We’ve been in lockdown for over a month now and, like most people, we’re learning how to live with it. Thankfully, we’re allowed out once a day for exercise, which means that we get to give the dogs a good run around in the fields near our house. I take them in the morning and Natalie takes them in the evening, so we both get some time (a) playing with the dogs and (b) out in the fresh air.
When it comes to Ozzy’s search dog training, though, we’ve had to make few changes. Clearly, doing our usual training with friends hiding from Ozzy in the woods and other public areas would probably be frowned upon in the current circumstances. So instead of looking for people, I’ve got Ozzy searching for the residual scent on things I’ve dug out of the laundry basket. It’s human scent, after all…
We’re doing most of our training in the garden at the moment, which gives us a great opportunity to focus on the technique of searching. The garden’s not massive, but it has sufficient hedges, trees, sheds and random piles of rubble to make a moderately interesting search environment. It’s also overgrown enough that I can get Ozzy to sit somewhere while I disappear out of sight to hide whatever she’s searching for.
Here’s how it works… (Please excuse the rubbish photos, by the way – they’re taken from a short video I recorded by putting my phone below the T-shirt Ozzy was looking for.)
First, I get Ozzy to sit and wait at one end of the garden, while I wander off and hide the scent article. I’m using the term ‘scent article’ because it sounds more professional than ‘the dirty T-shirt that I took out of the laundry basket’. In this case, I’ve hung it on the back of a chair in amongst the vegetable beds. Note also my fetching new lockdown haircut, kindly provided by Natalie and a set of clippers.
I then wander around the garden a bit more, so that Ozzy has to search for the scent on the T-shirt, rather than just backtrack on my own scent trail. This also gives the scent from the T-shirt a chance to spread around the garden a bit on the wind.
After a couple of minutes, I return to where Ozzy is (usually) still waiting patiently-ish and give her the ‘find’ command. She usually does a couple of broad sweeps of the garden, until she picks up the scent from the scent article. You’ll notice in the photo below that Ozzy is wearing a bright orange harness. She only wears this for search dog stuff, so when I put it on her she knows she’s going to be searching for something.
Once Ozzy’s picked up the scent (which is immediately apparent, because her whole bearing changes from inquisitive searcher to heat-seeking missile), she homes in on it (this is called ‘working the scent cone’, as the scent usually spreads out from its source in a sort of cone shape) until she gets to the source. She’s trained to go right up to – but not to touch – the source of the scent, whether that’s a T-shirt or a person.
Once Ozzy’s found the scent article, she needs to tell me where it is. So she leaves the scent article and comes back to find me. It’s pretty obvious from her demeanour that she’s found what she was looking for, but I’ve trained her to jump up and put her paws on my chest as an ‘alert’, which tells me that she’s located the source of the scent.
I then tell Ozzy to ‘show me’ and she leads me back to the scent article. This is easy enough in the garden, but when we do searches in wilder areas she does tend to take the most direct Labrador-sized route, rather than one that a person can also follow. Anyway, she leads and I do my best to keep up.
The point at which she and I are both standing by the scent article is what all of the training has been leading up to. She’s done her job. And, as you can tell by the photo below, she knows it.
As soon as we’re both at the scent article, I click Ozzy’s clicker (I’ve trained her to associate the clicker with a reward) and give her a food treat (we have some liver treats that she loves, and which we only use for training). We then have a vigorous session of playing with her ball, which for Ozzy is the ultimate reward.
So if you’re thinking that Ozzy sees the whole search thing simply as a long and overly convoluted process of getting to play with her ball, you’re absolutely right.
Anyway, that’s what we’ve been up to. We’ll keep up the training and, if we can figure out the logistics, I might even get Natalie to hide a scent article or two while she’s out on her evening walk with the dogs, so that Ozzy can find it the next morning. We’ve also started doing some ‘fine’ searches for very faint scent articles, such as my keys or wallet, but more about that in another post.
In the meantime, stay safe, everyone. And if you have the good fortune to be in lockdown with a dog of your own, give them a scratch from us.