Tracking Part 9: First Lessons - Continued

Saturday, September 01, 2018 6:30 PM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

by Michael Pumilia

Length in a track is not important at this time. That’s because these tracks only have one leg – one very straight leg and directly into the wind. I can not stress this enough. You are being trained at the same time as the dog. First you develop a Plan for the next training session. What do you want to accomplish? How far do you want the dog to go? Are you focusing on the glove or a treat as the reward? How has the dog reacted to the training? Check your field notebook to refresh your mind on all the key points. You should have noted the dog’s responses to putting on the harness, the scent path, and finding the object. Remember to write down these details after each track once the dog gets beyond ten feet. For your plan you should start with the details of each of the six tracks for the day. Also include where the field is because the terrain is unique to each site.  You should use a name to identify each place. Each type of ground cover smells different as does the environment where the site is. The field could be downwind from a hamburger shop that’s half a mile away or it could be a manufacturing building three miles away or a water treatment plant five miles away. Check the locale via the internet and pay attention to wind direction. Here where I live the primary wind is South, the secondary direction is Northerly, and the tertiary is Westerly. All the major airports in this metroplex have North-South runways. Each training site should be flat and relatively level, i.e. not sloping. Gravity does affect the tracklayer’s scent path. A site that is noticeably down or uphill and especially side hill to the wind will be poor for this phase of training. Once you have your Plan for the next session you know what the dog has done and what you want it to do next. 

At the training field your task will be to Plot the track to be used. In the first lessons it is not necessary to draw the path. Let’s keep this simple. Identify the wind direction and where you want the Start. This will be based on having a target to walk toward.  It could be a tree or bush, a window of a building, a pole, a parked vehicle, etc. The easiest way to have a straight track is to walk head-up directly to the target. Keep your eyes on that point, stopping only to place the flags. In figure 9-1 I have measured a 10 feet span between each flag. The point of this is to know how the dog is reacting to smelling at each desired distance and as an example for you. Tracking people talk about yards, legs, and reading the dog all the time. Of these, reading the dog is the most important. Reading the dog means learning the particulars of each dog when it is tracking and not tracking. In the very first training sessions, you should Focus Near to the dog’s body and learn how various parts of the dog’s body respond to what it is doing. When the dog is actively following a scent its ears, tail, head, etc are positioned in a particular way that is unique for that dog. As soon as the dog stops smelling the tracklayer, you will see a change in some of its parts. Now the dog may smell something other than the tracklayer, but there will be changes in the dog’s body. For all we know, it might be another animal or person, organic material like deer dung, or some chemical dumped in the field like oil or paint. By studying your dog’s behavior you will be able to read what is going on. Every dog is unique so learn what your dog is thinking.

Figure 9-1. A Beginning Track with 10 feet Between Flags  

 Legs refer to each path along a track which is differentiated by the start flag, changes in direction marked by flags, and ending with the drop of the object, such as a glove or wallet. Each leg is measured in yards. At this point in your training the yardage is not important. The first goal is to have the dog follow the path to the object first by sight and then by sniffing the scent particles. The Aha Moment arrives when the dog transitions from sight to scent. When this happens you will see my First Rule of Tracking: The Dog Knows What It is Doing. The magical thing about tracking is watching your dog react to its inherent ability to track amazing distances. Also dogs can follow tracks that may be days old. This is why choosing a good tracking field is so important. When you go to a site you don’t know, there may have been various animals or people that moved across the field recently. You won’t know this until your dog gets distracted from its track by other scent(s). I have seen incidences where a field had deer tracks. At a test, the glove on one track disappeared all by itself. The dog followed a different scent to a spot where we found what looked like raccoon dung. 

I had the opportunity to see my own dogs perform an amazing feat in Florida. It showed the ability of dogs to follow a days-old track and over different terrain. A woman lost her two dogs while at a beach. She called on a Wednesday and asked me to bring my two tracking titled Dalmatians to search for them. When we arrived she told us that her dogs were lost on Sunday. So we tried any ways since we were there. The woman had her dogs’ blankets used for sleeping. Starting where she and the dogs were on the beach, my Dals picked up a scent. They followed it for about two miles, crossing dunes, a road, and lawns. They ignored people along their path. At a grouping of houses they stopped tracking. We were done for the day. The following day the woman called us again. She had gone back to the homes that day and knocked on doors. At the fourth house she found her dogs. They had been taken in by the people on Sunday night. So the Dals had been right. The moral of this story is scents last a long time and dogs can distinguish them if trained. You determine what they follow.

Once you have plotted your track it might look similar to figure 9-1. My flags are 10 feet apart. You’ll work further and further distances with your dog once it is following its nose and finding the dropped object. You now get to Plod along the path and Plop the drop. Then turn and retrace your path. Let’s say you have four red flags like my figure and the glove is two feet past the last flag. As you walk back to the start, try to make a pace of one-yard steps.  You might get the first two at the right distance but most beginners tend to shorten their steps over the longer distance. Okay, so how many steps did you actually take? The complete distance from glove to start flag is 14 yards, which is 42 feet. Do we really care at this point? No. It is more important to have the dog following its nose and making a positive reaction to the object. The dog can sit or stand or lie down at the glove. That’s good for a treat reward. And if your dog aggressively grabs the glove or wallet, then it has created its own reward. From 14 yards you can progress to further distances in subsequent training sessions. The marking, red flagsare placed further apart. Their purpose is to ensure you go out and come back on the same path. This is why having the track as straight as possible is beneficial. If anyone flag is grossly out of line, just move it back to alignment. 

It would be good to progress out to 50 yards eventually before moving on to the next phase of training. Remember to vary the distance from any flag to the drop. Dogs can quickly learn a pattern if you keep using the same distance. Also vary the training location if at all possible so the dog gets a difference of terrain, cover, and background smells. At any point in training when problems occur, go back to shorter tracks. Start with shorter tracks also when changing sites. All of this is part of the Ponder portion before and after each period in the field. Your thoughts written in a notebook say what happened, where it happened, and under what conditions. They are the basis of what you want to do for the next field work.

One key point to remember at all times in the field is You can’t guide the dog or correct it. That’s because Rule 1: The Dog Knows What It’s Doing applies at all times. Humans have no idea what a dog is actually smells at any given time. We are making an assumption based on what we see from the dog’s body. That’s it. Any verbal or tugging-on-the-lead correction is out of line. Once the dog starts its track at the start flag, it is in charge. You offer encouragement to find the object. You carry the end of the lead. And once the dog indicates the object, you get to triumphantly hoist the object in the air. Those are your tasks. So when the dog is working the track, you should try to perfect your part of the team. Tracking is a Team Sport.

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