Scent and Scenting, Part 4
ONLY YOUR DOG KNOWS (NOSE?) Martin Deeley
When we are watching trials, tests and certainly when when training or shooting we often comment on scenting conditions, good, bad, fair. Usually we are judging the scent conditions on how the dogs have performed. If they have difficulty in finding birds and have to be right on top of them before either a flush or retrieve, then naturally we think scent is bad. But how much of it is bad scenting conditions and how much is poor nose, lack of experience, or the intelligence that gives the dog the ability to interpret scent? If the majority of dogs are not having any problems with scent, then we often presume that the dog that is struggling on a find or a retrieve has a poor ‘nose’. This is not necessarily so, it may be the different ground it is working. Some ground is good for scent; some poor and the difference may only be a few yards apart. I have been to grounds where certain areas are called ‘suicide corner’ because scent in that area vanishes and dogs with proven noses have been known to regularly fail in this area. I can remember one trial at Scone Palace in Scotland where this happened. This was in a ploughed field where fallen birds were easy for handlers to see. Not so the dogs.
Early morning frost can create problems and as it thaws the frost in the shade can remain bad for scent but where the sun has begun to touch the ground it is much better. In fact the shade under trees even on fair weather days can create problems. Gateways, hollows in the ground, and stubble fields have also been known to defeat even the best dogs as scent becomes fickle.
Our problem as humans is that we do not have the same scenting abilities as dogs. In fact the dogs scenting apparatus is known to be far more sensitive than even the best laboratory scent testing equipment. Sniffer dogs for drugs, explosives and rescue prove the point. Because of all this we have difficulty understanding scent, we can hypothesize but in the end we are guessing, intelligently maybe, but guessing based on our experience of watching dogs.
Many have likened scent flow in the air to smoke, rising from a smoldering fire. To some extent this theory can help. On a still day the plume will go straight up without spreading out, giving off only a small spot of scent. In a slight breeze it will move closer to the ground, dispersing and giving the dog more opportunity of catching scent. What is fascinating are the days when smoke ‘hangs’, it lifts a little and then forms a pale white sheet above the ground. Below and above that ‘sheet’ the air is clear. If the smoke were the scent from an animal, the dog would have to lift his head to the right level to catch the scent and be able to home in. Where an unshot animal has been tucked in for quite a time, it may be only air scent that is detectable until a dog is almost touching it. A dog that works on air scent such as a pointer or setter with a high head carriage would be better able to detect the scent but a dog working on foot scent or even air scent at a lower level than the scent ‘path’, such as a spaniel would have problems. The scent trail must therefore depend on how high the plume of scent rises before it disperses or leaves a ‘track’ on the wind. All this is related to the heat of the animal’s body, heat of the ground and surrounding vegetation, movement of air and barometric pressure. A freshly shot animal should give off far more scent, made up of blood and shot scent, plus it’s natural body scent, than an unshot one. It is often thought that some animals such as hares can even suppress or minimize their scent making them almost undetectable unless the dog happens to bump into them. A shot animal may also give off a different scent created by the stress of being shot that the dog will learn to recognize through experience.
Moist, damp days with a light breeze seem to produce the best scenting conditions especially if the ground is warming up and the air is cooler. But it is interesting to note that different grounds do vary in providing good scenting, no matter what the weather conditions are. On some grounds scenting is always good while others have a reputation for poor scent. Whether this is created by the scent of the minerals that are combined in the soil or the ability to deflect heat and body scent I really do not know. For example is scent better on sandy soil than on a clay-based soil. I have no research details to know. What I do know is that there are few dogs that lie and do not pick a bird when they know for sure it is there waiting to be picked. Why is it that so often we presume the dog is either refusing to pick or stupid simply because it does not pick a bird, even when it is in plain sight to us? The fact is, especially if it is an experienced dog, it has not ‘seen it’ with its nose. And frustrating as it is to us, the dog is really trying hard to find the bird just not touching the scent that will home him in on it. Anyone who has been in the field with a dog regularly has seen that pheasant lying in the plough with the dog running over the top and especially the partridge in the stubble with its wings spread out for all the world to see but which more than one dog has run over and not even recognized is there. There is no doubt that some dogs are working purely on nose when they get into what they consider is the fall area. Eyes get them to the right are and nose then locates the bird. If they have switched off their eyes and concentrating on nose then there is no doubt that without the scent some dogs are ‘blind’. A dog that has the ability to use its eyes and nose at the same time is a jewel.
In working our dogs, it is not just the ability of the dog to find scent but also our ability to understand and recognize where it is coming from. With this knowledge we can help our dog by sending and directing him to where he can touch scent. We feel the breeze on our faces, we pick up tufts of grass and see where they blow or as a smoker watch the flow of the smoke from a cigarette to determine where the scent is coming from and where our dog may pick it up. However the scent flow and conditions can be very different where the bird is. Hills, hollows, bushes, trees, woods and other physical features create swirls and change the air movement. Sometimes taking it in a different direction, sometimes slowing it down or even speeding it up. With experience we can make estimations on what may be happening scent-wise away from us, but it is not until our dog is in the area that we can really see what is actually occurring because our dogs tell us.
Regarding good scenting conditions, my experience is that scent is usually very good over water. I have had dogs scent birds from quite a distance on many occasions. Birds that are floating well down in the water and not easy to see. Of course there are few obstacles to deflect the scent and possibly the dampness on a warm wet bird gives off more scent as it evaporates slightly with the body heat. I can only speculate of course.
One of the last observations I have to make is that scent does vary with the type of game being picked. Some dogs do not like the scent of certain species. Woodcock and snipe can sometimes be a devil of a job for a dog to find. It maybe the size of bird, and it might be the characteristics of the scent it gives off. There is no doubt that a dog has to be given experience in dealing with all types of game. I also have no doubt that if a dog has been on rabbits for a long period of time then its brain may not suddenly switch onto and recognize pheasants or partridge scent and vice versa. Therefore a dog needs to have scent revisions to keep fresh in its mind what scents are to be sought and game to be picked. If your dog obviously does not recognize scent in an area where there is scent and does not pick what you know he can pick, give him the benefit of the doubt and help him understand what he is looking for and recharge his scent recognition cells. If he has picked game before he is not ignoring scent on purpose – that I promise you.