Starting Dixie's Tracking Training 12-8-08

For those of you that do not know what tracking is, it is basically the foundation work for search n rescue type things. It is allowing and empowering the dog to use their nose to find (track) a path that someone has taken. It is a skill used to find people that may have become lost, or hunt for a criminal that is hiding. As the dog works the track there are articles (like a real lost person may lose pieces of clothing) for the dog to find and show the handler. It is very different from all the other activities that I have done with my dog because in the end the dog is really making all the critical decisions for the team and we must trust them and really follow their lead only interfering when the dogs gets distracted, becomes confused, ceases working or loses focus on the correct track. Our part of the job is to learn how the dog cues what they are thinking or smelling and learning to read where the problem happened and what may be causing it so we can help get the dog to get past the issue. This may be a simplistic view and may be way off but that is my view of the game so far.
Tracking is something that I have wanted to try to do for a very long time. Several times in the past I have purchased tracking books and other equipment with the intention of starting to train a dog, but have always given up before really starting. There was never anyone I knew that was teaching or training a dog in tracking and it seemed very confusing and required more time than I was willing to give back then. As Dixie ages and heads toward the final years in agility I have been searching for the right things to help keep her happy and healthy for years to come. She has started doing rally and obedience but Tracking looked like a very fun activity for the dogs and should give her some low impact exercise. It will also give me something new to learn about dogs and should help me learn to read dogs better in all activities. While I do want to trial her and finish a VCD1 it is really more about spending some fun times with her out and about and getting some exercise for both of us. Several of my agility students have been training tracking with a local trainer and friend for the last year or so and have been trying to get me to come out and play with them. My agility classes are down to one night and one day a week so I finally decided it was time to make the commitment and start doing some new things with the old girl and joined the classes.
Our first class occurred on December 8, 2008 and those that know me know I am not a cold weather person and living in the northeast this was a pretty big commitment for me. For our first class we headed to Ross Township Walking Park and mere 10 minutes from home and we were very lucky as the temperature was not bad. I went out early so I could see some of the other dogs track before our turn. I have learned from all my other dog activities that watching others may not be real exciting but it is a great way to learn. At this point I do not have a tracking harness and we will only be working on a six foot leash so I can help her figure out the game. My track will be last of the day and will be laid (set) by one of my friends and agility students. I watched several teams working from pretty far away. I was not sure where the tracks were and where I would be allowed to go so I just waited and watched. Once my track layer came back we set a short serpentine (picture a big S turn) track with food in small containers every few yards.

There is an article put at the beginning of the track (sock or come other clothing) and a glove or some other article placed at the end. We used surveyor’s flags to mark where the track was so we could see if the dog was on the track. After we laid the track she got out her French bulldog to show me what to do as a handler. Her dog has been tracking for a while but has lost some motivation for tracking so we used a lot of food drops (food in containers) for the dog to find along the way. At this level it is very easy to find the track because you have flags and food containers that are very easy for us to see. As we progress we will work toward blind (unmarked and unknown to us) tracks. At each food drop the dog is rewarded. Then it was Dixie’s turn. Again we used a ton of food drops to help support her first tracking experience. I have always been really confused reading tracking books and articles in the past because no one really ever said how to show the dog the track and get them to understand what you want them to do I think that is the biggest reason I never tried to track on my own before, but now I understand why. The funny thing is Dixie had very little trouble getting started, she saw the sock went and sniffed it then saw the first food drop and headed to it. After that she put her nose to the ground and headed off down the track looking for more food. Normally when you lay a track it is used by one team, we re-use our tracks for several dogs and in Dixie’s case she was to do this track several times. That means that we needed to re-load the food drops as she found them. That seemed to cause us the most problems as Dixie became very focused on the containers she had already found. She also bounces up and down as you try to open the food container to reward her which tended to get her off the track and made completely lose focus on the job at hand. Deb my track layer and coach for the week was helping to remind me to stop when Dixie was being silly and not working or when she would lose the scent. That is my job as the handler to help slow her down when she needs to think things out. She tends to move very fast and can quickly lose the track. Those surveyor’s flags help me know when she is headed off course. Our track was maybe fifty yards long. Dixie found all the food drops and found the glove with food in it at the end. I was very excited to see my dog starting to use her nose to find the cookies along the way. BTW fifty yards may not sound like a lot but it is a lot of work watching what is happening and learning to read what your dog is saying with her body. The next trip through my coach stayed behind so now it was all on me to read the dog and re-load the drops. Dixie pulled much harder this time, already having figured out that there were goodies ahead. I still lost her focus each time she was reward and found that to be very frustrating. She kept trying to get behind me to get back to the cookies she has already found. In the end we got through and she did seem to work harder once refocused each time. The third time would be our last for the day, so I did not have to fill the drops back up but instead just put them in a pocket and Dixie stayed much more focused. She drove me hard from one drop to the other and picked up her pace. My homework for the week would be to do serpentines at home a couple times during the upcoming week, keeping lots of food drops out and a very big arc. I was given flags, drop containers, a sock and a glove by my partner for the week. She has earned her TD (level one title) on her first tracking dog and is learning to lay tracks and help others as she waits for her TDX (level 2) track to age (you have to wait after laying the track to reduce the amount of scent the dog has to find). So I gave Dixie a big hug and put her in the car.
By now the Dawn had returned from working with several dogs preparing for TD’s working longer tracks with harder turns. We spent some time discussing how things went with Dixie while my Deb got her more advance dog out and ready to go. She had laid a very long straight track before any of the other teams had arrived that went across all of their tracks. The object was to teach her dog not to take these cross tracks but to continue to follow his track and make some discrimination at these other crossing tracks. I followed along with the instructor as we followed the team as they worked this long track. It was very interesting to see the dog as he came on each cross track. The first time he struggled to convince himself that he was to continue to go straight. He followed the cross track both directions for a short distance several times before finally deciding to continue on even then backing up a couple times to double check the cross track. At each cross track you could see him can confidence going a shorter distance and fewer times until he finally only paused to sniff both direction and then move on. As a handler I got to see how the handler must stop and allow the dog to check out the different options not moving forward until the dog has figured it out and moved forward on the track. I was able to see some of the signals her dog displayed to her as he worked things out.
So then it was off to home hoping I would stay committed and train my dog a couple times before the next weekly class.

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