Topic: Tracking: Sometimes knowing nothing can be best!
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By SMI Chris Aycock


Simplicity is best!  Sometimes, knowing nothing is a benefit!


These are statements that were shared with me by the late, great, William Kohler.  I was fortunate enough to train with him in the earliest year of my K9 activity and I learned a huge amount from him but nothing has ever stood out more than these statements.  But what exactly do they mean?


Kohler made the statements in reference to me.  While I was learning K9 training/handling aspects, I was being taught my numerous sources and utilized many resources. It was quite confusing and, as a result, I struggled with some areas of K9.  However, in Miami Florida, 1984, I changed.


I was learning to track for the very first time. I was training my own dog (something I had not yet done) and was excited to learn from a true master. Following a long week of instruction and repetition, Kohler suggested that I try a blind search.  It was about a half mile and crossed two roads. Kohler followed me, riding in the back of a pickup truck – sitting in a chair like Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies.


My dog nailed the track!  When I returned the words out of Kohler’s mouth were…”Simplicity is best!” I responded “I’ve just been following him and trying to read him.”  Kohler clapped his hands (something he was known for) and said “Sometimes, knowing nothing is a benefit!”


Technically, what occurred, that which created the success I still employ today, is the simple concept of not leading the dog.  We all hear it.  I repeat it to handlers almost every hour.  DON’T LEAD THE DOG. LET HIM LEAD YOU.


In 2010 I began been working with a civilian dog handler named Audrey Estep.  No experience in law enforcement. Zero working dog experience.  She requested to enter a very difficult ASCT detection program, met the requirements, and attended the classes.  She did well and certified.


Fast forward to January 2011. 


Estep requested to enter the tracking program.  Now, seriously, detection is one thing.  The detection environment is static (still and closed).  Tracking is extremely fluid (broad and moving).  An inexperienced person often suffers greatly with tracking.  In fact, 90% of all handlers struggle with tracking even down the line in their careers.  And now, this civilian with little experience, wants to take that frustrating journey?  She was determined.


My first words to her were DON’T LEAD THE DOG, NO MATTER WHAT. 


I worked with Estep, taught her the basics, sciences, methods, troubleshooting actions, etc.  She listened and seemed to grasp the concepts…sort of.  I worked with her a couple days per week.  She had a training plan that required her to train a minimum of four times per week – two tracks each session.  Frankly, most handlers fail right there.  It takes determination and a serious drive to actually do the necessary work. I must say that I questioned if Estep had that drive, not because of her but rather because of what I have seen over the past 25 years.


Estep did train though.  It was apparent because during her training sessions I never saw her leading her dog.  In fact, she simply followed him and reported back to me on her findings, of his negatives and behavior changes.  If he tried to run off – she went with him until he finally gave a negative.  She learned from that. 


The main point of training is that the handler cannot lead.  If the dog begins to run off, forcing tracks in another direction, Etc., the handler must use the proper correction methods at the precise time.  And then, and only then, will those corrections work, allowing the handler to truly trust the dog.  Why does it work?  The dog has not ever developed a long-term memory that the handler will eventually guide (even slightly) to where the real track is.  The dog is responsible.  Next, the dog learns that if he gets too far off track (working the outer bands of scent) he will receive a serious correction.  At that point in training, the correction almost snaps the dog to attention, as opposed to shutting him down.  But it must be done correctly from the start!


Weeks later, Estep was ready.  She requested for and we issued blind searches, with and without known starts. Her K9 (Echo) nailed them!  Exceptional performance.  Keeping ratios, Estep was able to complete a 100% rate through 14 blind tracks, with exceedingly difficult levels. By the way, K9 Echo is only 1 year old.


Of course, there is always another handler who will not like those numbers.  And that too happened with Estep.  During a group session, another tracking handler decided to test her himself.  With my approval, he planned a track that would test the scent drift capabilities of Estep and her K9. The track was fair but did offer some super scent drift possibilities. 


Estep and the decoy returned from the track. I inquired as to whether K9 Echo found him or not.  The decoy (handler) smiled proudly, seemingly to have ended Esteps success run, and said “Well, she did and she didn’t.”  He continued “She didn’t exactly follow my track but she did find me.”


After reviewing the track with both the decoy and Estep, it was obvious that the K9 had followed the correct track, near point of scent, for more than half of the track.  At a road turn, the dog followed a strong, wind driven air scent, into a field which was also located on a relative down slope.  Near the point where the air scent would have faded, the K9 locked onto a direct air scent of the decoy, hiding on the far side of the same field. The dog worked the air scent and found the decoy. Successful! On the street, that is a capture.  Regardless of ground or air, the K9 found the quarry.  Once the decoy realized that the track was unquestionably successful, he decided to become more positive and praising of a job well done (I’ll talk about handler sabotage and trite jealousy in a near-future article).


Estep has certified in tracking.  Of course, perfect success never lasts for anyone and K9 Echo has indeed had a failed track.  But as with all exceptional handlers, Estep has troubleshot, planned, and worried over the situation enough, without becoming too dramatic, that her K9 continues to move forward.


The success of Audrey Estep is an example: Sometimes knowing nothing is a benefit!  She came in green, followed directions, didn’t guess or force anything.  Blindly, she made an excellent dog.  Now, she’s not so blind but rather can share her knowledge with others.





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