For a dog, the act of following a scent trail upon command is a very different behavior than that of following one during hunting. It’s a learned behavior that cues the dog to act in an independent manner and not interdependently with the handler.

It’s a cue and behavior that I’ll be working with Kona on over the next couple of weeks, and I’ll be laying scent trails all over the place as is described in the video above by Dan Hosford. Trailing was something I was worried about with Kona at our last NAHRA test, but wasn’t something I trained on during the two-week hiatus before this week’s test. This past weekend it came back to bite us in the butt.

While Kona nailed the sit-to-flush, which we thoroughly trained during the last couple of weeks (including walk-through sits at heel, flushed pigeons in the field and obedience drills in the fight pen with birds flying and walking directly in his face), when we moved from the upland exercise of quartering and flushing he was still in hunt mode and we didn’t have cue cemented in his psyche that told him to stop hunting and start following the scent without regard to my distance.

As a dog that has done quite a bit of pheasant hunting, Kona keeps my location in mind and works as a team (most of the time anyway). When we’re afield and looking for a cripple, he’s either in hot pursuit or we’re both working the cover for the downed bird.

His “dead bird” command holds him tight to the immediate cover and if he scents the bird he can track it down. In the hunting field when he gets on scent I’m usually following behind in case a follow up shot is required. In the NAHRA test, however, you show the dog the start of the trail and then he’s on his own.

You can encourage him to follow, but you can’t give hand signals or walk with him. Most trails take a turn or two and can stretch anywhere from a short 20 yards to 100 yards or more. Where Kona and I often run into trouble is that he picks up the scent and tries to puzzle it out but when I encourage him with a “dead bird” he stops and starts working the cover for more indications. If I use his “where’s the birds, get ’em up” command, he thinks it’s time to hunt and starts to quarter the trail eventually stopping and waiting for me to catch up into gun range. When I don’t follow, he returns to me.

This past weekend the trail had broken down on Saturday morning and redrage in a different location was fair and Kona followed it. On Sunday, however, he was all messed up. Coming straight off the quarter and sit-to-flush exercise he was still in hunt mode and never even showed an indication of understanding what I was asking him to do. It was a very fair judgement to be disqualified.

So, our next couple of weeks will be filled with trailing, as well as sit to flush, marking, blinds and water work. When you get down to it, trailing is probably the easiest thing for the single trainer to work on alone, yet it’s something that is often ignored for sexier things like technical marks, blinds and the like.

But that folly won’t happen again. I’ll be dragging a dead duck through the sagebrush and fields surrounding me every day from now on! Check out the above video to see how best to lay a trail and teach a dog to use his nose independently of the handler.

As I can attest however, use a separate command to initiate the behavior and after the dog starts getting good at it, make sure to train it with other dogs and people so he gets used to the multitude of scents and tracks laid.