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Tracking With Your Beagle

by Hans van der Stroom

STEP #1: The Introduction

          This is the first of several articles that I will be writing for the BEAGLES UNLIMITED Magazine about tracking with your Beagle. In this introduction I will try to come up with a general overview, answering questions as "What’s the fun in tracking?", "When and how do I get started?", "What do I need?" and "How do I prepare myself and the dog for actual exercises?". The purpose is to add further steps in following articles, thus coming up with a pleasant method to develop the proper skills in both you and your dog, while increasing the level of work in each step. Our goal will be to train for TD-certificates if possible. I will end each article with some FAQ’s about the mentioned subject.

          Imagine this situation. Your sitting in an easy chair with your dog laying at your feet. Suddenly you stand up. Your dog will be alerted by your initiative and looks up. Then "you" get on your hands and knees and start sniffing at the carpet intensively. In no time at all your dog will stand beside you and start sniffing the same spot. He will be curious to know what’s so interesting to you. I’m not saying you should really try this (you’ll probably develop allergic reactions to dust or something), but what’s interesting about this example is what it says about your dog. For you this whole situation is no more than some kind of funny experiment. Note however, that when you memorize it the next day you will actually SEE the situation like a funny, "landscape" movie in your mind. As for your dog, its reaction is not funny at all, but instead very serious. Being much more "nasal-oriented" your hound holds impressions of its environment more or less like a "scentscape" movie in its mind and your dog will be very aware of any changes.

          Scents are existential information to your dog! Therefore, it will naturally react to your theatrical playing by getting curious and wanting to obtain the same information you are studying in order to categorize it in terms such as "important - I have to react", "unimportant - neglect", "difficult message - sit down and scratch my ears" and so on.

          What I’m trying to make clear here is that in a world of scents the dog has an overview far more superior than we ever could. Your dog is aware of environmental changes (we don’t even know exists), and strongly reacts to them, which leaves us wondering what could possibly be going on. This occurs simply because our conceptual awareness of the world around us is different from our dog.

          In my opinion this is what makes tracking and searching with dogs so fascinating. We humble humans, with our bad noses, have to follow the dog in its perception of the world; yet, we both live in the same world. Sometimes we have to totally depend on the nose of a dog to find things we could never smell. Examples are hunting dogs, search and rescue dogs, bomb/arson detection dogs, and tracking dogs. When training our dogs to track we will get a glimpse of the concepts they use in perception, and we will be able to see and be a part of the results of these processes. Training a dog to track can enlarge our understanding of the animal.

          Besides these rather philosophic reasons, tracking is also just plain fun for both us and our dog. For a dog lover seeking challenges that can be performed together with our dog, tracking is simply problem solving in a doggy way, It is a very pleasant activity to perform as a team: Man and Dog. The Beagle, historically bred for it’s great nose and scent-work, is a dog that naturally likes these challenges. So for Beagle lovers, tracking can very well be a nice activity to share together with your family pet. I hereby invite you and your hound to join in the challenge and experience all the fun!

          My philosophy is that all dogs can scent and track. Every dog can follow a hare’s track, follow the scent of a bitch in heat, and so on; however, there are two small difficulties. First, there’s the fact that by natural means a dog is more a "searcher" than a "tracker". The dog has a tendency to use all its senses together at the same time: nose, eyes and ears. In tracking we want the dog to use mainly its nose. This means we have to teach it to do so in a correct manner. Second, we have the problem of  pointing out to the dog which specific scents we want it to follow as precisely as possible, while neglecting the rest, and thus  finding articles with the correct scent. Coping with these two difficulties in the right way is our greatest challenge in teaching a dog to track, and the ways we find to solve them, are highly important for the level of success in the end.

          In the method I'm going to describe, the most basic factor that we will use is the dog’s inner drives. We will not use force or unnatural interventions whatsoever in making clear to the dog what we expect it to do. This means that we can start the whole process at any time we think is best. Even very young puppies can learn to track (in fact they already do so by natural means), but always keep in mind that the dog should have pleasure in it and that young dogs can’t concentrate themselves on one task for very long periods of time!

          When training a young dog for my own, I would do two things. First, when the pup is about 12 to 14 weeks old, the first few times out, I would take it along with an experienced dog. This way the young dog gets to see what’s happening and it should make it both interested and even a little jealous of the older dog.  For instance, I would simply use a small piece of rope and tie the pup to my belt when working it with the older dog. This way the little rascal has a good view on what’s going on. This activity will make it get a little curious about what kind of interesting things are happening in front of it. The only purpose of this is to introduce tracking to the younger dog. Thus, make sure the older dog is well socialized, not too bothered by the pup, and is doing his tracking work in an enthusiastic way.

          It is also possible to attach the puppy to a tree or fence on a place where he can see what is going on. As soon as the pup is getting so interested that it actually bothers the experienced dog, we can declare our first step a success. It is very well possible that you will suddenly see the youngster putting its nose on the ground in order to find out what’s there to smell and actually following the track in front of him. Note that for this first step, we need to have an experienced dog. When there’s none available, just skip it.

          Secondly, (even more crucial) is to start playing with your puppy in the correct way. This second step can not be cancelled and is also a step you will need to return to during every stage of the tracking training. The correct method of playing with your puppy is essential for success, so let me explain. We are going to interest the youngster for articles or objects. Later on this will be the first real goal in our tracking exercises. A dog that can find the articles by following the track is the first thing we want to accomplish in training. Therefore, we have to make the dog absolutely mad about articles! This is done by playing fetching-games with the puppy. In the beginning just throw its favorite toy away and try to make the dog retrieve it back to you. When it does retrieve, reward your hound with lots of praise. If it doesn't retrieve it, try again!  But NEVER loose your patience. The best you can do is the following basic fetching-exercise:

  • At first take a good toy (a tennis ball in an old sock is probably the best).
  • Try to interest the pup in it by moving it or even sniffing on it (remember the theatre-play above?). Use an "excited" tone of voice to make it even more interesting.
  • When the dog gets excited and tries to take the toy, you throw it away for a few feet, immediately encouraging him to go after it and grab it.
  • When it does, entice your hound to come back to you by using your voice - praising him, clapping your hands, and so on. Use the command "Fetch" often, but only in a gentle manner.
  • After the dog has returned to you, don't let it drop the toy in front of you!! Try to see if he will hold onto it by pulling on the "sock-end" of the toy.
  • Keep on praising your pup gently.
  • Give a gentle command "Loose" and give the dog a small treat immediately when it does. It's important to give the treat ON the toy, so the dog can make a combination between fetching the toy and being rewarded.
  • If you see that your dog is still in the mood for playing: start over again.
  • Always reward your dog when it fetches the toy and is giving it back into your hands!!!
  • You should stop when the dog is still eager to play. When the animal is getting tired or looses interest, you have played too long. This will make him uninterested in the end. Remember, young dogs only have a short interest span.

Now this shouldn't be too difficult for a normal Beagle having more than enough passion for hunting and fetching - don't you agree?

          After a while, when the dog really knows this game and is always retrieving the toy fast and cheerfully into your hands, you can change the toy for some other interesting things like old gloves, a small wallet, a folded sock, etc. Use soft articles that can be "shaken to death" by the pup. When the puppy is use to this, you can also throw the articles a little further away from you, but no more than about 10 yards maximum.

           Keep on praising and rewarding! The importance of patience and friendliness is enormous at this stage. This is really important for the progress in later training. The dog should really love to fetch articles in order to create endurance, motivation, and easy learning. It simply needs to be a nice playtime with its master. The more eager your dog will get into  fetching, the more you should like it. Show this to your dog! Later on we will look into the theoretical backgrounds, but for now the playtime and it’s results are the most important.

          This is our first step in tracking. As you'll notice we haven't done any actual tracking yet. Nevertheless ,the questions mentioned in the preface are answered:

  • You are aware of - at least - my own personal answers to "What's the fun in tracking?" and I hope they made you think about what could be the fun for you.
  • You now know when you can start with the preparations: at any age, time and place you like.
  • You know what you need: your dog, yourself, enthusiasm, patience, some toys and articles, treats, and 5 minutes every day (in this stage that is it…..).
  • You now know what kind of preparation is best for the dog to make it eager to fetch articles.

          It's my strong intention to teach the basics of tracking without actually being busy in the field teaching the dog to follow a track. As you probably understand already, our next step will be to teach to the dog that following a small track will be the easiest way to find its favorite article when he can't see it anymore. This way your dog will know what to do when it finds it (fetches it), immediately followed by the next pleasure he already knows (being rewarded). This will off course be explained in the second article.

          DO NOT underestimate the importance of this first step! The impressions that your dog is gathering now can easily stay with it for the rest of its life. When these impressions are fun and joyful, they become the basics in actually teaching your hound to track, or they can also be for motivational reasons in case of possible problems in the future.

          For our next step, you will need some more stuff. It's a good idea to already seek for them. Good to things to have on hand are a soft line that is about 3 yards in length (preferably chromium-tanned leather because it is supple to your hands), with a musketon-hook on it; a well-fitting tracking-harness (put this on every once and a while to get the dog use to it); a flag (the ones used on children's bicycles are excellent and cheap); and some more articles as described above. In case you can't wait and have already studied other books or articles, we WILL NOT use food on the track. Doing so will interfere in a negative way with the intentions of this method! So please be patient! Its better to spend your time playing and fetching with your dog.

FAQ's

Q: "I cannot interest my dog in the toy. What can I do about this?"

A: Try harder and be creative! DO NOT put any strain on the dog when playing. Every dog has an enthusiastic moment and you should try to use this for your purposes. It’s important to reward your dog when it does. It’s not absolutely necessary that the dog performs the exercise above immediately or in a perfect way. Every bit of playing should be rewarded in this situation. Later on you can put these bits together into one exercise as described.

Q: "My dog doesn't come back after he has grabbed the article, but instead goes its own way. What can I do about that?"

A: There’s something wrong in the relationship between "master" and dog. Obviously you’re not the Alpha in your dog's pack. You can attach a line to your dog and gently pull it in, rewarding him immediately when he is near you. Dogs are rather opportunistic, so when they find out that there’s an advantage in following your orders, most dogs will co-operate. Also, use a command to make him come to you. In my opinion dogs should always follow orders to come. And when they don’t, you have to train them with obedience-exercises in order to "rebuild" the proper Master-Dog relationship. The problem also appears during the "teenage" months of a dog's life.  As you probably already know, Beagles can be very stubborn at this age. If this is the case, simply be very consistent and patient – it normally disappears when the dog notices that there are no positive rewards.

Q. "Nero tears the article apart after fetching or won't give it off to me. What's wrong?"

A: See the previous situation. You have a problem with a dominant dog. First thing you need to do is take your dog through some obedience classes in order to make the dog listen to you. In my opinion dogs have to listen, specially if you want them to let loose of fetched things. DO NOT play the exercise above before the relationship in your small pack is optimized properly.

Q: "My dog retrieves the article, but he's doing this slowly and somehow unmotivated. What's the reason for that?"

A: You are putting too much pressure/strain on to the dog's performance. Let things loosen up a bit and start all over again. This time being as enthusiast as you can. When the dog comes to you, run away from him, encouraging him to follow you. Reward and praise your dog vigorously. The solution to the problem is to get the pressure off of your dog. Make it more like playful fun and less like tedious work.

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).