“Don´t contaminate my trail!”
You might have heard someone say this before. When trailing, it is inevitable that there will be other scents around – wildlife, livestock, other people, dogs, etc. Dogs scent discriminate every day.
Fun Fact: Under perfect conditions, it has been reported, that a dog can smell objects or people as far as 20km away.
This means that even if the other scent didn´t cross your trail, your dog can still smell it.
They take in the world through the sense of smell, which is also the most distinct sense of a dog. Whenever dogs sniff, they are taking in every scent in the area and processing it, what is useful information, what might be rewarding and what might not.
This means, that there is no such thing as a “clean”, non-contaminated trail. However, contamination can be varied and can make the trail more complex for the dog, depending on a few factors.
When we speak about contamination, we should first look at the definition – “The action or state of making or being made impure by polluting or poisoning”. When your dog is trailing and we start to talk about contamination on the trail we talk about it in a way, which may affect the trail, something which could dilute the trail or increase the difficulty as the dog works.
There are many factors that can affect the trail of a human scent. The main one people often go to first is the environment, which can be a multitude of things. Broad titles would be wildlife on the trail, chemicals in the environment, difference between urban and rural trailing, vehicles and people walking on the trail before and after it being laid.
The weather can cause contamination or poisoning on the trail as it can disturb it or add in further scent via wind, dilute it via the rain or heat. This is very linked to the area you work in and it is important to take into the factors of the ever changing weather.
Moisture build up in the area can contaminate how the trail works, as the human scent it drawn in different directions or degraded. Rafts which we leave behind as part of the chemical make up of the trail are hydrophilic and will be pulled towards any moisture rich areas, meaning bodies of water can contaminate the scent trail.
The contamination that most people speak about is other human scent. When we arrive at the trailing location, we immediately start building a scent pool of human scent. We are constantly creating contamination on the trail as a handler, instructor and trail layer, especially when we lay multiple trails from the same starting point or in the same area. Some people may see the contamination of multiple trail layers on the trail is a big issue for the dog. This can absolutely be the case, if the foundations of the training aren´t strong enough for the dog to work out more complicated trails and contamination.
We teach the dog to discriminate the freshest scent of the trail layer, disregarding the older more degraded trails left by them.
The dogs learn to disregard contamination on the trail from the start of their journey as we build intensity for the freshest trail with the foundations in the intensity starts. The intensity start builds a reward in following that fresh trail. Even as we start to age trails and more complication is added on the trail, if you have built up strong foundations, the dog should still be able to make the find.
In fact, we contaminate the trail on purpose, to be able to see what the dogs’ reaction is. This could be at the start or during the trail (decoys) or at the end of the trail. Of course, the dog will have to know its task, before being challenged.
The best comparison for us to envision what it is like for dogs to trail, is reading a book.
(That´s if you like books. And to read them.)
A book that is intense and that you have lost yourself in. While you are enjoying your book you no longer hear the other sounds in the place, you no longer notice the feeling of the blankets around you. You end up completely shutting out the world around you as you are so focused on the reading. This is what it is like when the dog trails. They are so focused on the task at hand, that all other scents, sounds and distractions, which seem like they would stop them in their tracks, no longer matter to your dog.
With a solid foundation, your dog will prioritise trailing for a specific human scent.
So how do you work past contamination on the trail?
There are lots of different things we can do to help our dogs succeed in the trailing, but first and foremost we must look at the trailing foundations, the individual dog has. If the dog is struggling to work in a contaminated urban environment from a scent article start, we need to check back and see how much urban work the dog has done for example with intensity starts.
If the foundation has been built up in mostly rural areas or forestry. The dog needs taking a step back to foundations and doing some shorter intensity trails or delayed starts around the contamination. Hunting trails could also be used in some places to help a more cautious dog really enjoy the trailing and not worry about a contamination which might be negative to them.
And at last we can´t forget to factor in the dogs’ character and DNA. Some dogs, like for example a Bavarian Mountain Hound, are bred to excel at Mantrailing. These dogs have a particularly good nose and might find it easier to work through more difficult trails and challenges. Also there are dogs that can be reactive to the environment and that have different triggers for such.
Make sure you as an owner can read when your dog is struggling on the trail, this means understanding their body language. This can be things such as a change in tail carriage, head dipping or being held higher than normal, or change in speed. As you progress your trailing experience, you will be able to read these subtle changes, with the guidance of your instructor along the way.
Author: Mantrailing UK Ltd