Tracking for Beginners Part 3
Tracking for Beginners
Warning - NOT for the eyes of experienced Trialists
Surfaces and Corners
However even and perfect a field looks, there are likely to be good bits, bad bits, wet bits, dry bits, areas where the animals have been extra active. In truth it is rare to have a field that is truly even. On arable, tractors have to turn, seed drills miss, maybe the shape of a wood at the side of the field has caused wind burn.
When we are talking about training the dog on different surfaces we are not only meaning grass - grazed or silage, plough - rough or rolled, stubble - grown through or sterile. (I don't know whether that's the right term, but it's ground where the crop has been weed-killed to death.)
Sounds complex, but what it's all about is your observational skills. When you are laying training tracks there are very few constraints; you come to a bare patch you stop short - nobody in their right mind walks through standing water, do they?
Well the answer to that is, in training you don't have to. But the tracklayer at a trial will have to work to a pattern, and while most judges build into their patterns room for small adjustments, the pattern still needs to be adhered to. So at a trial, you could be tracking along happily when you come to an area of standing water, or ground where the cattle have been standing a few days before. You can deal with this in three ways: - you can fail the track by pulling the dog off; you can let the dog work and lose the track because the dog hasn't the skill to cope; or you can prepare your dog for changing surfaces before you start trialling.
In the first two cases, the option then is to go to the judge and moan about the ground. If you do this forcibly enough, you will probably be informed that it's the luck of the draw, or that all the fields are the same. This will have another hidden effect; you will have gained a name for being a bad loser, and you certainly will not get another track; asking for one will only cause the judge some mirth.
It follows that the best option is to prepare your dog for changing surfaces before you start trialling.
Get to know your training fields! It seems obvious, but there will be patches where you have game tracks; areas round cattle troughs where the stock have cut it up badly; low lying areas which will go boggy after a shower or two. When you are looking at fields, you'll notice changes in the colour and texture of the grass - this usually gives a warning of changing ground conditions beneath the grass. When the cattle are out of the fields, gates will be left open; make all these features part of your training tracks. If you are lucky enough to have some arable to train on, cross on to the grass margins around the edges of the fields. A good way to familiarize your dog with different surfaces is to do reverse order tracking (see last article). If your long straight legs go across bad areas, scrub your feet as you lay the track over the bad ground, then place an article/food pot a few paces the other side, so the dog is rewarded for working through the problem.
When you first start tracking on crop, i.e.; ~ wheat, barley, or even reseeded grass, you will notice the crop has a grain (the line where the seed drill set the crop). Round the edges of the field will be what is called the headland; the grain here will follow the hedges. In this area the crop will often be thicker and denser than in the open field. This is because the tractor, when sowing the crop, had to turn at each end. When the bulk of the field has been sown, the tractor will have gone round the edge to seed over its turning areas. The extra growth is caused by the double seeding.
With this in mind, do your first few crop tracks along the grain of the crop. The dog will convert to this very easily, and tracking directly across the crop will only be marginally more difficult.
The real difficulty with crop comes when tracking diagonally across the corn, which will cause the dog to saw tooth (track in small zigzags). This will be wrist slashing time again. Your good tracking dog, that's coming on well, will suddenly be all over the place, difficult to read and really disappointing - don't worry; it's just part of the process of learning. It's absolutely imperative that you put the dog in a position where it can learn how to cope with this. Imagine you are looking along the grain of the crop; turn to a right angle; you are now looking directly across the grain. If you turn back 15 degrees, you will have a slight diagonal, which the dog should manage. By laying 3 reverse order tracks, which go from 15 degrees to 45 degrees, the oldest being 45 degrees, the reduced scent as the tracks get older will help the dog to sort it out. Continue practising till the dog is comfortable and confident tracking just a few degrees away from parallel to the corn. Treat the headland as you would a different surface on a normal track. The extra growth will take away any difference caused by the changing grain. It's a good idea to do as much diagonal work as practical.
In a dog's perception, a corner is the loss and relocation of a straight leg.
There's no reason why you can't train corners with the dog while it's gaining experience on changing surfaces. But beware. Make sure you do your corners on consistent ground - change only one thing at once.
By now you will have done many dozen tracking sessions. Most of the issues caused by motivation, stamina, concentration and focus will have been addressed, and although you have only done straight legs, the skills your dog has learned will be matched by your understanding and rapport with the dog, because you have been working together for many, many hours. You should be well on the way to becoming a team. (Hopefully, fingers-crossed.)
You are now ready to learn to do corners.
For the first few sessions on corners, the ideal way is to have a field of lush grass. If you can see the track clearly, it will allow you to keep your concentration fully on the dog, and still know exactly where the track is. Even for a very good and experienced track layer there is a small amount of distraction locating the track.
When we were doing all the work getting the dog accustomed to tracking off the wind we were in fact preparing for this day. As you look at the field where you are going to work, it might be worth doing a short straight leg across the wind just to settle the dog in.
Ideally the first leg leading to the first corner should be slightly down-wind of across wind. Make the first leg a minimum of 60 paces. When you lay your corner, walk into it on a normal stride, stick a pole in at the point of turn, walk out 15 paces into the wind, about turn, walk back to the pole using the foot prints you can see, take out your marker pole, about-turn, walk along your track. When you reach the end of your triple laying, keep going for the next 25 paces. Place your article/food-pot and walk back round to the start. You are going to track immediately.
Handling your first corner.
Start the dog tracking in the normal way, and as you approach the corner, move up the line till your hand is about 3 feet from the clip of the tracking line. If the corner is to the left, you will want your right hand on the line; because the dog has done large numbers of straight lines, it is likely to try to overshoot, on the assumption that the track goes straight on. As the dog passes the corner, step to its side, and excitedly point at the new direction of the track. When the dog takes it, give background praise to confirm to the dog that it's right, without breaking its concentration. Make a big fuss when the dog gets the article. If you can praise and reward the dog in a meaningful manner without getting it too excited, it will be in a better state to concentrate on the next track.
Around now someone usually says "My dog pulls so hard, I can't handle him with one hand", or "My dog is so sensitive, if I handle it like that it'll never track again". The answer is simple - "Flyball". Just do it, adapt your handling to suit your dog and get on with it. (Said he impatiently.)
Over the next few sessions, do as many right turns as you do left turns, and gradually rotate the tracks in relation to the wind. In answer to the question, "Shall I do right one day and left on another, or shall I mix them?" - it doesn't matter. Mixing them will save you a lot of walking.
When the dog is changing direction almost seamlessly, it is time to ask a bit more from him. This will require changing the handling. You are now at the point where the dog is changing direction well, often tracking round the corners, at other times it might seem to be a bit handler reliant. To get over this, lay your track with the second leg downwind. Instead of triple laying or scrubbing out of the corner, come out on a normal stride. Place your article/food pot as normal. In an instant, you've created a far more difficult corner. The likelihood is that the dog will get to the corner and look to the handler for help. Don't give it any. Stand quietly facing in the direction of the first leg, and gently encourage the dog to find the track If the dog starts to move in a circle, gently encourage and allow the angle of your body to follow the dog. When he recognizes the track, give background encouragement and follow the dog. From now on, I would only show the dog in cases where it is really struggling.
Note that the handling when you reach a corner is really important. When the dog's head comes up, stand still. Don't face the next leg as the dog circles looking for the track, keep facing him; shuffle your feet round without stepping away from your position. Don't pass the line over your head (to do that you'll have your back to the dog - not helpful). When the dog locates the next leg, allow him to take some line, to show you he is committed, and then follow him.
You now have a dog which will do 3 straight legs, 400 paces long, (1200 paces) sometimes as much as 2 hours old. It has learned to cope with cross winds and changing surfaces. It has learned to do corners. This could be pretty well described as a tracking dog. But????
Next month: Motivation, Experience, and Articles.