by Prof. Sean Reidy
Because I feel so strongly that frantic or impetuous tracking is to be avoided, based on the problems I have had with dogs I trained in the past, everything I do is aimed at getting the dog to really concentrate on the track with a deep nose and a steady, focused mindset. If this can be achieved, so many problems can be avoided that it makes getting great tracking performances really quite simple! I have tried many methods in tracking, ranging all along the spectrum from purely motivational tracking to forced tracking, and I have settled on an approach that has produced exceptional results for me.
At two to four months of age in the perfect age to start tracking training. I start puppies with a completely non-directional track, to avoid early problems of speed. If the puppy’s first few experiences with tracking do not require him to go anywhere but simply to stay within the confines of a small circle, he will learn to track in a calm unhurried way. By starting tracking with a straight track and a tight line, many handlers run the risk of teaching their dogs to pull hard into the line, and to rush the track. This builds in problems associated with speed and impetuous tracking from the very start. I prefer to avoid creating problems, rather than trying to correct them at a later stage, when they are much more difficult to eradicate.
Begin by getting somebody to hold the puppy while you lay a “crop circle”. This is a circular area about five feet in diameter, which you trample heavily. It is best to use grass, about four to eight inches long, so that the circular area is very clearly defined when compared to the grass around it, just like a crop circle. Try to use just one entry/exit point to the circle, so there aren’t a number of tangential tracks coming out of it to distract the puppy. When you have trampled down the circle, scatter about 20 pieces of meat randomly within it. Keep some more pieces in a waist pouch so you can throw them down in front of the pup if necessary.
Bring the puppy (which should be keen by now if it has seen all of this happening) into the circle. Holding the lead (about 6 feet in length) in your left hand, bend down and use your right hand to point out a piece of food. At the same time, give the command “seek” or “track”, or whatever words you prefer to use. Now, the next part is important: LET THE LINE GO ABSOLUTELY SLACK. It should be dragging along the ground behind the pup, to avoid any opposition-reflex. Opposition-reflex is the natural tendency of dogs to oppose the resistance felt from a tight line. Tighten the line, and most dogs will pull even harder against it. By working with a slack line from the beginning, you can help to avoid creating speed problems in tracking.
After eating that piece of food, if the puppy lifts its nose, give the “seek” command again, and show him another piece of food. After two or three times, the puppy should start investigating the area on his own, while you follow, keeping the line absolutely slack. Every time the puppy finds another piece of food, give the “seek’ command, in order to create an association between command, behavior and reward.
If the puppy leaves the circle to investigate (as they all do, eventually) say nothing. Stay in the circle yourself, and let the pup learn for itself the difference between the trampled area with food and the track scent, and the virgin area, which contains nothing interesting.
When the puppy comes back into the area again, give the “seek” command, and, if necessary, toss a piece of food where it is easy to find. It is astonishing how quickly they learn the difference between the track area and the virgin ground. After a few lessons, they correct themselves so quickly it is almost as if they received an instruction to return when they go out of the circle.
Do not insist on the puppy finding all of the pieces of food within the circle. As more pieces are found and eaten, fewer remain within the area, so the positive reinforcement becomes less frequent, and the dog begins to lose interest. Before this happens, while the dog is still keen, pick him up and lift him out of the circle. Praise him highly. That is the end of the first lesson.
This method avoids the problems associated with starting tracking in a straight line, excessive speed, tight leash, opposition reflex, etc. The first 6 to 10 lessons should be done in the form of circle tracks, and when the puppy has learned to put his nose down every time he hears the word “seek”, you can begin to do some straight tracks with him. I believe in changing from straight tracks to curves at a very early stage, to track the puppy that he must check every inch of the track, because it is constantly changing direction. This teaches focus and deep concentration. But that is another lesson, and another day’s work.
Prof. Sean Reidy, based in Ireland, has been a dog trainer for over 20 years, with a particular interest in tracking. He has been involved in the Schutzhund dog sport for much of that time, winning Irish and British national titles with several dogs, and training a number of dogs from puppyhood right through to Schutzhund 3 and FH titles. He has also won international Schutzhund competitions, though he no longer competes. He is a Championship Show Breed judge of German Shepherd Dogs.
For several years, he was Chief Schutzhund Judge of the German Shepherd Working Dog Association in Ireland, and he has judged both breed shows and Schutzhund and IPO trials in a number of countries. He has also held numerous dog training seminars in Ireland, Britain and Zimbabwe.