USA Judge Floyd Wilson was the honored judge for the FH competition at the 1999 North American Schutzhund 1, 2, 3, FH, and WPO Championship in Gatlinburg, Tennessee May 4-9, 1999. I had the opportunity to observe Judge Wilson on the tracking field on several occasions, and I was struck by the easy-going, yet polished and professional manner in which he put competitors at ease as they embarked on their championship tracks. Following are excerpts from an interview with Judge Wilson in Gatlinburg, where he shares his observations about the FH tracking at this event and speaks to the characteristics and habits of successful national competitors.
MK: Floyd, during the FH tracking competition on Wednesday you asked me to make sure to mention in our online coverage that the FH tracking conditions were some of the most challenging you had ever seen. What were the conditions of this particular FH competition that set it apart from others that you have judged?
FW: The tracking conditions for the FH were probably the worst conditions that I have seen in the annual FH championship. I can't remember if there were any worse. But that is what an FH is all about, this is for the master tracking dogs. I feel personally if you expect to find pristine conditions, you shouldn't find them in the testing of FH dogs.
First of all, the conditions that were presented included a rainstorm -- a very heavy rainstorm that continued through the first flight. The problem with that was the grass was from knee high to waist high. Winds were very heavy, and a lot of the grass was beaten down by the heavy rains which made it virtually impossible to walk. What you didn't see, under the grass, was water. And mud and ditches. And when you hit the hole, it was like falling through a trap door. It was extremely difficult just to walk.
Another condition was sparse vegetation. And then you had, with the sparse vegetation, mud. Then you had ditches full of water, drainage ditches that you couldn't see. Now the length of the tracks was long. The dog had to be in extremely good condition to maneuver these tracks. The dog itself could be tracking on mud and then through the water throughout the entire track. This lasted pretty much throughout the entire FH competition.
Somewhere around 1:00 or 2:00, in Gortex rainwear, the heat became very evident. It became extremely hot with heavy humidity. This presented some problems. Then the wind picked up with the heat, and the wind then presented an additional set of problems.
The roads that the dogs had to cross were extremely muddy, and in order to get spectators from point A to point B, we had to use four wheel vehicles which kept the roads churned up around the fields. This presented additional problems because not only was this the road they had to cross on their track, it was also the road that we had to use to transport dog handlers, track layers, and spectators just to get to the spot to track. That pretty much described the conditions.
MK: I know that while I was out in those fields, I was concerned about the overnight rainstorm and the flash flooding, and the possibility that the cottonmouths and rattlesnakes might be flushed out and onto higher ground.
FW: We did have a little snake watch out there. In fact, during SchH3 tracks, one of the tracklayers actually stepped on a snake on the turn; he had to re-lay the track. I am assuming it was a black snake, he was buried in the mud. I assume it was a black snake from the description that the tracklayer made. This area itself is known for copperhead snakes and rattlesnakes. This I think some of our people knew, and they were a little skeptical about going out and exposing themselves to snakes.
MK: There were several people out on the fields at the crack of dawn in the middle of a severe thunderstorm and torrential downpour laying tracks for the FH competition. Those must have been challenging conditions for them as well.
FW: We had some excellent track layers. In fact all of the track layers presented good tracks. Gary Hanrahan being one of the most prominent, and Stephen George, Bill Vandenburg, just to name a few. Our cross track layers were ladies widely known in the Schutzhund world: Kathy Jobe and Barbara Daly. Believe it or not, this is Kathy's first experience with FH. And she assured me that this was not for her; but I would like to say that our two cross track layers did an excellent job. Not a single dog took the first cross track.
We had a variety of articles. Speaking of the Beanie Babies, as most of you or many of you know, we sent out an alert on the web sites and on the Internet asking for people to send us their Beanie Babies. You know what they sent? Beanie Babies! Some of them put little notes on them and that was one of the articles. The wooden article was bamboo, about four inches long. That came out of the judge's backyard. I wanted the handlers to have something from the judge. So the bamboo article came from the judge. Then we had Paul Horton make up little leather pouches. Each pouch contained a small bottle of Jack Daniels. This is what the state of Tennessee is famous for. And the plastic article was a small guitar, so people would think of Nashville. I actually had a couple of handlers, in order to break the tension, who pressed a little button on the guitar and played a little tune for us. That pretty much summarizes the articles and what we tried to do was to give it the "Tennessee flavor." Things associated with Tennessee. Because we are right in the heart of country music here. I think the handlers and the dogs enjoyed the articles; at least there didn't appear to be as much tension as you normally see, and they enjoyed finding them out there. I don't think any article presented any problems for these dogs.
MK: You have spoken about the environmental conditions of the FH tracks. What conditions are conducive to a successful performance by the dogs?
FW: These dogs had to track a long ways. And in order to do that, they had to have extremely good condition. Not only body wise, and physical wise, but nose wise. And some of course were a little bit more in condition than others. Which again is very evident in the scores. The co-champions with 93 points appeared to be in excellent physical condition. So if a person is interested in doing the FH, then they should make sure that their dog stays in good condition. Generally speaking, older mature dogs have more success in the FH than the younger, more hectic dogs. The older dogs' attention span and work ethic is in the favor of the FH.
The handlers have to be very sure of their dog. Otherwise, they will make many handler errors. Such as not trusting your dog, not following the dog, or thinking the dog is wrong. Instructions given prior to the track were to just let the dog do the work. Those that did had good scores, and those that did not, well, they did not let the dog do the work, and they were either penalized by point deductions or they caused a great deal of frustration in the dog.
MK: What advice and recommendations would you give the handler who hopes to compete at the 2000 USA FH Championship?
FW: In preparing for an FH, I would make sure that the dog is well trained in dirt, grass -- all types of grass -- short and high. All types of dirt which may be reflected as either "moon dust", plowed fine dirt, etc. I would make sure that the dog could track at least a 500 pace straight leg. I would look for variety and the number of different types of articles. Develop scent discrimination, which also seems to be the downfall of people trying to do the FH.
Also very important is to find out where the FH is going to be; it may be in Austin, Texas, which I understand has fire ants and in some ways moon dust. Heat, humidity -- look for conditions around you to begin with where you may devise your tracking scheme. This is really fundamental planning. When you find the answers to all of this, then you should take every effort to expose your animal to these conditions. Otherwise, in my own honest opinion, we would be wasting a lot of time by being over confident thinking that your dog can track when it never really been prepared.
MK: We've talked about conditioning the dog. How would one go about conditioning the handler for the FH?
FW: The handler plays a very important role in the overall success in the FH. The handler must be mentally alert, and must be disciplined, patient, and be prepared to help the dog and guide the dog throughout training and trialing. I would advise anyone to enter as many FHs as you could in order to make this kind of preparation. Training is one thing -- actual conditions are another thing. And I would try to do it under as many judges as possible. So I would suggest that the handler make a notebook and keep notes of all things that he or she does with their training scheme. What impressed me so much at this FH was the demeanor that the winners presented. And the coolness of their actions. They never gave the dog any help, they followed the dog, they let the dog do the work, and they did not panic when the dog got into trouble. A good example would be one of the handlers whose dog came up on the road, and then it was down and through a ditch with much water running through it, and the article was on the other side. The dog had some problem in the ditch crossing, going in, coming out, tight circles. And the handler let the dog do the work, work it out, and when the dog finally made a decision what to do, it was really a work of art to see the dog when he committed himself to go across and complete the mission and platz the article, in a straight and perfect manner.
MK: One observes that participants in Schutzhund often place less emphasis on training and preparation for the tracking phase than they do on protection or obedience. Why do you believe this is so?
FW: I believe that a successful dog trainer must devote as much attention to the three disciplines in order to be a success. In America -- and I can not speak of other countries -- but in America the big thing is protection. We spend many, many hours in protection. We are now spending much more time in obedience. Unfortunately, we think the dog is a natural for tracking -- which he is, but really tracking is nothing more than obedience. The dog was born to track, but we as the handler must train the dog to do what we want the dog to do, which in Schutzhund is basically to track footprint to footprint in a slow methodical way. And if they train in this manner, then more than likely that will keep the dog slowed down. So one must determine what their priorities are. When I first started in Schutzhund, I thought that protection was the only thing. We did enough obedience to get us by, and we only did tracking when we had to. As a consequence, I and others found ourselves with failing total scores. Simply because we had neglected one of the disciplines, basically tracking. So my philosophy changed -- I was going to work real hard to pass tracking because I thought it was useless to pass protection with one hundred points, and pass obedience with a passing score, and then fail tracking. And as a consequence, the whole trial. Once I rearranged my thinking, I think my scores speak for themselves.
When I go out, I think that my dog will score 100 points each and every time they go tracking. If I can establish my tracking score, then I feel that maybe it will help me in obedience and in protection, and my objective is to be high in trial. That means you have got to have a good scores all the way across the board. Many times, I have relied on my tracking scores to pull up maybe a low obedience score. Then, if you are dividing three phases into all of the scores and you have made pretty much the same all across the board, you will be high in trial. If that's not what your objectives are, to my way of thinking, then I don't know what to tell you -- I can't help you.
As a judge, let me reflect on the handlers. Basically, I think one of the things that the handlers have very little knowledge of is the rule book. They go on hearsay, or they go on shortcuts, or what some professional trainer has told them. But it is real simple -- all they have to do is order a rule book and study the thing. The rules address the proper conduct of a handler reporting in. Which is, the dog always is in the basic position. Unfortunately, many handlers do not pay much attention to this detail. But if a dog is wandering all over the place and they try to present the dog in a stand position or Lord knows what else, that is also a reflection on the training of this animal. Stop and think about it a little bit. All of the top handlers that I know of pay excellent attention to detail. All are very astute in the way that they report in this basic position. They are upright, they know what they are going to say, they shake hands, they follow instructions, and they are not afraid that the dog is going to embarrass them. If the dog does embarrass them, it is their fault because they didn't teach them any better. I might add that not only does the judge have to be in somewhat good condition, the handler has to be in somewhat good condition. And we all expect the dog to be in excellent condition. So I would say, don't demand more of your dog in this phase than you are willing to put up for yourself.
MK: I watched you spend day after day out in some very challenging conditions in increasing heat and humidity; for the Schutzhund 3 tracks, you and Bobbie [Floyd's wife] were hiking uphill and downhill and cross-hill for hours on end. How do you find the energy and stamina to contend with the physical demands and the mental demands of observing and judging such a large entry over a period of so many days?
FW: I myself as a judge try to stay focused intently before I go to an event. I focus many hours on this event. I block out all interferences in my daily living. I try to maintain an exercise program, a physical conditioning program. I do a lot of walking, running, exercise, and more especially as I near a trial, especially a national event, I increase my tempo; so when I appear on the scene as a judge, I want to be in the best condition that I can get myself into in order to do the best job possible. I do not think a tired person can do a capable job. Therefore, I strive to require of myself the same rules that I apply to everybod else. And I try to lead a disciplined life.
The question was, how do I maintain the strength and the stamina. Most people don't understand that I played college football, I coached football for quite some time, and in order to be a successful coach, one must be willing to sacrifice and establish a work ethic if they are going to win. If they are not going to win, then they are in the wrong profession, because the boosters' club is going to get rid of you and you're going to go hungry. When I talk about these things, it's not fairy tale talk -- it's just that I have had the good experience, and the fortunate experience, of being exposed to people who guided me and generated enthusiasm and gave me the work ethic that I try to relay to others now. A person who comes to my mind -- people say, well, why does this particular handler keep winning all the time with different dogs, at different times, at different events? Not only at the local level, regional level, national level and world level? Well, I would say it's his work ethic. The person I am speaking of is Gary Hanrahan. Who probably has the best work ethic and discipline ethic of any dog handler in this country, and maybe the world. This opinion has been formed over the last 20 years. Gary is an excellent role model for young handlers and young trainers. And of course, there are others out there -- but this is the one that comes to my mind because I have lived close to him, I have worked with him, and I can remember when we all were just learning together. Some of us took different courses or avenues in our approach to things. I became a judge, Gary became a world competitor. This is the only reason I am saying this -- we were speaking of work ethic. If you're not devoted, if you don't have the work ethic, don't expect things to come your way.
MK: What image or memory of the 1999 FH Championship in Gatlinburg will always stay with you -- the one thing that sets this competition apart from all the others you have participated in or judged?
FW: In confining my remarks to this FH held in Tennessee, I will fondly remember the conditions --- the horrible conditions -- the handlers and the dogs encountered, and the camaraderie that came out of this. I would say some years ago, when I was in the North American, there were about ten of us who developed the same camaraderie. And I fondly remember them, and all the little anecdotes about each of them. I can reflect back on each and every track that I can visualize as I am talking at this moment, and where they were, how they reacted, what they did. These are the things that stay with you. I think that I would like to say that the handlers themselves -- most of them show an excellent work ethic. This FH was not for the feint of heart! If you want to spend your time complaining about all the conditions and all the things that happened, then you were certainly at the wrong place at the right time. I believe that what I just said is a reflection of my personality and my work ethic -- that I have nothing but admiration for what I consider probably the most challenging FH that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. In fact, I would rate it with the FH 2, for which I am proud to say that my dog Zorro still possesses the highest score in the nation, 99 points. And to this day, I can still see where Judge Mike Hamilton took the point that also took away the 100. I strive for 100 points. And I will not be happy until I get the 100 points. This is a goal that I think all handlers should strive for, and I think that if these people who showed in this FH would continue their work ethic with the pal or dog that they have working for them now, it would indeed be a noble achievement.