When your dog is moving down the track in a systematic way, calmly, not diving off left nor right, and seems comfortable with the idea of following the scent of disturbed vegetation, we can get serious about introducing articles and corners.
There are many schools of thought on introducing both corners and articles, and all have some merit. My ideas here are only one of many, if something else works better for your dog, go for it!
Some people teach articles away from the track. They lay articles out on the ground, teach the dog that when it comes across an “article” it must lie down, sit, or stand. I have seen this work well, and I have also seen dogs which would drop on an article in this situation yet absolutely ignore the article on the track. The context is too different, and the dog does not make the recognition.
I do like to teach an away-from-the-field article indication, using the “touch” word from the dog’s positive obedience training. When the dog has learned to “touch” your hand on cue, it is easy to transfer that touch to a piece of “post it note” and then to the leather or wood article. The nice thing about a “touch” indication is that the dog, in touching it with its nose (and getting fed on the article as a reward) is very prone to lie down on his own, which is the ultimate behavior we are shaping.
So, with a leather or wood article in hand (about 2” x 3” in size) teach your dog to “touch” it at head level. Then drop the article down (slowly!) until it is ground level. This may take some time, which is OK—patience now will pay off later. Our goal is a dog who comes across his article, drops down with the article between his front paws and touches it with his nose. Feel free to use the “down” word when assisting the dog into the desired position.
This training has the added benefit of preparing your dog for the StP title (random area search for evidence).
Another way is to introduce the articles far later in the dog’s tracking schooling, and simply using compulsion to drop the dog on each article. This, however, can result in dog’s trying to avoid the article instead of seeking it out.
In the unfortunate case of “force tracking”, where the electric shock collar is applied to the animal to force it to track, the articles become “safe zones” where, when found and dropped upon, the pain stops. Persons who must resort to this type of “training” have no business working with animals. While they may get a result in the short term, the dog's mental health suffers and their working career is very short in consequence.
Whatever the (positive) method, the article is introduced at the end of the track. This is because finding the article and being rewarded will break the dog’s concentration, so best to end the track at that point in the early stages. WHEN the dog has mastered dropping at the article THAT is the time to introduce additional articles along the track.
Here is an important point: introduce difficult aspects one at a time, and back off on the complexity of the track when introducing difficult aspects. For instance, when introducing articles, lay a simple track. Don’t lay a challenging track and then, at the end, get into a hoe-down with your dog over the article. A difficult track should be rewarded at the end with a minimum of fuss. A short, easy track is best for article issues. Another example: when introducing a stranger’s scent, or an acute angle turn, or a change of terrain, anything new and challenging, make the rest of the track easy.
Use articles of leather or wood to start, materials which hold scent well. You can place a piece of food under the article to draw the dog’s attention to it at first. If you are back 6 or 8 feet on the dog’s lead at this time, move up so you are directly beside your dog as it comes to the article. This way you can help the dog assume the correct position.
At this point, start with one article at the end, and when the dog has shown with consistency that he can drop quickly and smoothly and “touch” the object, you can add one, and then some weeks later, another.
The Restart After Articles:
As training starts with multiple articles, it is very important that the dog learn to “restart” itself after dropping on an article and then being rewarded. In a schuthzhund trial, judges score a dog on the restart. The perfect restart is the dog rising while its nose is still down, and moving forward at the same pace at which it had been tracking. It is faulty if the dog rushes forward, or jumps around.
This smooth restart can be accomplished by shaping the behavior with the use of food drops. After a dog has been fed his reward at the article, have a handful of small kibble or treats ready. As the dog is finishing up his reward, scatter the handful of kibble from the dog’s nose forward about 8 inches. Don’t use a lot of food, just a few pieces. Straighten up and grasp the leash. As the dog investigates the new food, it will rise, to reach the food ahead of it. AT THAT POINT give the “track” command and apply the smooth, constant pressure you keep on the track when the dog is tracking.
With practice, the dog will learn to rise and move forward with its nose down searching for the treats. As with any positive training, the treats are S L O W L Y withdrawn in a random pattern. It never hurts to go back and reinforce the behavior with food in advanced training.
Again, there are many correct ways to introduce the turns. Because turns present the dog with some real challenges due to changes in wind direction, I am in favor of introducing turns as subtle curves to give the dog a taste of wind change instead of a big “jump” when the track turns at 90 degrees.
The following shows some early curve patterns you may find useful.
This stage should not be rushed. The dog is learning a lot about how to use his nose when confronted with wind challenges. You can’t really help him here—so butt out! Just give him the experience and motivation to want to succeed.
I purchase bottles of silicone powder used for checking air drafts in homes. This is wonderful for checking wind direction when there is very little breeze. Dogs will tend to cut corners if the wind is blowing toward them and overshoot corners if the wind is blowing with them.
At some point the dog will show you that he is comfortable with changing wind directions. Now we will tighten up the corners. Foot work at the corners is VERY important. You don’t just tromp around, though later in a trial (especially an AKC trial) that is what the tracklayer will do. For now, however, our footwork will teach the dog the best way to make the corner.
Here is a diagram of how to make a left turn.
You will notice that the footsteps are “concentrated” at the corner and immediately after it. Look closer... you will notice that there is a heavy concentration of scent on the inside of the corner, drawing the dog’s nose that direction. This encourages the dog to follow the scent around the corner. The first several dozen 90 degree turns you make like this, you will also bait with food every few inches. This is especially important with puppies!