Tracking dogs training
A dog is “tracking” when he is following the scent trail or disturbed vegetation scent, left by a person (or another animal) that has traveled along a certain route. Following a track is one of the many useful things dogs can do to help people. Hounds track game, rescue dogs track lost children, police dogs track suspects, well-trained pets can find lost items.
Whether you train your dog to track for competitive sport, for fun, or for a potential working career, it is imperative to begin your training positively and in an ordered fashion so as to achieve the highest level of consistency and success.
At the beginning and end of each tracking training session, it is a good idea to talk about or write in a journal about problems and goals. At the end of a session, discuss or write about the problems the dog had. At the beginning of the next session, remind yourself what changes need to be made. An example of this would be a severe change in weather conditions from what the dog has been used to. If a particular condition has caused the dog to have a problem, then wait until that condition no longer exists. A difficult track on a hot, sunny, windy day, for example, might lead you to make sure the next tracking session is in the cool morning or evening, perhaps even after a period of moisture. This doesn’t mean you can’t go back to hot, dry conditions; it only means you shouldn’t repeatedly train in such difficult conditions.
First step: Puppies
Working with puppies can provide some of the most entertaining training opportunities! They are like small sponges, always eager to work with a handler and to learn. This is the perfect starting ground for many training purposes, but additionally, there are some games you can play with a puppy that really hone in the tracking ability at a young age.
Dogs use their noses to track, and while we can’t show them how to do that, we can encourage the natural ability. Games are a fantastic way to do this.
As the puppy catches on and ages, the game simply gets harder. This requires the puppy to no longer only use his eyes but to also switch to scent work. He will both air scent and go to ground work. A variation of this game uses toys instead of you. Find It is a game based on scent detection work. Select a toy your dog loves immensely. Engage him in play with the toy for a few moments to excite him. Then, have a second person hold the puppy and take his toy and hide it nearby. The first times hide it in an easy to locate a place with part of the toy exposed. He will start his search by visually looking for the toy, but to truly find it will require scent work.
Tracking: On the Track
There are many ways to train in tracking, and different dogs sometimes require different methods. Very intense and focused puppies and dogs might track short distances for their toy, but for the majority of dogs, utilizing food to assist the dog is a good idea. Food drops are the tiny morsels of food you lay inside the track line. This way the dog is motivated to move forward for food drops, but at the same time, the dog is scenting what is with the food.
You can start tracking by playing your own tracks, but it is also a good idea as your dog gets more advanced to have friends and family members lay tracks for you too. These first tracks will be simple and are normally just a straight line track with no turns. Start with something fabric like a sock or glove initially. These hold scent well and can be filled with food. Excite your dog like was used for the puppy games. An excited and frustrated dog works harder out of the gate.
To lay the track, you will need:
- Flags like are used to mark utility lines. These can be made or purchased at a lawn and garden store.
- Food morsels for the track.
- Two articles. One is for the track for the dog to find. The second article is your scent article (has to match the one on the track so both articles have the same scent) to show the dog. Place the second article inside a small plastic bag and seal it to avoid contamination.
- A tracking harness (should be on the dog prior to laying the track).
- A tracking line.
How to lay the track?
- Place a flag at the start of the track.
- Take one step forward and place a treat in the food step as you move your foot forward.
- Continue to take very small steps forward (to keep the scent close together) and place several food morsels in each step. You want the footprints close together, and you also want treats just an inch or two apart.
- Walk a straight line of about 10-15 feet laying the track the whole way with food. Place one or two flags along this straight line. Flags mark your track line, which will be more important later on tougher tracks.
- At the end of the track, place a flag. Also, place the article full of food about a foot or two past that flag line.
- DO NOT continue to walk in a straight line off the track. Try to turn and hop away from it. Try to not walk back over the track to return to your dog either as you likely won’t walk exactly the same line and will only confuse the scent track.
Recognizing tracking problems and solving them is both an art and a science. It is an art because you have to be constantly on the lookout for subtle signals your dog gives. These signals may have more to do with your close personal bond with the dog than anything really obvious to others. It is also a science because you need to apply a rational, well-thought-out strategy to the problem at hand. The most important thing in problem-solving is to be flexible, and only continue doing those things that work.
By carefully observing your dog, planning for conditions you expect at a tracking test and learning along with your dog what works, you can minimize the long-term effects of most training problems.