Tracking for Beginners Part 2
Tracking for Beginners
Warning - NOT for the eyes of experienced Trialists
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 half a percent 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.