Dog leads master on winning track

OLYMPIA: Duo nabs prestigious title from American Kennel Club

April 4, 2011 


    Tracking is a canine sport that demonstrates a dog's natural ability to recognize and follow a scent and is the foundation of canine search and rescue work. In tests, articles with a known scent are laid by a tracklayer up to five hours beforehand; tracks can range from 440 to 1,000 yards long. Tracks also can have up to eight turns and include cross tracks meant to divert scent. There are three levels of tracking titles through the American Kennel Club; the final level – variable surface tracking – takes place in an urban, public setting with vegetation, streets and buildings.

    Source: American Kennel Club

OLYMPIA - With his nose bobbing between the grass and the air, Ethan, a 7-year-old Manchester terrier, spent part of his Sunday morning scouring the Capitol Campus intent on finding a scent he’s been trained to identify.

Holding a red leash that provided enough slack for the 21-pound dog to do his work, owner and trainer Nikki King provided encouragement along the way.

“Go find,” she said as Ethan’s claws clicked across the street near the Legislative Building. “He’s right smack on.”

Terriers, bred to hunt rats and other vermin, aren’t traditionally known to be tracking dogs, but don’t tell that to Ethan and King, a duo that just made history by obtaining the most coveted tracking title awarded by the American Kennel Club.

After years of hard work and a few letdowns, Ethan and King completed the last leg of the tracking titles in March, an urban track at the campus of the University of Portland. With the title, Ethan becomes the eighth terrier since 1995 to achieve all three titles and the only Manchester terrier to be named champion tracker, King said.

It was a proud moment for King, 70, who has been training Ethan since 2004 and has been tracking since the late 1980s after an obedience judge saw her dog sniffing around and told her to get involved.

The passion and love for tracking comes down to the companionship she feels with her dogs.

All five of her dogs track, including a young Schipperke who got its first tracking title at 10 months old, though she admits the breed has the “attention span of a gnat.”

Success is nothing new for King, who has bred or owned dogs who have received local and national awards for obedience and tracking.

“It’s doing something together, and it is what the dog is able to do on its own without me telling them what to do,” she said.

She remembers the days when Ethan was a shy, unmotivated dog and how training began with a line of treats.

“I don’t know what made him so good,” she said, adding, “He just loved it.”

Initial tracking training requires owners working the dog up to five times a week. Once the dog is trained, sessions cut back to about once a week, King said.

As Ethan worked his way to finding the glove, crushed pop can and oven mitt placed across the campus Sunday, King talked about the friendly world of tracking and how each title gets more complex.

Tracking is all about letting the dog work, King said, adding that handlers often are dealt the title “dope on a rope” because tracking is mostly up to the dog. King blames herself for many of the team’s struggles to get to the top, saying she didn’t let Ethan do enough of the work.

Ethan received his first title in February 2005 and followed that up with the dog-tracking excellence title on his first try.

Getting the variable-surface tracking title was a bit more time-consuming.

The team failed the highest level about a dozen times before finally nailing it last month. During the 460-yard track in Portland, a tree fell down a few yards from the track, creating quite a scene that included an ambulance, onlookers and a dog that “gave Ethan the evil eye.” Unfazed, Ethan worked around the distractions and got back on the scent.

Sunday’s track through the Capitol Campus began several hours earlier when King placed several articles with her scent around the area. The tracking is considered variable surface or urban tracking because King and Ethan followed a track that lead through grass and concrete, around buildings and near other people and animals.

“He’s picking up all kinds of smells,” she said, adding that smells are often pulled in by buildings, doors and other man-made structures, oftentimes throwing off a scent.

And though Ethan’s nose may now be in rarefied territory, he still has his weaknesses: squirrels.

“It’s really hard to train for squirrels,” King said with a laugh.

Now that Ethan is a champion tracker, he is eligible for a national competition. But King said the chances of getting drawn for the chance to compete are slim.

Nate Hulings: 360-754-5476

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