I get asked a lot about the need for runaway trails for new dogs and when do I stop them. Here was a recent answer to a new reader:
I use the term runaway or “fire trail”, both of those have been around for about 100 years or so and I just adopted them. A vet by the name of Leon Whitney wrote about this 1953 in his book, “Bloodhounds and How to Train Them”. Dr. Whitney was a very influential dog trainer and breeder before and after WWII and was a prolific writer for not only his book on bloodhounds and dog psychology but also in various magazines such as a 1937 issue of Popular Science. He was taught by a very famous handler at the turn of the last century, Capt. GV Mullikan. Mullikan was famous for many exploits probably the most significant being his constant tracking of the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. Mullikin is also credited with a 300 hour old trail but there is no verification of that it was actually trailing. I have serious reservations about this claim but mention it here because it is used so very much to profess the abilities of the bloodhound and further what I consider to be an urban myth. Even though I question the voracity of the age, Mullikan’s find and conviction rate is probably still one of the highest for a bloodhound handler. However, I digress.
I was taught about runaways when I first started by just about every one of my early trainers, the late Glenn Rimbey being probably the most influential and the biggest proponent of the process.
I now teach the fire trail but with my own spin on it. I mention the history here because I have heard some folks recently making claims that this is a “new” method of training or their “own method” when in reality it has probably been around since the first bloodhound was used to hunt people…so several hundred years. Frankly, what we do now is nothing more than a new spin on what a lot of people probably did long before we picked up a trailing lead.
I believe the basis for tracking and trailing is the excitement of the chase. It is the biological, mother nature given gift, given to all canids to help them hunt. Without the excitement and drive for the scent trail the dog could not survive and the “trailing” gene would probably disappear. I wrote an entire chapter on the process, Chapter 8 in K9 Trailing; The Straightest Path, that talks about the use of the fire trail to build the drive of the dog and establish the foundation for all future work.
So, to answer your question, I do runaways until the dog physically dies. From the day I get the pup to it’s last days, we do fire trails. I believe It is why the dog trails in the first place, what they enjoy the most, and they never get tired or bored with it. If they don’t like them to begin with, I really question the dogs’ trailing ability to begin with and usually pass such a dog over when testing. I have heard many trainers and especially handlers espouse the “fact” that veteran dogs will get bored or tired of runaways and it is the reason that their dogs won’t do them or react poorly to fresh, short trails. I honestly believe this is rationalization for dogs that probably aren’t too motivated to trail in the first place. It smacks more of human rationalization for a
flaw than anything else. In my experience, the runaway is the essence of trailing life and the dogs love it forever. To say a good trailing dog will get bored with a runaway is like saying a good detection dog will get bored with it ball. The runaway is the trigger and subsequent catch is the prize burned inedibly in the dogs brain synopsis.
My first trailing bloodhound, Ronin, was my sounding board for trailing. He tolerated all of my mistakes and really trained me in how to work and read a dog. He walked his last runaway of about 20 feet the day before he died. He was so happy about that runaway and the light in his eyes blazed with life and passion. For just a moment, he was an 12 week old puppy again. I knew then, more than ever, that the runaway was the reason for it all. The runaway is my tennis ball for all of our trailing dogs and I never end them.
Do I run fire trails with every training session? No, I believe in a variable reward training approach to increase drive and motivation while reducing the chances of handler cuing. But, I do them a lot and for the life of the dog.