I explained to her that search dogs can do that sort of thing, but that my dogs were not trained for that specific task. My dogs are presented with a scent article, at the point that the missing dog was last seen, and then we start tracking the scent trail. I thought about it for a while, and I decided the best way to present the challenge to Tino would be to set it up like any other search, except we would work the trail backwards. We would start where the fur was found, and track to where it came from, if we could. Since the scent trail was 20 days old, the scent going backwards would be 20 days minus one second at the next point, so, virtually no different. I told Ted’s owner that I didn’t think it would work. The oldest documented scent trail ever worked by a search dog was 13 days old. I have Googled for older scent trails successfully worked by a credible search dog, and I haven’t found any record of such an event. This was a slightly different situation. If it was Ted’s fur, there might be a distinct scent trail from the point where the fur was found, going back to Ted’s house. To make it a fair test, I wouldn’t know where Ted lived, so I couldn’t steer my dog, either consciously or unconsciously. While the scent trail was 20 days old, a week older than the oldest documented successful search, another complication was that Ted would have been carried in the coyote’s mouth, not touching the ground. For these reasons, and because we had never done such a thing before, I told Ted’s person that I didn’t think it would work, but we could try if she wanted us to. She said she did want to give it a try so she could have more certainty that the found fur was Ted’s.
We started at 6 AM. It was cool and cloudy. Relatively cool, anyway, about 59 degrees, which was warmer than Tino’s comfort zone. I figured it wouldn’t be a long scent trail in any event, so he wouldn’t overheat too much. I brought Tino to the pile of fur on the ground. He examined it more thoroughly than he normally does, and he immediately took off at a gallop around the tennis courts and toward the soccer field. He turned into a neighborhood and went about twenty feet, but then he turned to look back at me, his “negative” signal, showing that he had run out of scent. He came back to the edge of the soccer field and followed it around, beside the woods. Tino led me down a trail, and right to the fence of Ted’s yard. I didn’t know in advance where Ted lived, and Tino could have followed the scent any direction, 360 degrees. Or Tino might not have been able to follow the scent at all. That Tino tracked it right to Ted’s yard was a very strong indicator that Ted had been taken by a coyote, who had jumped the fence into the yard and then jumped back out.
This search work by Tino seemed to settle it pretty conclusively, and the owner felt assured that she knew what happened to Ted, and that the fur she found wasn’t from some other pet. I raised the possibility that Tino had been tracking her footsteps, due to some scent contamination, but she never walked there, so we could rule that out. In spite of the enormous challenge of following a scent trail 20 days old, where the lost dog had been carried above the ground, Tino followed it swiftly and with conviction. Watching him work, there couldn’t be much doubt that he followed the correct trail. I was very proud of him. Although Ted’s mom was very sad about the finality of knowing he was really gone, she really appreciated Tino’s skill and drive. She gave him a bowl of water and some special treats.
Walking back to the car, Tino found a stray tennis ball near the courts, and he brought it to me to throw. I tossed it for him several times, as a reward for his good work. I am always proud of Tino, and I would be even if he wasn’t a working dog. When he does amazing things like he did today, it makes me feel very lucky to be able to share a life with such an magnificent creature.