Now that the weather is cool I’m offering free basic tracking classes for Five Flags Dog Obedience Club members in Pensacola, FL. We’ve met a few times already and the response has been great. We have quite a mix of breeds: Papillion, Border Collies, Polish Lowland Sheepdogs, Doberman, Doxies, a Cairn and a Poodle. There are still more members with different breeds who want to attend. My tracking bible has always been Glen Johnson’s Tracking Dog Theory and Methods. My copy is a second edition from 1977. Since then the book has been reprinted and numerous other people have also written books and have videos on teaching our dogs to track as well as how to be a good tracklayer. There is no right way or wrong way to teach your dog to track. Everyone has their own method that suits them so I don’t make people buy the book I like or always follow my method. The goal is merely to present tracking to dog lovers who would like to try it with their dogs.
Fortunately all the dogs we’ve started have shown a strong instinct for following scent. I start by laying a 5 step track with the dog and handler at the start flag watching me. I flap the leather glove against my leg to entice the dog to watch me setting the glove on the ground, with a treat placed either on top or inside the glove. Most of the dogs have immediately caught on to this visual trick and trotted or pulled their owners to the glove. Then I lay 10 step and 20 step tracks for the same dog. Some members are already up to 40 steps.
In one class I emphasized the correct handling of the long line. Eventually trackers all end up doing the tangled long line dance where the leash becomes knotted as the dog is doing a perfect job of tracking directly to the glove. The leash, if you are lucky, only gets caught up in our feet and/or under our arms, becoming 30 to 40 feet of macrame knots or worse. It’s only funny to the spectators. I warned that poor leash handling only becomes worse when we start doing turns. It behooves them to become proficient at handling the line in the beginning. Walk to the start flag with the dog in harness, the long line thrown out in a straight line behind the handler. With this picture in mind handlers can start confidently and won’t feel the dreaded knot and panic.
I teach beginning dogs and handlers to work into the wind in the beginning classes. Why not make it easy for the dog. Always be aware of the wind direction while tracking so you can understand your dog’s behavior when following the scent.
Most of the things I discuss with students are “don’t do this or that” because I did it and learned the hard way. When an obedience judge, Skebo Kennedy, introduced me to tracking in the 70’s he didn’t mention that 450 to 550 steps was not the same as 450 to 550 yards at the actual test. My Golden Retriever, Brenda, and I attended our first test in the hilly, cold, wind swept canyons of Wenatchee, Washington. Each leg seemed to go on forever and ever. We even fell into a hole on one leg. But finally we found the glove and earned our tracking title. Years later at an obedience trial in California I found a fantastic book, now out of print, Training for Tracklayers by Joyce Geier. She gives a method and formula for converting your steps (every time your foot touches the ground) or paces (only when your left or right foot touches the ground) into yards. Using a 100’ contractor’s tape (I found mine at an estate sale) measure out 300’ in a field. Now walk one way and back, counting your steps or paces in each direction. Average both numbers (add them both and divide by two) to come up with the number of paces or steps you need to walk 100 yards. Gaier came up with a simple conversion table. For example: 10 yards equaled 12 steps or 6 paces, 20 yards was 24 steps or 12 paces, etc. Now make a copy of your own personal table, laminate it and carry it with you when you lay tracks. This isn’t an exact science but it beats practicing with a tracklayer like me who takes short steps, then working at a test and finding out that you really only trained your dog for about 300’ or less. Stamina for you and your dog can be in an issue at the test if the weather is hot or the terrain is hilly with high grass. Train for the full 550 yards and you will be well prepared for the big day, where you’ve paid $50 plus and the judges are behind you.
This is only a small part of what we have discussed so far. I have a great group of new trackers and have confidence they will enjoy working and earning their dog’s TD.