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Tracking: Dog Training Methods

by Hans van der Stroom


          As in all aspects of training with dogs, in tracking we find as much ideas as there are instructors. Without having the illusion to be complete I would like to place them in a few categories. Almost every method has it's advantages, the problem we meet lies in the fact that the disadvantages are rarely mentioned, except in the vision of others who are adapting another method. In short terms we can come to this overview:

METHODS USING FORCE

          In this category the basic principle is that the dog has to follow the track and will be punished if he doesn't. The idea behind this is that in the end he will choose to do his job. Dirty methods like working with a pin-collar attached to a broomstick are used to achieve this. The only advantage I can see is a possible satisfaction of the handler's sadistic lusts. The disadvantages are numerous, mainly because there isn't any fun at all in working this animal-unfriendly way. This has nothing to do with real tracking: the dog performs a trick and there is a big chance that the poor animal will pretend to be working in order to avoid punishment.

METHODS BASED ON LUST

          In this case the main principle is that the dog is rewarded with food during the actual tracking. The thought behind this is that he will learn that the shortest way to getting his stomach filled is by following the track. There are several common tricks to do this, like placing small pieces of dog-food in one's footsteps, trailing a piece of meat behind, not feeding the dog for a longer period and then placing his food ant the end of the track, etc.

          The fault here is mixing up the term "tracking" with "finding food". Experience learns that a dog that has learned tracking this way easily becomes unreliable. It also takes a lot of time to "deprogram" the dog from this method. This method is often used in Schutzhund-training. For following shorter tracks it can be an easy method, specially in the case of inexperienced handlers.

COMBINED METHOD OF FOOD & PUNISHMENT

          This is a milder combination of the two categories above - also the most common practice in Schutzhund- and other programs. The dog learns by the use of good & bad, right & wrong, rewarding & punishing. I think this method can be successful.

          An important question is: "will this method in the end come up with a dog that has persistence on longer and more difficult tracks, finding no food and with less active rewards?". Besides that the dog gets used to a very active handler, reacting on his behavior almost instantly. This has to be build off very carefully because of the risk that the dog will not develop independency.

METHODS BASED ON RETRIEVING/SORTING

          The thought behind these methods is that the dog rewards itself by having the opportunity to bring the article back to the handler. What's needed is a dog that likes to retrieve. Actually, the result will be that the dog tries to follow the track in order to find the article. This has the advantage that the dog will get very keen on articles. A disadvantage can be that retrieving must be "fun" for the dog and is learned in a pleasant way, otherwise there's no reward in doing an exercise under pressure.

          The method based on sorting out scents starts from the point where the dog is able to sort out different scents on articles and will retrieve an article with a previous given smell. After that the dog is learned to follow a track with one particular scent and sort this scent out from the rest of the surface. In my opinion this method looks good in theory, but in practice I think it is rather a detour.

METHODS ACCORDING TO THE HUNTING-INSTINCTS

          In Europe during the 70's Mr. Dlapal en Mr. Haak made behaviorist research on dogs operational for training purposes. They started with the idea that when a dog follows his hunting instincts it cannot be frustrated and will follow a sequence of psychological "drives" that are naturally anchored in it's behavior. Both gentlemen used their theories in training SAR-dogs. The use in training tracking dogs is also very possible.

          Using the dog's passion to hunt in a right way has to lead to proper results.

          The items mentioned above are by no means complete, but overlooking the list at least we can come up with a background to create our "own" special blend of methods.

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