show your support

Essential Skills And Common Problems With Beginner Trackers

by Allison Platt

After evaluating several classes, I see that most folks are working hard, but there are several recurring problems which I would like you all to be aware of as you progress with tracking training. Most of these problems (perhaps not surprisingly?) are caused by the lack of experience by the handlers. The beginning stages of tracking are meant to teach the dog what you want him or her to do, and to teach you the skills you need as a handler to allow you to begin running blind tracks. The four basic skills you must master are explained below.

Four Skills You Need Before Starting Blind Tracks

The four basic skills that are essential to success as a handler are: learning to lay tracks, shaping tracking behavior; learning to line handle, and learning to read your dog.

Track laying. Serpentines are not the easiest tracks for the beginning tracker to plot. I saw several examples from beginning tracking journals that showed me you are making the curves too sharp. To help understand this problem and help solve it, read the track requirements in the AKC tracking regulations. One of the requirements is that each leg of a track must be a minimum of 50 yards from any other leg. For example, if you start out going north, walk 50 yards and make a 90-degree turn to the right, walk another 50 yards and make another right-angle turn, then walk a final 50 yards and drop a glove, you will end up facing in the opposite direction from the direction you were facing at the start. Illustration:

I have stated that the purpose of serpentines is to make gradual turns so that the dog is able to turn almost without realizing it, and that the first arcs you lay should be very gentle curves, and should remain that way for quite a while. However, I saw quite a few people who made serpentines that were like "U" turns. If you think about it, this is exactly the same as the two right turns described above, and a beginning dog is likely to have trouble with this. This means that your turn is too sharp, whether it was a curve or straight line.

If you have a hard time with this concept (and many people do, so you are not alone), try the following. Plant a flag at the start. Walk straight for about 25 yards. Plant another flag. Facing in the direction you have been walking, spread both your arms straight out from your shoulder at your sides. If you were to turn in either direction in the direction your arms are pointing, these would be right angle, or 90-degree turns. The direction you are facing is 0 degrees. You want to head in a direction that is no more than 30 degrees off 0 degrees. If you repeat this process twice more you should then be pointing at 90 degrees from the direction you were facing at the first flag and the start.  You can then start turning in 30 degree increments in the opposite direction for three more segments, and you will be again be facing the direction in which you began, and will have essentially laid a serpentine track. You can lay your serpentine tracks in this way instead of as a continuous arc, and you will accomplish close to the same effect.

If people communicated with other people the way that dogs communicate with humans we would probably get along better with each other. Humans could learn a few lessons from dogs like: respecting one another's differences without judgment. Openly showing appreciation toward each other. People should try to look at other people's points of view instead of just their own. Finally they should pay attention to body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice, which will give more understanding to what the person is trying to say (Glass, 1996). If these things were done it might lead to greater respect, more trust, and stronger relationships between the human race.

Dogs benefit humans in many ways. The importance of dogs will continue to increase as the family life changes. Dogs will be needed to give support, provide comfort, and reduce loneliness for many people. Dogs are no longer considered a family pet but a family member. It has been proven that dogs have feelings and are able to feel grief and happiness. Dogs have helped people both physically and mentally and will continue to do this as long as there are humans.

Once the dog can do this, lengthen each 25' leg to 30, then 35 yards and so on. Then make the turns 45 degrees, but cut the length back to 25 yards and start over lengthening each leg. Then go to 60 degrees, and finally, try a combination with 50 yard legs where the first turn is 30 degrees, the second is 45, the third is 60, and the fourth is a 90-degree turn. If the dog has trouble, make the next track easier.

The purpose of using serpentines is to avoid the problem often seen when using straight line methods for a long time, followed by the abrupt introduction of turns, which almost always causes the dog to overshoot the corners and lose the scent. This patterns the dog to find corners by losing them. Instead, this method tries to pattern the dog to be right, and to turn so gradually that they are patterned to look for the scent immediately if they lose it. This makes the dog track-sure. It is essential in the early stages that you pattern the dog to be correct and to gain confidence with a minimum of help from you. The more you set the dog up to fail and have to help them, the more likely it will be that the dog will look to you for help when they fail on a blind turn, when you cannot help them.

Shaping tracking behavior. At this early stage in your training, you should know exactly where the track is so you can help the dog to follow the track closely. The danger in this, however, is that you may actually be heavily guiding the dog, and not even realize it. I see many beginners taking a walk down the track instead of tracking. The difference is important. You are taking a walk down the track if you know where the track is and keep moving along it even if the dog is not clearly indicating it. The dog can pull in any direction, but if you keep moving the dog will eventually come with you because they will be prevented from going in any other direction.

Instead of guiding the dog in this way, you must teach the dog to stay very near the track and to move down it with confidence. The way you do this is to move with the dog only when they are right on the track and moving forward. When they veer off more than a couple of feet, STOP. Say nothing, and the chances are good they will find the track again without your help (especially if your lead is not too long). If they are distracted, remind them to track. If they are still distracted, gently up next to them and point to the track the way you do at the start. When they return to the track and when they start to move away from you along it, let out a little line and follow, saying "good track" or "good find it." Do not praise them when they are near the track, or have their nose on it but are standing at an angle to it; wait until they are moving out along the track. In this way you shape their behavior not to air scent around the track or fringe along the track five or six feet off, but to track in the footsteps.

Line handling. In addition to the skill of waiting until you dog is on the track to move with them, you must learn how to communicate with your dog through the lead. You should keep a steady, gentle tension on the lead when the dog is working-moving down the track in a motivated manner. This is the line of communication between you and your dog. When the dog starts to move off a straight section of the known track (i.e. not at a corner), you should increase the tension slightly, and as the distance increases, you should stop and hold the line taught. Do not, however, jerk or pull the dog. The amount of line between you and your dog should be no more than 10' or so in the beginning because this keeps the dog (especially a big, fast dog), from getting too far off the track while they are learning. When they wander off the track, say nothing or, if needed, quietly encourage them back, but do not praise or follow until the dog gets back on the track, faces away from you, and moves off. When this happens, let out a little line and reestablish that slight tension, then praise and move off with the dog.

When the dog is moving on the track in a straight line, that is the time when you can begin to let out a little more line. But when they move away from the track or stop to explore something off the track, shorten up the line again. In this way, slowly, as the dog gains confidence and moves more steadily forward on the track, you can learn to work with a longer line. Before this time, using more line is more likely to be a hindrance than a help.

Learning to read your dog. The most important skill you must acquire before you are ready to work blind tracks is learning to read your dog. By this I mean you must recognize:

· What is the dog's body posture when it is tracking?
· How is it different when it is just idly sniffing?
· How does it behave when it loses the scent?
· How does it behave when it is searching for the track?
· How does it behave when it is exploring a cross-track?

For most dogs, there is a clear tracking posture: they are obviously concentrating, their nose is down and their body leans forward into the harness. Some hunch their backs slightly; some wag their tails rhythmically. Watch carefully, and learn to identify that posture. When the dog is idly sniffing something of mild interest, their head more often sweeps from side to side, and their body is more relaxed and not pulling into the harness. When your dog starts understanding corners, you will often also see a clear loss of scent indication. This is usually a fairly sudden hesitation (which you will feel in the line if you are maintaining tension) accompanied by a sudden lifting of the head. After the dog loses the scent, you will often see searching behavior. This is more concentrated than idle sniffing; usually the dog will range, sometimes circle, and sometimes they can be quite frantic about it. Then when they come across and recognize the next leg, they will pull back into the tracking posture. Some dogs do this tentatively; some look like they are being sucked onto the new leg. Crosstrack indication can often be recognized because the dog will be working down a leg steadily, but when they hit a Crosstrack they will veer sharply and quickly off the track, lift their heads after a few feet, then turn and cross the leg in the opposite direction. This turn and crossing of the leg is often a tip-off. Although crosstracks are not supposed to occur in TD tracks, unintentional (animal or human) crosstracks are a good possibility, so you need to know what the indication looks like. Learning to recognize this behavior is assisted if you can track in the snow so the crosstracks are obvious. Knowing the difference between a crosstrack indication and a turn indication can be the difference between passing and failing in a test.

To summarize the importance of these three skills, and their relationship to each other, I have received permission from Herb Morrison, a respected tracking judge and tracking teacher, to reprint a post on the tracking list that addressed this topic:

"Teaching students how to read their dog is one of the most important aspects of a tracking class I teach as well as learning how to handle the lead. While it is important to teach the dog to track correctly, this process is made easier if the handler learns to read the dog so as to restrain the dog at the proper time DURING TRAINING. In doing so the dog will learn that when he is on track he can pull and the handler will go with him. This is not something that is learned overnight. It requires that the handler know where the track is and learns what behaviors occur at loss and discovery of track. It also requires that the handler be patient enough to allow the dog to discover the track and not begin following the dog until he is committed.

If a dog is quartering [on] the track, many handlers will simply follow along since the dog is headed in the general direction of the end. To discourage this behavior in both the dog and handler, the dog should be gently restrained as he moves from the track and the restraint lessened as he heads back toward the track. The handler should remain still UNTIL the dog discovers the track and begins committing to a direction. If the direction is correct, the handler should be still but allow the dog to take out lead. At this point slight tension is applied and as the dog leans into the harness tension is lessened and the handler follows. This will teach both dog and handler cues that will aid the dog and handler in training as well as in a test situation.

We really only have control over two things in our tracking training: design of the track and means of motivation. Motivation will differ from dog to dog. All too often we are too anxious to see what the dog can do and do not lay a good foundation for the dog and as a result create more problems."

Note:  Allison Platt has provided her email address so folks can email her if they have questions or comments about how the method works. Allison is an AKC Tracking Judge and Owner/Trainer of - CT Kirkton Quicksilver Girl, OA, NAJ, JE

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).