sitting for hot dogs? Did you figure it out? The dog is taught to sit as millions of dogs are in obedience classes using hot dogs as the food reward. Then, the scent of an orange is introduced and this scent replaces the audible sit command. And the highly food motivated Beagles that are selected for this work will not miss an opportunity to earn a hot dog.
For me that was a perfect illustration of what I have been trying to teach dogs to do when working articles. The smell itself becomes a command to the dog. Sounds simple, now that I figured it out.
Let's define articles for a tracking dog once again: Articles are obedience, but the command is scent.
Now that we know what we want to teach let's get into how we go about doing that. Articles should not be introduced to a dog until the dog's obedience has advanced to the must stage. What does that mean? A lot of people do puppy obedience, as they should. However, most of that is purely inducive. For the article concept to become a solid one, the dog has to have a reliable platz. And I don't mean that if you hold a hot dog in front of the dog's face and say platz, he lies down really fast. I mean that the dog lies down on command, reliably, even when he is in the middle of doing something else. I believe to get that kind of platz, a dog requires some level of correction. What type of correction may vary from a stern voice command to a physical correction with a training collar, but some form of it is necessary. How the obedience exercise platz is taught to a dog varies greatly. My point is that this exercise has to be proficient in the obedience context before it is introduced in tracking. Puppies may track well at a young age, and articles may be the next step. But, they should not be introduced until the obedience has advanced to this stage. If a dog does not yet obey a verbal command reliably, we cannot replace it with a "scent" command.
Since in the teaching of anything new, there may be conflicts and mistakes, we should introduce articles away from the track. Then when the concept begins to take hold in the dog's head, we bring it onto the track. We need about a dozen articles (I like to use at least 4 or more different materials), a dozen fingernail size pieces of the oven dried liver I mentioned in Part 1, a flat collar, a corrective collar, and if possible a person to give us a hand.
Let me jump back to the "Beagle Brigade" for a moment to explain a teaching technique. As I said, the dogs know the sit command, and then the scent of the orange is introduced. How? When a dog's curiosity is triggered, they investigate with their nose. The instructors put an orange into a cardboard box, and move it around. The Beagle investigates the box sniffing it intensely. They sniff the cracks and openings in the box. After a period of this sniffing, the instructors can be assured that the dog has gotten a whiff of orange. At that point they give the sit command. When the dog sits, they reward him for sitting with a piece of food. This process is repeated a number of times and a point will come when the dog sniffs the box and as he registers the smell of the orange inside, he sits on his own. As if he had gotten the command to sit, because in his brain he did. Classical conditioning is great isn't it? Thank you Prof Pavlov!
We will apply this very same concept with our article training. We take our articles and we ensure that there is obvious human odor on them. We do that by spitting on them and rubbing them with our hands and even against our arms. The spit helps, because it already smells human, plus, it allows other scents from our hands to stick better and to be more detectable. We then place them all over a field somewhere close enough together so we can find them, but far enough apart that the dog has to walk a few steps in between them. We place a single fingernail size piece of liver under each article. I use the liver, because I want to ensure that the dog will register the smell of the human contact odor on the article long before detecting the smell of the liver (that is why hot dogs or cheese is less desirable).
Next we put the dog on the flat collar and have the assistant person go to the first article. The handler walks the dog up to the article, restraining him by the flat collar. The restraint helps to stimulate the dog's curiosity. The assistant points at the article, even taps on it getting the dog interested in it. The handler allows the dog to stretch at it and sniff it. After several strong sniffs, we can assume that the dog has registered the human odor we put on it. At that moment the dog gets a firm platz command. Don't be gingerly here, say it like you say it in obedience, with a bit of a bang to it. The dog downs, the assistant flips the article over and the dog gets his food reward for platzing at the spot he did it at, the article. Praise him "good boy." And on to the next article. Same routine.
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