Scent and Scenting, Part 2
There is nothing so exciting as watching a gundog using his nose and find game. Unfortunately I have seen handlers who do not notice when their dog is touching scent and also not realise where their dog will ‘hit’ the scent he is looking for. From the very beginning watch your young dog as he seeks out scent and attempting to locate a dummy you have thrown for him. Watch his body, tail, ears and head carriage and begin to learn what he is telling you. That sharp turn in the direction of the dummy, the nose finding the level of the ‘flow’ of scent, the tail changing motion and a speeding up or sometimes even slowing down of his actions as he works out where a dummy or bird is laying.
To develop a dog’s ability to understand and work out scent there has to be a willingness on the part of the handler to let his dog learn through experience. We are often impatient and too quick to control or help our dog find a retrieve. Experience is a great trainer of your dog and allowing him to work out the fall of a retrieve will enable him to gain the ability to read, interpret and work the scent to the fall area. We want to develop his capacity to find game through his nose and we can help him mostly by allowing him to teach himself. If a young dog appears to be struggling we can move forward to encourage him to hunt the area but be very careful not to show him exactly where it is.
If you have done some hunting with your dog and trained him to quarter his ground to find dummies then this will definitely help. Encourage him with a command, ‘Hi Lost’, that tells him he is in the right place and to keep searching.
When you can see that your young dog is marking the fall with his eyes in short grass, move into longer cover where the dummy is not easily seen and let him work out where it is with his nose. As he begins to do this well, introduce a tennis ball or a heavy retrieving ball that will bounce and move as it hits the ground, and let him work out the track of the ball. You will know where it has rolled but he will not. So let him learn. He may find and lose scent but in doing so he will learn to compare the scents he is experiencing and understand when it is getting stronger or weaker. The ability to scent is a natural ability with a dog; the ability to interpret and work scent comes from the capacity to interpret it. Help him develop the ability to read and comprehend scent. By using a ball in this way you will simulate a bird or rabbit that moves after it has been shot and teach him to take a scent line with his nose to that bird.
As your dog learns to ‘switch on’ his nose in a fall area, gradually increase the level of difficulty. Still using the ball, do memory retrieves. Throw the ball a short distance and then walk away with your dog before sending him back for the retrieve. This makes the retrieve more complex. He has to use his memory, concentrate and use his nose effectively to get his retrieve as quickly as he would wish to. You can also introduce a hill where the ball is thrown downhill and therefore bounces and rolls even further, providing an even longer and more difficult trail for him to follow.
Now increase the number of tennis balls you use and do two exercises. In the first exercise, throw out a tennis ball in cover long enough to hide it. Rotate through 90 degrees with your dog at heel, and throw a second ball. Turn him back towards the first and with a clear hand signal send him for this. Fetch the second after he has completed the first. Increase the number of tennis balls to 3 then 4, turning him through 90 degrees after each ball thrown. Select the balls in the order you want them. Initially you should not throw the balls far but gradually increase the distance. This exercise will build his ability to take a direct line to a fall and then use his nose.
In the second exercise use a racket to knock a tennis ball longer distances. Over time increase the number of tennis balls as he begins to be competent at finding the balls, until you have 4 out there for him to find. Each time he comes back with one, send him for the next. Knock them out into the field so they do not lie next to each other and one or two of them shorter than the others so that after he has collected the short one he has to run through the scent of this for a longer one. He will then begin to recognize when a retrieve has already been picked and look for a fresh one. This exercise will increase his willingness to go back to an area and search for new scent among old and also increase his enthusiasm to hunt for the retrieve using his nose.
In the field your dog has to recognize the scent of diverse game. On a rough shooting day you may shoot a variety of game, therefore give your dog the opportunity to learn the scent and taste of different types of game. The scent of some game can be ‘off putting’ to a dog. Woodcock, pigeon and even duck can create problems and some dogs may not want to pick them. If this occurs, use the game for a retrieve when it is cold. Rub your hands (friendly scent) over the bird and then tease your dog with it before throwing and sending him for the retrieve. Even though he may pick it cold, you can still have a problem when it is warm but you are one step closer to success. If this happens pick the warm bird yourself, rub your hands over it and once more throw it for your dog and encourage him to fetch.
By building your dog’s experience in the use of his nose on a diversity of game in a variety of situations you are increasing your potential for putting more game in the bag and finding those elusive birds that fall out of sight or were wounded and moved. Now you have to build your own experience and knowledge of scent and learn how scent behaves. With this knowledge you can help your dog by putting him in an area where he will be able to scent the retrieve. Scent varies according to weather, wind conditions, ground and terrain. The more you run dogs the more you learn. Edges of woodland, hedges, gate openings, hollows in the ground, small hills and a variety of factors can affect scent strength and direction. The direction of the scent where the bird has fallen can often be completely different from where you sent him. Although we may check wind direction, that is only where we are stood. We can start from the premise that it is going to be the same where the bird has fallen, however it can be very different. We train to develop a dog that will get to the fall area, stick it to find the scent and then track any movement to the bird or rabbit we want him to retrieve. By training your dog to get out to the fall area and then hunting that area to find scent you will have far more success bringing those birds back for the bag.
This is where the leadership within the shooting partnership changes between handler and dog. As the ‘leader’ you send your dog and direct him to the fall area. Once in the area you give him the command ‘Hi Lost’ and he takes over using his nose and hunting skills to find the scent. If he leaves the fall area and can be seen not to be taking a trail, bring him back to the fall area and ask him to seek again. Once more you leave him to use his skills. This control and then allowing of him to hunt shows a true partnership of man and dog. But there has to be a balance – too much control and he stops hunting, too little and he hunts too freely, out of control.
The ability to read your dog and know what he is communicating is essential when you have a difficult retrieve and he has to use his nose extensively. Too often have I seen handlers pulling their dog off a scent that would have led to the retrieve. There has to be a balance between control and allowing your dog to work. How much you allow him to free hunt to find the scent depends on how much you trust your dog. How much you trust him depends on how well you know him through training with him. If you have done your training well and the partnership is strong, then the adage always is “Trust your Dog!” His nose and abilities to find game are better than your own.