A ‘tracking article’ itself should have potentially no meaning to a dog. It is nothing more than a piece of material. What should have meaning to the dog is the odour of human scent on that piece of material. Tracking is nose work. That means the scent is what the dog is processing. With the endless variety of materials a dog could come across, it would be impossible to teach them the smell of all these materials effectively. The human contact odour is one constant that will always be there and should, therefore, be the focus of our teaching.
The scent of human odour on an article is an olfactory command to lie down. Read this a couple of times, it sounds straightforward, but try to understand what I am trying to say truly. The scent of human odour on an article the dog finds on a track is an “article indication command” for the dog. In this context, it takes the place of the verbal command.
Think of the use of hand signals as an example. We can make a dog perform an obedience command by making him obey the verbal command and showing him a hand signal until the hand signal replaces the audible voice command.
So if another sense can replace the sense of hearing a command, the sense of sight, why can’t it also be replaced by the sense of smell?
This is a perfect illustration of what we are trying to teach dogs to do when indicating articles. The odour of human scent on the article commands the dog. For the article concept to become a solid one, the dog has to have a reliable understanding of what it means to indicate on an article.
No Down Command Required Contrary to popular belief; your dog does not need any obedience to begin his introduction to tracking under this system. As with the teaching of anything new, is it stressful, hence learning is stressful, so article training should be introduced away from the track, where the entire concept can be adequately conditioned.
Once this occurs, introducing it to the track is the next step. There are many ways for the dog to indicate, and I prefer the dog to lay down when indicating the article. It is calm, clean, and an exact response, it also assists with containment exercises to come. I will be referring to the dog downing throughout the process of article indication in this book.
You will require the following:
(a) Approximately ten articles that should be of different materials
(b) A flat collar
(c) A slip lead
(d) A clicker
(e) It is also advisable for an assistant to video all your tracking sessions.
There are a few reasons for videotaping your sessions:
You can record and review all your article and track training sessions, enabling you to plan your next session proactively.
The person recording can also be constituted as a judge, which helps the dog learn to work with other people close by. As the dog becomes experienced, you can add as many people as possible and progressively increase the distractions.
The corrective collar is necessary in case the dog needs a reminder to walk “slow,” not steer too far from the track, to not go over articles and anything else that may be essential in guiding the dog. I very much believe in the methodology that any handler stimulus must have direction; it is essential in animal learning, particularly when any form of negativity is applied.
Sniffing – not seeing – is also essential when tracking. You do not want the dog to make associations that are not intended, like the sight of an article on a track, deep foot in-prints or food when necessary to increase motivation where necessary. Once the dog has an understanding that following a trail leads to an article which leads to reward, then we can use food to reward him along the way, encouraging a deeper nose where necessary.
Ensure that you use different materials right from the beginning. Dogs learn to lie down when they smell leather as quickly as they do when they learn to down on human scent. Make every effort to ensure that there is only one constant: human contact odour. If you do this right from the beginning, you will find the dog will eventually indicate any article if it has human odour attached to it.
As your dog increases in confidence, your imagination as to where your dog can track is your only limitation. There is no reason why your dog cannot track over a rubbish heap, and once he becomes a proficient tracker in these environments, you will find that field tracking will become second nature to him. Note: The most important thing to remember is that in all circumstances, avoid any negativity during the article indication learning phase. This is one of the critical points in this system.
Introduction To Article
Prepare the ten different articles to use in your training that has your human scent. Choose a material that will hold, or thoroughly permeate, human scent rather than leather for now. We want the dog to make the association that it is the article with a human scent that he will be indicating and not the leather odour. This training is best done in a confined and quiet environment with no distractions. I use my dogs compound he is housed in. The added advantage for using his compound is that there is no grass present. We don’t want any other scent associations other than the articles in question at this stage.
Before you proceed, you will need to make an association of what the clicker means:
• Give your dog food rewards the moment you click the clicker. This process is called “Charging the Clicker”; what this means is that the dog will be associating the click sound with food.
• You will need to repeat this exercise several times a day. When you believe that the dog understands the click means the arrival of food, then you are ready to move forward.
The Tracking Article Is Introduced
(a) With your dominant hand, hold the article with your thumb and forefinger. Put the clicker in your palm, leaving your other three fingers extended – so that you can use the clicker. This allows you to hold the clicker and article in the same hand. See photo on page 57.
(b) Hold the article so that it is blatantly obvious and so that your dog will notice the new object in your hand. Slowly extend the article towards your dog’s nose, click, and then reward if the dog investigates the article with his nose by sniffing or touching it.
It is essential here that the dog sniffs the article but do all that you can to prevent the dog from taking the article in his mouth. You need to lure him to the article in a way that encourages sniffing only and not biting. Otherwise, you run the risk of marking mouthing behaviours, which the dog may perform during tracking.
(c) Repeat the above until the dog shows deliberate sniffing or touching behaviours to the article.
Targeting Fundamentals Once the dog is comfortable with the article; you can start with some targeting fundamentals.
(a) Firstly begin by holding the article up in the air so that it is out of reach for the dog. Then gradually lower the article so that it is slightly above the dog’s nose. Now be still and do not move. Give it at least thirty seconds. If the dog moves towards the article, click and reward.
(b) Repeat this until the behaviour is on a short cycle, like every five seconds. Patience is of the essence here, so wait, and you will see it all come to life.
Continue this until you see that the dog is showing voluntary participation.
We now link the behaviour with a cue:
(c) Now hold the article back up in the air so that the dog cannot touch it and then say the words: “SHOW ME,” “TOUCH,” or “TRACK.” I like to use the word “TRACK”, as it is the command I use when tracking. When the dog touches the article – click and reward.
(d) Repeat this exercise with the article in different positions using the command “Track” until you see intent and consistency.
If the dog makes an error during these trials, say “WRONG” to indicate the error and pull the article up and out of reach; this tells the dog “end of behaviour”, try again and only reward when he gives you the right behaviour. Make sure you do not say the word “WRONG” with any inflection; it is supposed to be informative, not discouraging.
Now that you have the basic behaviour happening, it is time to expand your dog’s knowledge. Begin the next session:
(a) Put the article behind your back, out of sight.
(b) Say “TRACK” (or whatever word you wish to use) and then display the article to the dog.
(c) As the dog touches the article, click and reward.
(d) Do this about ten times, relatively quickly. Our ultimate objective here is to teach the dog to lay down when he finds the article on the ground.
(e) Now begin to move the article towards the ground so that it eventually ends up between his feet.
(f) Over the next repetitions present the article at a level closer to the ground. If you have built enough momentum into the behaviour, your dog will move toward the article.
(g) Click and reward for any movement towards the ground.
Continue this process until the dog consistently touches the article when it is presented. The aim is that the dog should be laying in a down position with the article between his two front legs. At this stage, we do not mind if he touches the article with his nose. I insist on it as it makes the dog focus on precisely what we want: the article. You can eventually shape a variation in the indication behaviour to suit your exact purpose.
Teaching the dog to touch the article enables us to shape the indicating behaviour precisely. There are times when the dog will lay on the article with his chest. In this instance, we can ask the dog to “TRACK”, and the dog should reposition himself to touch the article, thus shaping his behaviour towards correct indication. Remember, this is all done away from a track. Once again, the area you teach this in must be free from any distraction and grass.
Once the dog is consistently touching the article, it is time to strengthen the behaviour. We now need to put distance between the article and the dog.
(a) Hold the dog by the collar, place the article on the ground a few feet away from the dog.
(b) Release your dog and ask him to “Track”.
(c) When he indicates by laying down with the article between his feet – click and reward.
(d) On the next attempt, we aim to have the dog lay with the article between his feet maintaining this position while you click, remove the article and offer his food reward from your opposite hand – without him moving.
(e) We repeat this exercise, placing the article further away from the dog. The article will be imperceptibly further and further away from each repetition. The behaviour we are looking for is as an active and deliberate instrumental response.
Now pat yourself and your dog on the back.
Shaping Article Behaviour For Competition
Once the dog is fluent with the first article, begin introducing other articles of different material, making sure that your human scent is on them.
Repeat the exercise he has learnt on the first article on all the other articles to shape the same behaviour.
Articles can take every conceivable shape and size (within reason) and can be made of both natural and fabricated materials. If the dog downs on all the different articles, you should feel real achievement.
What we have achieved so far!
1. We have shaped behaviour to human-scented articles precisely the way we would have our dog operate on competition day.
2. We have taught the dog to respond to the verbal cue “TRACK.”
3. We have generalised his behaviour on more than one article.
4. We know he enjoys it, as there is no force.
The next thing to teach him is to ask for the same behaviours in at least ten different locations and most importantly, to scent discriminate. The following process will teach him the mechanics of scent discrimination which he should be able to do before commencing the first scent pad and any further tracking.