Tracking – Building Blocks and Beyond: Part II
By Floyd Wilson
This article represents the fourth installment in a series of five. All of the articles should be read in sequence. Once read, the articles should be reviewed frequently. In that spirit, let’s quickly review the first three installments.
Article 1: North American FH Championship; question and answer format discussing the finished phases of high-level championship tracking.
Article 2: Philosophy, Goals, Attitudes.
Article 3: Groundwork for Training precision Tracking.
These three articles represent the foundation of knowledge one must possess in order to apply the concepts and techniques outlined in Article 4. Make sure you know all of the information and have applied all the techniques outlined in the previous articles before moving on.
have been training dogs to track in schutzhund for two decades. That qualifies me to say I’m still learning. One of the things I must relearn everyday is that training precision tracking takes time, a great deal of it, commitment, a great deal of it, and focus, a great deal of it.
There are no short cuts. I’m pretty sure of that after 20 years. So, if you’re reading this article for short cuts and quick tips, you can stop reading here. That’s a quick tip I can offer. Now that we’re dealing with the front of the class, let’s get down to some serious, competitive training.
Building Blocks and Beyond
We begin the applications outlined in this article when your dog is doing a very precise article indication (such/platz) – the dog will precisely indicate with the article squarely between his front legs. Articles of all types should be sure and without fault in the such/platz position. (3” x 4” articles of leather, wood, textile, and vinyl.)
If you are preparing for an IPO, a different article will be needed. Read the rules regarding tracking before doing an IPO.
We will be replacing the food reward with article reward in this phase. We’ll be weaning the dogs off the bait, so keep that in mind. Wean gradually; don’t just eliminate the food all at once.
We will be doing no correcting from the rear in the first phase of our applications here. Correcting a dog from behind creates a hectic, insecure tracker. We will be building a problem-solving, “thinking” tracker. If your dog gets off the track, down the dog, remove the leash, bring the dog to heel. Heel back down the track in obedience drive. Sit the dog at the restart point. Re-attach the tracking line. Restart the dog. You’ll be surprised how much this will release the dog. You’re going to be re-placing the dog in drive. He will face the problem again in a spirited, happy way. This is very important to us at this particular phase in teaching precision.
A great deal of our training will take place in the serpentine, where we challenge, where we teach, and where we correct.
As you train and become creative within the serpentine, always remember to finish every track with a straight leg. If for any reason you do not progress through an exercise successfully, back up to the last successful exercise and work your way forward. (Handle yourself just like you handle your dog. When you hit the wall, just move obediently back to a more successful exercise and work your way forward once again.)
Before we begin, as always, it pays to review briefly in order to be clearly focused;
In the beginning we teach “Find it”, “such”, “praise” on the tails. When the first tail exercise is run, praise, then get your dog to heel, heel to the next flag, and begin once more.
I will interject a fundamental here. The “hookup” (where and when you attach the dog to the tracking line) is very important part of the track and training. It should be consistent so the dog becomes conditioned to what will follow.
Heel your dog to a point somewhere on the tail. Sit your dog. Place your tracking lead on the dog. Raise the dog’s right leg and pass your line underneath so that it comes out from under his right armpit. You can even make a game out of this. Rubbing a dog’s chest will usually make them raise the leg closest to you. The right leg in this case. Many dogs love it and will raise their leg for the handler to pass the line underneath in anticipation. Develop this. It’s an excellent indicator of your dog’s drive level. When they’re raising their leg for you to hurry up and put that line under, you know they’re pushing you to track. When your dog manifests this behavior on a tail at trial time, you’ll like it, I guarantee.
Back to Figure 4:1. If at any time your dog balks on Track 2 or 3, bring your dog to heel and heel back to your vehicle. Tracking is over for today.
Gradually eliminate one of the three tracks as you extend your other tracks. Extend until you end up with one track of 200 paces. Now that we’re down to one straight track, let’s refine that line until it is flawless. We will use the wind to challenge the dog. The wind on a track can come from behind, from the front, or from either side of the dog.
4Wind from the rear of the dog should produce a deep nose.
4Wind from the front will produce a higher nose.
4Wind from either side will produce drift.
Concentrate on the track in Figure 4:2 using the wind to create your challenges. This track proofs the heel-to-footprint tracking methods. If you encounter problems in this phase, some fundamental has not been covered. Figure out what that fundamental is, recover the fundamental, then move forward once again.
Once you’ve mastered the wind, we move back to the serpentine and work the step-off track.
The purpose of the step-off exercise is to teach your dog to problem solve. If you do not teach your dog to problem solve, your competition scores will vary as much as 40 points. (Example: from 98 to 58. What the hell happened?) Dogs that do not problem solve tend to have very religious handlers. Do the following exercise, and you’ll be able to spend more time praying for world peace, and less time praying your dog hits that corner coming up.
The step-offs will look something like the diagram in Figure 4:3.
Always start and end with the same sets of commands. Always. “Find it”, “Such”, praise. For rewards on the step-off, use articles. In the beginning keep everything short. Place an article at the end of 30 paces, step off, and repeat.
Keep your journal up to date with each day’s training. Know where you’ve been and be able to refer back because things are going to start getting hairy here.
Once straight-line, step-off exercises are mastered, put some variety into the program.
Notice you have a straight leg in the beginning for concentration. You may add articles to the leg to develop drive. You can vary this thing in many ways to challenge your dog. You are only limited by your imagination, as long as your imagination stays within the guidelines of what we are doing here: step-offs.
In Figures 4:5-7 we incrementally challenge the dog once more with saw-tooth angles of 30 degrees.
Once your dog can complete these exercises in any combination, from basic Figures 4:3 to Figures 4:7, any given exercise, any given day, you’re ready to move to scent discrimination.
For the competitive tracker, scent discrimination is critical. Figure 4:8 shows a typical scent discrimination problem we give our dogs to solve. The circles represent turns, (complete circles really) laid over the original turns in the track. Start with 20 minutes on your cross tracks and refine the discrimination down to 5 minutes. (Five minutes is about as good as it gets for most dogs, and it’s more than good enough for competitive tracking.)
By now, your articles have become the signposts, the goals, the rewards, the everything for your dog. The article is, after all, why the dog is being asked to track. At this point, the drive to find the article should be profound. If it is not, back up, read your journal, and figure out where you need to review. Know this: if you have a problem at this point, it is not a mystery, it is a fundamental. Find the fundamental, fix it, and then move forward once more. Repeat after me, “there are no mysteries, only fundamentals.”
Say the phrase before you start training, and say it afterwards.
Refining Over-all Track Performance
The tracks in Figure 4:9 are difficult to lay. You must know where every part of the track is in order to carry these off.
The tracks in Figure 4:9 are always laid one way or the other. Dip left when working left turns, dip right when doing right turns. These tracks are a great tool in analyzing and training your dog’s turning abilities in a fixed environment. Fixed is the key here. Do right turns one day, left turns the next.
Keep in mind at this point you are acquiring a pretty nice repertoire of tracking exercises. As a result, you can use any of the above exercises on a given day if you don’t feel up to the challenge of moving ever forward. It is also a good policy to go back and review the exercises with your dog. Stay “qualified” in all the fundamental exercises.
Tracking through Obstacles
While judging at our recent North American Championship (1999) I could not help but notice some dogs would go around obstacles rather than tracking through them. As a result, some would miss articles, some would miss turns, and all would lose points. Obstacle training is where your creativity becomes really important.
Look around for terrain features that offer realistic problems. Water crossings, ditches, craters, downed fences, logs, high grass, bumps, gullies–the list could go on forever. Push your dog, find out where the problems are, and then use basic straight-line techniques to overcome the problem. Your dog should track footprint to footprint, no matter what the obstacle in front is. To achieve maximum points, the dog must go through the barrier, not around it. Tip-toeing around obstacles is avoidance, and there is no excuse. Precision knows only correct and incorrect. There are no mysteries, only fundamentals. Use your articles to get your dog to the barrier, and one in close proximity on the other side of the barrier to create the drive in the dog to push straight through to the other side.
Crossing roads, even at the very best, is hard. The dog generally has a mental block when approaching roads. (For most of it’s life we have been yelling at the dog to get off of the road. Now we want the dog to cross the road. There’s a classic conflict.)
Roads you will encounter in the tracking test may consist of many different types of surface, from dirt and gravel to asphalt and concrete. Some roads may actually have traffic crossing; some roads may be abandoned. Train for all types. Use your fundamentals to help the dog through this barrier. The most advanced crossing, an actual road that is in use, is our target. When your dog can cross a road that carries occasional traffic, you’re ready for any road crossing you’ll meet on the circuit.
If you’re feeling insecure about beginning road crossing, find a place with a few sidewalks, like a park. Lay a few short, straight tracks that cross the sidewalk with articles on either side. Once you’re confident, expand the amount of pavement the dog must cross. Put an article out in the road a little to get the dog to take to the pavement. Put one near the other side to get him driving across.
Keep your road-crossing training separate from your overall track training. Do not put any road crossing in your track until your fundamentals are sound in the road crossing exercises. Keep your journal carefully. Analyze your failures and your successes.
With your scent discrimination fundamentals soundly in place you should not have any problem with cross tracks. Here are three ways to proof your cross tracks:
1. If everybody lays his or her tracks in a North-South direction, lay your track East-West. Cross back and forth over their tracks.
2. Drive a car or bike over the track at specified locations.
3. Take a bitch in heat and walk her over your track in specific locations.
If the bitch urinates near the track, know where that is. You may want to mark that spot and be ready. Incidentally, females will be distracted by the scent of another female in heat as well as males. This is an extreme distraction and should not be given until the dog is sound on the problems set forth in 1 and 2.
You should be specific in where you put these challenges so you will be ready to help your dog get through the problems.
Game, animal movement, and people are the most often encountered distractions in competition. Leashing out animals, or crating animals near your track will solve this problem. You can also put big sticks attached to a long line in the weeds near the tracks. Have a club member snatch the stick hard though the weeds as the dog goes by to emulate a deer or other large game escaping.
People standing in the wrong place can be a problem at trials as well. Some bystanders just don’t know where to be. It’s not their fault they’re in the wrong place. It’s not their fault if they ruin your score either. It’s your fault. Be ready. Track through groups, through people’s legs, etc. Just always be sure to have an article near your distraction point so you have some relief for the dog if it does get distracted.
When you consider the level at which we are laying these tracks, it forces one to re-consider the track laying process.
When laying your track, just walk normally, don’t dig in every step, or stomp some scent pad in the ground that looks like a roto-tiller demonstration. Just walk normal.
Turns: When approaching your turn point, lengthen your stride four or five paces before beginning the turn. This will create pre-turn intensity in your dog and result in better focus at the turn.
Figure 4:10 demonstrates what I believe to be the proper footwork in laying a turn. The inside foot should always be pointed toward the turn. When trained correctly from footprint to footprint, dogs will take turns like this without ever losing stride.
Aging and Over-washing
As you work on aging, you can once again use your fundamental straight tracks to push the limits. Lengthen your track age incrementally until you hit the wall. Watch your journal. Know where your dog’s limit is and extend it through fundamental short tracks. Work to the point where you can lay a track at dusk and run it in the morning.
Rain can be a pretty scary thing to any contestant. The tracks are in, and the rain starts–hard. This is easy to overcome. Watch the weather. When it looks like it’s going to rain, go out, lay a quick track, and wait for the rain. When the rain quits, run your track. Note the results in your journal.
If you have trained your fundamentals, the FH2 is really not that big a deal. Let’s break down the rules and relate them to fundamentals:
4 The search area is nothing more than the “find it” command within a 20-meter square.
4 The angle turns are taken care of with the saw-tooth.
4 The semi-circle is nothing more than the serpentine.
The biggest thing that hinders FH2 training is space. You need a bunch of space. Find the space, and lay the track as outlined in Figure 4:11. Use only one article here. We are building sustained concentration, drive, and intensity on this track. The legs of the track are 300 paces, the connecting legs, 25 paces.
Your track should look like Figure 4:11. As you can see the track is loaded with problems to work out including cross tracks.
Designing the Ultimate Challenge
How good is that dog? With practice of fundamentals, good work ethics, and organized training, you will bring your dog to amazing levels of tracking ability.
I would like to share this information with you. Prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall some information was coming to this country via East Germany. The track shown in Figure 4:12–one that I always proof my dogs on–is the past FH Championship track from East Germany. I am sure that you will not only find the track interesting but hard as well. You can apply all of the techniques already discussed, straight lines, step offs, saw-tooth, etc. You can arrange your articles anywhere you like.
Now, I have shared much information with you and if followed should make you and your dog a great tracking team. But, before you pat yourself on the back for doing a great training job, I would like to share this anecdote with you recently sent to me by my good friend, Will Adams.
We used to track on a big hill over looking our training field. All the handlers would dutifully lay their tracks, some short tracks with lots of bait, others, long, with little or no bait. On this hill lived a Chow dog. He would watch us lay tracks every Saturday and Sunday. If he wandered too close we would run him off.
After tracking, we would go on down to the training field, drink coffee, munch doughnuts, and talk about everybody’s tracks. We started to notice the Chow emerge from the brush up on the hill and cast all over the tracking area. We would laugh and the critiques would start to roll, “I’d like to see the dog have a deeper nose.” “I’d like to see the dog more consistent in his speed and intensity.”
Confident in our training and commitment, we would turn to our work. The Chow would continue to cast. It went like this all through the fall, into winter, and into spring. After a while, we took it for granted that the Chow would come on the field after we left and run all over the place, picking up missed food.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but it was spring, I do remember that. Gerald Tryner was gazing up the hill after tracking one day and said, “Hey, look at that damn Chow dog.” The Chow was tracking up a leg, nice and steady; he’d eat a piece of bait, re-establish his scent and move on. We all got a big laugh out of the Chow that day. Soon the Chow show became a regular feature after tracking. The Chow was getting better.
Soon, he figured out there was more food around the flags than anywhere else. He began to give the track markers a very thorough inspection before moving deeper into the tracks. The critiques began to fly once more: “The dog takes a good deep nose at the scent pad;” “The dog’s intensity is excellent on his approach to the track. His pace is good.”
Near summer, the Chow was really hitting his stride. His nose was deep and his intensity was good. His turns were excellent. He even did step-offs, and acute turns with ease. Club members would sit in wonder while the tracklayers called out the play by play, “Here comes a step off. Damn! Did you see that?”
We all agreed he was one of the best tracking dogs we’d ever trained.
We train at a new place now, and the Chow’s tracking field has been taken over by trailers. But all who saw that dog teach himself to track will never forget. He tracked out of instinct. He tracked out of habit. He gave his own corrections. His tracking was as pure as it was accurate. He learned to pace himself. When he covered one track, he moved on to the next. He stayed in drive until every last bit of bait was ingested.
I always said, “If I can catch that sucker, I’m gonna put a long line on him and go win the FH Championship.” I never did catch him. I tried. But I did learn a thing or two from that old Chow. I don’t know whatever happened to that dog, but I’ll bet somebody lost their picnic lunch after a long walk in the field somewhere near his place. I’ll bet they did.
See, I told you that if you follow the KISS principle, are patient, and maintain the proper work ethic, you too will be great.
In my last article concluding this series on tracking I would like to dwell on the handler, judge, and rules. Talk to you later.
Floyd Wilson is a USA Judge, Regional Director of the Southeast Region, four-time member of the SchH3 Club, and a Master Gold Medal holder as well as a participant and judge at the National level. His dog Zorro was 2nd in the nation to complete the FH2 with 99 points, which is one of the highest FH2 scores in the world.
This article has been republished with the consent of the United Schutzhund Clubs of America who originally published this article in its bi-monthly magazine. For more information on Schutzhund or membership with the United Schutzhund Clubs of America please visit their website www.GermanShepherdDog.com.