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The Actual Basics of Tracking

by Hans van der Stroom

STEP #2:  The first tracks

          In the first article "Tracking With Your Beagle" you got acquainted with what I think is the best introduction of tracking to your dog. In this article we will go one step further and teach "The Actual Basics of Tracking" to our pupil. This step has to be a seamless continuation of the first one. We will see what preparations we have to make, both to the dog and the track we are using, and how the first exercises have to be developed. We will now teach the dog that the articles he is used to can be found at the end of a small track

          Keep in mind that working in an easy and careful manner, taking small steps forward and repeating each step until the dog has really learned it is always better than going too quick. We don't want to be hasty and impatient. Dogs that are built up too quickly will fall back sooner or later and there is a chance the animal will always be making mistakes.

          Again I will end with some Frequently Asked Questions about the subject.

Preparing the dog

          Presuming that the exercises I mentioned in the first chapter ended up well, there are no further really important preparations to be done. Notice however that the "play and fetch" exercise still has to be done during the rest of our program. This exercise will always be  maintained as the most important stimulus in training the dog!

          I also presume that the dog is used to wearing the harness sometimes, so this is not bothering him anymore.

          On the day of the first track there are some "minor" preparations:

          Make sure that the dog is in good health and is well rested. Never feed a dog before tracking with him. This is not because of the fact that a hungry dog works better, but tracking is actually very strenuous work for dogs. Not only mentally, but also physically. During actual tracking a dog's heartbeat, his body-temperature, and his breaths-per-minute are increasing. These things aren't very healthy on a full stomach! After your arrival at the tracking-field, make a short walk with the dog, and perhaps play a little. Also, make sure that there is some fresh water readily at hand. If possible: show him another dog tracking and being rewarded for that. Now put the dog away in your car or attach him to a fence or something like that (seek for a quiet place where there can be no harm done to him and where there are no distractions). Avoid pressure coming from harsh commands. "Staying on it's place" is an exercise that belongs to the dog's obedience-lessons.

Preparing the first track

          We will do our first teaching under the best circumstances we can find. This means: a quiet day without windy conditions or rain. Pick a nice meadow: grass not too high, soft surface, and without cross tracks.

          When starting to walk the first track keep in mind to point your back to the wind before starting. The novice dog will always be tracking with the wind in it's back. By starting this way the dog needs to bring his nose to the ground in order to smell the scent of the track and  there is no scent blown to him. By doing this he will create the habit of working with his nose near to the ground. Because of the fact that the wind is coming from behind the novice dog this will keep him from being bothered by the wind.

          We start our first track by placing the flag on our left. Stay a while on this place and then walk ahead for 2 or 3 meters (7 - 10 feet). Then turn around and walk back to the flag again. What we are doing is creating a well walked-upon start of the track, on which the dog has lots of scent. Next walk ahead again, and continue walking when leaving the start we already made. Take small steps, but avoid scratching or shuffling. This is often done by TD-handlers, but has absolutely no use! It is scientifically proven that normal steps leave the best scentline. Continue to walk for approximately 20 meters (60 feet). At the end of the scentline we place one of the dog's most favored articles used in step #1 (May/Jun 2000 issue). Place the article in such a way that the dog cannot see the article when coming up to it. Return in a wide circle. The track now looks as in illustration #1 below.

The first track

          Now release the dog, walk around for a while and play a little to comfort him. Then put on the harness and attach the line to it. You can easily support the dog by acting calm and relaxed yourself. Remember that a dog is very much an animal that likes habits. When it understands that the ritual of putting a harness on, unrolling the line and walking to the starting-flag means it is going to track, it will automatically start to come into a 'tracking mood.'

          Once at the starting-flag you point your finger to the ground and gently give the command "Go Find". How childish it may seem but it helps the dog (being a "nose-oriented" animal remember?) as you start sniffing yourself. By pointing to the ground make a forward movement in the direction of the track, holding the line with your other hand. Always walk on the right side of the dog, later on behind him. Every time the dog tries to smell and puts his nose to the ground you gently praise him with your voice, using a soft and supporting tone. It will look like the poor animal doesn't understand a bit of what's going on. And in fact this is right -- what we're asking is completely new to him this day! Be patient and remember that putting pressure on the dog will damage all of our earlier work. Later on, we like him to work enthusiastically and on his own, so a little frustration on your side of the road shouldn’t be much bother. Keep on pointing to the ground and give praise to the dog every time it is interested, sniffs, or walks forward on the track. Keep repeating the command to search. Sooner or later, step by step, we arrive at the place the article is hidden in the grass. If the first step is finished the correct way, the dog will recognize the article as one of those funny things to retrieve to you. Using the familiar command, try to motivate the dog to retrieve the article to you. This shouldn't be difficult. If it is, go back to step #1. Play with the article and show your dog how happy and satisfied you are he found it. Important Note: DO NOT  forget to end the whole show with the rewarding-ritual. This will always be connected to finding and retrieving an article! After this first exercise take off the harness and proudly go home or walk around for while. No matter how "bad" the dog's performance may have been, ALWAYS take care to stop in a good way. This is the experience the dog will remember the next time.

          Repeat this exercise 3 or 4 times a week under the best circumstances you can find. You will see that sooner or later the dog gets the point and will start to understand what we are asking of him. The dogs that get the opportunity to find out themselves what the meaning of this new game is will become the best scholars later on. It is of great importance to keep repeating this exercise until the dog really knows what he is doing and performs properly every time. This means: putting his nose to the ground near the flag, taking good scent at the start (if he doesn't -- hold him still for awhile and sniff!), then following the track carefully, and finding/retrieving the article. If he starts to pull away from your too quickly, start walking behind him and always walk in a gentle stroll yourself. If you start running, your dog will get used to this speed and will become less careful in his work. The best situation is when the line between you your dog is approximately 2 meters (7 feet) long and the dog is just pulling slightly. This step is the basic of good tracking. All other tracking is in fact "just" a follow-up of it. Only continue to the next step if the dog is really proficient with it. Don't over rush things too much!

Building up the basics

          The next thing we do is to develop these basics. This is first done by making the track longer, until the total length is approximately 100 meters long and the dog keeps working in the correct way mentioned above. We also start shortening the doubled steps at the start until this is approximately only 1 m² around the starting-flag. The next thing we do is lead the track over some small obstacles, such as brooks, fences, small paths, etc. Again keep in mind that the wind should be coming from behind. Make good notes in a notebook in order to be able to later evaluate the progress of your dog. Take care to let the dog follow the track as precisely as possible. If he doesn't perform correctly, stand still and encourage him with a new command, immediately following him as he continues. If all is well, give more line to the dog, up to 4 meters in total, but not more than that. There is one point of attention now, and that is that as the track becomes longer there is a chance that the dog will be so much in the tracking-mood that it may lose interest in the articles. This can be avoided by really taking your time and doing lots of rewarding and praising when appropriate.

          Once the dog is capable of working a 100 meter-track out to the end without problems, we then get him used to tracks with more than one article on it. This means a "re-start" to the dog. In the beginning this can be a surprise for him, but most dogs soon realize that the show continues. The exercise will look as in illustration #2 below.

n the next step (which will be described in the Sep/Oct 2000 issue) we will talk about tracking turns, the influence of wind, temperature, moisture, etc. A little more theory about what a track really is will be necessary by then. Perhaps it’s a good idea to start searching for some literature about this subject in the meantime.

          Keep in mind not to over rush things! Even if your dog tracks like a vacuum-cleaner it still is a good idea to keep on repeating the "100 meter-exercise". The steadier the dog is working the better! If you think the dog needs variation you better make your tracks even longer or ask someone else to do so for you. Concentrate on teaching the dog to work as secure and concentrated as possible. If this is the case, working on turns will be much easier, both for you and your dog.

FAQ’s

Q: "My dog is so enthusiastic that he pulls me across the track. What can I do about that?"

A: Be happy that your dog shows enthusiasm! Take care however -- DO NOT follow the dog in his speed at any time. This is what the harness is for rather than a neck collar, so the dog can pull without his breath taken away. Keep on following the dog in the same gentle "stroll", holding the line firmly. Most dogs slow down a bit when they find out that they can't go any faster. We will bring back his basic speed later on. For now it's very important that the dog shows an urge to work.

Q: "My dog seems to loose interest after tracking a few meters? What can be the cause of this?"

A: Most likely your dog is unable to concentrate on tracking for a longer period. The reason for this can be his age (young dogs have but a short span of concentration) or simply a very playful dog. The best you can do is placing the article within the "concentration-range" of the dog by making your first tracks shorter than described. Praise the dog excessively when finding it. Later on you can make your tracks longer. A yard longer every time is probably the best.

Q: "My dog works out the track pretty well, but neglects the article. Is this wrong and if so, what should I do about it?"

A: There are lots of dogs that like tracking so much that they're not interested in articles. It seems to me that the higher the "hunting-passion" of a dog, the less the dog is interested in the article. Now compare this with the normal behavior of a Beagle and you know the reason. He should find the articles easily because of a Beagle's exceptional scenting ability, however, retrieving the articles is just as important as the tracking. Interest him by the use of excessive play and rewarding, and repeat the exercise described in step #1 often - using his favorite food as a reward. You will see that the dog becomes more and more interested in articles.

Q: "My dog tracks very well, can I give him more line in order to work more freely?"

A: Yes you can, but don't exaggerate! At this point in the training, it is best to have a few yards of line between you and the dog, which will give you the opportunity to walk behind him, but still having the possibility to guide him when he tends to leave the track. DO NOT give the dog so much freedom that he can leave the track!

Q: "What is the reasoning behind the philosophy of keeping the wind to my dog's back?"

A: I want the dog to create a habit of tracking with his nose as deep to the ground as possible (in order to avoid "trailing", which can easily end up in some "free-searching for articles"). This can only be achieved when the scent is not blown towards his nose (the dog will automatically raise his head). I think that a dog that is used to tracking "low" will later on have a lesser tendency to go far away from the actual track in windy conditions. In the next issue we will discuss the influence of wind, for now it is important to try creating this habit.

I wish you and your Beagle lots of pleasure in working together! See you in the next issue!

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).