We believe that your dog comes preprogrammed with tracking software. Every dog is endowed with a miraculous ability to use his nose to find food, water, his den, and a mate.
His nose also tells him valuable information about his environment. He knows what other creatures are in or have been in the vicinity. You’ve probably heard that a male can smell a bitch in season more than a mile away. While this is amazing to us, it is routine for your dog. His brain emphasizes and relies on scent much more than on sight. Dogs have somewhere around 220 million scenting receptacles (estimated to be between 100 and 250 million receptacles depending on breed, size, and individual) in their noses compared to about 5 million in humans. Leon Whitney puts it this way: “It has been calculated that the area in a dog’s head over which air containing odors passes is about the size of the skin on his body, while our own for the same purpose is about as large as a postage stamp.” (Dog Psychology: The Basis of Dog Training.) In addition to greater capacity for scenting, the way a dog understands the scent also seem to be different than ours. I can smell vegetable soup without knowing which vegetables are in it while my dog can decipher each component of the scent coming to his nose. He can sort out the vegetation, check for predators, prey, and a mate all with just a whiff. He can discern the difference between one human and another, between one dog and another, and presumably between individual members of a herd of deer.
So what are we teaching when we “teach” our dogs to track? We are teaching our dogs to follow the scent we choose, but mostly we are learning to understand what our dog is trying to tell us by watching his body language. In other words, we are training ourselves to be able to read our dogs. In addition, we are trying to provide our dogs with many different tracking situations so the dog will be able to successfully solve whatever tracking problem he is presented.
In order to understand what your dog’s body language means, you must observe your dog in known situations. When you know where the track is (either because you laid it or it is well marked), you will be able to watch what your dog does: at the corners, around trees, on hills, when he’s on and off the track, etc. You will learn how he indicates loss of scent and how he tries to find it. You will also see what he does when he locates the direction of the scent and when he hones in on it. You will learn what he does when he finds an article. You will need to run many tracks before you will feel confident that you understand what your dog is telling you about the track. Once you reach the point of confidence, you may need to practice some blind tracks to make sure that you are ready for certification (a pre-requisite for entering an AKC tracking test). On any blind track, be sure that the tracklayer knows where the track is; only run the track when the tracklayer can walk with you. (The last thing you want to do is confuse your dog at this point by behaving differently.) Your job is to do the same thing in practice and at a test, whether you know where the track is or not.
Many handlers become concerned about things like crosstracks, roads, sidewalks, animal scents, and even a dog urinating near the track. My comment to them is to start thinking like a dog, not a human. Dogs read the local telephone pole like the newspaper. It’s an enticement, not a deterrent for your dog as he walks by. Think about a beagle in pursuit of a rabbit. Does he stop at the sidewalk and say,”That darned rabbit crossed this sidewalk and now I’ll have to stop chasing him. He’s such a clever bunny to trick me like that.” Of course not. He merely goes on following the scent. He may learn to cross to the other side of the sidewalk to search for the scent or he may just follow where the rabbit went with no hesitation. He doesn’t worry about the fact that the rabbit crossed his potty area. He doesn’t get confused because you crossed the bunny trail 10 minutes ago when you came down the sidewalk. He can follow the rabbit around the bushes, through the trees and into the brush whether the rabbit made right angle turns or hopped around in circles. My point is this. Dogs are natural trackers. AKC rules are designed to promote fair testing across the country; they are designed for handlers and judges, not for dogs. Don’t get trapped into thinking “but there can’t be an obstacle on the first leg!” Your dog can handle what’s out there; you just have to learn to understand what he’s telling you and to trust him.
We also believe that a dog learns by being successful–just like you and I do. To increase your dog’s rate of success, we believe in teaching pieces and rewarding success, rather than frequent testing. This means that we break tracking down to its smallest components to insure the greatest success. We believe that tracking as instinctual behavior is self-rewarding for most dogs. Finding and successfully following a track encourages the dog to want to stay closer to the track and keep on tracking. To that end, we believe that keeping the dog on the track (by using a short lead) is providing the highest motivation for the dog. Every time the dog is on the track, he is rewarded with the strongest ground scent. Also by using a short line, the dog can never stray very far from the track (and the reward of the strongest ground scent). By keeping the dog close to the track, we are shaping his behavior. If he stays on the track in training, he will stay on the track in a test. It is much easier to read a dog that stays on the track. We further reward the dog with occasional random food drops which can only be found if the dog remains on the track.
We do not believe in running one full length track after the next making them harder each time. Random reinforcement has been scientifically found to be the most successful. Some tracks are easy. Some are hard. Each one is different. Your goal as a handler is to make sure to stop while your dog still wants to work. Pushing your dog with tracks of ever increasing difficulty is one sure way to de-motivate him. By varying the age, obstacles, and difficulty of a track, you are insuring that your dog will be eager to go tracking with you. By doing so, you make tracking into a fun game.
Play training is also one of our favorite tools. We use play to increase the motivation to find the articles, to fine tune the dog’s nasal fitness, to teach the dog that he will find what he is looking for by perseverance. Because he is always successful, he will keep trying until he succeeds. Because we’re both having fun, we want to keep playing the game.
It is also our belief that each dog is different in his capabilities and his interests. You must work with the dog at the end of the lead. What works for one dog may not work for another. Watch as many dogs as you can. You will begin to notice different styles of tracking and you will become better at reading your own dog. You will also have more bits of information for your training bag that may be useful to you in the future with this dog or another dog.
One other important belief we share is that tracking means following scent, not working in straight lines until the scent is lost. This is critical to our teaching method and represents a means of departure from most other methods of training a dog to track. Let me explain. Most methods involve teaching the dog to go in a straight line until the dog indicates loss of scent. This is often frustrating for both dog and handler. Turns are introduced as something new after the dog has learned to track in a straight line. We believe that by introducing tracking on a serpentine (curved line or arc), we are teaching the dog to follow scent first. If the dog can follow scent, he won’t be bothered by going straight or by following the serpentine. Turns are just variations on a theme. The dog is not frustrated by having the rules changed in the middle of training. Training proceeds smoothly without the interruption of teaching turns. Our method avoids the pattern training trap of tracking straight until the scent is lost.
Our goal is to open your mind to the fascinating world of scent. We hope we will sort out the truth from the myths about tracking and tracking training. We further hope to share our enthusiasm with you and to instill in you our love of the sport.