While debriefing a training session in the K9 office one evening, members of our K9 unit were holding forth on some different approaches to one particular dog’s problem with a clean release and recall. While our agency, like most had designated “Trainers,” we often took the committee approach when holding open discussions of this nature. Finally, after about 20 minutes, our Sgt leaned back in his chair and dispensed a piece of wisdom I have never forgotten: “Yea, no doubt about it. When it comes to training dogs, there’s definitely more than one way to skin a cat…”

An alternate method to help working dogs detect scents when hard surface tracking.Over the years I have become increasingly interested in the varied approaches used training a dog to become proficient in the area of tracking scent over hard, (concrete, asphalt, packed dirt, gravel, etc,) surfaces. We have all probably experienced the sight when a dog, working along natural ground cover, comes upon a transition, raises its head as if hitting an invisible wall and begins to sweep the track area attempting to pick up the scent. The dramatic drop in concentration is often confusing and the dog becomes unsure as how to proceed. Getting the dog to lower his nose to the pavement is actually a rather simple exercise in “education.” There is still ample scent present, but requires a more intense effort to obtain it. Fortunately, the type of drives inherent in a well balanced Patrol Dog makes this relatively easy. Obviously, a calm, concentrated dog will be more adaptable to the level of intensity it takes to focus, and this can be a tall order for dog hunting in a high level of prey drive. Regardless, any dog can still benefit and improve performance with the proper approach and consistent application.

Over the years, I have seen three basic methods, very different but with the same goal, again “educating” the dog to the presence of scent, then reinforcing the drive to obtain, and follow.  It’s important to note that they are all effective and will work well if correctly applied. The two following examples are over simplified for this article.

First, generally referred to as “Scent in a Bottle,” requires a scented article  saturated in an enclosed container of distilled water, and then sprayed along the track. The water concentrates scent and provides a stronger ‘picture’ for the dog as he acquires the process.

Second, a method using very small pieces of food placed along a track, encourages the dog to keep his nose close to the ground as he essentially reinforces himself while following the scent. (Steve White, of Seattle PD presents an excellent class using this technique.)

Third, an approach I have used very successfully over the years and commonly referred to as “Sack Dragging,” offers a method with some important advantages in my opinion:

  1. It is simple.
  2. Requires minimal equipment and preparation.
  3. Can be applied virtually anywhere or anytime.
  4. Allows the intermixing of the training material with the actual scent of the track layer, making for a more real world transition to the human component.

To summarize, the track is laid using a material (burlap, jute, etc.) scraping it along a hard surface, eventually leading to an article or “toy” the dog will be motivated to locate. As training progresses, less and less pressure is applied to the material, transferring less of it to the track while still maintaining the presence of the human involved. Eventually the material is removed completely and the human scent is all that remains.

Now, the exact process:

Begin with an easy to handle tube made from a feed sack, or piece of burlap (available in most feed stores or well stocked sewing supply outlets.)  Use a piece about 3-4 feet in length. For ease of handling, roll it into a tight tube and secure it with some sort of heavy tape.

The sack dragging method uses a scent filled burlap sack to create a trail for your detection dog to follow.Burlap is especially effective because of its close similarity to the heavier jute commonly used in the production of protective sleeves and bite suits. The dog will already have a positive association with this odor and should immediately display interest. If necessary, begin by retrieving of engaging in some “tug ‘o war” games to increase the dogs focus on this particular material.

Locate a relatively isolated area with hard surface; Shopping center parking lots, schools, etc.  You will need a short stretch of curved curbing, preferably one that is not against a natural ground cover, flower beds or locations where other dogs may have contaminated the area. The less distraction, visual or scent, to begin with is essential.

With the burlap up against the curb, as tightly into the corner it forms with the level surface as possible, place your foot against the material and scrape it along the curb-line for a short distance, probably about 8-10 feet. Follow the curbing to a curve where you will be able to place an article (Kong or other object) out of direct sight from the dog. The harder, rubberized articles are preferable as they are less aromatic than tugs, or the sack itself, and will discourage the dogs attempt to air-scent its objective drawing if off the task at hand.

Bring your dog (as calmly as possible) to the start of the track.  At this point, to begin you will be operating on a very short lead (12-18 inches) with the collar connected to the “dead ring” for control. Put the dog in a down at the location where it can acquire the scent. Be patient, wait for it to display interest. Watch closely; the moment the dog does, quietly give the search command and allow enough slack for the dog to investigate. As it proceeds forward with purpose, maintain a good tracking tension on the lead. Pay attention, making sure the nose is in close contact with the path of the track. Timing is critical, and at any point if the dog raises its head Stop Immediately and simply post up. The short lead and dead ring will give you direct control without giving the dog the impression it is being corrected or disciplined. Wait. If necessary, quietly encourage the search (it may become necessary to bring your finger down to the curb) and get the dogs nose back into the scent line. When it begins to proceed again, allow it to continue. In the early stages, this may require several stops along the way until the behavior is understood. When the dog locates the article, make it a payoff with retrieving and encouraging praise.

Continue this basic exercise until the dog is consistently putting its nose into the curb and working the scent to the article. As it progresses, increase the distance of the track still using curbs to transfer and hold the scent. Strive for consistency and avoid moving too quickly to the next step.  If you do and the dog has difficulty, it is always acceptable to go back to what the dog can do well until consistent.

Progressively extend the distance until you are satisfied you dog has the basic tracking ingrained. You are now ready for the next phase.

Start your drag as before, but at a natural curve along the cub line, move straight away from curb along a straight line into the paved area. Watch the dog closely as it has probably associated following the geographical clue by following the curb. If it continues along the scent line, great! If not, post again and allow the dog to search for the scent. Once it regains the scent, give just enough slack lead to proceed and perhaps a word of subtle encouragement. Keep your “excitement” to a minimum so as not to add distraction.

Note: Most paved areas do not provide a convenient place of concealment close enough for this next step. If that is the case, have an article ready, but out of sight of the dog on hand. When you are satisfied the track is working to your satisfaction, toss the article in front of the dog’s nose and give him free reign to pursue it.  As most Detection Handlers can attest, reinforcing in this manner needs to be fast and accurate, making every attempt to keep the source of the article concealed. Eventually, your dog will associate the scent track with the article. The obvious extension is to once again, simply extend the distances as the dog improves.

With the dog now connected with the scent along hard surface, you can begin to give more lead length as long as he maintains focus. Begin starting at points away from a curb, adding turns or even small obstacles (other curbs, sidewalks, etc.) along with lessening pressure on the sack itself, leaving decreasing amount of odor along the pathway.

Most of the time, the material sloughing off on the hard surface provides an easily identifiable line you can see to keep the dog on the track, but don’t hesitate to use landmarks such as the end of painted lines, etc. Your attention to consistent behavior along with reinforcement will allow the introduction of variables as appropriate. Always emphasize success before adding any new extensions.

With the dog now proficient with this basic hard surface tracking, it is now time to introduce the human factor. Begin by having your tack layer set a relatively simple path, holding the sack behind allowing it to drag lightly along the course. At the point where the track crosses onto hard surface, as in the beginning, step onto the sack, and scrape it heavily along the surface until the softer ground is regained. Continue with the low pressure to the endpoint. This introduces the mix of the material and human scent components.

When approaching the known transition point from the soft to hard areas, shorten the lead. This will prevent the dog from sweeping too far side to side, and keep him over the specific track. Watch closely. When the dog shows it has picked up the scent with the nose touching, or nearly touching the pavement, go with it keeping a slight but steady pressure on the lead.

The first exposure to the paved crossing should be fairly short, distance wise, and increased as appropriate depending on your particular dog. As the dog becomes settled into the behavior that there is scent present, but requires a “deeper nose” you can introduce the same variables as with the basic technique. Increase distance, turns, and different surfaces while placing less and less pressure on the sack itself. The goal would be to eventually arrive at the point where the human scent is at least equal or even greater than the material left by the burlap.

Ultimately you will be able to remove the sack completely from the experience and the dog will have a solid foundation that will transition into the real world, producing a dog capable of bringing all it’s abilities to a difficult job to say the least.

While dogs vary widely, they all respond to the basic tenants of training.  Body language (tail, ears, gait, speed, head position, etc.) will give the experienced handler a world of information and allow you to ”read” the dogs behavior. Keep in mind, your dog will be “reading” you as well. Be consistent, patient and focused. Pay attention to your dog at all times. Often the opportunity to reinforce or discourage behavior is fleeting and timing is critical. Being prepared, anticipating potential problems before they occur with a readied response will increase your success and make for much less wear and tear for both you and your partner.

Authored by: Ray Turney
Photo credits: @rsseattle / Foter / CC BY-SA and courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Police K-9 Magazine is a contributor to K9Handler.com. This article was republished with permission, courtesy of Jeff Meyer.



1 Comment

  1. I find it amazing how far people will go to fix poor training after the fact.

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