Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"Champion Tracker"

I will get back to Amber’s story in a day or so but thought it was only fair that Steel got a little bit of “press”. This weekend, after a long drive north, Steel and I participated in an AKC Variable Surface Tracking test in Wheaton IL. Steel passed the test and is now officially “Champion Tracker" Esmonds Will of Steel. For those of you familiar with the sport you know that the VST has a very low passing rate. The odds of actually winning the entry lottery in order to even make the attempt are also low.
My happiness with him passing the test has very little to do with many of the reasons that people compete in dog sports. I did not do it in order to brag about him; although I think I am justifiably pleased with his performance. I did not do it for my own ego. My biggest feeling following the test is gratitude to Steel for cheerfully being the perfect “laboratory” and allowing me to experiment with training techniques on him. There is a saying “when the teacher is ready the right student will come along”. This has been so true during my career as a dog trainer and I have been fortunate to have numerous students come along at just the right time.
Another saying that has stuck with me was the following "There's are three ways to do something; the wrong way, the proven way and a better way." I have always been dissatisfied with the traditional ways to train dogs to track. Especially for tracks that are aged and/or the scent conditions present challenges to the dog. I have trained a lot of dogs to track (mostly for search & rescue or police work) and also taught tracking to a lot of handlers. However it is not easy to take chances and stray too far away from traditional methods when working with client dogs. Steel on the other hand, was mine, and also provided the perfect amount of raw material to the endeavour. He was not however a “freebie”. He was willing to become what I wanted but it still required no small amount of effort and planning to get him there. He tolerated my analyzing and over analyzing my training methods; striving to find a better way to teach and train and using him as the guinea pig to do it. I will never forget once making a radical change in handling him and the first day he stopped in mid track and looked over his shoulder at me. Giving me a “what the hell!!??” look and then I am sure he went down the track muttering to himself “there she goes again”….
He also taught me several important lessons along the way which effect not just how I train tracking dogs but training in every venue.  We likely could have succeeded without those lessons which makes me even more aware of what a gift they were – almost as if he did it on purpose. Just when I thought I had everything figured out he would open my eyes yet again and show me a better clearer way to train.
This weekend was our second attempt at the VST – we tried at the Rottweiler nationals in May of this year. We drew the alternate position so thus went last in the lineup. By the time we got our turn it was well over 90 degree F. Steel started great and was progressing well but overshot a 90 degree turn on pavement and made the turn on the (much cooler) grass. In no way was I disappointed with his performance although how cool would it have been to pass at the Nationals, with his breeder there and him not being even four years old yet? However he performed the best he could given the conditions and I could not complain.
It did mean however that I would have more time to spend training, not knowing how soon I could get into another test. So I had the freedom to look at my training further and experiment with some things. It is quite common for people to refer to this level of training as a “partnership” or requiring “teamwork” on the part of the dog and handler.  This goes against how we train our dogs for detection. In that case we do our best to teach the dogs to work independently of the handler. We don’t do this by abandoning them but rather shaping their training so they learn that they can successfully solve problems on their own.
So using that premise I looked at my tracking training critically. My goal was to get him to the level of training where I could allow him to run a VST type test basically off leash. This would require him to demonstrate that he had developed the understanding of the unique scent picture “puzzles” that might come up during the test and also have the skills to work through them. So I made some minor but important changes to my training and discovered an amazing thing – my dog knew what he wanted to accomplish and, with me out of the way, was so much better able to self teach himself how to handle weird scent pictures. He has always been a strong and eager tracker. However following that change there was a noticeable change in his demeanour – as if a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. This was so noticeable that I almost felt like I had to apologize for my previous training. And it not like I was a heavy handed handler in any way! I just over thought things and in my desire to teach him the correct method just got in his way - probably more mentally than physically. Although my intention was to "read" him and handle accordingly, thinking I was being part of this so called "partnership", I was in fact in the way and a distraction.
I am not able to fully explain the significance of how grateful I am to Steel for putting me in the position to have that (as Oprah would call it) "ah-ha moment". Fortunately for me he doesn’t require such gratitude or explanations. I do however have to thank my good friend Mary Davis for our long, open ended philosophical discussions of dog training. But most of all I thank Steel for being the right student at the right time. Steel just barely turned four years old so we are a long ways done from training and learning and I can only anticipate what else he has to teach me....
Below is The Superhero following his successful track. The one where I spent 13 minutes hanging on to the end of the tracking line watching him do his thing.  Speaking of that tracking line, I think  I could have easily dropped it on the ground  and walked with the judges
for all the help that Steel needed from me.

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