Every dog loves to sniff. It doesn’t matter if it’s another dog, a bit of food crushed into a sidewalk or the trail your neighborhood raccoon left when it passed by sometime during the night. While a keen sense of smell is built into virtually every dog, certain breeds were built with that trait as the hallmark of their conformation.
Such is the case with the Bloodhound. Not only does it have the ability to detect an unlimited number of different scents, it has plenty of wrinkles, flews, a pendulous dewlap and elongated ears to help push smells right into its olfactory system.
To give the breed an opportunity to exercise its unrivaled skill among Hounds, a “very dedicated” group of search and rescue handlers devised some tests just for Bloodhounds in 1987, explains Jan Rothwell, chair of the American Bloodhound Club Trailing Trial Committee. Although earning a mantrailing title is in no way related to doing search and rescue, the handlers felt that tracking wasn’t a sufficient test for the unique breed.
Rothwell’s been putting trailing titles on her dogs since 1991, becoming a judge in 2002, then the committee chair three years later.
Back in the late ‘80s, it could take years to earn an MTX, or mantrailing excellent title, as there was only one trial a year – at the American Bloodhound Club National Specialty. Long gone are those days. Six or eight independent trials are held annually across the country, in addition to the National Specialty trial, which in 2012 saw 25 entries following human scent along 16 separate trails. “We always offer seminars at the National, and they’re packed,” Rothwell says.
The sport of trailing for the ABC has come a “long, long way,” says the Wilton, N.H., resident. “We have finally gotten so all the trails are very consistent: same level, same surfaces. We’ve worked so hard to make sure that no matter where you go, everything is the same.”
Dogs and their handlers must navigate three levels of trailing before facing the final challenge of MTX: the event entry certification test, or EECT; mantrailer, MT; and mantrailer intermediate, MTI. As with tracking, a dog-handler team need only pass each level one time to move on to the next. However, the team can only qualify once at any given trial. So, there’s no earning an MT and an MTI, for example, at the same event.
The ABC “Trailing Trial Event Standard” emphasizes Rothwell’s point about trailing versus search and rescue: “Levels of certification, as described in this standard, are for the sole purpose of titling a Bloodhound in a sporting event and should not, in any manner, be considered a qualification for police or search and rescue work.” The importance of the relationship between dog and handler is stressed as well: “All trailing trial participants should be guided by the principles and regulations of teamwork between handler and dog and by good sportsmanship.”
Purebred Bloodhounds whether intact, spayed or neutered and eligible for registration in the American Kennel Club or for an AKC Indefinite Listing Privilege can enter ABC trailing trials, however a dog or bitch must be 6 months old to take the event entry certification test. Dogs are not divided by age or sex during trials, however bitches in season run last.
Sniffing Smarter One Level at a Time
The event entry certification test requires the dog – wearing a harness and on an at least a 6-foot lead – to follow a 440-yard trail scented at least one hour before the test. This “J”-shaped trail follows a “natural wandering path,” according to the standard, with “no abrupt or about-turns, and no water crossings” in light vegetation and only partially on pavement. It shouldn’t be a steep trail, cross “moderately heavy or heavily traveled” roadways or be in an area with “poor footing.”
The dog has up to one hour to traverse the approximately one-fourth mile trail – leaving and reentering it at will. However, if the dog is working 180 degrees off the trail in the wrong direction, the judge can stop the test. At the end of the trail, the dog must alert on the person, known as a “runner,” who has previously walked the trail from start to end. The handler informs the judge how the dog alerts – by sitting, barking or whatever behavior it’s been taught – before the test’s start.
For the mantrailer test, the trail is at least twice as long, but no more than three-fourths of a mile. While the scent for the EECT may only be an hour old, it must be four to six hours old for mantrailer. In addition, the “wandering path” now includes “one change in direction in the form of a turn or curve that is no less than 90 degrees,” the standard dictates. The runner for this test again walks the trail on the day of the test, then stands or sits in plain sight at the end of the trail, neither partially nor totally hidden by brush or debris. Despite the increased length, age of the scent and more difficult trail configuration, each dog-handler team has one hour to complete the test with the dog alerting on the runner. However, the handler or the judge can request one restart during the course of this test.
When it comes to the intermediate level, the trail is the same length, but in an area of “moderate contamination,” such as a school yard or parking lot. Again, it follows a “natural wandering path,” however, it includes two changes of direction. Making it more difficult is the age of the scent – eight to 18 hours – and the use of two runners, the primary runner whom the dog must identify at the end, and another who crosses the trail about halfway through. The crossing runner waits at the end of the trail parallel to, and 15 feet away from, the primary runner. To pass this level, the dog must alert on the primary runner, not the crossing runner, again within one hour of starting. A single restart is also allowed.
For the excellent title, the trails traverse “heavily contaminated” areas, such as malls, public parks, forests or industrial areas with “heavy traffic” both while the trails are being laid and when they’re being run. They are laid at least 24 hours before the trial, but up to 36 hours ahead of time. Three obstacles, such as roads, water crossings, train tracks or bridges, make these trails more challenging. However, the dog-handler team has up to 90 minutes, rather than 60, to negotiate the trail. Again, there are two runners, but the second runner follows the primary runner for half of the trail, then cuts away, eventually rejoining the primary runner at the trail’s end. As with the intermediate test, the dog must alert on the primary runner to gain its MTX title.
Getting from EECT to MTX
There’s a strategic moment, Rothwell says, in training a Bloodhound to trail, when the dog suddenly grasps the concept. “It’s pretty quick once the light bulb goes on,” she says. “You can see them go, ‘I love this. This is what I’m supposed to do.’”
A lot of a dog’s success in trailing depends on its handler’s ability to read the cues the dog gives as it follows the scent, according to Rothwell. “The dog will tell you everything,” she says. “Many dogs will indicate exactly what they’re doing by the way they move their tail.” One of her own dogs, for example, lets its tail go limp when it’s lost the scent. Other dogs’ tails give a particular motion when the dog is “crittering,” following an animal scent, rather than the human one set for the trial.
But not all dogs’ bodies are equally communicative. “You have everything from a dog who holds up a sign that says, ‘This way, stupid,’ to one who is really hard to read.” Either way, an old trailing motto of unknown origin holds true, she says. “Do you want to be a Bloodhound handler or a Bloodhound follower?”
It also depends on how much time you have to put into it, she says. “It really is like anything else. You put in the time, and you can do fairly well. If you want to show up once a year, it’s going to take you some time.”
At most trials, she says, about half of the entries do a qualifying run.
What’s helpful is that the judges (two for each trail, except EECT) give each handler a critique after the trial. Often, Rothwell says, the guidance is “more practice,” “work on your starts” or “work on your endings.” The beginning and the end are when most people get into trouble, she says. At the start, “you can get the dog so jazzed up it’s not even thinking. I believe they have to have a calm mind to get to work.” The handler needs to establish a routine about everything from where you put on the dog’s harness and when you attach the lead to how you introduce the scent article, she says. This routine tells your dog that it’s time to follow a particular scent, not just whatever might cross its nose.
One of the big mistakes especially newer handlers make, she says, is that they’re “astonished” to be at the end of the trail, but the dog hasn’t yet alerted on the runner. “The MTX trail could end at the entrance to a Walmart, so there could be 50 people there.” Because “you can’t believe the dog got you there, you sort of lose it a little bit.” This response can cause the dog to “forget” that it needs to go all the way to the runner and alert. “You have to maintain” until the dog identifies the runner, she says.
The Path to Trailing
Even with two decades of Bloodhound trailing under her belt, Rothwell admits it was all just an accident. Her first Bloodhound was a housewarming gift that she’s pretty sure came from the “very best puppy mill in Missouri,” via a pet store.
“Rommel was an ornery son of a gun,” she says. But by the time he died, she’d become fascinated with the Hound temperament. Her next dog was a Basset Hound named Emma who introduced her to obedience. Meanwhile, Rothwell’s husband was searching for a quality Bloodhound from a reputable breeder. That’s how they got Beckett.
“I got bitten by the obedience bug big time,” she says. “That kind of sucked me in. I decided I was more stubborn than they were.”
Her first exposure to trailing came at a “fun weekend” for Bloodhounds that a good friend hosted in upstate New York each year. Rothwell attended with her dog Hunter. One morning her friend said, “We’re going to put harnesses on the dogs.” It took no time at all for Rothwell to realize, “This is wicked cool.” After returning home, she looked around for a trainer and ended up under the collective wing of some “real life search and rescue people.”
She’s been at it ever since.
“You really never do see the same thing twice,” she says. “Every dog is different; every situation is different. I am fascinated by watching any breed do what it is bred to do. My passion is that Bloodhounds are still one of the breeds you can take out of the show ring one day and put in the harness the next. There aren’t two types. I think that is one of the most valuable things we can keep doing. A Bloodhound should be a nose with a dog attached. I care passionately that we keep that.”
Rothwell’s “heart dog” was just that. She owner-handled James to both the American Bloodhound Club Hall of Fame, as well as its Working Dog Hall of Fame. “If you’re very, very fortunate, and you’re in the dog game long enough, everyone gets a great one. He was that for me.”
Her trailers today are 4-year-old Caleb who has his MTX and TD (tracking dog) and is working on his UD in obedience, and 17-month-old Tanner MT TD. “It’ll be a while before he’s in obedience,” she says. “He’s a very typical Bloodhound. Caleb is a gift from the gods and does everything I ask of him. He’s very biddable. Then the gods gave me Tanner to say, ‘Told you.’” That independent streak for which Bloodhounds are known is all part of the attraction for Rothwell. “This is who they are,” she says. And while Tanner is challenging, “I wouldn’t trade him for the world,” she says. “He’s a riot.”
Whether she’s headed out for some practice or to a trial, Rothwell says she is always “amazed that I have these remarkable creatures in my car who can do this stuff.”