Tracking for Beginners
Warning - NOT for the eyes of experienced Trialists
Let’s be honest; the first time you attempt to track with your dog it’s highly likely to be unproductive, confusing, possibly humiliating, and definitely boring.
The Tracking world is full of jargon and expressions like:~ “Cross wind”, “Down wind”, “Into the wind”. Then there’s “Body Scent”, (the mind rushes to dragging corpses) “Track Scent”, “Crushed Vegetation”, “Ground Disturbance”, “Deep Nose” (when I first heard that I thought it was a sexual practice). The list goes on - most of the terms are valid, but to a beginner baffling. Then we get to the things you as a beginner will have to decide on. Are you going to track for articles / toys or food?
Now come’s the first lesson. With an experienced helper guiding you, you are asked, “Have you brought your dog’s favourite toy?” Now a toy which interests the dog in the home may be less exciting when outside in a strange place. What usually happens is that you drag out Prince’s favourite toy, probably a squeaky frog (but the squeak has died). The helper says, “Get the dog interested, then.” You jump around like a cheerleader on drugs, but the dog hardly stops nibbling at the sheep droppings. The helper says “Come on, work at it!” You end up throwing and fetching the toy yourself, at which point the dog lies down and yawns. Your helper mutters something along the lines of “Oh, I can see its phobic about that toy.”
Your helper then suggests food, and asks if the dog’s been fed this morning. You say, “No, just a few Bonios.” The helper says, “Get your food.” You return after the trip back to the car with a small poly bag containing a couple of handfuls of his normal all-in-one food. You smile confidently, but notice your helper turns away with a grimace…
After much struggling, at the third attempt, you manage to get the tracking harness on the dog. You unravel the line. The helper comes forward, approaches the dog with a handful of food, and tries to interest the dog, which by now is sitting scratching at the harness. The helper finally gets a reaction from the dog which starts to move forward. You stagger after it, whereupon the helper aggressively says, “Stand still!” You do, but allow the dog to continue forward. The helper gets grumpy at this and says, “Restrain the bloody thing.” You give the dog a hard command to stay - it stays, but loses what bit of interest in the tracklayer it had.
After the abortive start the second attempt goes a bit better. By your third track the dog seems to be getting the idea. Your helper says “That’s enough for today.” You wander back towards the car bemused and wondering if ‘Heelwork to Music’ isn’t a better option.
So, you decide to try on your own. You go walking along a footpath on farmland; it’s grassland, there are no animals and no-one’s around. You tie your dog to the fence and lay a little track. By the time you’ve done three little straight legs you feel like you are getting there. As you are wandering back to where you left your lead, thinking it’s a bit like the blind leading the visually challenged, there’s a large man with a red face giving you a severe rollicking for trespassing and leaving the foot path. As you return despondently to your car you and think “Flyball seems a nice sport”
It doesn’t have to be like that.
There is a fascination in tracking that is not in any of the other dog sports. As you and the dog gradually begin to understand what you are trying to achieve, you will have highs where you will not be able to stop grinning at what the dogs achieved (how did he do that?). There will be times where it seems to go so wrong and on the day it goes really wrong you can bet you won’t remember your landmarks that you’ll end up nearly slashing your wrists, The fascination will drag you out the next day and all will be well. (I’ll let you into a secret - it happens to all of us, but with experience the lows won’t be quite so low, and the highs will be less high.)
From the competition point of view, being in a situation where you are in the middle of a field with no idea which way the track goes, means you are reliant on your dog in a unique way. The satisfaction of completing a big track is enormous.
So let’s look at the Jargon
Deep Nose: ~ the dog having its nose almost touching the floor. This is really only relevant to people doing Schutzhund. Most serious trialists are quite happy for the dog’s nose to be where the scent is.
Cross Wind: ~ the wind coming from right or left when you are facing along the track.
Down Wind: ~ the wind coming from directly behind.
Into the Wind: ~ the wind blowing into your face.
Body Scent: ~ the scent which falls from the body and clothes. This blows away after a period, depending on wind and ground conditions.
Track Scent, Crushed Vegetation: ~ scent created by the crushing effect of the tracklayers feet.
Ground Disturbance: ~ gases released when the ground is disturbed by the weight of the tracklayer, the imprint from the boots, etc.
Any other Jargon will be explained as required.
Now let’s take a logical look, and get you started in a positive manner. This might appear to be slow and boring, but going through the stages will move you towards your goal of having a good tracking dog quicker and more reliably than the less methodical approaches.
Teach the dog to except having the harness put on; practice in the house where you haven’t got the distraction of being out in the fields. Then you can learn to put the harness on the dog without having to stand there sheepishly looking at the harness, trying to work out how it fits, or struggle with the dog trying to put it on. Most dogs will have a shake when they start to move with the harness on - you will need to allow him to get used to the feel of it. If the dog is accustomed to the feel of wearing the harness it will be one less distraction the first time you attempt to start tracking. Learn how to roll up your line so you won’t have the embarrassment of foolishly trying to untangle it with your helper watching. (It will be much easier to keep your helper interested in helping you if you are obviously trying to get it right).
Spend time without a dog practicing using markers when tracklaying. When you have got the hang of it, lay a five or six leg track and use £1 coins as articles. Then re-walk the track an hour later and retrieve them (the £1 coins help you focus!)
At some time in your dog’s early tracking training, you will have to start thinking about getting the dog to indicate articles found on the track. An easy positive way to do this is away from the tracking field using plastic pots (I use film containers). Put titbits in a few containers and drop the food pot on the floor - this can be done at home or on a walk. Point at the food pot; when the dog sniffs it, give the command “Down.” When the dog lies down, give a “Wait” command, pick up the food pot, open it and while maintaining the dog’s down position, give the dog the treat by letting it take the food from the pot and your hand. After practicing this for a few days, when you drop the pot the dog should lie down without being told as a way of asking you for the treat. When you have this response you can change to placing food pots on the track.
Before your first session, get your dog motivated (there were two articles written on this subject last spring). Don’t Shortcut the Motivation work. The level of motivation will make all the difference between the dog learning to track and not.
Let’s assume you are going to track for food. Miss two meals (the dog, not you!) Not just a few biscuits for breakfast - NOTHING. And the food you take with you will need to be really tasty - chunks of meat not silly little titbits. The dog needs to know it’s being rewarded.
The First Track to the end of the third week.
Have the dog already harnessed up, the line clipped to the harness, and the lead on the collar, with you holding the lead. I like to use the wait command to keep the dog in position and focused - jumping about and screaming might look motivated, but it is usually just unfocused excitement. With the dog sitting calmly, get the tracklayer to show the dog the food, even let it lick it a bit. At this point someone usually says “No chance, my dog would just gobble it up.” Well, pretend you’re a dog trainer, and don’t let it. The tracklayer then backs away, leaving the start pole in place, leaving a bit of meat at the base of the pole, then shuffles backwards, leaving a food drop every pace or so; after about 20 paces he leaves 2 or 3 pieces of meat, then returns back along the track. As the track layer returns, he should avoid stepping on the food drops, and as he gets nearer also avoid eye contact with the dog. At the pole he should move away sideways and behind you, leaving the dog’s attention on the track. While the tracklayer is returning, take the lead off the dog and put it in your pocket or round your neck - it’s really easy to lose leads in this situation. Holding the tracking line in one hand, with the other hand point at the food drop at the pole; as the dog is eating move forward slightly, indicating the next food drop to the dog, and continue like this until the end. Repeat the whole process 3 or 4 times. If the dog seems to be catching on, increase the length of the tracks quite rapidly.
A point worth mentioning at this time is: ~ we don’t teach a dog to track; we put it in the position where it wants to learn. Using food and motivating the dog in this manner should be fairly straight forward. As the dog’s understanding increases, so should the distance between the food drops; the length of the track needs to be increased as rapidly as the dog can cope with; the longer tracks give the dog more time to learn. 3 or 4 tracks a session is about right at the start. If you can do five sessions a week for the first 3 weeks the dog will really be getting the idea.
Overview This bit’s going to have to be a bit vague.
At the start, probably the first 2 sessions, tracks laid ‘into the wind’ will help the dog realize that scent leads to the food drop. As soon as the dog gets the idea, the tracks should be laid ‘down wind’ (with the wind coming from behind). This will have the effect of making the dog’s nose move closer to the ground, as the scent is being blown away from the dog. The result of this will be to make the tracking much more accurate.
Within this period you should also change from double laid tracks (out and back in the same footprints) to single laid (lay the track and walk on and round back to the start). By the end of the 3rd week you should be doing tracks up to 200 paces long; this of course will depend on the individual dog.
During this period the dog will almost certainly start missing out food drops - by now there should only be 3 food drops in 200 paces, but the size of the last drop should have increased considerably. When the food drops are 50 paces apart, change over to using food pots as described earlier. When the dog reaches a food pot, give the command to “Down” in as non-interventional manner as possible and give the dog the treat from the pot while it’s still in the down.
Subsequent articles will cover teaching corners, ageing tracks, different surfaces etc.
Thanks for reading these articles. If you enjoyed them and want to learn more come on a course. Contact no 01623 482181.
Tracking for Beginners - Part 2
To recap from last month’s article: we have a dog which is tracking for 200 paces with only 3 food pots in the length. The dog should be lying down on the food pots with minimal commands, and holding the position while you open the pot and feed the dog.
The real work starts now.
There are three directions your training needs to go; experience of age, different surfaces, and wind directions. And you will need to be flexible in your thinking.
My goal, when I’m training a new dog, is to get its level of concentration and stamina up to being able to track a 400 pace leg, down wind, without lifting its head, losing attitude, or in any way having a rest. At this point, someone always says, “But I live in Derbyshire (or one of the other stock counties) we don’t have fields that big.” OK, that’s it then, there’s always room for another person in obedience.
Seriously though, just do the best you can. If you can get the dog to give you concentration that will carry it through three or four very long legs, the dog will have the mental reserves to complete a competition track, and still have enough life to complete a search square (not that you’re going to do a square after a training track). But later…….
While you are working towards this concentration and stamina, there will be the opportunities to increase the dogs experience in other ways.
Ageing the tracks.
With the dog watching, lay 2 tracks (as you are working down wind you will need to walk right back down the field before laying the second - a bind but doing a track back will mean tracking into the wind, which will let the dog become casual by removing the need to keep its nose down.)
By the time you have laid the 2 tracks, they will be 20 minutes old. Because the dog has watched they shouldn’t present any problems. Beginners now ask “should I take the harness off between the tracks?” Clinically speaking, yes. But I never bother; let the dog wear it between the tracks. I don’t get involved with throw games at this point as I want to keep the dog in a stable state of mind; getting it all silly and excited will not help you at the start of the next track.
(A thought for the future. Great tracking dogs start tracking at the pole; unwanted excitement at the start will cause the dog to rush away from the start pole, with the dog not getting into full concentration for many paces. And as you are training to get to the top, give some thought to the idea that short first legs and early articles in competition could cause serious problems for dogs which take a hundred yards to settle into the track.)
When you have got the dog doing three long tracks, start to leave the dog in the car. Lay 2 tracks, then fetch the dog, tie it up, and then lay a third track with the dog watching.
Track the one you laid last first, then the one laid second, second, and finally, the first track that was laid, track it last. (Note From this point on I will refer to what I have just described as reverse order tracking.)
There will be several useful effects from doing this. The dog will learn to track at varying ages from 10 minutes to over an hour, if the opportunity arises. You will be able to get the dog familiar with different surfaces, and it will learn to track when it hasn’t seen the track being laid.
Up until now virtually all the tracking will have been done with the wind coming from behind you, which makes the dog track accurately, but if the dog has achieved your goal of tracking for 400 paces without deviations or head lifting, we are ready to start cross wind tracking. Start by laying tracks, if possible, on a surface where you can see the track. The wind needs to be coming over one shoulder or the other. If the wind is coming from behind and right when you start, the dog will almost certainly drift to the left of the track; allow the dog a longer line to give it the opportunity to correct itself. If it continues to drift when it’s more than a few feet off the line of the track, stop moving yourself, but don’t stop the dog; let him take a bit more line. If this doesn’t cause him to relocate the track, gently encourage him back onto the track. When doing this there is a point which is worth a mention - a natural reaction when the dog wanders from the track, is to say “NO that’s not right” and point at the track. With most dogs this will cause a slight drop in attitude - when explaining this some handlers will arrogantly say “This dog’s so keen you won’t put him off”. Well let’s think about this. You’re going, over the next months or even years, to be tracking the dog three times a week. If you only lose ½ % of the dogs confidence each time, a year down the road, your drive will be poor and the tracking at best average. When we are tracking we are not teaching the dog about tracking - if we are sensible, what we do is put the dog in a position where it will want to learn. How I deal with the dog when, during its learning phase it wanders off track, is to tell it what to do, not what not to do. More on the lines off “Here it is, track on” rather than “No, that’s wrong”.
Note When you first start tracking in directions other than down wind you will probably find it disheartening, depressing, The dog might give you the impression that he can’t really track - don’t worry, it’s just part of the process. Most dogs appear to go through this. Ground and wind conditions will also make a big difference, and this is the point where you realize that your tracklaying skills are not what you thought they were.
When I was training my first tracking dog, for the first couple of months it just happened that there had been virtually no wind, and the ground I was using was lush grass, about a foot deep. Of course the dog was doing 2 hour old tracks, tracking round the corners - absolutely stunning. One morning I turned up to track as normal. My tracking fields were full of cows; the fields that they had been in were well grazed, with the grass of unequal length, tussocky in places, and with short grazed areas. Well, full of confidence, when I laid my track there were light coloured fence posts and plenty of markers, including some parked cars. I laid about 15 legs, with the thought I’d better be careful about markers. When I went to do the track later, I noticed it was quite blustery, and the wind was strong some of the time. I set out on the track; my ‘good tracking dog’ was all over the place, he seemed to be wandering about, going forward, losing it, re-finding the track. When I looked for my light coloured fence posts, I saw to my horror the sun was behind a cloud, so all the posts looked the same colour, and the parked cars had gone, so I was effectively clueless as to where the track went. However, the dog battled on, and having no idea what to do, I just went with him. He struggled on and eventually completed the track, getting most of the articles. I was almost suicidal; two months of solid tracking for nothing, first bit of a breeze and it’s all gone to pot. I saw my training pal that evening, and when I told him about the disaster, he asked about the track, which field, how windy - until he asked it had never entered my head.
(What a Pillock) My mate set me straight; I’d changed the dog from lush grass to short unevenly grazed grass, changed from tracking in almost still conditions to a seriously blustery day. And instead of knowing where the track went I had no idea. (On a foot of lush grass you can see the track) “You should be bloody grateful to the dog for carrying you, you changed three things at once and the dog still managed to do it. Instead of being suicidal, I should have been over the moon.”
There is a moral in this, “Be observant about conditions; only change one thing at a time; never blame the dog; cock-ups are almost always your fault.”
If you work steadily and consistently on long legs the dog will gradually learn to cope with cross wind. Although we are working on very long legs, (to give the dog time to build stamina and allow it to learn the skills required for cross wind tracking) by now we have the dog doing three reverse laid tracks of 400 paces. During this stage of allowing the dog to learn the skills required for cross wind tracking, it will be imperative to keep the dog highly motivated. A good way is to leave your hungry dog in the car and occasionally lay three tracks, of 20 paces, 50 paces, and 30 paces, with its favourite meal at the end of the final one. A dog which goes out with the expectation of doing three 400 pace legs and then finds itself with its favourite meal after only a few paces, will have a complete payday. I do this as often as necessary to keep the dog bright and keen.
Final thought for this month; if a dog that is a very experienced and accomplished tracking dog is jaded and bored, it will be beaten by a keen youngster that really wants to do it.
Next month: Changing surfaces and corners.
Thanks for reading these articles. If you enjoyed them and want to learn more come on a course. Contact no 01623 482181.
Tracking for Beginners - Part 3
Surfaces and Corners
However even and perfect a field looks, there are likely to be good bits, bad bits, wet bits, dry bits, areas where the animals have been extra active. In truth it is rare to have a field that is truly even. On arable tractors have to turn, seed drills miss, maybe the shape of a wood at the side of the field has caused wind burn.
When we are talking about training the dog on different surfaces we are not only meaning grass - grazed or silage, plough - rough or rolled, stubble - grown through or sterile. (I don’t know whether that’s the right term, but it’s ground where the crop has been weed-killed to death.)
Sounds complex, but what it’s all about is your observational skills. When you are laying training tracks there are very few constraints; you come to a bare patch you stop short - nobody in their right mind walks through standing water, do they?
Well the answer to that is, in training you don’t have to. But the tracklayer at a trial will have to work to a pattern, and while most judges build into their patterns room for small adjustments, the pattern still needs to be adhered to. So at a trial, you could be tracking along happily when you come to an area of standing water, or ground where the cattle have been standing a few days before. You can deal with this in three ways: - you can fail the track by pulling the dog off; you can let the dog work and lose the track because the dog hasn’t the skill to cope; or you can prepare your dog for changing surfaces before you start trialling.
In the first two cases, the option then is to go to the judge and moan about the ground. If you do this forcibly enough, you will probably be informed that it’s the luck of the draw, or that all the fields are the same. This will have another hidden effect; you will have gained a name for being a bad loser, and you certainly will not get another track; asking for one will only cause the judge some mirth.
It follows that the best option is to prepare your dog for changing surfaces before you start trialling.
Get to know your training fields! It seems obvious, but there will be patches where you have game tracks; areas round cattle troughs where the stock have cut it up badly; low lying areas which will go boggy after a shower or two. When you are looking at fields, you’ll notice changes in the colour and texture of the grass - this usually gives a warning of changing ground conditions beneath the grass. When the cattle are out of the fields, gates will be left open; make all these features part of your training tracks. If you are lucky enough to have some arable to train on, cross on to the grass margins around the edges of the fields. A good way to familiarize your dog with different surfaces is to do reverse order tracking (see last article). If your long straight legs go across bad areas, scrub your feet as you lay the track over the bad ground, then place an article/food pot a few paces the other side, so the dog is rewarded for working through the problem.
When you first start tracking on crop, i.e.; ~ wheat, barley, or even reseeded grass, you will notice the crop has a grain (the line where the seed drill set the crop). Round the edges of the field will be what is called the headland; the grain here will follow the hedges. In this area the crop will often be thicker and denser than in the open field. This is because the tractor, when sowing the crop, had to turn at each end. When the bulk of the field has been sown, the tractor will have gone round the edge to seed over its turning areas. The extra growth is caused by the double seeding.
With this in mind, do your first few crop tracks along the grain of the crop. The dog will convert to this very easily, and tracking directly across the crop will only be marginally more difficult.
The real difficulty with crop comes when tracking diagonally across the corn, which will cause the dog to saw tooth (track in small zigzags). This will be wrist slashing time again. Your good tracking dog, that’s coming on well, will suddenly be all over the place, difficult to read and really disappointing - don’t worry; it’s just part of the process of learning. It’s absolutely imperative that you put the dog in a position where it can learn how to cope with this. Imagine you are looking along the grain of the crop; turn to a right angle; you are now looking directly across the grain. If you turn back 15 degrees, you will have a slight diagonal, which the dog should manage. By laying 3 reverse order tracks, which go from 15 degrees to 45 degrees, the oldest being 45 degrees, the reduced scent as the tracks get older will help the dog to sort it out. Continue practising till the dog is comfortable and confident tracking just a few degrees away from parallel to the corn. Treat the headland as you would a different surface on a normal track. The extra growth will take away any difference caused by the changing grain. It’s a good idea to do as much diagonal work as practical.
In a dog’s perception, a corner is the loss and relocation of a straight leg.
There’s no reason why you can’t train corners with the dog while it’s gaining experience on changing surfaces. But beware. Make sure you do your corners on consistent ground - change only one thing at once.
By now you will have done many dozen tracking sessions. Most of the issues caused by motivation, stamina, concentration and focus will have been addressed, and although you have only done straight legs, the skills your dog has learned will be matched by your understanding and rapport with the dog, because you have been working together for many, many hours. You should be well on the way to becoming a team. (Hopefully, fingers-crossed.)
You are now ready to learn to do corners.
For the first few sessions on corners, the ideal way is to have a field of lush grass. If you can see the track clearly, it will allow you to keep your concentration fully on the dog, and still know exactly where the track is. Even for a very good and experienced track layer there is a small amount of distraction locating the track.
When we were doing all the work getting the dog accustomed to tracking off the wind we were in fact preparing for this day. As you look at the field where you are going to work, it might be worth doing a short straight leg across the wind just to settle the dog in.
Ideally the first leg leading to the first corner should be slightly down-wind of across wind. Make the first leg a minimum of 60 paces. When you lay your corner, walk into it on a normal stride, stick a pole in at the point of turn, walk out 15 paces into the wind, about turn, walk back to the pole using the foot prints you can see, take out your marker pole, about-turn, walk along your track. When you reach the end of your triple laying, keep going for the next 25 paces. Place your article/food-pot and walk back round to the start. You are going to track immediately.
Handling your first corner.
Start the dog tracking in the normal way, and as you approach the corner, move up the line till your hand is about 3 feet from the clip of the tracking line. If the corner is to the left, you will want your right hand on the line; because the dog has done large numbers of straight lines, it is likely to try to overshoot, on the assumption that the track goes straight on. As the dog passes the corner, step to its side, and excitedly point at the new direction of the track. When the dog takes it, give background praise to confirm to the dog that it’s right, without breaking its concentration. Make a big fuss when the dog gets the article. If you can praise and reward the dog in a meaningful manner without getting it too excited, it will be in a better state to concentrate on the next track.
Around now someone usually says “My dog pulls so hard, I can’t handle him with one hand”, or “My dog is so sensitive, if I handle it like that it’ll never track again”. The answer is simple - “Flyball”. Just do it, adapt your handling to suit your dog and get on with it. (Said he impatiently.)
Over the next few sessions, do as many right turns as you do left turns, and gradually rotate the tracks in relation to the wind. In answer to the question, “Shall I do right one day and left on another, or shall I mix them?” - it doesn’t matter. Mixing them will save you a lot of walking.
When the dog is changing direction almost seamlessly, it is time to ask a bit more from him. This will require changing the handling. You are now at the point where the dog is changing direction well, often tracking round the corners, at other times it might seem to be a bit handler reliant. To get over, this lay your track with the second leg downwind. Instead of triple laying or scrubbing out of the corner, come out on a normal stride. Place your article/food pot as normal. In an instant, you’ve created a far more difficult corner. The likelihood is that the dog will get to the corner and look to the handler for help. Don’t give it any. Stand quietly facing in the direction of the first leg, and gently encourage the dog to find the track If the dog starts to move in a circle, gently encourage and allow the angle of your body to follow the dog. When he recognizes the track, give background encouragement and follow the dog. From now on, I would only show the dog in cases where it is really struggling.
Note that the handling when you reach a corner is really important. When the dog’s head comes up, stand still. Don’t face the next leg as the dog circles looking for the track, keep facing him; shuffle your feet round without stepping away from your position. Don’t pass the line over your head (to do that you’ll have your back to the dog - not helpful). When the dog locates the next leg, allow him to take some line, to show you he is committed, and then follow him.
You now have a dog which will do 3 straight legs, 400 paces long, (1200 paces) sometimes as much as 2 hours old. It has learned to cope with cross winds and changing surfaces. It has learned to do corners. This could be pretty well described as a tracking dog. But????
Next month: Motivation, Experience, and Articles.
Thanks for reading these articles. If you enjoyed them and want to learn more come on a course. Contact no 01623 482181.
Tracking - Part 4
Experience, Articles and Motivation,
The bits that really serious trialists do, often without knowing they do them.
Throughout the preceding articles the majority of the tracking has had specific goals and aims, carefully teaching the different elements and skills. When you have done all the work your dog will have the ability and skill to complete competition tracks. However there will be something missing; you will probably not quite be able to put your finger on it, there will be nothing wrong, but your instincts will tell you it’s not quite right. At this stage the bit that’s missing is experience, mileage.
To use a simile; when a young person passes a driving test they have a licence which shows that in the eyes of the test authority they are safe to drive on public roads; they have learned how to go round corners, parallel park, use the mirrors, etc.; in short they can drive. After 20 hours of lessons with a driving instructor they have the skill. In a years time, when they have done 15000 miles, had a couple of minor crashes, probably got six points on the licence for speeding, they will be starting to become competent. Possibly a bit wild, but at least aware that other motorists do strange things, speed cameras lurk, and you get stopped by unmarked police cars for using a mobile phone while driving. In short their level of experience is taking them from knowing these things when they think about them, to just knowing at a belief level.
Tracking dogs are very similar (not with the driving, they can’t reach the pedals). What your tracking dog is missing at this stage is mileage - the knowledge that comes with doing hundreds of tracks. The experience which tells the dog to keep trying when it’s dopey handler won’t follow because of any of a dozen reasons, all of which seem logical to the handler. The knowledge which tells it that although they’ve hit a difficulty, if they keep trying the track will continue. The slightly insane knowledge which tells the dog that tracking is fun, even if it’s blowing, raining and very cold.
To give the dog this knowledge and experience is fairly straight forward - you need to do lots of tracks in all weather conditions using all sorts of terrain. This kind of training needn’t be a formal competition style track. Do them anywhere; playing fields early in the morning, go out to some common land, moorland, setaside, scrubland, play a bit with hard surface, track at night, on reasonably clean ground lay a track at night and run it the following morning - basically if you can think of it, do it.
A word of warning. When you are building the dog’s repertoire of experience, make sure you temper justice with mercy. On new surfaces do long legs, on difficult surfaces track the dog fresh. If you are having a dabble at hard surface start on grass, make sure your shoes take some sap and crushed vegetation onto the hard surface. (I’m getting a picture of someone dragging a dirty great just pulled grass sod across Tesco’s car park.) The moisture/ sap from the grass will be enough to help the dog adapt to the new surface. Hard surface doesn’t have to be concrete; a crushed stone farm road might be the place to start.
What you are in fact doing is preparing the dog and yourself for the unexpected. When you are doing mileage work the opportunity is there to observe the dog at work, to learn his body language, to get a feel for the variation in line tension on different surfaces and ages of track.
Experience is a two edged sword - the handler as well as the dog needs it.
In this wonderful sport we call Working Trials some of the jargon used can be a bit baffling to a beginner. You will hear the conversation, “How you doing?” (obvious), the answer “Oh, 2 and 3.” Ummmm, not so obvious. This refers to the number of articles the dog has found at that particular competition.
When we are training the tracking we go to lots of trouble teaching the dog to do the corners with the minimum of casting to save losing the odd points. Well, a track article is 10 points, so if you do a track that’s a bit messy losing, say, six points for casting, you are still better off than missing a track article, where you lose 10 points. If you miss 2 track articles you don’t qualify.
Up to now we have assumed you are tracking for food pots. We’ll start with a progressive way to change from food pots to articles. The change over can be relatively seamless and can start while the dog is learning the skill as described in the last article (but great care must be taken not to reduce the level of motivation).
It must be remembered that dog have incredible noses, capable of recognizing the tiniest amount of scent. So when we fill food pots it’s not only food touching the outside of the pot that the dog will recognize, but if food has touched your finger and your fingers touch the pot, the scent of the food will be transferred as positively as spreading butter with a knife. You will need to start to be careful about the ways you fill your food pots. When you have filled them wash your hands, wash the pots. Change the water and repeat the process; by taking this much trouble the dog will be identifying the scent of the pot as plastic backed by human scent. Continue with your tracking training as normal. The dog will carry on indicating the pots as before. I then start replacing the food pots with relatively easy articles. When the dog indicates the article I reward the dog with food from my pocket, but while rewarding I continue with the same ritual; in my case drop to one knee, keep the dog steady in the down, and reward from below the dog’s head height. This helps to maintain the dog solidly going down.
Another word of warning If you are using this whole system, the likelihood will be that the dog is tracking for tracking’s sake. There will be a tendency to become casual on the articles, and the indications will decay from a down to a stand, then to a hesitation, then a nod at the article with little or no hesitation. If the handler is inexperienced and just started competing they will be so grateful that the dog is tracking they’ll accept the lesser indications. If this continues the indications will disappear altogether, and as you go into higher stakes failure through lack of articles is inevitable.
To avoid this, in training insist on the down on the articles. Randomly, when you have reached a suitable article, unclip the tracking line, place the clip in the exact spot where the article was, walk back down the line and have a game with the article and the dog. As the dog is verging on being track happy, you will probably have to work hard to get him to play with the article. If you throw the article a few feet for him to retrieve, and he looks towards the track as he’s returning the article to you, then insist he plays; walk further down the line and continue playing until he forgets the track (if you stay close to the line you will not foul any part of the track which you haven’t reached). When he has completely forgotten the track, walk back to the line, clip it on, and tell him to restart. The first few times you do this you might have a bit of difficulty with getting him to restart - what a fine opportunity to practice restarts!
One final thought Motivate………. Motivate………. Motivate………. Motivate……… Motivate…….. Nearly all tracking problems come down to ‘Lack of Motivation’. And remember - a fast excited dog isn’t necessarily motivated - it could just be ‘Fast and Excited’.
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