Purely positive training: Seeing is believing.
Just when I started to think I knew something about dogs ... I had the pleasure of learning about a large and talented branch of the canine family tree that I knew nothing about: scent dogs. Best of all, I was delighted to discover that these dogs are trained to the highest levels of competency without the use of any force-based training methods.
Late last spring, I read a small item in my local paper announcing the arrival of some 70-plus Bloodhounds and other scent dogs in my town for a training clinic for scent dogs used for law enforcement. I called the host of the clinic, local police officer and Bloodhound handler, Jeff Schettler, to ask permission to attend one of the training sessions. “The public is welcome to come and watch,” he said, laughing, “but you’ll have to find us first!”
Schettler explained that there were six instructors, each leading handlers and their dogs through a different scenting challenge, working from locations throughout the area. For instance, they would be conducting a long-distance “manhunt” throughout the brushy Oakland hills, as well as practicing following trails in a highly trafficked city environment.
I selected a location where we were most likely to find one of the instructors, and set out with my son, Eli. We also brought Eli’s two best friends (twins Brendan and Michael) and their mom, Maureen. Our dog-loving neighbors and their Golden Retriever, Sadie, have been active participants in WDJ product tests and photo shoots since Day 1, so of course, we invited them along. On the drive to the clinic, I asked the boys if they knew what Bloodhounds were. “Those are the dogs that find you if you’re lost!” they all answered – and, then, “Can WE get lost?!” they all wanted to know.
We found a group right away. I introduced myself and my companions to the instructor and asked permission to take photos of the session. I also mentioned that the three seven-year-olds with me were eager to “get lost” for the dogs. “Tell you what,” said the instructor, Timothy McClung, Chief of Police in Perkins Township, Sandusky, Ohio. “We were going to do something called a ‘split trail’ exercise. We could use one kid to act like a kidnap victim.” He pointed to one of the students in the class, a towering man with a shaved head, a thick black moustache, dressed in heavy black Army boots and a green Army fatigues. “He’s going to be the kidnapper.” Suddenly the kids weren’t so sure about volunteering!
This “split trail” exercise was where my education about these amazing dogs began. The exercise replicated a situation where someone was kidnapped; you want to find the victim, but then you’d like to find the unknown kidnapper, too. First, the instructor rubbed a small square of gauze on the head of Brendan, the chosen “victim.” He put the gauze in a Ziploc bag, and then the kidnapper picked Brendan up and carried him away to an unseen location in an apartment complex. Then he set the boy down, and hid himself somewhere else in the complex.
About 40 minutes later, one of the students, reserve police officer Dennis Slavin, of South Pasadena, California, brought out his dog, Tinkerbelle. One whiff of Brendan’s gauze, and the dog took off like a shot, baying with excitement. Despite the fact that Brendan’s feet never even touched the ground, with a scent so fresh, Tinkerbelle didn’t hesitate; she ran straight to where the boy was hidden. Slavin praised her, and immediately gave her the command to search again. She gave Brendan another sniff – and took off baying again, straight to where the “kidnapper” was hiding.
All I can say is, if, God forbid, anyone I know ever disappears for real, I’m calling for a positively trained Bloodhound, first thing.