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 comes 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 it's 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.

Preparation Training

Teach the dog to accept having the harness put on; practise 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.