The Building Blocks of Tracking: Part I
By Floyd Wilson
If you are looking at this, you are thinking about tracking. That’s good. That is the first step. But before we go any further, make sure you have read the first and second installments of this article (Schutzhund USA September/October 1999 and November/December 1999). Article One dealt with success and failure at the recent FH and North American Championship in Tennessee. In Article Two, we explored attitudes, work ethic and conditioning and offered an overview of tracking success and failure. We noted that it all boils down to having a program.
When the young lady in the “Tic Tac” commercial is asked the question, “Can you breathe without taking Tic Tacs?” her reply is, “Sure you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it.” Ask the same girl if you can train tracking without a program, her answer would probably be the same. “Sure you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it.” It’s basic. You need a program to be successful in anything you do.
At birth, the animal can track. Smell is a survival skill and Mother Nature has already taken care of it. As trainers, we try to mold and channel these inborn skills to our needs. To compel or to motivate, that is the question. To be or not to be. . .hard.
In my opinion, an untrained dog should be worked motivationally through prey/hunger methods. On the other hand, if you have an older, titled, import dog, you can not really know how the animal was trained. More than likely, the import was trained with some form of compulsion. Bottom line: If you train with motivational prey-hunger drive first, you can add compulsion to instill responsibility at higher levels of maturity and training. On the other hand, if you have an animal trained via compulsion, motivational techniques must be introduced creatively and with patience.
In time, through patience, kindness and responsibility, a trainer can apply motivational techniques to the compulsively trained dog. An animal trained with compulsion is not, for the most part, a happy teammate. The animal may have difficulty with concentration, drive, intensity, and problem solving. The dog may frustrate easily and just plain quit. Quitting leads to conflict. Conflict leads to confusion. Confusion destroys the learning curve.
A motivated student is a good student. Responsibility must be instilled, to be sure, but for the best learning results, an environment of motivation, rather than compulsion, is best.
When Do I Start Tracking?
As soon as I get my hands on the animal. That’s when it starts. That is, of course, because I use food as a bonding tool. A trainer can imprint young dogs and old dogs using food. For dogs, sharing food is a critical step in the bonding process. When you start a puppy, you start with a clean slate. What the dog learns is up to you. With an older dog trained by someone else, you must spend a great deal of time bonding, bonding, and bonding some more. Observe your dog during the bonding period, toss some food around, and get accustomed to each other. Make sure you follow up with the person who trained the dog initially. If the dog’s got some good scores, you know he’ll track. The bond hedges your bets he’ll track for you. And most important, he’ll respect you enough to let you refine his work without conflict.
You Can’t Play the Game Without the Gear
Going tracking is alot like going fishing. Chances are, you’ll have to get up early and you’ll have to take a drive to a remote area. You need to be ready to go. There’s no excuse. Some people’s dogs track better than others do, but everyone can be and should be equally ready to go when it comes to the gear.
You should have marking stakes. I think barbecue skewers make the best marking stakes because they are heavy, they have a sharp point, and you can throw them like a spear. You will eventually become very proficient at throwing these skewers.
You should have marking tape. The marking tape should be orange, which shows up in all conditions. Surveyor’s tape fulfills this function well. It is cheap and readily available. Quarter-inch washers can be threaded with this orange tape. Thread the washers with one-foot-long streamers of tape.
Use stakes to mark corner proximity and washers to mark article proximity. To train tracking efficiently, you must use these marking cues to help you prepare for critical training moments during the track. Those moments come most often near corners and articles. When you use these markers you always know where your articles and turns are.
You should have leather, wood (flat and dowel), carpet, and plastic. In the North American Championship, the articles were a leather pouch with a small bottle, donated beanie babies, bamboo, a plastic guitar, and for the K-9s, a plastic water pistol. Be creative. A good tracking trainer has lots of weird stuff in his article bag. I guarantee it.
At least one 33-foot tracking line, preferably two, made of parachute cord. You need a line that is light and that dries fast. Avoid the long leather lines. They get heavy when you get them wet, and then they get stiff.
Lab books are good for this. Some of them even have graph paper in them. Those are good. Your logbook should be durable because it will be outside a great deal; and it should be easy to use. Get one that has a pencil carrier. (I know from personal experience that ink can freeze under certain tracking conditions.)
Hunting season and good tracking conditions often go hand in hand. Wear safety orange during hunting season to ensure you remain clearly visible in low light and early morning conditions.
Knee-high rubber boots, water and food bowls, water, a sprayer, squeaky toys, a vest with numerous utility pockets, leashes, tennis balls, a portable radio, a sheath to hold marking skewers (2 ½” x 24” PCV pipe), a canteen, at least two 36” high wooden dowel stakes, and a rain suit or poncho. This stuff is all cheap. Have it, and you will be ready for any conditions your dog will be asked to track in.
From this point on we are talking about all dogs, whether they be puppies or older dogs.
Trainers must establish an attitude for tracking not only for themselves but for the animal as well. You should develop a scheme that tips off the dog as to what you are going to do, from the time you load up until the time you take the dog out for tracking.
For example, as you load up ask, “Wanna go suching? Wanna go tracking?” over and over, flashing food, sardines, hot dogs, etc., giving them a little taste now and then. Use the water spray aimed at the nose, saying over and over “Wanna go suching?” Dogs track better when their muzzles are hydrated. Set a routine so the dog can know what is coming. By doing this you precondition your animal to go “such.”
Beginning to Track Together
The first command you teach should be “find it.” As you take your dog out on a six-foot leash, toss a small piece of hot dog out so that it lands behind the dog. Know exactly where the food is, tell the dog to “find it.” Since the food is behind the dog, he will have to turn around to find it. He’ll sniff the ground looking for the treat. Point the food out in the beginning to aid the dog in learning. In time, the dog will automatically drop his nose to the ground the moment you say “find it.” You should do this routine at least five times per session, five times a day for one week. This is one of those basic little things you can do that applies not only to the beginning of tracking but to the highest levels as well.
In a trial, the tracklayer has to go on the field somewhere. He walks off a road, or wherever, and proceeds out into a field to begin laying your track. The footprints he makes out to your scent pad are known as a “tail.” When your dog knows the “find it” command, you can use this tail to your advantage. You will learn to make the tail an important part of your training. Because you cannot give an obedience command within one meter of the scent pad, you use the tail to put your dog in drive before he gets to the scent pad. It’s not illegal. You are just using part of the natural surroundings to prepare your dog for the track. Your graded track starts one meter from the flag. Your dog’s track can start at the tail, if you have your “find it” command preconditioned.
Hitting the tail
Take your dog up where you think the tracklayer went out, sit your dog, line under front leg, say “find it.” You now have your dog in drive. In fact, when your dog hits the scent pad, he is already tracking. If your dog gets lost on the track, you can use “find it” to reinforce the track without confusing your dog or creating frustration. It’s a quick way to communicate to your dog, “Hey, start sniffing out there.”
In teaching the dog motivationally with food, we are using the dog’s prey/hunger drives. To be successful, the dog obviously must be hungry. I think the best way to stimulate a dog’s hunger drive is to under-ration, rather than skip rations. The lightly rationed dog is always ready to eat. When you compile this readiness to eat with a little trash talk and food tease, you have a dog very driven to find some food.
Drive-building and repetition will help you master the “find it” command. You are then ready to start testing for tail recognition.
Building the tail
Place a skewer in the ground, walk a straight line 10-15 paces, dropping the food at random. When you reach the end of your 15 paces, place another skewer in the ground to mark the end of the tail. Place four or five pieces of food at the end as well. Finding the big meat at the end of a track fits nicely with a dog’s natural drive to seek and hunt. Wait 5 to 10 minutes, and in the meantime start talking trash to your dog. “Wanna go suching?” Give him a little taste of food. Pump him up to the point where he is ready to go. You will know when it’s right.
When the time comes, take your dog to the flag and tell him to “find it.” When the dog successfully finds the food tell your dog “good find,” nothing else. Most handlers talk too much. Dogs cannot read or write, nor do they understand sentence structure. Most dogs are happy to hear a quick happy tone such as “good find.” Lay at least three of these straight ‘tails,’ and when you are convinced your dog knows the “find it” command you are ready to move on to the next phase.
If you are going to compete in schutzhund you must teach footprint-to-footprint tracking or you will never be in the points. In the beginning, I believe soft dirt is the best for teaching footprint-to-footprint tracking. If you cannot find dirt, then short golf-course cut grass will do.
By now, you should have your dog doing straight tails perfectly with the “find it” command. Now you are ready to work on the “such” (track) command. Don’t worry, it is no big deal for you to go from “find it” to “such.” All components of the track are taught separately and then joined together in the testing part. I prefer to refer to what we will be doing here as “precision tracking.”
Lay your tail as before, with a skewer at the start, your tail, another skewer beside your left heel. Now flatten a 24” x 24” square with food at all corners and one piece in the middle. It is extremely important that your dog search the scent pad well. This is the scent that must stay with him throughout the track.
As you depart the scent pad to begin laying your track, try to dig your heel in each step (the reason for soft dirt or short grass). Place food in the heel print. If you dig that heel in effectively, the dog’s nose should go into the heel print for the food, across the foot, and over to the next heel print, and so on, until you have completed your objective.
Lay three tracks about 30 paces long and at least 15 paces apart. All three tracks should have a tail for the “find it” command, a scent pad with five pieces of food for the such command and 30 paces with food in each heel print.
You should use your six-foot leash for guidance, not corrections. At this level you may want to lay your tracks along natural vegetation lines, such as ditches, edges of low-high grass, and indentations in the soil. You should keep working at this level for as long as it takes to be fundamentally sound.
After your three tracks have aged 5 or 10 minutes, bring your dog out. Make sure you let the dog relieve itself before taking it to the tail areas. This done, bring your dog to the first tail marker. Sit the dog, place the leash under the dog’s arm, give the “find it” command, praise with “good find,” get to the scent pad, give the such command, guide the dog from heel print to heel print, praise with “good such,” nothing else. When you approach the end of the track your dog will find a few extra pieces of food. You should give much praise, but only with the “good such” command.
When the track is completed, you should sit your dog, take your leash out from under the dog’s right arm, and heel counter-clockwise to the second tail, run your track, and repeat the same procedure on the third track.
When you complete several training periods using the three-track method, extend the second track to 40 paces and the third track to 50 paces. Lengthen the tracks accordingly with each new training session. The longer you make the third track, the shorter the first track becomes, until you eliminate the first track altogether. After much success and by the time your third track reaches 200 paces, you can eliminate the second track.
Work the basic three-track drill in all kinds of weather, wind, and variable conditions. You should track with wind from the rear, front, cross winds from the right and left side. You should study the geography of the land and determine the grain. Grain of the land refers to the way the farmer plows or harvests the crops. So, you will practice with the grain, across the grain, and with the angle of the grain. The angle is where the farmer turns the machine around. If you are a serious trainer, you will know the conditions throughout the year and train accordingly. These tracking revolutions should be done on a single field. This will be your training field, as opposed to your testing field.
In the Raleigh area, we are fortunate to have access to more than 80 acres at the Louisburg Airport. In this one environment we can, at different times of the year, train for almost any conditions we may encounter east of the Mississippi River. The only exception is the so-called “moon dust” found in some parts of Florida.
It is at this training-tracking field that we began to work with the serpentine track. We use the serpentine to teach and train the basics. All corrections and stressing takes place on this, our “serpentine field” (Figure 1). Testing takes place somewhere else, under trial-like conditions with no corrections allowed. One must make mental notes of deficiencies and correct on the “serpentine field.” I feel by doing it this way, the dog does not have a bad experience on the trialing field.
Figure 1 legend: In order for you to understand the serpentine concept better, I have placed numbers on the chart. What do these numbers mean?
1. A cut around the entire 3+ acres where spectators may observe, four-wheelers, etc.
2. The serpentine, we do not teach turns as such. We teach a dog to follow the track. If your dog will follow a trail, then turns are easy.
3. The corkscrew. If you think your dog can track, let him get in the corkscrew.
4. The long leg, which comes off the end of the runway. You should always have a long leg to begin or finish with.
5. Where we test for turns and scent discrimination.
6. A forest surrounds the entire field.
7. Leads to the runway.
8. You will find anything that grows.
We are fortunate in that we can get this cut three to four times a year, which partially prevents seeds from forming. All cut areas are as low as we can possibly cut them. This in my opinion helps the dog to develop a deep nose. It also helps you see when the dog has a high nose and is not tracking footprint-to-footprint.
The handler must know where the training track is 100 percent of the time. There is absolutely no reason why a handler should lose a training track. There is also no reason for a tracking trainer not to know all the terrain features available on the training-tracking field. Know it. Chart it.
In the environment of the serpentine track, we teach the step-off, saw-tooth, discrimination within 1” and hopefully a 100-point happy working dog with precision.
Finally, after the dog is fundamentally sound in all phases, we teach the “such platz” in the serpentine. Refer back to the “find it” command. This is the same technique used to teach the find it command, except that the leather article has replaced the food. You will need at least 20 leather articles. Again use a six-foot leash and instead of tossing food around, toss a leather article out behind the dog and repeat the “find it” command. As the dog starts to sniff the article repeat such platz. When the dog downs with nose on the article repeat, “good such platz.” When the dog is reliable with the find it and such platz command go to one edge of the serpentine and place 20 articles five paces apart. At this point do not use food. You are replacing food with the article. Eventually you will train your dog to track from article to article. As you and your dog become more proficient with the such platz, you will gradually put more space between the articles. You are striving to teach your dog to track from article-to-article, whether they are five feet or 500 feet apart. When you have completed this segment of tracking, you and your dog should be well on your way to your first trial and 100 points.
Furthermore, if you follow the plan you should be prepared for a SchH1, 2, or 3 track and, who knows, maybe an FH track. After all, using this technique to teach my dog, Zorro, we did a “B” to qualify and then an FH before ever doing a SchH1. After the FH, Zorro completed the SchH1, 2, and 3 in succession.
There is nothing random about tracking training. Have a place, have a plan without too many moving parts. Make things simple and repeat them. This, I feel, is the way to train tracking. You end up with a responsible, reliable, happy teammate on the tracking field. And that equals enjoyment and clarity of the tracking goal.
Remember the 3 T’s: Teach, Train, Test. Be patient; success begets success. Be prepared to go back and re-teach. Make a plan. Make it happen.
Floyd Wilson is a USA Judge, Regional Director of the Southeast Region, 4-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 Nation to complete the FH2 with 99 points, which is one of the highest FH2 scores in the world.