Friday, March 12, 2010

How to Train a Scent Hound

Gone to Earth by Thomas Woodward.

Over at Field & Stream's excellent Field Notes blog, Chad Love put up a post about South Carolina "fox pens" which are large multi-acre enclosures where fox and coyote are released in order to (supposedly) train hounds.

Chad is a little uneasy about fox pens, but he readily admits he is not a houndsman, and he wonders where to draw the line on using live critters for training purposes.

Where I’m stuck is this: Is it inherently more "cruel" to use live coyotes to train a coyote dog than it is to use live birds to train bird dogs? Rabbits for beagles? Coons for coon hounds? Where do you draw the line?

There was some palaver from people who do not hunt fox or coyotes with dogs, and who were trying to fit the fox pen question into some sort of "us versus them" hunters-versus-animal-rights-lunatics frame.

Then I weighed in, noting that while I hunted fox with dogs:

Surely we can say no to canned hunts of a predator in a fenced enclosure? Surely American sportsmen have not come down to this.

Has it ever been easier to hunt in the last 100 years? We have better cars and trucks, more free time, better weapons, and more game than our fathers, grandfathers or great grandfathers did. More public lands too, thanks to Pittman- Robertson.

And yet we still have folks who think we need PENS to "teach" a hound to hunt? We do not! They do not use such nonsense in the crowded U.K. or in France or anywhere else in the world where they hunt with hounds, and that includes most of America. And NO we do not need them here in Virginia, North Carolina or South Carolina.

Of course there was a bit more palaver.

Some folks did not seem to know that most of these "training" facilities operate as canned hunts at least some of the time.

Some folks too quickly embraced the notion that "a-pigeon is-a-rabbit-is-a-fox-is-a-coyote," seemingly unaware that this is the same "a chicken-is-a-pig-is-a-dog-is-a-child" line warmly embraced by Ingrid Newkirk of PeTA.

Mostly, however, folks seemed flummoxed. If you did not have a fox or a coyote in a pen, how would you train a dog?

And then it occurred to me: No one reading this fox pen story actually knew how to train a scent hound! They think this is how it is done.

No problem. I do know how to train a scent hound. And this is NOT how it's done. So let me set it right.

To start with, let me point out that working terriers operate as diminutive scent hounds.

In fact, the work of a terrier is indistinguishable in the field from that of a dachshund (a true scent hound).

Both dogs find their quarry by sniffing the air and the ground until they happen to cut across a "hot" trail leading to a hot hole.

Most folks who work terriers find they do not have to do too much to actually get their dogs operational.

The same is true for most scent hound hunters. Scent is a powerful stimulus for dogs, and they will naturally follow a "sweet" scent out of curiosity, or some small hope of food, sex, or excitement.

So how do you amplify and channel this natural trait?

For starters, get a bottle of fox, raccoon or coyote pee from a mail-order vendor like Bill Boatman Supply or Mark Junes' Lures & Trapping Supplies. Most hunting stores also carry fox, raccoon and coyote pee -- ask a salesman.

Next you need to make a drag out of an 18" inch square piece of heavy cloth or leather chamois (available at any auto-supply store).

Tie a 15-foot piece of cord to your scent drag, and slide a small stack of metal washers or fishing weights down the cord so the drag now has a small amount of weight attached to it.

Now load some of your store-bought critter pee into a cheap spray bottle, being sure not to get any on your hands.

Finally, obtain a package of hot dogs.

Got it all?

Good. Now we are almost ready to go train the dog!

Before we do that, however we want to get your dog well-motivated, and the secret here is to not feed the dog for a full 24 hours. You want that dog sharp! A hungry dog is a brilliant dog.

Now load everything into your truck or car and go out to a farm area where a grassy field or meadows borders a forest.

Leave your dog crated up in the car or truck while you walk down the edge. You should have the leather drag with you, along with the hot dogs, and the spray bottle with the critter pee in it.

About 200 feet from the vehicle, stop and spray the leather drag with critter pee, coating it well, but not getting any on yourself.

Now drop the drag in the middle of the trail (you can spritz the trail itself if you want) and walk perpendicular to the edge habitat, heading up into the grassy field.

As much as possible, you want to make an obvious trail in the grass, dragging the pee-scented leather or cloth behind you.

At the end of a straight 30-foot drag, stop and leave half a hot dog right in the middle, where it is quite clearly visible.

Pick up the drag and walk back the way you came to the exact spot where you took off perpendicular to the path.

From this spot, continue down the edge another 150 feet and then drop the drag and cut across the trail again, this time going 40 feet going into the woods side, dragging the pee-scented leather or cloth behind you as before.

Scuff logs and break a little brush as you go. An easily visible trail with a lot of scent is not a bad thing to have early on in the training process.

At the end of this straight 40-foot drag, leave the other half of the hot dog in plain site.

Continue down this math, making scent trails this until you have run out of hot dogs, each time making the distance to the hot dog a little longer, curving the trail, and perhaps making the trail a little less obvious.

Now take the dog out on a leash and walk down the path you started. You can slow down a little at the spot where the first "trail" goes off into the grass. Give the dog a chance to succeed, but do not shove the dog or make suggestions. Be calm and mellow. The scent is supposed to do the work, not you.

Once the dog starts down the path (you will wait at this spot until it does), quietly encourage the dog. When the hot dog has been found, and after it has been gobbled up, make a big happy production out of it with a little play and a scratch behind the ears. Good dog!

Now let's see if we can do that again another 150 feet down the hedge.

Repeat this process a dozen times an outing over the next few weeks, extending the trail, curving the trail and even cutting off at sharp angles.

Instead of a hot dog, you can also use a favorite toy, such as a ball, or even a piece of fur.

In only a few outings, your dog will quickly "get it." The smell of a critter means hot dogs and play! Critter smells are FUN to follow.

Now you have a dog that follows scent trails. Be aware, however, that your dog may not be too discerning and may end up following any type of animal scent they find in the woods. In fact that is not a problem for a working terrier, and most fox hounds are not trained beyond this point either. But they can be.

To do that you need to get the dog to follow fox and never follow raccoon. The instruction here is simple: one type of smell is "good" and the other type of smell is "bad".

How do you do that?

With several kinds of pee. After your dog is following fox pee well, start making some "false trails" with raccon pee. Make sure your dog never finds food when it follows a raccoon scent, but always finds food at the end of a fox scent.

Do that often enough, and your dog may stop responding to raccoon scent at all, choosing instead to only follow fox. This is what is called "extinguishing" a behavior in operant conditioning.

A note of caution here, however. Is a few rounds of extinguishing going to stop a dog from having all interest in the smell of raccoons?

No, probably not.

The reason for this is that animal scent reaches deep into the hidden recesses of the canine brain. Scent is one of the most powerful of canine stimuli.

Because scents are such a powerful stimulus for a dog, there is a very real chance that even if there is no known "payoff" at the end, your dog will still want to follow a raccoon scent at least some of the time. If your dog does that often enough, he or she will eventually find a live raccoon at the other end of the trail, and a live raccoon is a massive "jackpot" reward for any dog. It is the very definition of FUN on four legs. Big problem.

So what can you do, right at the start, to make sure your dog never follows raccoon scent?

The answer is that you get the dog to associate raccoon smell with a negative consequence -- a hard "whoa" on a check cord, or a small tap on an e-collar.

If either correction is used on a dog that has previously learned that raccoon scent never means food at the end of the trail, the dog is very likely to stay on the straight and narrow rather quickly, and you will end up with a dedicated fox hound.

Now, are you looking for a simple summary of what I have presented here?

If so, the good news is that the 2010 Bill Boatman catalogue has a nice short training summary, which I have clipped out just for you. Enjoy!

Of course, none of this will stop the lazy and incompetent from wanting their fox pens. These are the guys with one or two dogs, who have no horse, and who have no access to land because they have never gone out and gone door to door at farms.

They have not trained their dogs at all -- they keep them in a kennel behind the house and pretty much ignore them 50 weeks out of the year.

In short these folks are just like the pay-and-shoot bird gunners who take their shotgun and barely trained birds dog out to some place where a fellow releases a few chickens pheasant out into a field to be blasted by the pay-to-shoot guy an hour or two later. We're hunting now! Look at my excellent bird dog.

Of course this is how they hunt birds in England, isn't it? If you are going to import a non-native tropical bird to hunt, like a pheasant, then you are going to have to stock them. You cannot release them into the wild to thrive on their own, any more than you can let a chicken "return to the wild".

But a fox? No, not even in England would they think to put a fox in a big pen with a hound and call it hunting. Or training. Or anything but a fat slob, without the proper tools, trying to do a job on the cheap that he should not have started to begin with.



Jacob said...

Not my method, but the method I will use to train my next rabbit hound. This is the method used by the beagle breeder and best rabbit man I know.

In April take your puppy in your arms to where the rabbits are out on the grass. Point the puppy toward the rabbit and walk up until the bunny jumps. Soon the puppy will notice and get excited. At that point you can put the puppy down before the rabbit jumps. The puppy will jump the rabbit and begin to track. Once that happens you jump the rabbits first, without the puppy, then bring it around and let it follow on it's own. He has used this method for a LONG time and swears you can have you dog ready by hunting season by starting them this way. According to my friend the beagle pup never needs to find anything at the end of the trail. It will track it's whole life without ever finding something at the end.The only reason for a rabbit pen would be if you have enough rabbits to hunt, but not enough to be reasonably assured of a couple of trails each time early on. A made dog can come up empty a couple of times in a row, but a new dog needs consistent success to establish the pattern

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time I mentioned having recently purchaded some "Red Fox urine." The folks I was speaking to got the idea I said "Redd Foxx urine." "How long has been dead?" they asked, "where did they store it?"

Of topic, I know.

But my main point is they asked a lot of questions before getting to "why?"

Jacob said...

There is a place for pens in training. If you have enough game to hunt, but not enough to get consistent work for a young dog. Same as with a hawk. When I get a young hawk I spend a ton of time driving around looking for a squirrel in a lone tree with no holes and few leaves left. Then the bird and I work that squirrel until it bails out of the tree and the hawk gets a nice easy ground shot and a lesson on the value of working with the falconer. If I can't find a good slip, I will not hesitate to put a squirrel in a perfect tree. This is not hunting, it is training. You will never hunt well with an untrained bird or dog. If you want a beagle to drive a rabbit all afternoon it needs to learn on real rabbits, not a urine soaked drag. If you don't have enough rabbits to train your dog you use a pen. Again this is not hunting, nor does anyone I know call it hunting, it is training.

PBurns said...

Jacob, do you think hunting a fox or coyote with 12 hounds in a 100 acre pen where the fox or coyote is ultimately pinned in a corner and ripped apart is hunting? I don't. But here's the video: Is this hunting?

And since when were trophies part of hunting? Or "training"?

And if this is not a canned hunt, why do they need an unending number of replacement fox and coyote?

This is a canned hunt, pure and simple, and it is a shame to legitimate sportsmen, including houndsmen in this country and around the world. Hunting has not guarantees. This is the first rule of hunting.


Jenn said...

Hm. There are some questions on how they treat the animals they collect urine from... but that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

Slightly off from _that_ topic... I work in an interior design firm. One of the designers came up with a neat wallpaper - all the threads running the length of the paper are horsehair. I asked her where it was made, stating that it probably wasn't in the US. She looked and said, yes, it was. I said, that must mean it was assembled here, for surely they don't get all that horsehair in the US. She asked why? I told it was because all the horse slaughter houses are in Canada and Mexico, since the US banned horse slaughter. She turned green and left her desk.

It's amazing how much people just don't want to know. Don't want to think about. And yes, I do have a bit of an evil streak. This time I didn't know what I was doing until after it was done, but still. She turned green. Oops.