We had a great search dog training session with Ozzy at the weekend. She’s picked up the ‘mechanics’ of the search, so we’re gradually increasing the size of the area to be searched and the time it takes her to locate the person who has kindly agreed to hide from her. It’s great to see her in action. But also a little bit terrifying.
Once the person hiding from Ozzy – the ‘assistant’ (or ‘dogsbody’), in this case my friend Fiona* – has hidden themselves away in a pre-agreed area, they let me know (via radio) that they are ready and I give Ozzy the ‘find’ command. She makes a couple of rapid passes through the area until she picks up the scent of the assistant and then works her way up this ‘scent cone’ until she finds them.
Once she’s found the assistant, she’s trained to run back to me and to perform an ‘alert’ so that I know she’s found them.
Ozzy’s alert is to jump up and put her paws on my chest. She came up with this ‘alert’ herself, so we’ve just run with it.
To make sure that Ozzy gives the alert reliably – and, crucially, only when she’s actually found the assistant – the assistant alerts me by radio when they’ve been found.
I then give Ozzy the ‘show me’ command and she leads me back to where the assistant is hiding. We then have treats, ball throwing and general merriment so that Ozzy know’s she’s done well.
Now that Ozzy’s shown that she’ll consistently come back to me and give the alert when she’s found the assistant, we’re slowly increasing the size of the area she needs to search. We started with the assistant hiding only about 50m away, but we’re now up to about three or four acres.
When she’s ‘working’ in this way, Ozzy is – or, at least, seems to be – 100% focused on the task in hand. She’s not an overly frivolous dog anyway, but her concentration and drive when we’re searching is a thing to see. It’s all about finding the scent and following it up to its source.
Of course, she’s not trained to find the scent of a specific person, but rather the scent of any person or people in the area we’re searching. Which has made for some interesting conversations. And even if I can see the assistant, I can’t tell how their scent is behaving as it twists and swirls around the search area.
All of which means that I can’t tell Ozzy how to search. I need to trust that she’s embraced our training and that she knows what she’s doing. Which is extremely hard to do when, as during our session at the weekend, she picks up a scent and charges at top speed out of my sight into dense woodland.
But Ozzy does, indeed, seem to know what she’s doing. She ranges back and forth through the search area, in and out of sight, until she finds what she’s looking for. And if she ranges outside the area we’re searching, a quick whistle from me and she turns back and keeps on searching.
As we were taking a quick break between searches, Fiona observed that it’s becoming possible, as she watches the dog follow her scent, to see Ozzy’s thought processes at work. How she decides where the scent is, how to get to its source, when to turn back to get me, and how to bring me to the assistant.
This tells me that Ozzy and I have moved on from simply me training her to search. We have a long way to go, to be sure. But we’re now a team training together.
Trust your dog.
* Much credit also to my friends Susan and Edouard, who similarly give up their free time to hide from Ozzy and to generally make fools of themselves in public.