A big problem that many exhibitors fuss over with their dogs is sniffing in the ring. This is generally more of an issue outdoors. Even a mature, experienced show dog may try to sniff out the huge hunk of liver bait dropped in the grass or the chicken located conveniently along the down and back route. So how can anyone expect a young dog or pup to handle all those smells?
Scent Is What the World’s About
Realistically, a hunk of liver or a piece of chicken is a bit much for almost any dog to ignore. For those situations, we can only hope judges will reinforce making handlers find and pick up any bait they throw. Some judges don’t even allow bait in their rings. Quite frankly, with some of the summer outdoor circuits, the rings are truly foul by the weekend. Bees are attracted to the rotting food, it stinks, and if you get any rain – whew!
But many dogs also sniff “just because.” They smell where the other dogs have moved or stood. They smell where the superintendent’s crew stood to stake in tents, etc. We have to remember that for dogs, scent is what the world is about. So what can you do to turn that sense off for a short time in the ring?
This may seem contradictory, but teaching your pup to track can be helpful. Tracking is great fun for a puppy, since it gets to do what comes naturally. The human nose is useless for this type of activity, so the dog gets to be in charge. This can also give a shy dog a big boost in confidence. Tracking is an activity that’s easy on dogs’ joints, so it’s perfect for puppies and retirees. Tracking is also exhausting for a dog both physically and mentally. Because of this, a pup will often crash after even a short tracking session due to the mental concentration expended.
Best of all, dogs that learn to track tend to associate sniffing with their tracking harnesses: harness on, nose down; harness off, not working. Dogs are very context-oriented, which is why crosstraining works so well. Being outdoors in fields in harness and line, without the big crowds of dogs or people, are all contextual cues that tell your dog it’s time to track.
Starting tracking is quite easy. I recommend using a harness right from the start. You can purchase nylon harnesses quite inexpensively, and they are adjustable to allow for growth. If nothing else, you can share with friends when they get puppies. You also need a line as short as six feet to start. If you go on to seriously track, you will want a lightweight 40-foot line. You can even make your own out of parachute cord and a purchased snap.
You will also need a couple of articles for your dog to sniff and find. A cheap bandanna works great for the starting point. This is also a good way to use those singleton socks everyone collects. An inexpensive leather glove is ideal for the end article, but you can also use a soft toy that your puppy likes to play with. Good treats are also important.
Place a flag or marker along with the bandanna so you know where to start the pup. Have a friend hold your harnessed pup there while you walk about 10 feet away. You can scuff in the grass as you walk, waving the glove to get your pup excited about finding it. Drop a piece of treat every other step or so. After going about 10 feet, put a treat inside the glove, place it on the ground and put another treat on top of it.
Now, circle back around to your pup. Take the pup, let him sniff the bandanna you left at the start, which has your scent, and point out the path as you let the line out. Keep the pup pretty much on the line of the track. Initially most puppies simply run down the line heading for the glove. As they run the line, they find the food treats, and once they hit the glove they get the jackpot of extra treats.
Just Follow the Scent
Because the puppy can’t see the treats that you dropped in the grass, he will need to sniff for them. As he sniffs for the food, he is also smelling your scent from walking. The dogs learn that following the scent down the line leads to food and a fun reward. Eventually they transfer that knowledge to follow the scent of whoever laid the track.
You will gradually add distance, age the track a bit, waiting 10 minutes or so to run it instead of right away, and cut back on the food drops. Surprisingly, many pups quickly get so “track happy” that they run over the food drops anyway. I find I generally cut out most food drops by the third or fourth time we work.
Now, when you are not tracking, you simply tell your pup “no” should he start to sniff and give a little pop if you have to. The fact that your dog has learned to track, and knows the harness means permission to track, seems to cure much of the sniffing.
If you decide to go on to track competitively, you will need a good book such as Deb Davis’s “Making Scents of Tracking” (AuthorHouse, 2009) or Carolyn Krause’s “Try Tracking! The Puppy Tracking Primer” (Dogwise, 2005). Don’t be intimidated by the schedules the books suggest. I rarely track my dogs more than two times a week, if that.
My now 1–year-old Belgian Tervuren bitch earned her TD – Tracking Dog – title at 8 months of age – three days before she showed in sweepstakes at our National Specialty. She currently has 14 points toward her conformation championship, with one major. Sniffing is not a problem when I show her in breed – except when extra large pieces of enticing bait are on the ground! At least one champion tracker found his way to Best in Show – Ch. CT O Tahn Agon Cinema Duet!