Monday, November 12, 2012


by James Craig Green

You might think from the title this is about two unrelated subjects, but both are about applied philosophy. In short, I learned some of the most useful philosophy of my life from Bruce Lee and the Basset Hounds and other dogs my late wife Kay and I trained over more than a quarter-century training dogs together.

Kay and I got our first Basset Hound in 1972 as a pet for the kids. But, like heroin, we ended up with as many as eight at one time, and a total of more than 20 dogs, maybe as many as 25. When Kay died of cancer in 1998, we had but one dog, a Basset, left, as we had already decided to get out of most dog activities.

In about 1976 or so, we joined a tracking training class taught by our friend Carole-Joy Evert, a neighbor in Littleton, Colorado where our kids grew up. Tracking is a sport that contains some of the elements of search and rescue, such as dogs following human scent in the field by using their superior sense of smell to hunt. A couple of years earlier, Kay had taken two or three of our Bassets to obedience class, and got very interested in that activity as a sport by the American Kennel Club (AKC).

In both obedience and tracking, we found an extreme amount of dogma in dog training experts who had never trained a stubborn hound before. One obedience trainer, who had Doberman Pinscers, kept saying "this will work, I guarantee it," as each and every thing he tried failed. It didn't take Kay long to find trainers/teachers who knew something about the hound temperament. Scenthounds like Basset Hounds were bred to hunt together in packs, but not to be micromanaged in their behavior like some herding breeds, for example. Most dog trainers at the time practiced behavior modification, which is a very rigid, mechanical method to reinforcing specific behaviors by reward and punishment. It works best with dogs who are very willing to please their masters. Unfortunately, most Basset Hounds are anarchists - which drives many dog trainers almost crazy. But, Kay and I loved their independent sprirt and the challenge of treating them as living, thinking equals instead of slaves or robots.

To make a long story short, in both sports (obedience and tracking) we found that positive reinforcement worked better than punishment, but especially in tracking. After an insightful 1977 seminar with Glen Johnson, a famous Canadian tracking judge, trainer and teacher, we began to branch out on our own.

One of the first things we learned is that Johnson's rigid approach, which worked with his German Shepherds and other high energy, obedient dogs, didn't work for the hounds. Through trial and error, we learned that our hounds were easily distracted, and didn't like finding the articles like gloves and scarves on the track. Although we changed some of his teaching, as long as we trained tracking dogs, we continued to apply many lessons taught to us by Glen Johnson.

So, we revamped our whole approach to tracking and other dog training activities...


Bruce Lee, the famous martial artist and movie star, was born in 1940, which on the Chinese calendar was the year of the dragon. The calendar recycles a dozen animals to represent ancient Chinese beliefs that people born in particular years are supposed to have certain personality traits in common. Although I studied Tai Chi and many western philosophies for many years, I never thought about any connection between philosophy and dog training. I forget when but one day, a light bulb went off in my head connecting Bruce Lee's experience breaking from the traditional, dogmatic, never-changing beliefs of ancient martial arts with my dog training experience.

In Bruce Lee's famous 1973 film "Enter the Dragon," he used the movie to explain his philosophy of life - including his radical new approach to martial arts - to both western and oriental audiences. After being a fan of Bruce Lee for years, it finally dawned on me that his break from the rigid, dogmatic religion that was ancient Chinese martial arts was similar to what Kay and I had discovered in our dog training. Our approach involves constant change in response to every new reality, as opposed to following some grand plan months after it has repeatedly failed to achieve our goals.

After training tracking dogs for several years with limited success, we essentially started all over again from scratch, because the never-changing, dogmatic beliefs we were taught didn't work for our dogs. So, we came up with a new philosophy - which I call "Small Successful Steps." Although our Canadian tracking mentor Glen Johnson had inspired us with many new ideas in 1977 when we took his two-day seminar in Golden, Colorado, we hadn't yet connected all the dots.

Like Bruce Lee's break with the traditional, dogmatic approach to martial arts, we broke with tradition and decided to train week-to-week instead of following the same plan for several weeks. As with learning any skill, sometimes what you expect the dog to do and what he actually does are very different. Many of my friends in the tracking community seemed to rigidly apply their dogma on how to train a dog the same way over and over again, without effectively correcting mistakes soon enough. Kay and I learned that our dogs began improving by leaps and bounds, once we decided not to apply the same old rigid program week-to-week and month-to-month. Our great breakthrough was listening to our dog telling us what worked, and what didn't.

Essentially, our training approach evolved into changing the training plan after every training sesson, if necessary. Unlike the rigid plans made weeks ahead of time, which often resulted in dogs getting more and more frustrated week after week with their escalating failures, our new plan included observing and correcting small problems immediately before progressing to the next step. This often meant GOING BACK to an earlier phase of training where the dog was having success, and then working slowly through the problem until it had been solved. Many of my friends failed dozens of tracking tests without ever passing, for their unwillingness to change their training approach. But, most of my friends who stayed with the sport for more than a few years eventually learned some variation of what I am describing, though some breeds have to be trained differently than others.

Hounds and Terriers, for example, are often very stubborn, and don't give a damn what you want. Unlike Border Collies, some German Shepard and other working/herding dogs, they were not bred to require constant instructions from their human handlers to do their job. For example, if you've ever watched a Border Collie herding trial, you will see the dog lives on frequently-changing commands, by whistle, voice or arm motions, to change their behavior instantly. In other words, they work like robots. This is exactly what a sheepherder wants to control flocks of sheep, but different breeds have different skillsets resulting from different breeding and training goals. Owning a Border Collie was one of the delights of my life, as they are exciting, energetic, and always moving. I used to say "The difference between night and day is not enough to describe the difference between a Border Collie and Basset Hound." But, Basset Hounds and some other breeds were not selected for obeying their owners, so much as working to solve problems on their own. Therefore, in our experience training Bassets in tracking, we learned that "Less is More."


When Kay and I learned to LET THE DOG TRAIN US, rather than impose our desires by force from the top down, our success in tracking dog training exploded. Each week, we would evaluate the dog's performance, determine if we should do something different, and make changes if necessary before the next training session. Sounds simple, but not if you've been taught that you have to do the same thing over, and over, and over... no matter what. Sometimes, if we decide we have a frustration or temperament problem, the best approach is to not track for a while, maybe even several weeks. I recently applied this appoach to helping my old friend Carol Makowski in Boulder, Colorado with her Basset bitch Crystal. We had trained intensively last spring, and we both thought Crystal was ready to pass a tracking test. But, she failed two or three tests, so we took a summer break. This fall, with minimal training over about three or four training sessions, Crystal earned her TD title with a motivated, near-perfect performance! Less really WAS more!

Below are links for the tracking articles I wrote over six years as the Tracking Columnist for TALLY HO, the Basset Hound Club of America monthly magazine. I stopped training dogs after Kay died, but continued to judge tracking tests for many years, retiring from that sport in 2009.

My TALLY HO training articles (some co-authored by Kay) over six years are listed below.

(The last three summarize our philosophy from a quarter-century of dog training):

Craig's Dog Tracking Articles

"Simplify - eliminate the non-essential"
--Bruce Lee

November 2012

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