When I was training to be a detector dog handler we didn’t teach any obedience-type support skills. No sit, no down, come or drop. It was thought that if the dog was being asked to do something specific that she would do that to the detriment of her detection work. The classic example was walking to heel. The instructor explained that if we asked the dog to heel and not pull on lead as we walked between search area A and search area B the dog wouldn’t indicate if she hit the scent during that walk. The thinking being that her heel work cue would be so strong that it would override her natural desire to tell us that she’d unexpectedly hit a target scent.
This assumption was flawed on several counts. There was no evidence that the dog wouldn’t break off from heeling to indicate. Or that our training was so amazing that nothing could disturb the dog’s heelwork. It looked unprofessional and left both dog and handler exhausted and sore. And so it was that I left training with my wonderful scentwork dog tanking me out of the yard like a rag doll on the end of a rope.
Coming up . . .
Ignoring the instructors
Needless to say, I ignored my instructors. ‘Not for the first time!’ I can hear them saying. And while I didn’t teach competition style heel work I did stop my dog dragging me everywhere. But more usefully, I taught my dog a variety of skills that helped both in and out of the search area. The most useful one was retrieve. After one too many chases round an airport cargo shed to wrestle a training aid off my spaniel, I decided that enough was enough. We had planes to search and I didn’t have time to think of devious ways to catch my joyful spaniel who was happily running around with a cocaine scented piece of plastic piping. This happened during every training session.
Once teams are operational, that doesn’t mean that training is over. We needed to maintain our skills and train to locate ever more inventive hides. I’ll say this about drugs smugglers, they have great imaginations! So on this particular day, I lost my patience and decided that it was a waste of both energy and time to have to run around trying to corner the dog and then prise the training aid from his mouth (more about that particular aspect later.)
How to teach these skills?
I had zero training in how to teach a retrieve. Play with toys had never been part of the Barbara Woodhouse style of training class I had attended as a teenager with my sheltie. And The RAF Police, who trained HM Customs handlers in those days, hadn’t thought it necessary. They had the skills, you only had to watch their famous display team to see that. But it wasn’t part of the necessary skill set for detector dogs. I’ll be honest here and tell you that I don’t remember how I taught my dog to retrieve. But I imagine I used food to reward the behaviour I wanted. I say this because after many repetitions of trying to physically catch him and force the toy from his mouth, I knew that if it was down to a battle of strength and speed, he would always win.
But teach him I did and I can tell you, it made my working life, and maybe his, much more pleasant. We had more time to search because we spent less time hooning around. Playtime was just as intense. I would never cheat him on play. That was his reward for all his hard work. To limit play was unacceptable. Instead I limited the length of play, which was more than compensated for by the intensity and the variety. He could now fetch and retrieve as part of the game. Great fun.
Learning the hard way
The other event that contributed to my decision to teach retrieve was the day that he impaled my finger onto a block of wood. I’d fashioned a training aid comprising two pieces of wood. In the bottom piece was a hole big enough for a sachet of drugs to sit, cocaine on this occasion. This was then covered by a second piece of wood which was screwed on top at each corner. Ash, my dog, had successfully located it amongst a load of palleted cargo boxes and he had enjoyed a wonderful time running rings around the area with his cocaine filled wooden block firmly in his mouth.
At the end of the game when I’d managed a flying grab of his harness as he shot past me, I started the tricky process of wrenching the aid from his steel-like jaws. ‘Yay!’ I thought as the wood slid from his mouth. This was swiftly followed by ‘Argghh!’ as he realised he was losing the block and so made a lunge to grab it back. This he did successfully. And that my finger was between his canine and the wood seemed not to bother him. Now I had to prise the wood out again, one handed and without tearing my finger.
As you can imagine, my motivation was high and with a twist of the wood, he let go. Lesson having been learned, I immediately lifted it above my head resulting in a spray of blood arcing over us both. I can only imagine what my fellow officers thought when I returned to the office with a blood soaked training aid. As I wiped the blood from the packet of cocaine, threw the block in the bin and dusted off the first aid kit, I resolved to teach him a reliable, calm drop.
Teaching these practical skills did not diminish his searching prowess or success. And these days I see super high levels of non-search training being done by some of the handlers and trainers at the top of their game. Watching the likes of Jens Frank of the Scandinavian Working Dog Institute teach professional detector dogs to search at a distance using verbal cues relayed by radio from a handset held by the handler to a receiver on the dog’s collar is simply stunning. And dispels the myth that teaching non-search skills to search dogs has a negative impact on their work.
In workshops I’ve seen in the struggles handlers have when they cannot get their dog to come close to them when holding the scented article, never mind let go of it. Or are worried to let her off lead during indoor never mind outdoor searches. Or who can’t persuade their dog to play as a reward for great work.
Tried and tested
Teaching these skills has been the backbone of my training life so it seemed perverse not to be teaching them to my scentwork clients. Before lockdown, I started filming for my new Support Skills course. I wanted to share the skills that support scent workers. And so help enhance the experience for both dog and handler. I chose them based on what I knew to be useful from my time in Customs. And in ways that I knew to be effective from my time helping train pet dogs. When lockdown came, I immediately switched my attention to providing a scentwork course that could be done 100% at home (Stay at Home Scentwork). I wanted to give people inspiration and goals to help them get through that difficult time. And to help increase their scentwork knowledge and skills. But that meant putting the Support Skills course on the back burner.
I’m delighted and excited that it is almost finished. I’ve a few little tweaks to add before I open it for enrolment. But all being well it should come out sometime in the next week or so. If you head over to the online school you can already see the curriculum. With around 5 hours of video and 15 lessons, you‘ll find all my best advice neatly packaged up for you. Step by step demonstrations and descriptions (there are downloadable notes to accompany all the lessons) will help you teach the skills that will support you as you search, but that will also make a huge difference to your daily life with your dog.
I start with play, as does everything, showing how to play the games your dog likes, and how to enhance your food delivery if your dog isn’t into toys. Then go through take it, drop, leave and bring them all together in retrieve. I finish up with stay and the ever essential recall. So now you will have a wonderful set of skills that are super useful whether or not you even do scentwork with your dog. The course syllabus is what you’d dearly wish to find from your local trainer. But you can learn about it without having to travel to class.
As ever, all training is reward based and is suitable for all ages of dog. In the videos you’ll see six different dogs at different stages in their lives all learning and having fun. You’ll also see how the training works in real life, both in demos and footage of unplanned events.
When to use and when not to use support skills
Importantly for us scentworkers, I’ve also laid out when to use these Support Skills in searches and when not. Recalling your dog at the wrong time, or asking your dog to leave what could be a hide could be disasterous. Learning how and when to use these skills is just as important of learning the mechanics of how to teach them. But I’ve thought of that too. I want to give you the tools to make the most of your time with your dog. When you start Talking Dogs Scentwork® your literally needs no prior training.
If teaching a passive indication, you might need to teach basic positions like sit, stand or down. So guess what? I’ve included a bonus lesson teaching just that. And further, I’ve thrown in my best selling guide to using food in training ‘Jackpot!’ This has been on the recommended reading list for trainers since I first wrote it in 1996. Revised and updated in 2003, you can now have your own copy as part of this course. Talk about adding value, I think I’ve outdone myself here.
I hope you’re as excited as me to have this new course out in the world. I’ve had a blast making it. And my goal is that you never have to be impaled on a block of wood before recognising the need to teach your dog these useful, practical skills!