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Tracking dogs – Bill and Max

The two company tracker dogs, Bill and Max returned to Ingwelala from their module 1 & 2 training in Pretoria. 

The dogs are now a year old and have been taught to track human scent, and their job is to be a tracking aid to the Ntomeni Rangers when following suspects spoor.

The two tracking aids complement each other create a faster and more efficient tracking team. What typically may happen is that when suspects move through thick grass areas, the human tracker is slowed up as these grassy terrains are very challenging to track through. In addition the suspects will deploy anti tracking methods in these areas to create confusion and doubt to the tracker. Enter Bill or Max. Working one dog at a time to conserve their energy (and that of the poor handler!) the dog finds it very easy to track in thick grass or thick bush as there is so much vegetation that brushes against a human walking through these areas that the human scent remains active for a considerable period. The dogs track at a good speed (jogging pace) and will continue on the scent until the terrain changes once again and the human trackers can visually follow the spoor and take over again. Picture it like a team relay race, where the dogs and rangers exchange batons (which are the spoor) depending on the type of terrain.

So how does the dog know exactly what you asking it to do?

What happens in the field is what their training has conditioned them to do. Ordinary the dogs wear a regular neck collar and leash, but their signal to start working is the fitment of a body harness and removal of the regular collar. The harness has a 5 meter long leash which you rein in and out depending on the natures of the terrain. Thick bush, you work on a shorter rein, open grassland you work on a longer rein. The starting point is critical, this is where you ask the dog to follow a specific human scent, it can be identified where suspects sat on the ground working to remove solar panels from steel frames, or a decent spoor of the suspect imprinted on the ground. When the handler is certain the dog is aware of the identified spoor/scent you give the instruction to “search/find” in Afrikaans (“vooruit soek”) because these are such learned dogs and they are bilingual!

The handlers are Pieter and I, as you get more out of the dog if it bonds with one handler. The handler needs to understand and constantly interpret “his” dog’s behaviour on the trail. To see Bill and Max working is quite something as they have two very different personalities. Bill is slightly slower on the track, very thorough, and he is more definite in his signal if he loses the scent. Max is not as patient as Bill, he has a bigger ego, so when he drifts off the scent his signal is very subtle, it’s like he doesn’t want to be seen to make a mistake. How’s that loyalty for you? So the success depends on the team work and understanding between handler and dog. Very occasionally the dog may lose the scent, so you double back to your last positive reference point or range in a circle until he picks up the scent again. Believe me! you know exactly when he is back on the scent through the body language and mighty heaving on the leash.

The dogs are motivated through praise and encouragement whilst on the trail; it’s this excitement and acknowledgement that inspires them to please their masters. On locating their target they are smothered with praise and affection. On occasions there may even be some form of lip kissing, which is not terribly macho, and it has run up our personal deworming bills! O.K. - they also get a little treat, usually something that originates from a butchery.

Our handler “orientation” time to learn the tricks of the trade and bond with the dogs has been successful to date. Each training session has delivered, and no mock suspect has yet escaped the olfactory senses of the two German Pointers, for that is the breed of Bill and Max. They are shorthaired (for the heat in summer), have a breeding line of good noses and are slightly build so they can run a lot and develop good stamina. In the their training, and because they are natural gun dogs, the biggest challenge was getting them to constantly ignore wildlife and bird scents and to focus only on tracking human scent. The longest track they did on training was 16 kms. The longest period of scent lapse was 10 hours (10 hour old spoor). The dogs must never be asked to track any wildlife or birds, as this will instantly undo all the good work and progress.

Our gratitude is expressed to Henry and his team at K9 Security Solutions, who did an exceptional training job on Bill and Max. I can’t say if K9 Security felt the same way about training Pieter and me? – never did see any glowing reports or certification! Anyhow, after our handler training and evaluation, the professional trainer advised that Bill works with Pieter and Max works with me.

You may be thinking, why all this expenditure and effort to recover a few solar panels?

Well, crime generally escalates from one thing to the next, from small things to bigger things, from opportunistic timing to planned events. We should learn from history and past experience, and the solar theft remains ongoing. It will continue until either the panels are secured in a way that you can’t steal them or the law enforcement efforts are such that the risk of being caught are too high. Think practically of achieving the latter, the interim time frames and the cost of policing/patrolling a camp the size of Ingwelala. The costs are going to be huge, and ongoing. Securing the panels properly is the obvious choice. Personnel time and funds spent on security matters, is at this point all solar related. The new insurance rates on solar and their risk speak for themselves. Enjoy viewing a few pictures of Bill and Max and appreciating their academic achievements.

Pictures courtesy of K9 Security Solutions.


by John Llewellyn