Written by Michael Pumilia
Part 1: Tracking can be a Walk Done Easily
Tracking is the easiest dog sport to learn. It is easier to master than other companion events such as Obedience or Agility. Its lessons can be taught while the dog is also learning these other types of events. If you can spare 1 hour a week, you can teach your dog to track. Or rather, the dog can teach you that it can track. In some cases, just half an hour is needed. It takes just one tracking test to earn your Tracking Dog (TD) title from the American Kennel Club. And you must have your dog pass a Certification Test prior to entering your first, official test. Imagine not having to enter a bunch of shows to earn legs or points towards a title, which saves you time, travel and money. Tracking is not scored on points. Tracking is not a strictly timed event; you are not racing the clock. Tracking does not have dumbbells, jumps, tunnels, weave poles, or seesaws. I find that the tracking community is a low key, low stress group of people that gather to enjoy the accomplishments of their dogs and the camaraderie of each other. The end result of a test is simply Pass or Fail. There is no vying for placements, no need to get Winners to earn breed points, no rankings, and unlike Obedience Champion points, you don’t have to be first or second in the class in order to win the points. Pass / Fail; that’s it. The fields used for the tests must be set aside so they are pristine. The rules are very simple and straight forward. Two judges are used and they must agree before any dog is passed or failed. The best part is that the dog is out front finding the track and the handler must follow where the dog leads. Pretty simple, huh? In fact, you can go out in just one day, walk around in a field for a few minutes, and presto – a new title!
My first experience to tracking came more than 40 years ago. Travis Truitt, a tracking judge from Birmingham, AL, came over to Pensacola, FL and gave a seminar on tracking for the local dog club. In just a couple of hours I was hooked. Living in this part of Florida, I had available acres of pine woods, short grass, and palmetto bushes. I had three Dalmatians at the time. With the dogs held by another person, I would run off into the woods, make several turns, and then hide behind one of the bushes. In a few minutes, the dogs were let loose. It didn’t take them but a few minutes to find me. By letting them work as a pack, they fed off of each others’ instincts to track me down.
Formal tracking was started on Saturday mornings. Short tracks were laid using multiple tracking stakes and a tracking harness was placed on the dog who would track. The tracks were aged for just 15 minutes. Just one hour was spent and our little group of four handlers each had a chance to work. Afterwards, we would go for a late breakfast; this helped our motivation too.
To teach Tracking to the dog and learn how to handle the dog while it is working, just remember:
Michael’s Two Rules of Tracking:
Rule 1: The Dog Knows What It’s Doing.
Rule 2: Focus Near; Focus Far.
This is then followed by the “P’s of Tracking”. At first I had three P’s. Then serendipity happened. At a tracking test in 2006, local tracking judge Lynda McKee and I were tracklayers. During a break on plotting day, I brought out my ideas on the three P’s of tracking. Lynda gave me two more which acted as bookends for what I had. So here they all are:
The Five P’s of Tracking:
Plan, Plot, Plod, Plop, and Ponder
- Plan your training and tracking lessons in the field.
- Plot the tracking path in the field.
- Plod along the track.
- Plop the object to be found.
- Ponder how the dog and handler performed the track, what was learned, and what to do next time.
Now isn’t that simple? Well, there is a little more to it than that but always keep the Rules and Five P’s in mind in everything you do. Plus, tracking is the only companion event that allows a new title to be achieved in just one day! This series of articles will discuss many of the nuances of tracking. Its aim is to enlighten you about a great sport. I’ll bring up topics such as: What is Scent?, Scent Patterns, Starting Tracking, Laying Tracks, and Tracking Your Dog.
Now let’s start by answering a few questions many people have when they first contemplate this sport.
First Question: When Should I Start Tracking My Dog?
Answer: Whenever You Want! The youngest dog to get a Tracking Title was 6 months old. The oldest that I’ve heard about was 12 years old. For my own dogs, I like to start while they are learning Open obedience. It makes for a nice break from learning the off lead heeling, jumping, and retrieving. The dog in tracking works away from you, makes up its own mind on what is happening, and gets instant satisfaction from finding the object. Getting a dog to work away from you can be a downfall in learning Open. Many a dog, in the training class environment, has problems learning to go out and perform a task on its own, such a retrieving. Tracking is less intense or demanding on the dog. It is simply learning to follow its own natural instinct. The training is really making it understand which scent to search for.
Second Question: Is There a Lot of Equipment?
Answer: Only a long leash, an object to find, and a tracking harness are needed. To start teaching, only a few stakes and small plot of land are required. It is also nice to have another person on hand to hold the dog while the track is being laid but a tie-down stake can fit the bill.
Third Question: Do I Need a Lot of Books, Videos or Instructors to Get Started?
Answer: No. I once taught a woman by mail. I would lay out some things to get her started in the first series of letters. By her response, I would then add some more steps or adjust something she should try next. In just 4 months of this back and forth communication, her dog was certified for tracking. The reward came when the dog passed its first test. Now this was back before email.
Fourth Question: Does Different Terrain Make It More Difficult?
Answer: No, a dog trained on one type of cover (i.e. grass) can easily transition to another. Similarly, altitude and temperature do not hinder the dog as much as people think. For example, at the first tracking test run by the Dalmatian Club of America, a dog trained in Maine found a totally different type of grass in Colorado in August at an altitude of 6,400 feet. Plus when the dog ran its track, there were hundreds of brightly colored crickets flying up from the grass as the dog moved forward. This Dal passed. As for its owner, a few years later he became a tracking judge. On a personal note, my dogs learned to track on grass, sand, and concrete in the 1970’s, long before the AKC adopted Variable Surface Tracking (VST). It is simply a matter of having the dog learn which particular scent to follow.
Fifth Question: Do I Have to Walk a Long Way?
Answer: Not at all. AKC requires a track of 440 to 500 yards. Think of that as approximately a quarter mile. And it just has 3 to 5 turns to break up the distance. Basically it’s a short walk or trot to an exciting finish.
Sixth Question: Do I Have to be a Cartographer to Plot a Track?
Answer: It might help, but no. A few skills are needed and they are easy to learn. I’ll explain the basics later in this series and add some tricks I’ve learned in 30 years as a tracking judge. The hardest part is learning to walk in a straight line. (Funny, that’s what I say in obedience class all the time.)
Seventh Question: Are Only Certain Dogs Able to Track?
Answer: Any dog can learn to track. The height of the dog or length of coat on the dog seems more a detriment to the human than the dog. The key is motivating the dog to persevere if the ground cover, terrain or climate becomes difficult. To prove a point though, take the leash off the dog and see what it does in any perceived difficult situation. My bet is 9 of 10 dogs will say “Let’s Play.” For those 9 owners, the problem is not the dog. Nothing says the ground must be absolutely flat or the grass cut low or the weather has to be a balmy day. This is where training in different conditions helps the dog. But if that doesn’t happen, it should not stop you from proceeding with tracking training or entering a test. I have seen a Chihuahua pass in very tall grass as well as a Borzoi which passed in very short grass over rocky, sloping terrain.
Factoid: On average, about 10 billion, tiny scales of dead skin rub off your body every day. In a lifetime, you could fill eight 5-pound flour bags.
(Note: These articles will be organized into a series of books which will present Tracking, Variable Surface Tracking, TDX Tracking, and Advanced Tracking topics.)
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