Owning a nervous dog can be hard work. It can not only be distressing, but also isolating for you and your dog. The opportunity to join in with classes or meet other dog owners can be difficult. When building confidence in your dog we want to create positive experiences for them, and encourage them to want to investigate new things. These are built into the very essence of mantrailing.
Mantrailing is teaching your dog to find a specific person’s scent. All dogs are born being able to use their nose so what we’re teaching them isn’t anything new to them. But instead we are just directing their natural talent into a confidence building game using the power of scent, which allows your dog to work naturally in a fun way.
The olfactory bulb in your dogs brain, which processes scents takes up 1/8th of the dogs whole brain. This is why the dogs sense of smell is the their most prominent sense. The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system which is the part of the brain which deals with emotions, memory and behaviour. Scent passes through this when being processed by the brain, it also travels to the cortex which deals with conscious thought.
Positive associations with scent allow the brain to release endorphins and serotonin. These hormones allow the dog to feel good about what they are doing, and these positive memories are brought to the forethought as they work on the scent again. The scent informs the dogs about the good things, but it also forewarns about the bad. Smells last for a lifetime in the memory of dogs and if we can build positive associations with a specific scent there is a huge foundation to work with.
Dogs can even distinguish the direction of travel of the scent, as well as time passed and the individual’s scent.
Another way mantrailing helps your dog become more confident and overcome their fears, is there always an exciting reward waiting at the end of the trail. This reward and its presentation is individual to each dog. They are able to work as an individual and make choices about how close they want to approach the person or not, we don’t want to create a conflict in the dog about going over to the person.
On introduction courses we can use people the dogs know as their trail layer for the first trail, and then from there we transition onto unknown trail layers when the dog is comfortable and knows the game. These unknown trailer layer do not have to interact with the dog at all and just become the scent to follow in order to get to the prize at the end, be that the food, or a toy. Surprisingly many dogs that initially show avoidance towards the trail layer will start warming up to them after a few trails, and want to investigate them as they have a positive experience with them and are not put into a contradictive situation.
As mantrailing is a dog sport where dogs are worked one at a time, it is ideal for those dogs who are worried about other dogs. Once they get into the task, they often become oblivious to the things around them and they can start to ignore other dogs, or things that would normally frighten or distract them. It can help them get past some fears by indirectly exposing the dog to them. Mantrailing helps create a shift in priorities for your dog from looking for danger, to following the scent. They are less likely to react to things that may trigger them normally.
If we use a toy as a reward, we have to make sure that we choose and instruct a trail layer that is capable of presenting or playing with the toy to ensure that we have the best reward possible for the dog. The sheer existence of the toy is often not enough for the dog, it needs to be interactive in a way that is positive for the dog.
If we use food as our reward, we want it to be licked out of the pot. Licking for dogs has been scientifically proven to release endorphins, the hormone linked to the feeling of happiness in dogs.
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Blog by Kathryn Jones, Mantrailing UK Head Instructor