If you’ve read Deadly Ties you know the characters include a Beagle, Mr. B, who’s retired from federal service and who doesn’t track (at least not in a traditional sense, anyway). I also have a Labrador Retriever, Sam, who does track and will work with the county Search & Rescue team in forthcoming books. As part of my research for the dogs in the series I read everything I could find, followed county search teams, tagged along with handlers and trainers, and asked endless questions. (To everyone who patiently answered my questions, thank you!)
Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that every dog (and every handler) brings their own personality, their own attitude, their own style to the work. That lesson comes clear in this post about two very different Beagles, written by the fabulous author, dog trainer, and animal lover Doranna Durgin. Originally posted on the Book View Cafe, Doranna has generously allowed me to repost her article in its entirety here on my blog. Enjoy!
Tracking Dog Wreckcellent
It can be hard to work with genius.
Take Connery Beagle. He’s honest and hardworking and loves to sing his song of self, and did I mention honest? By which I mean internally as well as externally. He’s not so tangled in his inner thoughts that he gets in his own way.
But Dart’s an unusual boy. He vibrates with atomic intensity, he’s brilliant, and he desperately wants to be good and right. But he’s so emotional—and so completely devoid of impulse control—that he constantly gets in his own way.
Thus, when he can’t stop himself from stealing things from the trash, he brings them to me in confession, his mouth soft with pride and his tail wagging low in apology. When he can’t stop his jealousy, he clings to me and says, “Sorry sorry sorry!” with pleading eyes…as he growls fiercely, usually at Connery. When he knows he’s broken rules, he sprints around the house at top speed, giggling maniacally and blowing off embarrassment. He resource guards, he winds himself up tight over girls in his yard, he shrieks protest at separation from me/in need of me…
That list goes on. We’ve at least eliminated the part where he pees on my pillow when he’s upset. And when we lost Rena Beagle and he again started shrieking at intervals through the night, I gave up and brought a crate into the bedroom. Now I never hear a peep.
But he is genius. When he gets it right, he gets it really, really right. He does it with style and verve. He makes your heart flutter!
When he took his Tracking Dog (TD) test, it was 30F with baseline 60mph winds and higher gusts. Dart’s was the final track, out on the flat plain during the worst of it. No one expected him to pass.
So when he started having issues with the advanced tests—the Variable Surface Test and the Tracking Dog Excellent test—it was baffling.
It’s not that he didn’t pass (we’re talking about tests with single-digit pass rates), it’s how he didn’t pass. His behavior on the track didn’t reflect either his training behavior or his skillset.
I addressed some training issues and he very nearly passed the VST at the end of last year, though his tracking style was still entirely different from the norm. Then he did an awesome fun match TDX track early this year, with what I would have called “normal tracking” for him. But at our recently held test?
Nada. Nothing. No dog. He made the first turn without his usual confidence and then turned into another dog.
Well, eventually, if the human is lucky, she figures it out. I got an inkling at the VST and have cemented it with the recent TDX.
You see, there’s too much scent around on the track.
The tests are held on Sundays. On Saturday, the two judges, the tracklayer, and for TDX the stakers*,and sometimes another tracklayer or a newbie learning the ropes, all walk the track together.
Most people consider this a boon. Instead of a single layer of scent, it’s a whole highway being laid down–easier for the dog to follow, right? But then overnight, the scents shift and pool and age, and the next day the tracklayer walks over it anew. Three to five hours later, the dog comes along to follow the scent of the tracklayer.
*Stakers pound in tall wooden stakes at the start, turns, and end so the tracklayers lay the test track with complete accuracy while out in the field.
Dart: But the Target Person scents are tangled with two layers and all these other scents on the track at the same time! So I should puzzle out ALL THE SCENTS.
So he circles and frets and sniffs and works out all the spreading scent pools, all the while knowing that he’s not actually quite doing his job. Then he panics and picks out the nearest clearest scent and takes it.
This is usually not someone who’s got anything to do with the test at all.
(At the VST, he came within 100 yards of passing before he hit his panic point, so at least there’s that. But I believe only three people had walked that track during plotting.)
So now I’m brainstorming how to provide him with these circumstances in practice. It’s gonna take putting in a short permatrack here on the homefront and begging some volunteers to walk it in turn, creating a variety of scent tracks and ages…but only one correct, most recent scent.
In the meantime, remember that ConneryBeagle? He worked hard to pass his TD; his first test was on a track that should have been discarded (it had been fouled, and he got caught in it), and then he was sinus-sick for a couple years (which he still is, but now it’s better managed). Then he passed on a track of TDX terrain on a brittle 4F day—he was a marvel! Then I stopped training tracking with him for a year or so because we just weren’t sure it was fair to ask for tracking given his sinuses.
But fifteen months ago I threw him on a VST track for fun and he was SO DAMNED HAPPY.
So we started tracking again, and a couple months ago he did an amazing job on the VST (did not pass—his bobble was at the beginning). He, too, made it into the TDX test this year.
He ran track #5 for the day. It was unseasonably hot and dry, and I soaked him down. He tracked through a brushy arroyo, at which point the judges were (unusually) close enough so their discussion of Connery’s step-by step track through the maze of scrub, rocks, and pricker bushes was audible. After that he went three-legged until I could close the distance and pull a big cactus pod from his foot. A series of long legs and turns and back through the arroyo we went, and…
He was SO proud of himself. He sang his song of self and at home, bounded around with puppy-like glee until he curled up in his Connery Bed with waves of happiness rolling off his back.
So now Connery will track on toward the VST until he makes the decision not to, while Dart continues to refine his out-of-control geniusosity. He says it’s not easy to be a Beagle of Wreckcellence.
Doranna’s quirky spirit has led to an eclectic and extensive publishing journey across genres. Beyond that, she hangs around outside her Southwest mountain home with horse and beagles who compete in agility, obedience, and tracking.
She doesn’t believe in mastering the beast within, but in channeling its power. For good or bad has yet to be decided…
Doranna’s ongoing releases include Nocturne paranormals and joyful new indie efforts–like the special BVC release of theChangespell Saga, and reader favorites like Wolverine’s Daughterand A Feral Darkness. Whee!
Not coincidentally, Doranna’s books tend to have DOGS in them!