Fixing a Failed Track

Anyone that has ever trained or handled a tracking canine has run a failed track. Those that have tracked behind a dog know what a failed track is, there are many variations. Maybe the dog goes in the complete opposite direction of the suspect, maybe the dog just can’t start, or maybe the dog is distracted the entire track. Whether this track was a live track (suspect or lost person) or an unknown training track, they can be frustrating, enlightening, or just speed bumps along the road. I’ve had my share of failed tracks as I’ve trained dogs over the years. Regardless of the plan, my knowledge of the dog’s level, and how to set everything up for success, I’m dealing with an animal and sometimes things don’t go as they should.

The What:

After each of these failed tracks I’ve followed this simple step to ensure success in future tracks: I rerun the failed track again. Now, its been said that the definition of insanity has is repeating behaviors over and over again, but I’m not running the same track again and again. I am running it twice. Even then, the second track, though set up to be the same as the first, will never be completely the same track.

The Why:

What do you get out of running a failed track again? Insight. I’ve done this with every failed track I’ve ever had and it has always given me insight. Whether the insight was where I went wrong on the track, maybe a poorly processed intersection, or where the dog is struggling, understanding transition areas perhaps. I just reran a track with Ronan after having a very difficult track with him. After running the track again, I saw exactly where I went wrong. First, I thought the decoy’s start point was farther up. Second, I ran into the same barbed wire fence on the failed track and the rerun track. This was the exact point I issued an accidental correction and pulled my dog off a transition point. I though the fence was a twig the first time, the second time it was clear what occurred.

The Process:

As soon as possible, rerun the failed track, ideally within the same day. Set up track conditions as close as you possibly can, same distance, number articles, age time etc. This time, and this is KEY, you must know exactly where the decoy has gone, down to every step. If the track was live, rerun the route your dog took (not the route the suspect took if you now know it).  You can run the suspect route with your dog at a later date. Now look for the following: Did you miss a negative that led you on a wild goose chase? Is your dog missing negatives? How far is your dog fringing on odor, was the issue? How was the start now that you know exactly where it is? Turns? Distractions on the tracks? Transition areas? Corrections you may be giving? Look at it all and make mental notes of weak spots.

Once we see our problem areas, we compare to the first track. Does your dog repeat the same behavior twice? Maybe he blows past the same turn again. Now we know we need to work on turns. Is he displaying a general struggle to follow odor? Time to dial back the age and add articles. At the ¾ mark does he begin to struggle for no apparent reason? Shorten the next track and build a plan for distance.

Generally, when running a live or unknown track, a handler is unable to determine the exact problem while running the track, just that the track overall was a problem. If the failed track was live or unknown, there was a small likelihood that the handler recognized what was going on, missing turns for example. Running the track known, the handler can now see that the dog was blowing past turns. Now a plan can be made to solve any issues seen. Or maybe there wasn’t an issue from the dog, maybe it was just a lack of processing by the handler, or a lack of trust in the dog. Been there, done that. Either way, knowledge on what went wrong will be gained.

I use this method even for known training tracks that my dogs have difficulty on. However, when I do this, I make sure to scale back the difficulty for the dog. I will have already cataloged the areas on the first track my dog struggled with, turns for example. So, although I am laying and running the same track for the dog, I may add more articles on the turns and kick in the dirt/grass. If the dog struggled with road crossings, I’ll add some articles or balls. It was too long? Shorten the track but take the same route, just cut out the end or beginning. If the issues I saw the first track, and shored up the first track are good then I have an idea of my plan. If others pop up, I still know what needs to be worked on.

Next time you have a failed track, take it as an opportunity to learn. Rerun, see what went wrong and make a plan.

Counter Conditioning

Rough Draft 1/29/2020

What is counter conditioning and how does it play a part in dog training? Simply put counter conditioning is changing your dog’s perception to a certain stimulus. It is also classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning. We all remember the dog and the bell correct? Every time a bell was rung, Pavlov’s dogs were given a steak. The dogs always salivated when they saw the steak. Over time just the ringing of the bell caused the dogs to salivate as they anticipated the steak. The bell was a cue for steak.

Now in this example, the bell had no value or meaning until it was paired with the steak. We can use this same principle to change our dog’s reaction to other stimulus, even ones that already cause a certain behavior. Lets break this down further. A stimulus, say a fire hydrant, causes our dog to spook, maybe bark, run away. This particular dog enjoys hot dogs and has a pleasant reaction to them. So what we are going to do is pair the hot dogs with the fire hydrant, slowly over time. We are conditioning the dog to respond to the hydrant the same way that he responds to the hot dogs. We are conditioning a behavior counter to the old behavior.

Not my image.

How to go about this: First, the key is to go slow. Do not force your dog to interact with the object of his fear until he is ready. Force and flooding can work in some cases but in extreme fear you are only releasing more fear neurotransmitters and hormones, making the memory of FEAR even greater. So go slow.

Start by having a good amount of high value food ready for your dog. Start at a far enough distance away from the object that the dog does not react. Once the dog notices the object mark and reward with food. Repeat again and again and again making sure to never progress into barking or shying away. Should your dog bark, correct that state of mind. We won’t allow the dog to continue to practice those neural pathways of barking, we stop them. Create more space and continue to reward for looking at the object then looking back at you.

Our dog is now looking at the object, the fire hydrant, and back at our handler. Keep it SHORT to start. Lots of these sessions are key. Make sure the dog recognizes the object before you mark with yes and then reward. We are rewarding for looking at the object without barking. Get closer as your dog gets more comfortable. Keep up the energy level and encourage your dog if they try to investigate on their own.

Finally, I’m going to include one of my real life examples of counter conditioning. I purchased a German Shepherd for work that ended up being terrified of trash cans. He would spook and run away every time he saw them. Now no amount of correcting him for running away would help him. He was afraid and needed to change his view of the stimulus from terrifying to something positive. This dog loved food and tug so I used both to counter condition him. I started with tug around the trash cans. Once he was good with that. I moved them a little while playing tug. Then I switched to food and started teaching him to investigate the trash can. Which resulted in food and even tug sometimes. Over time, he learned that if he touched the trash can on his own volition he would get a reward. He started seeking them out.

I used this on another dog that was afraid of escalators. Now this dog never did learn to go on them, but by constantly rewarding him for investigating them and going up to them he began to drag his handler to them. They became a source of reward instead of fear.

Now, counter conditioning is not the end all solve all. Some behaviors are deeply rooted and cannot be solved by counter conditioning alone. Teaching the dog to ignore stimulus is just as important as teaching them to investigate stimulus. Determining what stimulus needs to be ignored (dogs on walks for dogs that are leash reactive) and what needs to be counter conditioned and explored (maybe the shady tree stump your dog barks at on your walks) is critical. Dogs with extreme aggression towards a stimulus need professional help. I do not use this method for reactivity on walks. Contact a trainer that specializes in this for more help.

Ethical Training

It’s time for a trainer rant. As many of you know I work at a vet clinic a couple days a week. In the past couple of weeks I have had multiple owners tell me about their dog’s behavior (mostly leash reactivity towards other dogs), that they had worked extensively with other trainers (I shall not mention), and after a lot of time, money, and no improvement these trainers told them “This is how your dog will always be.” For lack of a better way to say it, that is crap. Each of these owners had given up hope until I told them “Umm, no I can actually help with that and if I can’t I know another trainer that can.”
Why does this irritate me so much? Whenever a dog owner calls me asking for help I have a responsibility as an ethical trainer to say one of two statements.
One: Yes, I can help with that. Two: No, I cannot help with that but let me refer you to someone that can.
I know where my current knowledge and abilities are and will take on cases that I can help the client. I won’t turn away a client because the dog cannot be fixed but because I know of some trainers that have more skill in that area. I know when a behavior is out of my realm of work and will refer owners to another trusted trainer. Why? Because I am not here to take the business or make the money and then say “actually the dog can’t be fixed, because I don’t know how not because the dog is genuinely unfix-able.” That is what these trainers are saying, and instead of referring to another trainer, like they should, they let the owners continue suffer with their dog’s behavior.
Now, I am not saying that with training these dogs can magically become the perfect dog that loves everyone and every other dog. Giving owners proper expectations of their dog’s behavior and management is half the battle the other half being fixing the issue as best possible. What I am saying, is that if you are an owner that has been told your dog will always be like this, please continue to reach out to other trainers. If you need help on where to start or who to contact, contact myself. If its something I can help with I will, if not I will steer you toward some ethical and honest trainers.
To current and future clients: I will do everything in my training knowledge and power to help you, even if that means referring you to another more qualified trainer before we even start training. I want you and your dog to find the best possible match even if that is not me. Please don’t ever give up on your dog. Keep searching for the right trainer, for new methods, for new knowledge.

Socializing the Working Pup

Narsil 5 months riding around in a wagon. Narsil will climb anywhere asked or unasked.

As promised, a brief article on the extra socialization, training, and exposure I do for young pups I raise (service or police). Much of this information can and should be transferred to the average pet dog. Other portions are not needed, some may hinder.

First, the amount of exposure I do for a working pup is different. I try to expose them to EVERYTHING. Its a constant game of what new can I do today with the pup. It occupies my mind even past the 16 wks. Umbrella, tarp, horses, barns, statues, climbing, going under, dark, pots/pans, garbage truck, people in hats. This list never ends. I do almost daily field trips to new locations. They are short and fun, unless I have a super confident pup then we may hang out for longer (Narsil was this dog-the world was hers to conquer). Less confident pups get short trips that are very fun (food or toy filled (the new pup and Ronan before he I started work with him). All pet dogs can benefit from lots of exposure. I don’t think there is to much as over exposure for a confident pup. A less confident pup benefits from the exposure as long as its planned and executed well.

Second, every working pup, service or police, works for their food in some way. This starts day one. They may work from it through a feeder toy (Kong Wobbler), through field trips, through confidence exercises like climbing and crawling on new places, through walks, and through puppy obedience. This creates a dog that from the very beginning understands that in order to eat he has to work. It builds real nice food drive because from the get go hes had to put effort into getting it. It also creates a dog that will take food everywhere, as hes done it as a puppy. I personally think this is a really good step for pet owners. A highly food driven dog is much easier to train in the long run.

I teach both service and police dog pups to ignore other dogs and people. I don’t have them interact with every single dog or person. That’s not their job. Their job is to focus on me or the work they are doing. Lots of focus exercises, redirects, quick turns away, and explanations of why they cannot meet. This in my opinion, teaching a dog to ignore the world around him, is the single most missed training in in young dogs “socialization.” This teaches impulse control (for excited social dogs not meeting everyone), builds trust (for more nervous pups that don’t want to interact), teaches focus (for distracted pups), and helps prevent aggression/reactivity (pup must focus on handler and ignore the triggers). Think about it, you don’t greet every person you meet. If forced to you might develop some unwanted behaviors around people, I know I would!

Confidence building. This extra step can be good for pet dogs but I take it to the extreme. I teach police dogs to climb anything, go under everything, jump up, go anywhere. I use food or toys. I usually start with feeding my puppy food in a cardboard box full of plastic jugs. I’ll lure and feed these pups up onto, under, and into places of all sorts (stairs, dark cabinets, ladders, odd surfaces). I’ll do recall games through obstacles. The end goal is a dog that will go anywhere just by asking or because he wants to, no fear or hesitation. These are good for pet dogs. Maybe not the crazy recall type games I do, or how challenging I will make the climb, crawl, etc.

Creating a problem solving puppy. I do this through shaping behaviors. I generally start with a game called 101 things to do with a box. I place a cardboard box on the floor and with an end behavior in mind, usually feet in box, I will slowly shape the behavior I want. I do not lure or throw anything in the box but rather reward for small steps in the beginning. I will shape other random behavior also, like a place command, or a retrieve. I’ve really found that if I can get the puppy problem solving young, starting neural pathways young, then its much much easier later in life to continue that growth then to start it. These training sessions create what I call a sharper/brighter puppy. They are more willing to try, to problem solve on their own, to catch on quicker.

Finally, with both service and police I will imprint some important behaviors. This does not have to be within the 16 weeks, its preferred but I usually focus on exposure then move to this. With service dogs I will imprint touch, retrievals, pivots, nice heeling, and a handful of other general behaviors. For police dog I imprint bite work, work on grips, build drive for toys, imprint on tracking, and usually imprint on an odor. Drive building, and playing in new areas is key. I’ll do hunting exercises with food or toys also.


Socialization. The information I am presenting is not anything new. It’s not revolutionary or new, and it certainly isn’t anything I have discovered or created. However, with the new puppy I am doing a lot of socialization and figured I’d share.

We all hear we need to socialize our young puppy, but what exactly is socialization? Having everyone meet and pet your puppy? Taking your dogs to dog parks to meet other dogs? Taking your puppy to class? Getting your adult dog around new people and dogs? Would you be surprised if I said socialization is none of these? So what is socialization?

Socialization is the process of exposing and equipping puppies to everything they will see and do as adults. We are preparing confident, social, and polite puppies. The ability to live and act in any part of society. Yes, we do have people and other dogs interact with puppies but that is only ONE part of socialization.

Before we go any farther I want to address the issue of waiting until a puppy has had all of his shots to start exposure. Puppies have a very short window to expose them. This is the window of puppy care free days, they absorb everything and have little fears. This lasts up until about 12-16 weeks. There is no “socializing” adult dogs, only counter conditioning and training new behaviors. After the 16 weeks, new exposure will rely on previous exposure and genetics. Meaning if you did a good job beforehand with exposure you will have a confident puppy. If you did a poor job you may have a very nervous, insecure pup. However, depending on genetics you may get either confidence or fear from under or correct exposure. Some dogs never see the outside world until six months of age and still turn out just fine. Many police dog pups are raised this way. They have fearless genetics. Other pups get a good amount of correct socialization and exposure and still end up nervous. What’s at play here? Genetics. Some puppies genetics are wired for him to be anxious regardless of socialization, socialization can make the puppy better but may not “fix” the puppy. And some puppies are fearless regardless of socialization.

Back to my original point on waiting until all vaccinations are over. Vaccinations end at 16wks. Which means if you wait until a puppy has finished his vaccinations to expose him to the world, its too late. He may be safe health wise but now you have a slew of behavior and mental issues that are likely to occur. More dogs end up euthanized because of behavior issues that could have been prevented through proper socialization than die from disease as a puppy. Now I am absolutely NOT saying don’t vaccinate and don’t be careful where you take your puppy. I am saying to expose but thoughtfully. No dog parks, no parks full of other dog’s feces, most likely no pet stores. There are plenty of other pet friendly locations you can expose your young pup to. So I expose my pups and I don’t wait till they finish vaccinations. I won’t risk behavior issues because I improperly exposed them at a young age.

Socialization includes, more than anything, exposure. Exposure to different surfaces, noises, places, people, and dogs. We expose our dogs as puppies because as puppies they don’t know to be afraid. Positive exposure young carries over to adulthood later. Positive expereince with people, other dogs, new places help create a confident puppy.

So you are probably thinking, yes I already know that, that’s why I have everyone pet the puppy. He is getting exposed to new people. This is where mistakes are made. If you have a very outgoing puppy that seeks attention, certainly allowing many people to pet the puppy is fine. Even then I don’t allow everyone to pet my pup, he doesn’t need to be pet by a rough individual and learn to dislike strangers. Allow your pup to meet people if they are comfortable with it, have treats handy when they are comfortable, do not force if your pup would rather ignore people. The same goes with meeting other dogs. Choose very carefully which dogs you allow to play with your pup. Pushy dogs are not suitable for puppies. Dog parks are full of unbalanced dogs that teach poor behaviors. I use Narsil, and actually Ronan has been great also, when socializing new pups. These dogs play at the level of the pup, self handicap, don’t escalate, know when to take breaks, and are polite.

The final portion of exposure encompasses everything else. The world. Surfaces, buses, bikes, noises, hissing air, crowds, animals, buildings, climbing, crawling, exploring, etc. The list is massive but you need not expose to everything. The goal is enough exposure to as many different places, noises, surfaces, items, that your dog approaches new experiences in the future with confidence. A weird person in costume? No worries mom exposed me to Santa when I was young. Flapping tarp in the wind? No worries mom exposed me to umbrellas.

There is so much more information regarding socialization. I’ll write another post on the extra exposure and imprinting I do with young pups for police and service work. If you have any questions or want further information feel free to contact me.

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