The long read…Trust your dog

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Scout. Trainee border collie search dog.

Experienced handlers say that training a dog is as much about trust as anything else.

I’ve asked Paul to walk down a footpath for 200 paces then go right into woodland for 100 paces and lay down. Scout strains at the lead, knowing that the game is on; I let him off and tell him to “go find”. He barks and does his little dance and I tell him to “get on” before he shoots off making ever-larger circles searching for the scent cone of Paul, occasionally blasting past me on his next orbit as we work our way through the woodland.

Suddenly Scout disappears into undergrowth. I stay on the path listening to his falconry bell as it jingles through the bracken. Then it stops. Silence. Eventually the jingle starts again and I see bracken moving as Scout makes his way back to me. He reaches the path and looks around, spots me and heads with purpose towards me as he gets close he barks then immediately turns around and heads back the same way. I have learned that heading back the same way means he has found a person. I follow him as the woodland engulfs him till eventually I am standing by the side of Paul. I give Paul the reward command and he pops up with Scouts toy and has a game of tug, this is Scouts reward and as he plays I tell him what a great dog he is and let Paul know where to go next.

Minutes later Scout and I are heading for a logging track that winds through the forest. Paul will be hiding at it’s top end and I want to approach from the bottom to extend the amount of time for searching. Scout is ahead and I watch him closely looking for any sign that he has found a trace of Paul. He turns sharp right into trees, when I get to the place there is no sight of him. I stand on the track and wait. Minutes pass and nothing. I have told Paul to hide on my left, but Scout is on the right. I whistle for Scout to return. A minute passes then I hear the bell and soon Scout is heading to me. But it’s with a purpose, the look on his face says he has found Paul, but that cannot be right, it’s the wrong area. He barks telling me he has found. I hedge my bets and tell him to get on and he heads straight back along the same line eventually leading me to a tree, but no Paul. There is nothing here I tell him. He looks up, so do I. Nothing. I start to move back to the track 400m away. He refuses to follow, looking at me in a serious way I have not seen before, he barks again, telling me he has found then heads back to the tree. He keeps looking up or at least I think that’s what he is doing. I look around.

There is a fallen tree nearby and a wide gully with a thin stream running down and thick bracken and the outline of the upturned roots of a tree on the opposite bank. A smooth breeze slips straight through us from across the gully. There is nothing else here so I make him reluctantly head back to the track and continue the search. We pass the point where I expect Paul to be and Scout has no interest. It dawns on me that Paul is not here and that the curve in the track I told him about is not this one but the one higher up.

We reach the right curve and head down the adjacent track. Scout runs straight to the bottom then returns and indicates, but it’s half-hearted and I suspect there is nothing there. When I reach him he is down a gully drinking from a stream and I call him out, knowing we have gone too far. I start to work back. The wind is blowing from my right heading for the direction of where Paul should be. Scout is on the wrong side of the wind so will not be able to detect Paul’s scent. Then I see Scout turn sharp left and head into the bracken; I follow him through flattened leaves realising Scout is on Paul’s ground scent. Scout comes back and indicates and in another 50m and I am there with Paul.

As they play I look around. It’s a good spot beneath a huge root ball from an upturned tree, well hidden in the bracken. Downwind is a gully with a small stream and across the gully woodland. As I am looking at this Paul tells me he thought we had him 30 minutes a go when we were the other side of the gully.

What do you mean I ask?

He tells me he heard me saying to Scout that there was nothing there and he points to a fallen tree across the gully. It’s then I realise where I am. We are across from the tree that Scout took me to earlier; it’s less than 20 meters away. It all starts to fit in to place. I realise Scout wasn’t looking up; he was pointing his nose up in the air to catch Paul’s scent. And when he went down to the stream he was picking Paul’s scent up as it drifted down on the water.

I’m stunned. Scout had Paul 30 minutes ago that’s why he would not leave the tree, he was telling me there was something there, that’s where the body was. I think about this and I know I am the weak link in the team. Trust your dog they say.

Later that evening I think about what happened. I’m amazed at Scout and how good he is and I’m disappointed in my performance how my actions let the team down. It is a massive learning experience.