Right to Peak by Dr. Miles Arakaki
“No Name” was a young male pit bull mix who had been dropped off at our kennel by the local Sheriff’s deputies. He had been found abandoned and tied to a tree, and the deputies felt sorry for him. Rather than sending him to the animal shelter and the possibility of euthanasia, they told us, “He seems like a good boy, maybe he can be trained as a working dog”. The little guy sat inactive for a week before the head trainer decided to test drive him. At the time, we were training a group of dogs in tracking, and one day “No Name” made the list of individuals heading out to the field.
We train dogs to track for reward, a tennis ball, and as a prerequisite, the dog has to want to chase the ball. This desire to chase is commonly referred to as “Prey drive”. The dog sees a moving object (prey) and instinctively chases it with the innate goal of catching it for food. Some people use the term “Ball drive” but I prefer “prey” because the dog will not just chase balls, but any moving object that resembles fleeing prey. A dog’s response to “prey” is as varied as the individual, and based on the level of drive, we can start shaping behaviors to future working tasks. For scent detection or tracking work, the simple ball-chasing game turns into a ball-finding one, in which the “prey” is hidden in tall grass or a pile of rubble, and Prey drive transitions to Hunt drive. Hunt drive is the dog’s desire to actively search for an object he can no longer see. A great working dog will search all day, while a poorer candidate will get frustrated easily and quit. By pairing the “prey” toy with specific odors (i.e. narcotics, explosives, or human scent), the dog learns to discriminate the specific scent that will lead to reward versus other environmental distractors.
A handler tossed a tennis ball, and “No Name” sat there in confusion, his head swiveling back and forth between the people standing over him. He had failed the prerequisite. Handlers’ eyes rolled, and the head trainer sighed at the thought of having to figure out the fate of this young dog with limited prospects as a working animal.
I had seen this before, and I turned to a fellow trainer, “Hey, get the squeaker toy from my truck.” There was a rumbling from the crowd, and some looks that seemed to say, “Doc’s off on another wild scheme,” but I was certain. I HAD seen this before. . . with my own dog, Remo, who was displaying surprisingly strong tracking adeptness during the current training cycle. When I had first adopted Remo from the local shelter, I had tossed a ball, and he sat there with that same confused look. It wasn’t until years later when a military working dog trainer, SFC H. Franco, suggested I get a squeaker ball. I got the toy, and at the first squeak, his ears shot up, his body tensed with excitement, and the rest was history.
I imagine Remo and “No Name” shared very similar adolescences; a year of limited stimulus and neglect by their previous owners, their natural drives and behaviors smothered by inactivity and restraint. During their puppyhoods, they hadn’t been allowed to learn to play as normal dogs. The high pitched squeal from a dog toy awakened some inner drive that we would use to shape their behavior for work. In a previous post, I discussed the Yerkes-Dodson Law, and how an overexcited dog needs to drift left on the bell curve to reach peak performance. Remo and “No Name” represent an extreme example of the opposite end of the spectrum, and how increased stimulation pushes the individual right to the apex of performance. In their cases, stimulation was needed to bring out an innate drive, suppressed by their previous histories. The presence of “prey” drive does not guarantee they will progress to become reliable working dogs. Continued stimulation will eventually lead to a performance peak, after which their performance will decline. That level of peak performance may not be high enough to meet the standards of a good working dog, but the only way to find out is to walk down that road and see where it ends.
My fellow trainer retrieved a $2.00 stuffed squirrel from my truck. We squeaked the toy, teased “No Name” with it, and like Remo, he immediately became excited and pulled on the lead to get it. Riding the wave of sudden enthusiasm, we went straight into a “Fire Track”, a simple exercise for green dogs. With “No Name” held back on a 30-foot tracking line, I teased him with the squirrel and a tennis ball, then took off into the woods on a straight line for 50 meters before cutting into a hide behind a tree. The handler gave the dog the command to track, and he ran after me at full speed. He passed the tree I was hiding behind, and his head immediately lifted, and he slowed his pace. This was encouraging because it told us that he was actually using his nose on my scent rather than just his eyes. He waffled a bit, and I gave him a squeak on the toy as a hint. He zeroed on me and received his reward, the tennis ball, and a ton of praise. The head trainer followed, a big grin on his face, surprised and encouraged by the young dog’s initial performance.
We went into another Fire Track. I took off in a different direction, and after a 50 meter straight leg, threw a hard 90 degree turn for another 25 meters before tucking into a hide behind a bush. The turn is a big test to see if the dog will recognize it and follow. A dog who blows past the turn is not using his nose, and needs more rudimentary training to develop this skill. I heard the handler give the command, and anxiously peered through my hide to see how “No Name” would react to the turn. Moments later I saw his white stocky frame blazing down the first leg, and without hesitation cut hard left into the second leg at the turn. It was all I could do to prevent myself from jumping up and cheering, but I kept still and allowed the dog to finish the track. “No Name” came up on me, and landed in my lap. I rolled on my back and praised him as he chomped his prize, the tennis ball. He had a short tail that caused his entire body to wiggle as it wagged, and it was hard not to feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside watching this little guy on his victory parade back to the start point. On what was the best day of his life so far, everyone seemed pleased, and hopeful for the little dog found tied to a tree.