OK! You have your little landscape flags, some really nummy food pieces, your dog is hungry (obviously don’t try and track right after your dog has just eaten breakfast...) you have a six foot leash, flat collar, and an “article” such as an old glove or wallet.
Select an area with grass which is one to three inches high. You really should try and track in the early morning, as dew or any form of moisture helps the dog work. The drier a track, the harder it is for the dog.
I often track on a sod farm, but it can be difficult to hide the bait, and if the dog can see the bait pieces, they will just use their eyes and not their nose. So pick grass which is high enough to hide a penny sized piece of food, but not much higher than that.
Walk out to a starting spot. Place the flag next to your left foot. Stand in this starting spot for at least one minute, shuffling your feet slightly to make a “scent pad.
Now to the actual laying of the track. To teach a dog to use its nose to best advantage, the track layer will use their head in thinking about how they lay the track. The final goal is to have the dog follow any type of track, but in the beginning we make the track conducive to correct style.
This is done by teaching the dog that if it swings its head slightly from side to side, following exactly each footstep, it will keep itself from overshooting corners, missing articles or losing the track.
Laying the track
Look closely at the photo below:
It shows the correct “pigeon toed” style of laying a beginning track. You see that there is a “tail” leading up to the scent pad. Having stood at the scent pad and shuffled your feet for a minute (and dropped 3 or 4 pieces of food in the scent pad) step off with your toes pointing in slightly. Into the toe of each footstep you will place a small piece of food. Try and drop the food in such a way that it is not overly obvious to the dog. We do not want to teach our dog to look for the food.
Base the length of your first tracks on the age of the dog. For tiny puppies, 8 weeks to 4 months, you will make the track about 30 steps. You may lay up to four tracks each session. For older pups and adult dogs, each track can be up to 50 to 70 paces. Again, you can lay up to four tracks each session.
These first few tracks you will place food in each footstep, so you can see that your dog’s feed will need to be adjusted to account for this extra food. This is also why it is important to use a good quality food for tracking. Liver (dried is best) is excellent, as it is a very good food source. But you will need quite a bit of bait in the beginning, so that is why I use the Natural Balance tubes available at PetCo. It comes in several flavors.
At the end of each track lay down the “article” with a piece of food under it. You do not want to put a big pile of food at the end, as this may teach the dog to “rush” the track to get to the jackpot at the end.
In a tracking test, the track will be aged anywhere from 20 minutes to 5 hours, depending on the level of complexity you are competing at. Aging is important. A fresh track presents to the dog far differently from an hour old track. A fresh track has human scent from skin cells and other “shedding” wafting around. This can cause the novice tracking dog to follow that scent instead of the scent of the crushed vegetation. (For those training for VST or urban tracking where the dog must follow a human on non vegetative surfaces, additional training will be introduced later).
So, we want to age the tracks a bit even at the very beginning. For the first month of tracking, let the track age at least ten to fifteen minutes before running it. Slowly increase aging after that, until you run your tracks between 30 minutes to 2 hours old in the first six months of tracking. Obviously, take in atmospheric conditions. If it is misty, a track can be aged longer than when a dry, hot wind is blowing.
Diane’s Golden Rule!
There is something you have to get your head around as a tracking trainer from the moment you lay your first track. And that is this: your dog is working in a medium you have no ability to truly understand. We are sight creatures... dogs are scent creatures. They “see” with their noses as well as their eyes. When a dog is tracking, it enters a world where we cannot follow (so to speak!) If you arrogantly think that you know everything that the dog is experiencing while it is working, then you will be unfair to your dog. What looks like a bare space of grass can be a “loud”, “shouting” billboard to your dog. Animal tracks, pee spots, pollen—a thousands things alter the scent “picture” your dog sees and must navigate while working.
This picture shows a track (which has been run) running from bottom left to upper right. Notice the animal tracks (probably rabbits) crossing the track in at least two places. Without the dew, we humans would never know the rich distractions your dog faces while tracking.
As well, your dog may have physical issues you are unaware of. Dogs suffer from allergies just like we do. As well, Resi Gerritsen and Ruud Hak state in their book on tracking dogs that “the ability of smell of albino and certain white or light colored dogs can be diminished in part, or in full.” Exposure to bleach, smoke, vehicle fuel or perfume can have a lingering effect on a dog’s scenting ability.
The point? There will be days your dog can’t find their rear end out there; it doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. For this reason my opinion of those who use force to train tracking (and some do, using pinch collars or electric shock) can’t be printed in a family magazine. So don’t nag, don’t correct unless you are an experienced tracker and know the dog is “messing around”.
So, while I have been lecturing your track has been aging. So, go get your dog and we’ll run the track.
Dog Meets Track
On a six foot lead hooked to a “flat” collar (meaning a leather or nylon buckle collar) get your dog out of the vehicle and let it potty and “clear its nose”. Bring the dog close to the scent pad. About three feet from the scent pad, slip the leash under the dog’s right front leg as you slip the collar up off the shoulders and closer to the back of the head. This way, when the dog pulls into the track, this lead/collar arrangement will subtly pull the dog’s nose down toward the track (correct) instead of up and back (incorrect).
Bring the dog to the scent pad and hold them there while they do any number of things except track! They will gaze at the sky, jump up on you, lay down, and it is now that you will realize that trying to teach a dog to track is a lot easier when they are hungry and willing to pay attention to food!
Tracking takes patience! Lots of it, especially with the little guys. You must not let the dog think you are impatient. You just stand, and ignore the dog. It may take a few minutes, it may take several. But finally the dog will notice the food pieces in the scent pad. If the dog notices the food, but will not eat it, or lacks interest, you have just learned an important lesson. You must scrap it and bring the dog back when it is hungry. Bare in mind that like any kind of work, it is easier to train a dog with “drive”. If your dog is very “easygoing” (lazy) and low energy and drive, you may have trouble teaching tracking (or anything for that matter).
When the dog eats the food in the scent pad, it will begin searching about for more. This is when, by careful manipulation, you help the dog find the “way out” of the scent pad and onto the track. Don’t let the dog rush the track. Keep them steady and slow, looking for the food pieces. However, should the dog miss a piece of food don’t force the issue; don’t force them back to find a piece if they have gone over it and are looking for the next piece.
If the dog spins, backs up, tries to go side to side, you simply hold the leash tight, and keep the dog on the track. Speak little if at all, as your voice may distract the dog.
If the dog (pups are famous for this) just stops and sits down and looks around—fine—just wait. Don’t teach the pup that you will bail him out... Just wait him out. Worse case scenario—if the pups is just not going to move, simply walk the pup forward about 8 inches and start again. Don’t get in a habit of pointing to the ground.
When you reach the end of the track and the pup finds the “article” show them the food under the article and make a HUGE fuss over them. Feed them a few more pieces (which you have in your nail apron mentioned last article) of food and then remove the dog from the track. If you have laid other tracks, run them now.
If things go terribly wrong—if the dog throws itself on the ground, or won’t eat the food or barks at distractions, or some other nonsense, don’t freak out. Walk your dog off the track and put them in the vehicle. Pick up your flags and articles and come back the next day when the dog is hungrier. Tracking is a fun sport for dog and handler, and if it isn’t fun for dog and handler, something is wrong.