A few of you on my facebook and twitter have seen me post updates about doing search training with our six month old border collie, Jasper. When he first started getting his play drive as a young puppy we started doing some chase exercises in the parks. I’ve worked with and around search and rescue dogs in the past, namely a few times when I assisted S&R as a communications liaison with the forest service. I’ve always been impressed with their intelligence and drive the dogs have and how much fun they have with it. Though it can be an emotional drain on them too as I found out on a search where we located the remains of the victim.
Border Collies are working dogs. They need a job. Especially Jasper considering his long bloodline of working cow dogs. I don’t have cows. Sheep would do. I don’t have sheep. I’ve even seen them herd ducks. I don’t have ducks. And he doesn’t pay attention to the neighborhood’s resident mallard. He gets plenty of exercise with Frisbee and “catch-it” and now he’s taken up swimming. He has amazing, borderline obnoxious play drive. He’ll out play you at anything. I’ve been working really hard to exercise him mentally. His hour morning walk with joy, at least an hour of swimming/frisbee/fetch/catch-it in the evening and all the normal dog play in between do well at keeping him exercised and happy. But this dog has brains and I want to make him use it.
So, soon after he fully developed his play drive I did some research, read a couple books and picked a couple of minds. I decided to start training him as a search dog. I could have trained him as a bird dog. I don’t care to much for bird hunting. Could have trained him as a bear dog. heh, no way, I don’t have the energy to hunt bears using scent dogs. Plus, Border Collies aren’t typically bear dog material. Same goes for lion hunting, not my idea of fun (the chasing dogs up and down mountains all day part). Either way, these are sporadic activities at best. We need something that we can do on a weekly basis. Agility was a high option. Still is, but everyone with a border collie (not on a ranch) does agility.
So search training it was. We started off with some cute chasing games in the park then went on to hide and seek in the park. He loves his hide and seek. Doing search work in the park is one thing, doing it up in the mountains is a whole different game. Once he was 100% comfortable will all terrain and used to trails and off trail walks we slowly started doing search work with him up in the mountains. We started back with the basics but he quickly wanted more. This week was his first real week of scent work in the woods.
Last week we took him up behind Shaffer butte and worked with him on scent trailing exercises. Basically hide and seek, but nothing too hard. Everything started on the scent trail and fresh trails. He was 100%, a few times he’d take shortcuts where he was air scenting but most of it was nose to the ground tracking.
We only had his short leash so keeping up with him was a chore. He’s still a puppy so doesn’t get off leash in public too often, he minds well when he wants to, but can get distracted. After the first exercise I had to let him off. This time after waiting for Joy to get hidden I gave his command took off his leash. Wow, talk about speed. Instead of running out the trail for a hundred yards like Joy did before she got off the trail jasper turned straight up the mountain at full speed. I did my best to keep up with him and could hear his collar jingling but the dog was on a mission. Over the river and through the woods. ok, no river, but lots of dense brush. I was starting to worry, I was sure he was off course probably chasing a deer scent or something. He took a hard left turn and headed back out the ridge. I wondered if I’d ever see him again. So I gave a couple of quick ranging whistles I could hear him faintly in the brush. I gave a recall whistle and he started to come back to me, but stopped and went back away from me. I was really worried. Seconds later “Good Boy! What a Good Boy!” I stepped around a tree and could see Joy and Jasper playing tug, his reward. When I got to her, I was a bit confused. The plan was for her to be only a few yards off the trail as another warm up. What I didn’t realize was the trail made a couple of switchbacks and she was only 10 yards off the trail. Jasper had caught her scent in the air and decided to skip the trail. Joy told me that he was only feet from her the first time I whistled and he started to move toward me then caught her scent again. I just knew the dog had it wrong… yeah.
Tonight we went up there, fully prepared and planning on training this time. We had his tracking line, a small bell (much like a hiker’s bear bell, if one chose to wear such an obnoxious item) and since we’d be finishing around sunset, his red flashy led light. All attached to his favorite trail pack.
Tonight was all about air scenting. It was gonna be tough as the winds were quite random, in direction only, constant in speed (7mph). We setup the problems paying more attention to the terrain, wind and vegetation. Joy does most of the hiding, but we switch it up with me occasionally. We’d hide in a defined area but I wouldn’t know exactly where she was so I couldn’t affect the dog except by watching and learning his body language and reading wind/terrain. With his 50′ line it was a lot easier to work with him and learn from him. The third problem I didn’t have a clue where Joy was hiding. Really, she was outside the area I thought she’d be in. His body language indicated he was sure about the scent as we intersected the maintained trail she had been on for a portion of the hide. We got past where I thought she was going to be and onto an open low sage hillside. His body language started showing he wasn’t so sure. With this not so sure attitude he started off down out of the open into the thickest brush he could find, nose to the ground. Going back and forth at random. With him not 100% sure and me knowing that joy wouldn’t hide down there I gave him a quick range whistle he looked at me and started back my way. We went back to the trail, the last place where I knew 100% he had her scent and started again. He walked in a large circle and bolted down the hill back into the thick brush, nose to the ground. “Good Boy!” “That was so Good!” hmm…. You would have thought that I’d learn my lesson from last time. When I whistled he was on the other side of a tree and some dense brush just uphill from Joy. But, we did get back on the scent for sure and after talking to her about the path she took in there, it makes sense that he (err, we) got confused.
We finished the night with a couple more air scenting problems, increasing in difficulty but all successful followed by a quick fun one.
Now, I don’t know if jasper will ever put on a search and rescue jacket. Don’t know if he’ll stay interested or progress far enough to be good at it. Don’t know if we’ll ever get him with a search dog trainer to try it out for real. But I do know this dog had a nose on him and the brains to back it up, especially when I don’t get in his way.
We’re going to continue working with search problems with Jasper over the next couple of months to see how he progresses. Week after next we’ll be spending a week in Stanley. We’re going to work longer searches and search for other people. If he can stay interested in the longer searches and work well with other people, I’ll be seriously considering calling up some of my S&R friends for some additional training. But right now, if Joy or I get lost in the mountains; Jasper is the dog! He will find us, if you just trust him.