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.