Trial by Trail

The second in our string of tests is the Trail test.

Where the open field is really a chance to see if the canine will work, how the canine will work, and if they do it with their nose; the trail problem gives the evaluator a better feel for how the handler and canine work as a team. There’s distractions in the woods that you don’t get with the open field, so there’s some time spent asking yourself

“what’s that smell?”

More on that later.

Back in college I remember being at the bar one night with some friends when one of them came up to me and said

“You better leave money on the table because Scott’s Ex just walked in and things are about to happen very quickly.”

This is exactly how we walk into a search.

Once you’re there, things happen quickly, so if there’s anything you need to take care of, it needs to happen before you get your task. With this in mind, I stopped before we got to the meeting place and let Grom take care of his personal business while I checked my pack, put batteries in my flashlight and put my gaiters on. Once I was sure we had everything in order he went back into the crate and we drove to the meeting place.

When we get to the meeting place, I see my evaluator/escort sitting at a picnic table just waiting for me.

The scenario for this test was not unlike the first test in that I ask a lot of questions that have answers like “we don’t know.” and “that’s a very good question.” But my task is pretty simple.  This is to be a “Hasty Trail” task, which means that speed takes precedence. The trail is about a mile and a half long and we’re responsible for covering the trail and 100 feet off of either side.

Armed with as much information as I’m going to get out of my bemused evaluator; I look at the map to get an impression of what I think the wind will be doing on the trail given the topography and time of day and weather. The only real search strategy I can make up on my own is knowing where I’m at while I’m there and what the wind is going to do at any given point on the trail.

“Base, this is Team Grom…..”

At the head of the trail I take his lead off and we get our game faces on. Staring down this trail I know that it’s going to be at least a mile down there before things get interesting and when I let him go he’s 100 feet down the trail before I have the lead around my neck, he’s such a good dog.

This is Grom’s second test, and we run problems like this quite often so he’s got a lot of practice.  I watch the dog, watch the clock, and check the wind. Plus I’m looking for clues on my own.  Within the first quarter mile, we come to a little bridge that goes over a small fresh water stream where Grom has decided something interesting has happened.

He as gone down into the creek bed and doesn’t seem to show any interest in the fact that I’m getting ready to walk away. I take this as a hint, wander down to where he’s standing beside some fallen trees and take a look around at the small pool and large mud puddle only to find…..nothing. This is where I start to ask myself “what’s that smell?” except only the dog can smell it and he’s not sharing, so I talk myself into thinking that he’s into a critter smell.

I would later discover that this is the first of two clues that I almost walk almost directly on and completely fail to see. Luckily it’s not my nose that’s being tested.

So it’s back down the trail for the three of us,

Grom leading the way and at least 100 feet on either side because he’s showing off how fast and far he can run. But this is the part of the game he loves, and I let him take as much space and time as he wants while still keeping up a decent pace. It’s been 30 minutes and it’s time for a radio check. I put on my navigation hat and tell my evaluator where I think we are based on the streams and the trails and the topography. As I’m giving him my Best Guess, I see his eyes flash over my shoulders two or three times and when I’m done with my speech I turn around and see the trail sign behind me and say

“or I could just read the sign and tell base what it says on there…..”

At least I get a laugh from him.  I take a minute to make sure that Grom is not over heating and has a drink of water, which he’s getting plenty of out of the stream.

The rest of trail covers the stream bank .

Grom loves to run through the water. I’m happy to see him working the stream and investigating places that I can’t see. He’s a dog in his element, running the banks, looking in bushes, and going down beaver slides like he’s got a flat tail. The first quarter mile of this has pretty steep hills going to the stream so I’m pretty sure he’s going to catch what ever scent is up hill and I let him run it. He finds a nice stand of thickets on the banks and disappears into it .I can’t see him at all but I know he’s working something. I look to my evaluator for some kind of hidden signal and all he says is “maddening isn’t it?”

After a couple minutes I decide he’s either not into the subject or we’re just going to have to come back to it and see if Sally, my lost biker is actually in there. We mark the area with some flagging tape and press on down the trail.

This is where the topography starts to flatten out  on the side away from the stream and I’m seeing lots of fallen trees and flat places that would be perfect to lay in hiding. But Grom is still working the stream and the bank. I’m starting to get frustrated because my pace count beads are telling me that we’re into the area of the trail were things should be getting interesting. I’m staring into bushes hoping to find one of my two clues. I’m checking into places where I see Grom showing interest. I’m checking the wind. Mostly though,

I’m thinking that I’m going to miss the subject because my partner is playing in the water.

So I call Grom up on to the bank where we can do another call out and I can restart him. This has always given him a little extra motivation and seems to focus him. And it does exactly that– he dives directly back into the stream bed and runs along the sand bar in the middle of the stream. I just keep turning around and looking into the nice wide flats with lots of trees that I’m certain contain my subject. It’s been a quarter mile since we got into this terrain and I’m starting to do the time calculations on how long it’s going to take to cover this on the way back once we turn around at the end of the assigned amount of trail, something that’s not only allowed, but is actually the prescribed way you work a trail if you haven’t found anything.

That’s when I see him shoot out of the stream bed with his ears high and his tail straight.

I am beyond talking this out with my evaluator at this moment because Grom has spent the past half mile messing around in the water and I don’t want to turn around empty handed. So I have a brief problem solving session with myself. ” He’s into something, but he’s so distracted by the water he’s not focusing on it. I need to point him up hill and restart him.”

Trust your dog, and try not to embarrass him.

Set on my plan I call him back to me, and like a good dog he listens to me and comes back, but hesitantly. I do a call out , point him in the direction I know she’s laying, and give him the sign to get to work.  The next part happens very fast. He takes two steps in the direction I pointed him and then makes a sharp right and dives back down the bank and across a sand bar. I make the mental note to teach him the difference between right and left and decide we’re going to have to hit the flats on the way back so I just start walking down the trail.  I see him stopped behind a fallen tree laying down in the middle of the stream, staring at


Then that something moves and he sticks his nose into it and bolts back up across the nice dry sand bar and up the bank to stand right in front of me. That’s when he gives me the three barks I’ve been waiting for the whole hike. It’s like he’s yelling in my face,


As he’s taking me to her, he leads me through a giant puddle of mud that he clears in one bound, and I sink up to my knee in.

As I throw the toy to my subject so she can give Grom his play reward I can feel the mud squishing into my boot under the gaiter. My subject looks at me and says

“That’s what you get for not listening to your dog the first time.”

-Editor's note:  Yes, they passed.

2 Responses to “Trial by Trail”

  1. YEA! Congrats, everyone!

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