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Mantrailing — the movie

Life and work has been insanely busy, which means I haven’t posted in a shamefully long time. (I even have half-finished articles that were never posted.) Sorry!

One of the activities that has helped Spencer come to terms with strangers — both ignoring people who aren’t relevant and approaching strangers more confidently — has been mantrailing. It’s hard to video mantrailing. The person recording is usually behind the handler, so you mostly see the handler’s back. In our case, having a third person lurking to the side and pointing a camera at Spencer could trigger a negative reaction.

But thanks to our coach Paulina Druri, I have a fabulous video to share.

We were tracking on a very windy day, so Spencer missed a few turns, because the wind blew the odor off the trail, creating false positives in places where the “victim” hadn’t gone. In each case, though, he had no trouble finding the real trail and getting back on track.

There are also a few pauses where we had to wait for passersby to, well, pass by. In one case, it was a woman who seemed to be afraid of Spencer and, in another, a dog that we didn’t want to get too close to. However, Spencer is a real pro and very good at going into standby until we can return to tracking.

This was taken on 8 December 2018 in Coulommiers (the origin of a very good creamy cheese and a very cute little town).



Underdog, the cartoon superhero dogA little while ago, I heard Spencer bark in the kitchen. I assumed he wanted to go out, but knowing that Greg was near the back door, I didn’t move. Spencer barked again. I got up muttering about how Greg could at least open the door. Greg heard me and replied, “The door’s open.” Well, that’s odd. Why is Spencer barking then? Continue reading


Spencer has a new favorite activity, or maybe second favorite after eating dinner.

Having noticed how much fun Spencer seems to have when we hide his kibble and have him look for it, I asked Irène about a year ago if she could recommend someone who does nosework with reactive dogs. She recommended Paulina.

After a long e-mail exchange about how to manage nosework and a reactive dog, we drove out to meet her. The session didn’t start so well. When we tried to introduce Spencer to her in the yard of her training centre, he was definitely suspicious and tried charging a few times. Gradually he calmed down a bit as she set up all kinds of games for him to find food hidden all over the year. Then we went out into the fields and had his first mantrailing lesson.

Mantrailing is basically what you see bloodhounds doing in movies: following the scent left behind by a “missing” person. In the exercise, the target is called the “victim”, which is an uncomfortable term when you have a reactive dog that has already bitten!

The way the exercise works is that the victim drops a piece of clothing, which is the point of departure. When Spencer approaches the clothing, we ask him to “smell” and then “track”. He then follows the trail to the person (or in his case another piece of clothing, with the victim standing a few metres away for safety reasons).

Spencer has turned out to be a natural. He immediately understood what was being asked of him.

Mantrailing is a great way for a dog who is afraid of humans to get more comfortable with them. We are instructing him to get closer to the person, so he doesn’t assume we want to avoid them. And he associates the person with the super fun activity of following a trail. The bonus is that when he reaches the end of the trail, he gets to eat super yummy food.

Because last year was such a crazy year, we didn’t manage to do any sessions over the winter, but then we started again this summer. Spencer did better each time, and Paulina started bringing in other people to play the victim. Interestingly, his trainer Anaïs was super impressed in the improvements he has made since we started mantrailing.

We do some variations on the usual set up to account for Spencer’s behavior problems. Since Paulina wants him to work without a muzzle as much as possible, she is a short distance away from us, but she’s now close enough to talk to us directly. In the beginning she used a walkie-talkie to communicate with us. Since Spencer is unmuzzled, we needed to find another way to have the minimum “two points of failure” that Irène (and hard experience) taught us is so important. So instead of having one handler at the end of a long lead, Spencer has two leads held by Greg and me. This complicates our coordination and driving of him, but we’re getting better.

Today was a big step forward in his mantrailing career. Instead of meeting at Paulina’s base, we at the other side of the greater Paris metropolitan area. And our lesson was at the end of one of Paulina’s workshops, so he was exposed a bit to the other handlers and dogs. Also, the terrain was “contaminated” by all the paths that had been laid down during the workshop, and he had a new victim he had never met before.

For the first time, we changed him into a work harness before starting. This is important to help him learn when he’s working and when he’s not. Among other things that’s needed to teach him when he’s allowed to pull (working) or not (off).

Even though we were in a new location, he seemed to know why we were there. I had been telling him all day we would go to see Paulina, but I wasn’t sure if he knew her name yet. We had to wait for the workshop to finish when we arrived, and after stretching his legs from the car ride, he was agitated and whining, seeming impatient to get started.

We put him back in the car while Paulina briefed us and the victim. She told us to take him out of the car and relax him a bit, then change the harness and lead him over to the start of the trail. (Changing the harness on a reactive, unmuzzled dog out in the open requires the same type of acrobatics as changing from your clothes to your bathing suit on the beach.) But before we could do any of those things, Spencer immediately went to work as soon as he got out of the car. He immediately got serious and started following the path of the three ladies (there was a spectator too, although she kept her distance so as neither to confuse nor to worry Spencer). We had to hold him back to change the harness and get the long leads ready.

Once we gave him the green light, he was off like a shot. He was really born for this. He clearly adores it and is so good at it. At the end of the first trail, he could barely hold back while the victim walked off to lay another trail. He wanted to start right away.

At the end of the session, he didn’t want to stop, but it was getting dark, and the others had been out all day in the wind and rain.

The good news is, he gets to do it again in two weeks. Paulina is going to have him participate for a half day in her next workshop. It will be another new experience for him because there will be more people around. He’ll also be working with a muzzle on because she’d like him to follow the trail all the up to the victim (now the victim stands a few metres back from the piece of clothing and food marking the end of the trail. Since he’ll be muzzled, he’ll only need one handler, so hopefully we’ll finally have some video to share with you.

The scariest night of the year

A Cane Corso puppy wearing a sombrero naps while cradling a bottle of tequila

Until we have a picture of Spencer in a Halloween costume, here’s an adorable baby Cane Corso in costume, borrowed from

A few years ago, I read an article that said there are basically two types of dogs when the doorbell rings: Santa dogs and Satan dogs. The former think that everyone who arrives at the front door is as wonderful as Santa Claus. The latter think that whoever is at the door must be coming to do bodily harm to the family. Reactive dogs like Spencer fall into the latter category.

That being the case, Halloween is a particularly challenging event for reactive dogs. The doorbell rings constantly, bringing strange-looking creatures to the house, but they are constantly turned away, so clearly are not friends. Continue reading

An extraordinary encounter

Coming home from our walk yesterday morning, Spencer and I passed in front of the municipal pool which is about 100 metres from our house. A women leaving the pool was on a diagonal path to intersect our path, in front of us. I stopped Spencer and gave him the command to wait. The woman stopped just in front of us, and made a kissy noise to get his attention. She saw his muzzle, and this is where people normally ask me, “Is he mean” But she didn’t. She asked, “Is he fearful? ”

I was surprised, but delighted. “Yes, ” I replied. “Very.”

She immediately dropped into a squat, slightly held her hand out in front of her, and called him again. Timidly, her moved forward and started to sniff her hard and her face. Worried that he would suddenly decide she was scary, I kept the leash too tight and kept reassuring him in a calm voice that she was nice, and he should be stay calm. He did. and I called him away fairly quickly. Always better that a shy dog’s first contact with someone new be too short than too long.

I told the woman that I couldn’t believe it. She must have a gift. Normally, he reacted very easily to strangers. “Reward him!” she said. (I was already giving him chicken.)

I wanted to hug her. It’s so rare to bump into people who truly understand our special needs puppy. I hope we see her again soon.

A new chapter for Spencer

Not too long ago, we took a decision to change trainers. The reasons are largely pragmatic. We are still connected to Irène and would recommend her to anyone, but seeing her meant driving to the edges of Paris, which always involved traffic and parking headaches. Plus we wondered if being in such an urban environment complicated training sessions for Spencer by surrounding him with too much ambient stress. Finally, we are interested in diversifying the kennels where we can leave him, and our new trainer Anaïs is associated with one of those kennels.

We like the idea that he can stay in a kennel where we know they use positive methods, but when we visited he didn’t do so well. The first time, he settled when we left him in a pen near other dogs, but when he was left in an isolated pen the second time, he wasn’t able to settle after 30 minutes. They won’t take him until they are sure he’ll be happy there.

That’s when we hatched the idea of doing his training at the new kennel. It allows him to get used to the place while we’re there and to let him form positive associations with the people and the place.

At our first session, Anaïs explained how his training is going to change now, but careful not to criticize what we had done before. On the contrary, she congratulated us on the progress Spencer had made since she had last seen him about nine months earlier. The changes being made now are because Spencer is capable of things now that he wasn’t before. Notably, he can manage stress much better, which allows us to challenge his limits gradually. Nonetheless, she said it is important to continue to monitor his emotional state and to know when to revert to giving a wide berth to scary things or even walking away.

Since Spencer has more emotional maturity now, we are finally able to start working on giving him less headway and teaching him that we’re in charge. This isn’t about outdated notions of dominance. It’s the same mentality as how parents lay down limits for kids and gradually transmit the rules for living in society.

The first lesson was simply walking around with Spencer and countering him whenever he tried to pull or lunge in one direction, directing him in the opposite direction from where he wanted to go. He sniped at Anaïs several times, but she said, “It’s no big deal. He’s just upset about not getting his own way. He’s throwing a tantrum.” And gradually he stopped.

At the second lesson, he was much calmer in her presence and more focused on where we were telling him to go. So we left the main compound, walked along the road to the other side of a field and entered a fenced in area under the trees that also belongs to the kennel. Anaïs suggested letting Spencer off leash and seeing how he did. He didn’t charge her once. We walked forward and backwards, calling him to come to use when we changed direction. He did great.

The third lesson involved Anaïs’ dog. The point was to see how Spencer did with another dog. We consistently blocked him when he tried to run up to the other dog in an uncontrolled fashion. He did pretty well, but just as he got really close, his excitement boiled over, he ran forward and mounted the other dog, which is very rude in canine behavior. The dog was very tolerant, but Anaïs was not happy since her dog is elderly. SHe suggested our seeing another trainer who has “coach” dogs, who will help Spencer learn how to be more polite.

In the meantime, the fourth lesson went great. Anaïs suggested we meet in the neighboring village to see how Spencer does in a more urban environment. We were there early, waiting for her at the parking lot. When she pulled in, I told Spencer, “Look! Anaïs is here!” As she got out of her car, Spencer went forward, tail wagging. and gave her a cuddle. She was as happy and surprised as we were that he recognized her “out of context” and was so happy to see her. We did a walk with Anaïs coaching us, and everyone thought it was a very good lesson. And that’s as far as we’ve gotten with Anaïs so far.

Sooo proud of Spencer

I haven’t had a lot of time to post in recent months because work and life have been so busy. I hope to share some posts about the highlights of recent months because Spencer has been going through some really interesting developmental phases.

Today, though, I just want to say how proud I am of his performance on today’s walk. Between the weather, my heavy workload and Greg’s knee sprain, Spencer hasn’t has as many — or as long — walks as he would like recently. So this morning, I pretty much let him decide where he wanted to go. As you can see from this map, it was pretty long. But I can’t figure out how to measure the distance. I couldn’t even figure out how to get Google to let me show it as a single itinerary. For some reason, I had to put three itineraries together. This seems needlessly clunky. But I digress.

At one point in our walk (just above the letter A on the right-hand side) we passed through a major intersection at rush hour on market morning. There were people coming from all directions, waiting to cross busy roads and coming off buses in hordes. There were other dogs on leashes, baby carriages and all sorts of potentially threatening things and people.

And Spencer dealt with it all with perfect calm. He stayed by my side, observed, executed my directions, and oriented towards me for reassurance whenever he was unsure if he should be worried or not. It took us about 15 minutes to navigate a safe route through the crowd that wouldn’t put him in a difficult push and push him over threshold, but we managed.

I’m sure it helped that this was towards the end of our walk, and he has expended all hiss nervous energy. At the beginning of the walk when he was chomping at the bit, I doubt it would have been quite so easy, but this shows how much progress he has made thanks to counter-conditioning, BAT and our learning how to communicate with one another. (And Irène had a lot to do with our progress, so if you’re looking for a trainer in Paris, consider her.)