The Big Mistakes in Trail Laying

As trailing handlers progress in their craft and the trails become longer and more arduous – not only in length, but in age and complexity – it is very easy to succumb to the temptation to ease the workload. “This really begins to happen when handlers form training groups and they have a limited amount of time and subject resources. The temptation is to double-lay trails and add distance for the next handler. What I am describing here is common practice, and I see it in almost every training venue in every state in which I train. This is how it goes.” Says Jeff Schettler. Schettler is a retired police K-9 Handler who was attached to the FBI Hostage Rescue Team’s K-9 assistance Program tasked with hunting high risk fugitives.

“The subject runs a trail to the end and the first dog works it. Because time and space are limited (sometimes out of laziness), the next trail to be laid is really nothing more than an extension of the first one. In other words, the subject simply starts where the first trail finished and moves to another ending. The second dog comes in and follows the first trail and then the second trail. This vicious cycle sometimes continues for as many as ten dogs or more! By the time the last dog runs the game trail (and I say this because it is really nothing more than one giant elephant trail), This last dog is really only following tons of prior dog odor to the point where he encounters a fresh subject trail. What this teaches the dog is that he should follow other doggy odor whenever it is available.” States Schettler “Dogs are cheaters, just like humans. They have no intention to do what is perceived as the ‘right thing’. However there is one BIG difference – they have no honor or code about trailing. They do things to get what they want as quickly as possible. If following five trails of other dog scent is easier than finding one human odor among the five dog scents, they will follow the dogs every time.”Says Schettler “I have heard this form of training rationalized in this way: The dog is proving that he is scent discriminating when he wades through all of the other dog and subject trails and then, upon encountering the last extension of the subject’s trail (after the elephant trails), he finds the subject with ease. I beg to differ. I believe that the dog is following massive amounts of other dog odor because he has been conditioned to follow dog odor through the training he received. When he encounters the fresh subject trail at the end of the doggy trails, the trailing dog switches to the fresh human odor and follows it to the end. What first started me thinking about this idea was when I did it myself one time. I discovered on real cases that had my training partners as part of the search team. My dog followed the other trailing dogs first – and every time! I finally tested this theory with double-blind tests. Lo and behold, we had been teaching our dogs to follow other dogs. The only way for a handler to truly learn to read one dog on one subject odor is, for every new dog trained in sequence on any given day, (1) use a new area for training, and (2) use only the subject for whom the dog is hunting. There is a time when we must train for double-laid trails and more, but now is not the time. There also may be a need to learn what the dog does when he encounters the odor of other search dogs, but I can guarantee that these dogs should not be following them. If they do, we must take a hard look at the training program.”

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