John Rice - Resident Tracking Expert

IT ALL STARTED WHEN. . .

In May 1993, John Rice attended a dog training seminar taught by Suzanne Clothier in Naperville, Illinois. Little did he know that by enrolling his K-9 police dog, a Golden Retriever named Molson, in the seminar that he would ultimately end up having to explain who he was on an Internet Webpage, or that he would end up marrying the speaker or buy a farm in upstate NY in 1998! But then, life is funny that way.

How John got from that seminar to this website is a long story. But here's the important facts for those wondering why they should buy a booklet on tracking, take private tracking lessons, or attend a tracking seminar from a man who has not bothered to put an AKC tracking title on his own dogs (yet).

DOGS ARE FASTER!

In 1981, Forest Ranger John Rice assisted in a lengthy (12 hour) foot search for a lost person. After 11 1/2 hours, some bright fellow in administration finally decided to call in the local K-9 Search & Rescue Unit - Illini SAR. One half-hour later, the dog handlers informed the weary searchers that the lost party had gotten in a car and left the area - which indeed, as it turns out, they had. The efficiency of a K-9 search unit was not lost on Ranger Rice, who had spent and would spend many hours of his life searching for people in trouble.

In 1982, John acquired his first canine partner - a Golden Retriever named MacIntosh. Mac went on to such fame as a Search & Rescue dog that when he died in October of 1995, the Chicago Tribune ran his obituary, complete with some of his accomplishments. Whatever you may learn from John Rice's teachings, know that they came directly from the very deep soul of a truly great dog - John just listened carefully and tried to put it into words for folks not lucky enough to have Mac as their partner.

John and Mac joined Illini SAR and was encouraged by a grand old lady - Marge Kantak, and a superb tracking instructor & judge - Ted Hoesel (now the AKC's first VST judge). Both challenged John to master the most difficult lesson of all for any handler who wishes to work with a dog in the realm of scent - to trust his dog, to read his dog, and to learn about the world of scent in all its endless variables. 

A SAR IS BORN

By 1986, John had formed a K-9 SAR/Police Unit for his boss - the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, IL. Consisting of himself and one other handler, the unit quickly boasted 3 dogs, all Golden Retrievers, and all skilled in: tracking, trailing, airscenting (specific & non-specific), evidence, cadaver, water & building searches (and certified by the North American Police Work Dog Association). Tracking judge Ted Hoesel, asked to evaluate the unit in 1990, was stunned to learn that these dogs had proficiency in each of the scent work styles, and that this had been accomplished in 2 hour weekly training sessions using only the two handlers and an occasional "victim" they could con into participating. His comment? "This isn't possible - you can't teach scent specific tracking using only two people!" Fortunately, no one had informed the dogs of this.

From 1986 to his early retirement in 1995, this all Golden unit was the brunt of many jokes from other police units who took pride in their Bloodhounds, German Shepherds & Rottweilers. This led to some amusing moments, such as the search for a shallow grave where a policeman commented that they should have called in "real dogs, like the ones who were on the Brown's Fried Chicken case [where the dogs were searching for dismembered body parts]." He was then politely informed that these sweet, occasionally goofy Goldens were those "real dogs.".

REAL LIFE TRACKING 101

These Goldens, trained using John's intuitive methods rather than the traditional approaches, were often called in to do what traditionally trained dogs could not - a reflection not on the other dogs, but on how they were trained. Long before Variable Surface Tracking was even a glimmer in the AKC's eye, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County's K-9 unit was tracking through suburban landscapes, handling pavement, gravel, weird conditions & distractions with ease. 

In one incident, Molson (a MacIntosh daughter) tracked a perpetrator from the scene of a crime back to his own yard and then "informed" John (through her body language) that the perp had left in a car a few hours earlier. She did this using the perp's shoe as a scent article, on a track that was nearly 30 hours old, well over a mile long, and that crossed through yards, streets - even a four lane highway. Amazing? Not really. Simply a well trained dog using her God given gifts to their utmost. (Just one more note: after John told the police what Molson had "told" him, the police then informed John that indeed, the perp had left from that very spot a few hours earlier - when they arrested him and put him in the squad car! They only wanted the track run to add to their evidence against the guy.)

WHAT - NO TITLES?

While we realize that few things are as upsetting to some folks as a trainer who claims expertise in a field without benefit on an AKC title, the facts are that John's dogs and dogs he has trained, have far exceeded the demands of any AKC tracking event. If you doubt that, consider this - the typical start (and we use the word loosely) of a Search & Rescue track:

  • It is 2 AM on a cold, rainy night
  • You and your dog are pulled from a deep sleep with no warning
  • The "scent article" has been handled by several people before being handed to you OR
  • Your scent article is the driver's side door handle on a car, or the driver's seat, or a shirt button, or nothing at all
  • 50 well meaning searchers have been combing & re-combing your track area for hours
  • The "start" is believed to be somewhere in a half-mile stretch of roadside
  • The direction of the first leg is believed to be X, though it may also be A, Q or Z
  • Your track may cover any kind of terrain possible, including rivers, impassable 8 foot fences, swamps, landfills, interstate highways and backyards containing hostile
  • resident dogs
  • There may be no "end" to your track - your subject just keeps moving, or gets in a car, or is actually no where near the area and is sipping coffee in MacDonald's a few miles away

Do dogs track successfully under these conditions? Yes. Every day, across the country, highly trained K-9's work under such conditions.

SEARCH WORK VS. COMPETITIVE TRACKING

There are, for some reason, a lot of folks in the tracking community who feel that Search & Rescue tracking has little or no bearing on AKC or Schutzhund tracking, and persist in their old fashioned methods which are simply not used in SAR training. 

Perhaps some of this arises from the misconception that all SAR dogs work as "airscenting" dogs. This is not true. Under a variety of conditions, airscenting is highly ineffective and/or dangerous, and ideally, a search dog can then switch gears to the tracking mode. Of course, even within the SAR community there persists a notion that an airscenting dog can't be trained to track or vice versa. When pressed, trainers who spout this will often admit that this is a limitation of the handler and the training method, not the dog. As explained in Following Ghosts, all dogs are capable of tracking, trailing and airscenting, and do all 3 every day many, many times depending on which style of scenting is most expedient under the given conditions.


Commonsense would seem to tell you that the method that created dogs who can track under the bizarre and variable conditions of a search would also be effective for the relatively simple TD, TDX and VST tracks. Further, it would seem also commonsense that the folks who know the most about the world of scent and how dogs work with it would be the folks who put their lives on the line using those skills - the K-9 SAR handlers.

After all, tracking is tracking. Period. The only difference between a SAR track and an AKC track or Schutzhund track is a matter of style, and the rules applied to the dog's tracking. SAR work allows the dog great latitude in how he does his job, and no one is standing around gasping because the dog lifted his head from a footstep or cut a corner. Teaching the precision required and desired by Schutzhund tracking, and to a much lesser degree AKC tracking, is simply a matter of shaping the dog's tracking style, and is the responsibility of the handler.

There is one point in which we will agree with the AKC tracking folks - the methods SAR trainers use are not as effective with AKC tracking fans for one very serious reason - SAR training requires a deep, trusting relationship between dog and handler, and not one that is bought or created through the use of hot dog slices carefully placed. In fact, the relationship between dog and handler is the critical factor - without it, SAR work is simply not possible.

Today, retired from police work and the Forest Preserve, John Rice teaches tracking using the philosophies learned from the real tracking experts - the dogs, and helping handlers understand the complexities of scent and giving his now famous "safety in tracking" presentation where he shows just how dangerous a tracking line can be when it's wrapped around your ankles and a Bullmastiff takes off at a gallop.?? 

So, if you'd like to learn a little about the tracking philosophies & methods of a man AKC's first VST judge Ted Hoesel called "one of three or four people in this country who actually understand tracking," take a good look at John Rice's Following Ghosts. A whole new world of tracking awaits you and your dog.

John Rice is available for private tracking lessons, as well as tracking seminars for SAR or tracking groups. Please contact us for more information.