I first became interested in tracking when my girl Spirit came home in May 2001. Wherever she went, her nose was on the ground. To this day she is led by her nose, and she is the excellent tracking dog I knew she would be.
Before plunging into the wonderful world of tracking, you will need some basic equipment. The following will get you off to the right start.
Harness: I was taught to start the dog on a collar, but if you plan to get serious about tracking, I recommend using a harness from the beginning. Your dog soon will get excited when you bring out his tracking harness.
Start with a leather or nylon harness that fits your dog snugly. Make sure the straps are wide enough for comfort but not so wide as to interfere with the dog’s pulling motion by rubbing under his front legs. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for measuring for the correct size. The measurement for a tracking harness is usually the girth of the dog, which is measured around the dog just behind the front legs.
A nylon harness is my personal choice; it is inexpensive, can be washed, and both the neck and bellyband are adjustable. Some people prefer a leather harness, because it does not move around on the dog like a nylon one will. I got my nylon harnesses at J & J Dog Supply, but you can purchase them online at many dog equipment supply stores. A nice leather harness can be found at www.leerburg.com.
Long Line: When you begin teaching your dog, use a leash. As you progress, use a long line, between 20 and 40 feet long, to run your dog on the track. When I bought my first long line, I was looking for a line that was smooth and would not snag or tangle easily. I bought what I thought was right according to the description of the line on the Web site, but it turned out to be a round, very thin 40-foot line about the width of a thick shoestring. You can imagine how difficult it was to hold onto a forging, enthusiastic Newf without slicing my hands. A tracking judge recommended a 1” flat tracking line—also purchased from J & J, which works much better and is more comfortable to hold. Some trackers prefer a 10.5 mm rock-climbing rope available from outdoor stores, such as REI. It does not tangle and usually is dry treated so it will last forever.
Articles: Articles are another necessity. Most people start with leather or something cloth. Examples of good articles are a glove, a wallet, socks, shoes, a stuffed toy—anything that has your scent or the scent of the person laying the track will work well. One tracker I know uses pockets cut out of old jeans; treats can be put inside the pocket. Articles should be inconspicuous and should not be visible from a distance of more than 20 feet. For example, you cannot use a fluorescent article or a box that will stick up on the terrain. If you use white socks, use them as a start article, not an end article that the dog can see in the distance.
Equipment Bag: I use a basic duffle bag with pockets to hold all my tracking supplies.
Apron: I use a carpenter’s apron, which can be bought at any home supply or hardware store for less than a dollar, to carry my treats and articles while I am laying the track.
Markers: You will need something to mark the start and the end of your track. Flags are most commonly used, but you can use anything that sticks out of the ground to mark your starting point. I use surveyor flags, which can be bought at any home supply, hardware store or online store. I have seen some interesting homemade flags made with a dowel rod and fabric.
Pointer: Ideally, you want to teach your dog to track with his nose to the ground. This means using something to point out the food on the ground so your dog will keep moving in the right direction towards the article. I use a dowel rod and can run it along the track to the next treat. You can use a stick or anything long enough to reach the ground. You can also use your finger to point out every piece of food, but I don’t recommend it because as your keep bending over, your dog will have a tendency to lift up his head every time you straighten up.
Food: Food is the last thing to get you started. I use hot dogs sliced into quarters and then cut into small pieces. Any food that you can cut into very small pieces or comes in small pieces is good. You can use cut up cheese, Cheerios or any other cereal your dog likes or his favorite kibble. Keep in mind that you will need lots of treats at first.
Language: Not really equipment, but you will need to decide what commands to give your dog as he works. You can say whatever you would like, such as “find it,” “track,” “go get it,” “where is it,” etc.
Let’s begin. First, you need to lay a track for your dog to follow. You can do this any place with grass, such as, your lawn, a local park, or a school athletic field. You do not need a large area when you first begin. Depending on where you are, leave your dog in the house or car or he can be tied to a tree. It doesn’t matter if he watches you; in fact, as he learns the game, he will get excited while he watches you lay his track. You will need two flags, food, and an article. Begin with a straight track. Plant a flag at the start of your track and then walk your track by shuffling your feet as you go and dropping food every foot or so. For the first few times, make your track 10 to 20 feet long. When you’ve gone 10 to 20 feet, drop your article and put a jackpot of food on top of it or in it. Take a couple of giant steps forward beyond your article, and plant your end flag. You do this so the dog doesn’t track by sight to the flag. Step at least a few feet to the side of your track, and walk back to get your dog. In the beginning, plan to run your dog on the track as soon as you get his harness and leash on; later, you will allow the track to age.
Since you need to be close to your dog to teach him what is expected of him in this new game, start your training with your dog on leash. Bring your dog to the start flag; give him your command to track, and point out the food with your pointer. Repeat your command to track as your dog follows the track eating the food you dropped. If your dog is not following the track or doesn’t have his head down, continue to use your pointer while telling him to track. If he tries to veer off the track, use the leash to pull him back while repeating the track command. You may need to remove the food if it distracts your dog from moving along on the track. Do not allow your dog to backtrack because he missed a piece of food; you want your dog to track forward. Keep the food on, under, or in the article until you’re comfortable the dog will indicate without it being there. If your dog is following the track with his nose to the ground while eating the food, quietly praise him, if it is not too distracting, with encouraging words such as “good find,” “good track,” etc. Make sure your dog stays exactly on the track, because that is the best way for him to learn. You may need to hold the leash very short to do this, and you should be walking beside your dog, not behind him. Try to keep your dog focused with his head down.
Once you reach the article, you want your dog to make a clear indication he has found it. The AKC Tracking Regulations state, “the dog must clearly indicate or retrieve the article.” This can be done in a variety of ways: he can sit, down, speak, stand and wait, nudge the article, pick it up, or whatever you like. If you choose to have your dog pick up the article, make sure it is not handled like a toy. If your dog picks up the article and plays with it, he may lose it before you can take it from him. When the track is completed, to pass you must display the article to the judges.
As training progresses, add length and age to your track to hold your dog’s interest and attention. Once your dog has the concept of following the track you have made by shuffling your feet, begin making the track by skimming your feet on the ground as you walk. When he is doing well with that, start walking the track normally. Your dog now knows that he is following your scent. When your dog is using his nose and no longer needs you to point out the track, you will start using your long line and walking behind him. At a test you will need to be at least 20 feet behind your dog. As part of the normal progression, cut down on or eliminate the food drops and start to add time to your track when you know your dog is following your scent. Let the track age 10 minutes before running it; then wait 15 minutes, 20 minutes, etc. Your goal is for your dog to work a track that has aged for two hours. Make sure your dog is solid before adding time or you both will become frustrated. Add one component at a time—either age or length—but not both on the same track.
When your dog is running a straight track reliably and clearly indicating the article, start to add corners to your routine. To add a corner, turn left or right and triple lay your first three or four steps while shuffling your feet. After a few days of practice with one corner, if your dog is coming along nicely, add another corner. As your dog progresses, continue to add distance, corners, and age.
While your dog is in training, put a flag somewhere near your corners to mark them for yourself. You can also use clothespins in the grass. Ideally you will be making maps at this point. There are several good track-laying books that will help you make maps. For help with making maps, I recommend reading Track Laying 101, which is available from the Tracking Club of Wisconsin (www.tcow.net), and About Track Laying by Betty Mueller, which is available at Amazon.com.
Some people run a track daily, some several times a week, and some once a week. This is your decision and depends on how easily your dog may become bored. You want to make this a fun activity. Tracking is a natural sport for your dog, and he will be in charge. Trust is a must. You must trust your dog to point you in the direction of the track; it is a very different sport than traditional obedience or agility where the dog must trust you to guide him. You cannot smell the scent so your dog will be guiding you, and it is important that you trust him. Learn to read your dog to know if he is on the track, if he has lost the scent, or if he has picked up a cross track. For the most part, you will need to learn to trust him. Your dog needs your trust to track with confidence.
There is much more to tracking than can be covered in a short article. Good tracking books are available, and I recommend The Audible Nose: Training Your Newfoundland to Track by Judi Adler. It is a comprehensive guide to tracking with lots of good ideas and problem solving. If you plan to put a tracking title on your dog, you’ll need a copy of the AKC Tracking Regulations. It is available from www.akc.org and sometimes available from the superintendent at a show or trial. I also recommend that you check out a tracking club in your area. Most trackers are happy to help you get started, and you may be able to join them when they track their own dogs.
This article first appeared in Newf Tide