I hope that everyone reading this has had a cracking Christmas. Roll on 2019. Thanks again to everyone that has embraced the madness and supported me this year.
Earlier on in the year I taught my horse Mr D and my dog Izzy a scentwork search, they both looked for a scented bottle hidden somewhere in a box in an arena. Both horse and dog seemed evenly matched in terms of learning to find and indicate where a vanilla scented bottle was hidden. The search behaviour seemed to come equally naturally to both despite the species and age difference ( some 25 or so years).
I am always happy to point out that I am no kind of expert, I just sometimes sit there wondering if I can teach my animals to do something and just have a go after a bit of research. I think that probably means that I should get out more. My latest musings involved pondering on whether my horses would take just as naturally to tracking as they did the scentwork challenge
What is tracking? My understanding of tracking with a dog is that it is the skill of detecting subtle disturbances on a trail with a view to finding what is at the end of it, usually a person. In professional tracking, maybe a criminal or a missing person. In this blog, no surprises, there are treats at the end of the track!
It gets a bit mind boggling when it comes to how a scent behaves. Scent changes as it gets older, that’s how tracking dogs know which direction that someone has been. I imagine scent getting older perhaps would visually be like a cut apple going brown.
Air temperature also has an impact on how scent behaves, air molecules are less excitable in cold weather and so some scents may be less obvious. The frost that appeared on the morning of my tracking experiment was handy for showing how I laid out a track, but I waited till the ground warmed up until I introduced horse and dog to it.
For this challenge I had to teach them to sniff out and follow disturbance on the ground. Disturbance meaning; crushed grass, soil, eau de wellie boot and probably the odd startled earthworm.
First I made two basic tracks, one for the horse, one for the dog, with plastic sports markers for me to see where the track is, they would be removed as the dog or horse progresses in its training. I made a starting square by shuffling my feet and tramping down the earth dropping the odd treat; cheese on the track that I made for the dog, and apple for the track I made for the horse. Then I did a kind of penguin shuffle in a line dropping treats as I went, and a turn at an angle with a cone to mark the turn. The turn is so that the dog/horse just doesn’t anticipate going in a straight line. As with anything, I start off simply so that they ‘get it’ before progressing.
When I got to the end of the short track that I was making, I put a little jackpot pile of treats next to a cone to let my horse/dog know that they had got to the end, this would be the ‘prize’ for following the track instead of the missing person. Then I jumped clear of it and walked away. Now gravity and I have a special relationship, it generally wins. So when I say I jumped clear of the track well I am not going to win any long jump awards, I managed maybe a metre. For Izzy’s treats I used chopped up bits of cheese, for my horses I used chopped up bits of apple. I had to give special consideration to Mr D and his previous choke episode, there needed to be enough treat to sniff and eat, but not enough to cause a problem.
With any sort scentwork, the animal leads and you listen, just giving enough direction at the right time. So when Izzy entered the starting square, I let her search for treats. And get the idea that mushed up ground = treats . Proper hardcore trackers use a tracking harness and during this I learned why. I use a ‘Perfect Fit Harness’ for lead walking Izzy and have tried to teach her that any pulling on the lead means that she doesn’t go anywhere, we stop. A loose lead means she gets to walk forward. If she does pull on the lead it means we stop until she plonks herself back by my side.
I found that Izzy was doing as I had taught her to do and stopping every time there was any tension on the training line. Drat, I wanted her to follow the sniffs without distraction!
Animals are pretty savvy when it comes to knowing which bit of kit means which job they have to do, so if we were to make a regular hobby of tracking, I would invest in a tracking harness, she would get to know that when she is wearing it, loose lead walking rules do not apply. Izzy will track a scent pretty naturally out on walks and she took absolutely no time at all in sussing that trampled track = treats. As with the scentwork search, I had trouble keeping up with her. If she wandered off the track, I stayed still and quiet until she picked up the scent again.
For the horses, I lead them into the area using a loose lunge line so that I could offer guidance. I started the same way, making an association with disturbed earth and treats. It seemed to me that the horses were using their whiskers and lips to investigate as much as they appeared to be sniffing. I never trim my horse’s whiskers, I know just how important they are, each whisker has an area of the brain dedicated to it!
My horses didn’t automatically seem to be hardwired to follow the trail like Izzy did. I suppose that would be no surprise at all seeing how tracking is maybe an inherent trait in a dog bred to hunt big game with bloodhound in the family tree.
I felt that teaching the horses to track was much more about teaching them a concept rather than channelling a natural behaviour. Mr D, who is more food orientated, seemed more keen to search for the treats, Missy my thoroughbred, needed more help from my pointy finger and extra treats put on the ground. I never do an experiment to prove a point, I do it to see what happens, I only spent one session on this, and we got a lot of rain after I had set things up and the ground turned to mush so I didn’t get as far along as I would have liked. I think I would need few more sessions with my horses to start to teach them to properly follow the track, breaking it down into much easier chunks for them. I think that one session was too short for an animal that wouldn’t be naturally predisposed to tracking. I suspect that all that I managed to teach them in one session was; ‘pointy finger means there is a treat on the ground’ and that the sports markers meant treats. If I progressed the exercise, the markers would be removed. To the expert eye, I have most likely made a whole boat load of rookie errors, but as with my previous scentwork challenge, both horses and my dog seemed happy to join in on the madness. I felt that it was another exercise in watching my horse’s and dog’s behaviour. I love any opportunity to listen and learn. The horses seemed pretty focussed on the game in hand and completely ignored the grass. Izzy did a pretty good job of ignoring the various other distracting sniffs that you might find in a horse paddock.
I hope that you enjoy the crazy video that shows 3 noses at work.