"The Smell of Fear"... Or, "The Smell of Trials" Adrenaline and its impact on dogs
The topic of heeling, or lack of it at a test or trial has caused me to create a new topic. This is the smell of a trial - and why it has such a bearing on how our dogs behave at a trial.
How many times have you heard, or read that "Dogs can smell fear"? Do you believe it?
How many times have you observed, when you pulled your vehicle up to a test or trial in progress, that your dogs could sense it, immediately? How do you think they know it?
Here's my belief: If we were to take an experienced Field Trial or Hunt Test dog, who knows the excitement of fliers, live guns, Field Trial Poppers, marks, holding blinds, judges yelling "guns up", etc. and turn off their eyes and ears, they would KNOW they were at a Field Trial the moment we pulled the vehicle into the scent cone of the event. I'm totally convinced of it. If these dogs suddenly became deaf and blind, and were transported to a trial, they would KNOW it by scent alone.
A Field Trial atmosphere, to a dog, smells like a total soup of awesome scents that our dogs associate with the ecstasy of a Trial atmosphere. There's spent gunpowder and all that. But more importantly, there's the scent of adrenaline and other associated scents that other dogs AND their human counterparts, emit when they are under stress or excitement.
I've had the luxury and benefit over the past few years of training with, hanging out with and observing K9 Law Enforcement guys. Around here, these guys will use the same dog (frequently a Belgian Malanoit) for: bite work, substance detection, article search and tracking. These are all associated and similar tasks, yet with their own unique nuances that make them separate and require specific training.
One thing that these dogs learn quickly is how to smell "fear" or adrenaline in a "street" situation. It is likened to how our dogs quickly learn to discriminate between shot birds and non-shot birds, or how they quickly learn to associate awesomeness with the smell of a shot flyer station.
At first, I was confused as to how a trained tracking malanoit could walk through a crowded festival and track the scent of a badguy who just ran from a stolen car, through a huge group of people. How can this dog follow the scent of this one bad guy, while there are other people ALL OVER the place?
The reason, of course, is that this badguy is emitting all sorts of unique scents from his body that smell totally different from the calm, happy, innocent people that share the same space as him. Adrenaline, sweat, and other chemicals or hormonal secretions are all causing this bad guy to give off a scent that to a K9's nose, is like an olfactory neon sign!
I have no scientific proof and no studies to point to. But I believe it is logical and totally accurate that our dogs give off the same sorts of chemical scent signatures when they are excited, pumped up, charged go get a bird, etc. Not only that, but that crate of fliers...those stressed mallards that are getting popped at the flyer station...same deal. They are giving off all sorts of incredible scent. And to take it further, the nervous handlers who are stumbling, fumbling and trying to remember to breathe and not screw up....they too are giving off their own scent, much different from that of a calmer person training in a training atmosphere.
It is so hard, no matter how much we yell, play recordings, plant fake judges or put out holding blinds to truly mimic a trial atmosphere. A big reason for this is the scent of a trial.
I believe this is a major factor in the "Bohn Principle" that is being implemented by East Coast Trainer Randy Bohn to rehab maniac field trial dogs BACK into tractable field competitors - for the pro AND for their handler. The whole thing, I believe, is the maintenance of a standard in varied conditions. I read recently, as someone put it, that if a dog "gets away" with a behavior 3 times, we have just inadvertently trained that dog to do that behavior. This makes sense to me.
So if we allow an obedience standard to slip, in an atmosphere where there's a whole soup of scent, among other special situational differences between this setting and our more common standard training settings, we are essentially training that dog that the standard is out the window.
I don't have the answer. I think I have some clue. I think Field Trial settings, to a dog, are a neon sign of scent that can make their brains go haywire if we don't gradually introduce distractions while maintaining a standard. --- Easier said than done perhaps.
Good training, Chris