Sunday, April 17, 2011

When I competed recently in the AWDF Championships, I had not been able to practice grass tracks.  I thought the dogs from southern climes would have a distinct advantage considering my practice had been on SNOW!  When we actually earned the high IPO2 tracking score and ended up winning the IPO2 Championship, I had to pause and evaluate what I had done to aid this success.

One of the complaints by competitors at all levels was that the legs of the tracks were too close together.  In every Championship I have competed in, the tracks have been much shorter than regulation due to the large number of tracks that have to be fit into a small place.  I have found this to be much more challenging than if the tracks were longer because speed changes are obvious and the dog has no chance to settle into a long pace.

At the AWDF, the tracks I observed were on pasture grass with rolling hills in a medium breeze.  If the dog did not keep its nose down and instead raised it up to air scent, it was drawn to other legs or other tracks.  The dogs that had good tracking ethic, did not have a problem.  Pre did not lose his focus in this way.  What made the difference?  While I cannot say for certain, there are several things that I do in training that I believe contributed to our success.

One thing is that I teach and reinforce footstep tracking, and in training place on foot in front of the other.  In this way, the dog has the width of my foot to be correct... or not.  If you walk a normal, side-to-side gait, and allow the dog to cast like that, the dog is rewarded for trailing in the area between your footprints and it now has an area of several feet that it believes is correct.  Add a breeze to that and the dog who does not understand how to work to the source of the odor--- the footstep itself--- and you have a mine-sweeper at the end of the line.

Almost immediately, if I have other people working with me, I instruct them to walk on either side of me while I lay my tracks (or they lay mine).  If there is only one additional, they walk on the side upwind from the track, so that their track and scent is blowing directly to the dog.  Ideally, the longest legs run cross-wise to the wind direction.  The dog learns that the only reward is at the source of the odor that it is started on, and no other.  Just as soon as a dog or puppy understands the tracking behavior, I introduce this.  The people walking alongside, stay at approximately 5 feet off either side and also crossing the track at intervals.  Since you are all walking together, the track layer can place bait/reward after these crossings.  You do not lead the dog through challenges with food, you reward them for meeting the challenge.

I do the same thing with the police dogs I train.  In fact, their work is much more critical than a sport dog.  Their scenes are often very contaminated with scent by the time they arrive and so the dogs must work the scent they are told to follow, to the exclusion of all others.  Here are several photos from a tracking exercise we did last week.  This was after the dogs had completed tracks of over 1 mile in length, through varied terrain with multiple articles.  Those tracks begin with a scent article that tells the dog which scent they are following.  Any time I work a track that allows the dog more latitude in searching out the track, the next track we do is back to precision.  In this track, three handlers laid long, straight tracks approximately 15 feet apart, each ending at an article.  While one team ran their track, the others sat with their dogs (quiet and down) on the hillside, observing.  As you can see, neither the near proximity of the tracks nor the other dogs caused a distraction from the task.

 The dogs also learn that they are not beaten up, punished or corrected physically.... nor does the handler do the work for them by cueing them with the line.  When they have problems at a corner, the handler instead acts like the dog missed a great party and encourages them.  This is something I picked up from listening to Debbie Zappia, and I find the dogs don't become stressed and worried, or even worse--- lie to the handler to avoid punishment. 

Tracking can be great fun when the team creates and meets challenges together.  It is even more fun when you can walk next to a friend and chat while you lay your tracks, and doing so is to the advantage of your training! Many positive discoveries in training come from a handler or trainer trying to make things more efficient or easily understood.  In my case, I found I could have new handlers walk alongside me as I described what I was doing in laying the track and it made things more clear to them.  Then I found that it actually helped the dogs to understand their task, as well. Viola! A program is born!