All dogs know how to track, they use this ability all the time. The trick is to train them to use this ability when and how we want them to. We train the dogs to follow a scent pattern on the ground, this scent pattern can be made up of many components; such as crushed vegetation, footwear and body scents. It is important to remember that a track up to 30 minutes old is made up primarily of crushed vegetation. After 30 minutes the other scents become more significant consequently, for the dog, a track 15 minutes old has a totally different scent pattern from one 2 hours old. There are a number of different ways to teach a dog to track, recently the schutzhund method of placing a food treat on every footstep seems to be gaining popularity. That is not my method, I will use food and/or toy as a final article/reward. However I think it is important that the dog learns to recognise the scent to follow, not just hunt for food. It is easier to start using a helper to walk out whilst you hold the dog, ideally walking with a breeze blowing into their back. About 50 yards away put the food on the floor, then continue to walk a further 20 yards then walk back giving the track plenty of space. The dog should be on a long lead just attached to a collar, unless the dog is already used to a harness. Walk with the dog along the line the helper laid, no commands and if the dog veers off just stand still. To start with the dog may only put it’s nose down for a few yards, that doesn’t matter, we are teaching the dog the rules to the game. Then repeat the exercise, this time the dog will keep it’s nose down for longer and so on.
Independent to this exercise you can introduce the dog to a harness and get it comfortable with it before using it for tracking. Ideally you would just use this harness for tracking, where it would become a useful key for the dog. Soon we want to introduce a word of
command, this can be tricky as we want to make sure of the correct correlation between the desired behaviour and the cue. I resolve this problem by laying a straight line track then introducing the dog to it at a 90 degree angle. If the dog goes the wrong direction I say nothing and just stand still, when the dog follows the correct track at that moment I know the dog is following the correct scent I say; “ Good Zoo”. Zoo being my command to track. Now we want to introduce turns, and to prepare the dog I will start to introduce a serpentine into the track, gentle curves at first then becoming more pronounced. In part two I will discuss how we develop the dog’s skill from this basic exercise. However next time you are out in a field just make a mark then walk five paces and make another mark. A dog can distinguish the different strengths of the scent at these two marks, this enables it to follow the scent in the correct direction. Imagine in the wild the wild dog or wolf that went in the wrong direction following a prey animal wouldn’t survive for long!
Tracking is a great team exercise for the dog and owner, and not as mysterious a skill as some would have you believe!
Regan Skinner MBIPDT