Monday, June 28, 2010

46 Hours

Blue track is PC's, recorded on Saturday night. Red track is mine. East pointing black arrow designates the start, three-pointed star the end (barn). The blue blob is a dead-end where PC got bunged up in deadfall. You can see that we successfully bypassed this false lead, but had difficulties near it. (Dog was closer to being spot-on than I was -- the track reflects the route I managed to find through the obstruction.) The long slight divergence as we return west reflects poor GPS reception because it had fallen to the underside of my butt pack, and the abrupt "return" to putting it back where it belonged.

At SAR dog training on Saturday, Perfesser Chaos employed the full powers of his well-honed husbandly listening skills, and thereby screwed up the opportunity to provide Rosie with an aged training trail in a time-efficient way.

I was, of course, charmingly understanding* about this, and sweetly informed him that he would be laying a trail for her when we got home, to be run on Sunday morning. About a fourteen-hour aged trail -- nice scent challenge. He had some things he wanted to reconnoiter out in our woods, so off he went, whistling merrily without a complaint, as soon as we got back.

He laid a roughly oval-ish trail about a kilometer long, starting in the lush meadow next to our spring, going northeast through the steep woods on the near side of the buttcrack, crossing the stream near our neighbor's property line, angling back SSE, then taking a turn onto our overgrown right-of-way and returning west through our south pasture, ending at our barn.

By the time he got back from mass on Sunday†, conditions outside closely resembled the steam room at the Y. I suggested that I would prefer to run the trail in the early evening, when sun might let up on converting the woods and fields into a giant bamboo steamer.

As the shadows lengthened, a fire call.

Then dinner.

Then another fire call.

Oh screw it.

We ran it tonight, in a rainstorm. Forty-six hours old -- by far the oldest training trail we've ever attempted. I secured a scent article by stuffing a clean rag into one of his hiking boots (last worn on Sunday afternoon) and leaving it for half an hour, handling it only with a baggie. Rose and I started the trail when he called me from his exit, ten minutes away, and were well-underway when he got home and radioed that he'd slipped into the barn.

Now, keep in mind that I had a rough idea of how the trail ran. I carried his GPS, which included his track, in case I needed it. And the trail is marked. This was not a blinded trailing task, and as such did not simulate real work the way that a proofing or testing task would. It was on our own property, so almost guaranteed uncontaminated by more recent cross-trails of anyone except me -- and those only near the start and end points.

I did not need to consult the GPS. I could not see most of the flagging markers until I was right on top of them (he'd used a dark color that didn't show up well in the heavy foliage and poor light.) I had some misconceptions about the exact route that he took. I watched the dog, and did conventional man-tracking, finding frequent corroborating footprints and vegetation damage.

Although an angry broody turkey hen was flying at her as I scented her from the rag by the spring, about 50 feet from the trail, she ignored the assault and immediately went to work, bypassing the first tempting travel route and hooking a hard right turn onto the correct path.

She trailed with a high head. Normally Rosie has a moderately deep nose (by non-hound standards); on this very old trail, she never dipped her nose to the ground. She was working the vegetation at all times, and casting widely, making lots of loops. I usually use a 30' long-line to slow Rosie down and remind her that we are working as a team. I quickly removed it. She worked slowly and deliberately, despite the wide casting and looping. Where ground-level vegetation was heavy, she stayed very much to the trail; where it was sparse and there was bare ground, she had great difficulty. She frequently returned and demanded the scent article -- she normally almost never does that.

Where PC had left long streamers of flagging, these supplementary scent articles of a sort were clearly creating scent pools; she would become more animated near them, circle, frequently stand up on her hind legs to nose the flagging. She ordinarily does not respond to markers on fresher trails -- some dogs do, creating a challenge for marking those kinds of training trails, but Rosie has never paid them much mind. Even more interesting, she was "climbing trees" in the vicinity of the markers, catching scent on the bark at about 3' above the ground.

There were a lot of recent deer trails crossing, and these she ignored. She acknowledged scent from our neighbors' house when we passed about 200' from it, but was not distracted at that distance.

At the barn, where the ancient trail became fresh, she leapt into the air on the downwind side before circling back to the lower-level door and scratching to be let in, then searching the barn until she found PC in one of the back stalls.

She was rather pleased with herself.

As am I.

Now, what has been proven?

Well, in a very high-humidity, heavily-vegetated, contamination-free environment, Rosie can strike a 46-hour-old trail and provide a direction of travel. With some handler assistance provided via mantracking, she can complete the trail. These things are possible.

She "reads" differently on a trail of this age, and although she keeps focused and works hard, she is much more handler-dependent and less cocksure than on a fresher trail.

I am more willing to give a two-day-old trail the old college try than I would have been previously.

One possible SAR use of this ability is for the instance when we discover a revised LKP (Last Known Point) in the course of a long search. A field team that finds the missing hiker's sleeping pad in a thicket in the middle of the woods, and follows proper procedures for preserving the clue, can help a trailing team resolve the search before all the scent and sign in the area is destroyed by a hundred sets of firefighters' boots and half a dozen ATVs.

What has not been proven?

I wouldn't in a million years represent that Rosie could reliably strike a 46-hour-old trail or consistently complete one. In dry or frigid conditions. In the absence of vegetation. And most especially, with any significant contamination by other humans' more recent trails.

The task wasn't blinded, so my possible contribution to helping her through the tricky parts based on my knowledge of the tasks' parameters has not been controlled. It is possible to very subtly "push" a trailing dog while being quite sure that you are not doing so. These are bright, perceptive animals, and they will find the right answer by whatever means is available.

This is one task that I would have loved to record on video.


*Closed italics provided for the marital sarcasm-impaired.

† We never run a training trail without the tracklayer at the end of it, so his presence was non-optional.


  1. Dang, that's some pretty close trailing. What a nose!

  2. Go Rosie! What a great work ethic, too.

    Fascinating post- more posts aboutscentwork pleeeeease?

  3. Cait, it was always my intention to post many more scent and SAR narratives than I have done.

    The blog got hijacked along with my life in December 2008, and a lot of things got sacrificed -- for the worthy goal of helping people help the ONB dogs, and because of the extraneous bullshit that got tacked onto the project.

    Well, we're not done with either experience yet. (As I've said before, my commitment to the welfare of the ONB dogs should expire some time around 2024. We don't do adumptions.)

    But yes, it is time to go back to more critical reflection on our work in SAR. I've been treading water and just maintaining my own dogs' training for too long.

  4. mdmnm --

    Alas, the GPS was attached to the handler, not the pooch. (We're working on rectifying that soon. Previous attempts to directly track the dog have met with GPS tragedy.)

    So it doesn't reflect Rosie's wide casting and looping. I followed slowly and tended to walk up the middle of her casting pattern -- which, not coincidentally, turned out to be the actual path walked by the tracklayer as often as not. (In windier and dryer conditions this would not be so.)

    I'm really looking forward to being able to illustrate on the map the paths of subject/handler/dog for both trailing and airscenting tasks.

    Now, a time-animation of handler and dog showing real-time relative positions would be the balls! Especially for airscenting tasks.

  5. Now, a time-animation of handler and dog showing real-time relative positions would be the balls!

    Adobe After Effects supposedly can be used for this, though I don't know if it works on a GPS tracking string.

  6. Great stuff, HH! I'm looking forward VERY much to more on the scent work, too.


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