Tracking and Scent Detection Seminar

Elsie is wiped after two days working at the seminar!!

At the beginning of the month I attended an absolutely saturating series of seminars. Friday through Sunday were lectures on the topic “A Scientific Presentation and Study of Working Dogs” presented at the University of Guelph by Professional Animal Behaviour Associates. Topics included Urban Search and Rescue, canine ergonomics, conservation strategies involving working dogs, demos by Canadian Border Control, Animal Assisted Therapy, welfare of working dogs and more.

Immediately following was a two-day workshop by Steve White, Karen Pryor Academy faculty member and Seattle Police K9 Unit handler, trainer and supervisor. Day one focused on HITT (hydration intensified tracking training) and day two focused on scent detection skills. Elsie worked both days.

HITT emphasizes tracking training on hard surfaces – concrete, asphalt, gravel, etc – prior to tracking training on grass, despite most tracking trials taking place on grass. By introducing dogs to tracking on grass, particularly starting them on tracks that have not been aged, a dog can come to rely on the scent of crushed vegetation rather than the scent of the human track layer. This shaky foundation is why there is a 5% pass rate for the VST title (Variable Surface Tracking – that is, on surfaces other than grass). An important aspect of HITT is classically conditioning human scent with Good Things (food) and back-chaining the article indication (i.e. letting the handler know when there is a human-scented item on the track by sitting/lying down/retrieving). The result of this, properly executed, is a long behaviour chain of Search-Locate-Report (this link is to a video on the i2iK9 page).  See this article for details.

Purposefully-built behaviour chains are unique to behaviours trained with positive reinforcement. During the lecture, Steve addressed older force-based methods of tracking on their pitfalls. The intent was to negatively reinforce “nose-in-foot-print” through an ear pinch. The choke would be snugged up behind the dogs ear and the handler would twist the dead ring of the collar into the dog’s ear prior to pushing the dog’s nose into the track. The pressure would then be relaxed and the process repeated on the next foot step. If the dog’s nose was in the foot print, she knew she was safe from pain and fear. While this method can create a fairly reliable dog in many circumstances, it certainly doesn’t create a problem-solving dog. Steve went on to detail experiments done with these forcefully trained dogs in which the researchers concluded that dogs cannot distinguish human scents. Actually, though the teaching process the dogs learned only that the smell of crushed vegetation was safe and human scent was inconsequential. Their learning didn’t go beyond this because they had learned the most efficient way of avoiding pain was to follow the most obvious scent – that of crushed vegetation.

Building a strong behaviour chain through back-chaining positively trained behaviours means that the dog is motivated to find and follow the scent because it is enjoyable and not because the track is the only place where they do not experience pain (a la negative reinforcement). There is a big difference between doing something that is fun and doing something because doing anything else is painful.

The second day of the seminar focused on article indication. Indication refers to the dog reporting to the handler (often by a retrieve or down) that they have found an article that has the same scent as the track they are following.  This process was similar to what I was working on with Arlo in Mirkka’s Scent Skills class. Teaching the indication separately and to fluency means that the opportunity to indicate acts as a tertiary reinforcer when the dog comes across an article on the track – similar to how a cue can act as a tertiary reinforcer. With some understanding of clicker training, you may comprehend how valuable this is!! In the context of a tracking trial, it breaks up long periods of following a track with no reinforcement other than what may be gleaned from the act of tracking itself (which, for many dogs, is innately powerful). To get a sense of how long a dog has its nose on the ground with no external reinforcement – a TD test, the lowest title, is 400m with a couple articles.  If trained correctly, that long 400m track can be infused with the variable reinforcement that comes from indicating the articles.

Here’s a video of Elsie on a HITT-style track from day one of the tracking seminar: