by Hans van der Stroom
This is the third article in this series about "Tracking With Your Beagle." As promised in the last issue, Step #3 will talk about a little more theory about what a track actually is, the influence of wind, temperature, moisture, etc. Then, with this knowledge in mind, I will try to point out what's the best way to teach turns to your dog. As usual, I will end with some FAQs about the subject.
I presume that you are still exercising as described in Step #2, step-by-step while increasing the length of the track, and building in some some small obstacles like wire fences, paths, etc. By this time the dog should be able to find several articles on the track and fetch them to you in a joyful and direct manner. If this is not the case, study this chapter, but keep on doing the exercises from Step #2 until the dog works properly. The "play and fetch"-exercise still plays a major role during our program. It is the most important stimulus in training the dog!
I'll try not to bother you with too much theoretical matters. We will just study the things we need to understand in order to improve our tracking. Remember that "scent" actually consists of small chemical particles fitting into some sort of microscopic "receivers" on the dog's neurons.
First of all, let's take a good look at what actually happens when you walk through a meadow in order to create a track for the dog:
At every step you make your heel touch the ground first, followed by the rest of your sole, and then ending with the toe. This will make an imprint in the surface which has the following consequences:
Notice that this "complex" of scent particles" is rather unique for everyone walking this path. It is almost impossible to think about two persons leaving exactly the same mixture of scents! Also notice that (logically spoken) each footstep is followed by another: the process of rotting, bleeding of plants, etc. will start a micro-second later than on the previous step. Over a length of several yards this makes it possible for the dog to notice the path going from "old" to "new", thus having an indication of the actual direction of the track.
Now we have an idea about the consistency of the track. What happens next?
The mentioned "complex" will be "hanging" on what is now the actual track. On this track, the smell is different from the rest of the environment. Some of the scent can be located directly on the ground, other particles will more or less be hanging in the vegetation or in the air around the prints. How compact the complex will be depends of several conditions, which are for instance:
Now think of what your dog is doing by following this complex of scents and conditions, discriminating it from the other scents alongside the track. Isn't Pluto actually doing a hell of a job for you? If you already didn't, you'd better start respecting him for his skills!
Looking at illustration #1 (below) you can see the influence of the wind on the track. It's quite clear that the scent-particles are blown away a little by the direction of the wind.
This is important for us, because it can make the dog work beside the path we walked rather than directly where we walked. This is because the dog has a habit of following the track where the most of the scent particles are concentrated. Which, as you now know, is not always the place where you actually walked, but could be to the right or left of the scent line where the wind is blowing the scent particles!
Also, most of the scent can be a little higher off of the ground rather than lying on the surface. Especially when there is higher vegetation, the scent particles can gather between the stems or on top of the plants. This off course will make the dog raise his head and nose. But, when tracking on hard surfaces the surplus of particles will be directly on the ground: the other particles will be blown away too far, in a rare faction too small to smell. Which will result in the dog lowering his nose.
Now what does this mean for us teaching turns:
As explained earlier the dog that's tracking into the wind will notice that the particles are blown up to his nose while raising his head. This was why we arranged our exercises in such a manner that the dog was working with the wind in his back, in order to create a habit for "deep" tracking. When teaching turns to the dog we cannot do this anymore: a changing direction of the track automatically results in a change of wind direction and thus the track itself. For our first exercises with turns we can use this information very well by making our turns into the wind. That way the dog gets the scent blown toward him, which will make the change of direction easier for him to figure out.
Notice that making a wide turn automatically results in increasing of directional changes, which is in fact more difficult for the dog than noticing one change and learning to react to it. So, when exercising, make your turns not too sharp: bending 90 degrees in three or four steps is probably the best. Your first track (decreasing the length for the moment) will therefore look like Illustration #2 (below).
Now take your dog and start working as you are used to doing. Sooner or later the dog will reach the turn. Have a good look at what he is doing at that time. If the dog stops, you stop! Hold the line slightly tightened. Give him the opportunity to sniff around, gently encouraging him. Follow and praise him when he is going into the second leg of the track correctly, but don't overreact. If you overreact, the dog will stop and look at you, and thus lose his concentration. Make sure there is an article a few yards "around the corner" in order to give the dog affirmation and give you the opportunity to reward him. End your exercise with playing.
It is important that you know exactly where the turn is! Never allow the dog to run over it! Always stop him as he tends to reach the turn, speaking quietly to him in an excited manner and then immediately praising him when he points into the direction of the second leg.
After a few turns into the wind have succeeded you can start making your turns in the down wind direction. Try to make it a challenge for the dog to find out where the turns are located. You will notice that those dogs that were a little too hasty and eager on the tracks will become more precise workers when challenged with turns. They will stop bursting forwards and become more intense.
Take care that the dog isn't tracking too much "on the wind", gently leading him back onto the actual track. Concentrate on teaching the dog to work as secure and concentrated as possible.
Now keep practicing tracks with one turn, building up the length of the track again; and also after the turn is made. As soon as the dog is working in a proper manner you can start making several turns.
Q:My dog starts circling around when reaching the turn. What should I do about this?
A:Stand still and try to let the dog find his own way. By holding the line tight you can prevent the dog from making too large of a circle. But, by all means, let him find out about and negotiate the turn himself. Doing it this way lets the dog develop independency in working a scent line. You will find out that the more experienced the dog becomes, the smaller the circle will get, without teaching him to depend on the help of his handler.
Q:My dog has a tendency to leave the track, following the direction of the wind. What's the best way to cope with that?
A:If the actual distance of the track is no more than about 1 foot, don't worry about it. The dog will get more and more certain of the track during the process of learning. Dogs that tend to work further away either didn't learn to track properly, or are simply sloppy trackers. Both situations have to be corrected by pulling the dog gently back onto the track before rewarding/praising him. This takes patience and time, but so be it!
Q:Other instructors tell me to use food in turns, in order to reward the dog. Isn't that a better way?
A:As you probably noticed I'm absolutely no supporter of food on the track. This is simply not the method I'm describing here. And there are, off course, more than one road leading to Rome. I think using food is only wise when no other method worked out properly. Food on tracks is unnatural, misleading and insulting to the dog's nose and intelligence. Dogs should work for their handler, who is the only one to (personally) reward him with food. My method will take a little more time in the beginning, but this will pay off in the long run. There will always be a moment when the the dog has to learn tracking without the food reward. In my humble opinion you should trigger your dog to work for you, instead of working for food. When the relationship between the dog and his handler is OK, he will be much more motivated on difficult tracks. Your better off to reward the dog with some food out of your hands when he finds the article for you!
That's all for now. In the next issue we'll discuss our goals when making the tracks more difficult (longer, older, different surfaces, etc.). For the time being, I wish you a lot of pleasure working and training with your Beagle!