Tracking with a Clicker!

Dexter is a four year old Welsh Collie cross Border Collie (I think he inherited his brains from his Welsh side – and things sink in very slowly), my previous dogs were all trained using “normal” methods. But Dexter turned out to be very different, if he got any toys or articles, he wanted to keep them, this progressed to where the fight to get the toys back started to make him stressed, which he relieved by grass snatching and learning exercises very slowly. So I had to try something different and had heard about Clicker Training and started to investigate this method in more detail. The change in the way Dexter is learning has been such an eye opener I will now always use clicker training in preference to any other method.

However there is still a lot of room for improvement but I see this as a plus because I feel with everything he is teaching me about clicker training, I now know I have the tools to get much more from him, or should I say as a team we have much more to give yet. One weakness is the enjoyment that I get from training the nose work part of the test, which means that I have not spent as much time training the control exercises (yet!).

So far working trials has been slow to take advantage of clicker training, but I have got a feeling that times are changing, which will hopefully open the sport up to new people/competitors who could not achieve success with “other” methods of training, and maybe even established successful trainers/competitors will look at problems they might be experiencing in a new light and that clicker training can have a big knock on effect on “all” your training.

There are many ways of training the track and to many the idea of not having the dog pulling into its harness, barking and screaming is very hard to understand. But I now feel that this, so called excitement may in many cases have an element of anxiety about it and make the all important foundations for this exercise weak and unreliable. I am sure there are many ways to clicker train the track as I feel it gives you the tool to show your dog where it needs to be on the track, not working down wind, or eating rabbit pooh next to the track. Some methods of training put food on the track or maybe at the end, I must say here that in many, many cases people have much success, but here is some food for thought, if you dog likes rabbit pooh, how can he know it is the food you have placed on the track that matters, or if he is down wind of the track and smells the food, are you not teaching him to wind scent?

To start you need to get your dog “clicker wise” then you can continue. So to start tracking put a pole in the ground and take 20 short paces from the pole, placing a bit of tasty food in each foot print (did I tell you there is a lot of contradiction in dog training), now with the dog on a short lead target the dog to touch his nose to your hand and then move your hand (or you may like to use a target stick) to the base of the pole where the first foot print and titbit is and click; the dog will take the food, continue along the track, the dog will soon get the idea of this new game. If your dog goes off to the left or right, stand your ground, but do not pull the dog back on the track, as soon as he sniffs a footprint – click! This way you are showing him it is only being on the track that earns the click and treat, and he has to do the work. At this stage I like to get the food off the track, so after repeating the food in footprint method two or three times try moving onto a track that is only 10 short paces from the pole with no food on the track. Have high value treats ready and start from the pole in the same way with the target hand to the base of the pole, click and treat, see if the dog has got the idea. Now if he earns a click be ready to place the treat in the foot print then wait to see if he repeats the behaviour, give him a little time – if he does not repeat the behaviour use your hand as a target again, if he does track on click and give him a jackpot!

During this phase of the training I do not give any verbal commands as I feel the dog has enough to think about. If he does not seem to understand go back to the first stage, with food. I like to make sure my dogs are working as much of the track as possible, so 20 yards of real tracking is better than 50 yards of tracking part of the time.

Remember we are training for competition and “points” so do not reinforce incorrect behaviours such as wind scenting, it is the source of the scent that we need to reinforce – the actual footprints!

Tracking as with a lot of dog training two of the main problems are:

Trying to progress to fast
Not progressing fast enough

So you are the one who has to learn how fast you can move on, but move on you must as you make the track longer, older, more difficult, using new terrain and the dog solves the new challenges, and gets the satisfaction of achieving his goal, earning his reward.

Now your dog is becoming competent with tracking we start to introduce the articles. As we have trained the dog to be right on the track we place a small toy (4” x 4” piece of carpet or a 5” length of garden hose) at the end of the 20-30 yard straight track. If you are lucky and your dog likes toys he will stop to investigate and you can click and treat with a high value reward and you can play with the toy. But here is one of those times when you have to be honest with yourself, does your dog like playing with you with the toy, will you have to fight to get the dog to let go of the toy, if so is your taking the toy from the dog going to be a negative experience for him? It is the dog’s concept of positive reinforcement that matters! If you need to work on getting the dog article mad, it’s not the time to do it when you are teaching him to track – it is a separate exercise/game.

If he does not like toys (yet) you can rub the scent of the food onto the article and when he indicates the toy, click and give a jackpot. Many trainers use a toy such as a ball on a rope as the last article, which is the dog’s favourite toy. This could make the last article on the track such a high value the dog considers the other articles not worth stopping at with the prospect of payday at the end of the track. This may also lead to a slow start with a lack of concentration (a bit like Monday mornings if you are being paid on Fridays) and if he goes wrong at the start – that is the end of your trial.

So now with a clicker as a tool we have the means of putting reinforcement on a variable – this is very important so the dog thinks that the click may come at any time when he is on the track and we can make every article high value, not just his favourite toy.

Although in training you must know where the track goes, one of your hardest jobs is not giving your dog cues as to which direction the track goes, or correcting the dog by steering or pulling the dog back onto the track. After all you cannot do this at a trial and he may come to rely on your cues and he will not then gain the sense of achievement of increasing his skills – after all in the wild tracking would be a matter of life and death!

The next stage is to put some corners in, and to remember to leave the pole at every angle; you will need to proof this behaviour over and over, on grass, stubble, and mud. Have long tracks 900 yards, tracks where people have walked over your track, I use a football pitch and walk 2 feet to the side of the marked lines (make sure you always change the pattern that you walk, so the dog does not think the game is to follow the lines). Lay a track and get a friend to cross the track, then when you and the dog follow the track the dog will probably investigate the cross track, you keep still and do not say anything but when the dog gets back on the right track, click and treat. After many times of doing this Dexter realised that it was only the proper track (and not the cross track) that mattered.

Remember that each time you go onto a different type of ground to lower the criteria, click for less! As far as I know tracking on mud or grass may be as different a skill as playing a piano or a guitar, they both make music but in a very different way. It is our job as clicker trainers to observe, mark and reinforce the behaviour we are trying to train. In the case of nose work it does not matter how they do it as long as they do it.

So have a go at tracking following the suggestions above and keep an open mind, or try some ideas of your own as long as you keep the basic clicker rules. I would like to thank Karen Pryor and Kay Lawrence for working so hard to promote clicker training – it has certainly changed our lives!