In order for your dog to be successful in tracking, he needs to learn to work through many situations which can be highly variable. Your dog must learn to deal with scent contamination on the track. Depending upon the test and the area, contamination could be very high (a school playground) and very low (a quiet country field). Your dog must learn to handle contamination and lock onto the “track” scent. Your dog must learn to discriminate the “track” from cross tracks – something which has crossed the main track – for example; a rabbit, mouse, dogs, people, horses, bicycles, etc. He has to learn to negotiate turns to the left and right, at 90-degree angles, and more open (softer) turns. He needs to learn to deal with windy conditions as opposed to a calm day.
If dogs are working at more advanced level tests, they need to realize tracks can go anywhere someone can walk; through hedgerows, woods, across roads, over stone walls, or down stairs, around buildings, through breezeways, any place someone could walk. There will also be obstacles along the way on some tracks, such as drainage ditches, low stone walls, fences, heavy brush, woods, small streams, etc. Depending on the type of test, there will also be distractions – wildlife, wildlife droppings, apples, turkey feathers, farm animals, hay bales, farm equipment, other dogs, people, dumpsters, sirens, children, cars, etc.
Articles, which are objects the dog is supposed to find along the track, can be anywhere; sometimes soon after a turn, sometimes a long way from a turn, sometimes a little off track to the left or right, or placed on a bench or low wall, or on the side of some steps. Dogs must learn to look for articles anywhere along the track. Do not become habitual and therefore predicable where you place the articles. Keep it interesting.
Dogs need to learn to deal with time variables on the track. They should be able to deal with fresh scent and also be able to deal with tracks several hours old. Scent is relative to the conditions. If conditions are good, aged scent will not be as hard to track. If conditions are difficult – hot, dry, windy – even fairly fresh scent will be harder to follow. Dogs need to be exposed to different conditions and time frames in order to work them out. Dogs need to be able to work for the duration of the length of their track. They need both physical and mental stamina. This does not mean you need to run full length tracks every time you train. Short pieces of tracks presenting different problems will keep tracking interesting and increase mental stamina. Walking, hiking, swimming, and retrieving can all help condition your dog physically.
So, each of the above variables- contamination, cross tracks, turns, wind, obstacles, distractions, articles, time (age) and distance - all need to be considered when training. Do not combine too many variables and make the track too difficult. Success is what will build confidence. When your dog shows confidence with each one of these variables, you will have created a solid foundation for tracking.
Carolyn Fuhrer has earned over 130 AKC titles with her Golden Retrievers, including 4 Champion Tracker titles. Carolyn is the owner of North Star Dog Training School in Somerville, Maine. She has been teaching people to understand their dogs for over 25 years. She is also an AKC Tracking Judge. You can contact her with questions, suggestions, and ideas for her column by e-mailing email@example.com.