Tag Archives: training

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).



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 http://dogtime.com/holiday/29835-23-awesome-dog-halloween-costume-ideas-pictures

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

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.

Making school less scary

One of the principles of managing reactive dogs is to help them learn to make positive associations with Scary Things. For any dog — and especially fearful dogs — it’s important to try to introduce new things and people in ways that the dogs can find the experience pleasant and even enjoyable. This means to not push the dog out of it comfort zone and to pair the new thing/person with something nice like a treat.

One error that people make is to ignore the first part of that sentence. The treat alone is not enough to make the experience pleasant for a dog that is feeling highly stressed. In fact, it is often counterproductive. Continue reading

How dog training can make all your relationships better

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve updated the blog due to family upheaval — we’re at that age where parents get seriously ill and sometimes leave us for good. I’m still not completely caught up, so in the meantime, I’d like to share this video with you from TEDxJaffa. It gives a good explanation of the dog training philosophy we espouse and how it can help you take the conflict out of ALL your relationships. I’ve told people many times that rehabilitating Spencer has been a transformational journey for me — causing me to review the kind of leader, boss, wife and even person I want to be. This short (11-minute) video will help you understand why and how that has happened.

Treats that make Spencer go boing

One of the things that makes people resist the concept of positive methods training is the use of treats to “pay” the dog for desired behaviors. Among other critiques, they often think this will make the dog fat. The easy answer is to remind people that they can reduce their dog’s mealtime food. However, I do have to admit that it’s a challenge to get the balance right when you have a dog that is pretty much afraid of everything. When you’re doing treat-based counter-conditioning all day every day, it’s hard, but not impossible, to manage the dog’s nutrition. In addition to the dog’s calorie intake, you also have to bear in mind that many treats sold in stores are really the equivalent of junk food and not very healthy in large quantities. Continue reading