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What Makes a Good Tracking Dog
by Don Harrison

Let me just say at the outset of this article, that I do not profess to have all the answers, nor do I pretend to be a good trainer of tracking dogs and, probably most of the little bit of knowledge I do have, has come from reading books such as ‘The Tracking Dog’ by Glen Johnson, which first got me interested in Tracking.

I have read many other books and, like most of us, I have watched numerous videos, looking for an unbeatable system which would give me that elusive 100 points every time. Unfortunately, dogs are not robots and, whilst that maximum score is being achieved more and more, most of us have to settle for much less.

What follows is not meant to be an article on how to teach your dog to track, but an article on how you, as a handler, should give more thought to your tracking training.

What makes a good tracking dog? This is a question I have been asking myself for over 25 years.Why does one dog complete the track with ease and the next dog fail, even though both tracks have been laid in the same field and by the same tracklayer? The obvious answer is that the first dog is a better tracker or a better-trained dog, and that, in many cases, is the answer. I personally think that the reason lies a little deeper.

When purchasing a puppy how do we assess its tracking potential? As far as I know we can’t. All we can do is check the puppy’s temperament. We can use all sort of tests but as far as I know nothing indicates the puppies tracking ability. So how do we decide on the right dog? Most of us, I would imagine, would go for puppy bred from good working parents. A puppy that had all the correct drives, a boisterous outgoing puppy that had loads of drive to play, and loved its food. It would be fair to assume that a dog showing those attributes would make, with the right training, a good tracking dog. However, there is nothing in this early assessment to indicate if the puppy will make a good nose work dog, we just presume that it will be. So is it not fair to assume, taking into account the information we have available, that nose work has more to do with the drive in the dog and less to do with the dogs olfactory ability? To take the argument one stage further how many high drive dogs have you known that were poor trackers? Not many I’ll bet. Following the same logic, how many dogs do you know who have no desire to play or eat, that have made good tracking dogs. Again, not many, if any at all. Which brings us right back to the original question “What Makes a Good Tracking Dog”?

Is it possible, that all German shepherds, are born with the same amount of natural nose work ability; and that tracking has more to do with the heart of the dog, and less to do with the actual nose. For without the drives mentioned, I doubt if we could get a dog to track successfully. If you don’t agree with the above statement ask yourself, “Why is it that the same handlers always have good tracking dogs? They can’t be lucky every time when it comes to choosing a puppy.”

Over the years I have attended many competitions, both in Working Trials and Schutzhund, during which time I have heard all sorts of excuses for dogs not tracking. The favourites being, The Tracklayer is Rubbish, The Judge is an Idiot, The Grass is too Long, The Grass is too Short, The Wind is in the Wrong Direction, There is Cattle in the Next Field, The Judge walked too Close and Distracted the Dog, There was Game on my Track, There were Rabbits in this Field, There were Dinosaurs on my Track The latest one was, My dog has never Tracked near to Motorways. I could go on and on. Never, ever have I heard a handler say, “It was my fault for not training the dog correctly.” So if your dog fails to track, instead of trying to blame someone or something else, look to your own shortcomings and, instead of blaming outside influences for your own failings try to analyse what went wrong. Make a point of watching as many other handlers as you can work their dogs in competitions.

Ask yourself:

  • Is that dog tracking in the correct manner?
  • Did it take scent at the beginning of the track?
  • Did it track with a deep nose?
  • Is it tracking at the right pace?
  • Is article indication correct?
  • Were the corners correct?
  • Why did the handler do that?
  • Why did the dog do this?

Listen to the judge’s critique to find out where the dog and handler lost points.

It never fails to amaze me how few people actually go to watch the tracking at competitions, and then wonder why their dogs do not track. We have actually had members at the White Rose who never saw a tracking competition during a five-year membership, when asked, “why?” the answer was always the same, “I don’t have the time”. Needless to say, they are no longer with us. Remember, you cannot train a tracking dog sat in front of the fire. Take a long hard look at the way you train because if your dog fails to track on a regular basis, you must assume that your tracking training is not correct. We all need that little bit of luck, the good tracklayer, the good field, but what you should be doing, is training your dog to overcome as many difficulties as he can, then and only then, will you have a dog that goes out time after time and completes the track. Whilst high scores are the aim of all of us, the trick is to have a dog that completes the track every time whatever the conditions.

Once again I ask the question, “What makes a good tracking dog?”

As far as I am concerned, a good tracking dog should have three factors built into its training,

  1. Motivation
  2. Concentration
  3. Determination

Without these your dog will never achieve the desired results. Let us examine each word according to the Oxford Dictionary.

Motivation – To provide an inducement; act as an incentive

Concentration – Fixed or intense attention

Determination – Fixed purpose; resolutness

It must be now obvious that unless the dog has these three factors you will not have the tracking dog you need. Without motivation your dog will not even start to track, without concentration the dog will not apply itself in the correct manner. Without determination the dog is unlikely to finish the track. “Right!” I can hear you say, “If I can put all these three factors into my dog, I will have a good tracking dog.”

If only it was that simple, but unfortunately nothing is. What is needed is a balance of all three factors and this will vary from dog to dog. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to realise that:-

Firstly, if a dog has too much motivation it will probably start to track so fast that it will be oblivious to article indication and corners.

Secondly, a dog that has too much concentration could possibly spend all of the allotted time examining the scent pad. I can remember a dog in working trials that was an excellent tracking dog but failed to complete many TD tracks on a time factor alone, simply because its concentration was so great that it tracked too slowly.

Thirdly, a dog with to much determination will give you similar problems to a dog with too much motivation. A balance of all the factors is what we need. With that thought in mind, think back to your last trial and ask yourself did my dog track the way it should? If it did you will now be sat at home with a trophy, saying, “Best ScH 111 Track 100pts”. (Dream on!) If like most of us mere mortals, you are nursing your wounds and pride because everything didn’t go according to plan, don’t be too downhearted, take a long hard look at your training programme and ask yourself what am I doing wrong? Believe me, it is you that is doing it wrong, not your dog, so please don’t blame the poor animal at the end of the lead simply because you don’t have the ability to teach him.

Instead, try other methods and be very patient and remember tracking training has to be on a regular basis. It is no good trying to teach a dog if you only track once a week, so decide what you need to teach the dog and get out there as often as you can.

As I said at the beginning, I am not going to attempt to tell you how to teach your dog to track, as there is plenty of well documented advice written by very experienced trainers, but having failed the last trial, or the scores you achieved were disappointing, or you are in the process of bringing on a young dog. You are out there on your training day, with your dog, tracking poles, food, articles etc. Before you put a track down think about what you want to achieve today. Consider which of the dogs drives do you wish to work on motivation / concentration / determination? Having decided that, look carefully at the conditions. Is it windy? In which direction is the wind? Is it raining? Is the grass long? Is the grass short? In fact, check on all the variable factors there are, and then decide what sort of track to lay, for example, if yours is a young dog with all the correct drives it would be silly to lay a 1000yd, three hour track on stubble, without any form of reward, because if you want to destroy his motivation, that is probably the best way of doing it.

Now, having assembled all the information available, lay your track keeping very much in mind what you want your dog to achieve, and achieve he must. Remember, success breeds success. If everything went to plan, decide if another track would be of any benefit to you or the dog. Perhaps another track would help to reinforce the first one. Only you can decide.

When I talk about tracks, I don’t necessarily mean full-length competition tracks, you can learn as much from a 100yd track as you can from a 1000yd one. Realistically, if your dog is not tracking correctly on a short track, it sure is not going to track correctly on a long one. So after each track, ask yourself have we achieved anything? If not, why not? Perhaps, you did not lay the track in the correct way, which would have allowed the dog to succeed. Were the food drops in the right place? Did you use the right type of food, was the food too small? Was it too big?

As you can see, there are a million questions you can ask yourself. Once again, unless you lay the tracks correctly, your dog cannot possibly track correctly, so once again the onus is on you.

You have now been out training your dog to track on every possible occasion, for many months, and he is now tracking in the correct manner. You are feeling quite pleased with the results. It is right that you are but don’t think that all your training is over. Now you have to add a further three factors into your training melting pot, and these are:-

  1. Experience
  2. Confidence
  3. Stamina

Again lets examine each word according to the Oxford Dictionary.

Experience - Wisdom /Skill/ Knowledge/ gained by personal practice

Confidence – Trust /Reliance/Assurance

Stamina – Power of endurance

To give your dog the experience he needs, it is essential that you track him under as many different conditions as you can. That means getting out in the wind and rain, tracking him on long grass, short grass, even plough or stubble, if you can find it.

Also vary the length of time you leave your tracks, from a few minutes to few hours, but always keep in mind that the dog must succeed and if the track is a difficult one, ensure the rewards are frequent and keep in mind those three words Motivation / Concentration / Determination.

To give the dog the confidence he needs there should be no doubt in his mind that what he is doing is correct, and that is why the dog has to succeed every time in training. Once again remember that success breeds success. In my opinion a dog should never ever fail in training because if it does you are putting doubt in the dogs mind. If the dog hits a difficult patch on the track, encourage him through it and try to ensure there is a reward after he has overcome the difficulty.

Stamina means that the dog must have the physical ability to complete the track and remain fresh under every sort of condition. Otherwise his Motivation / Concentration / Determination will wane and all your training will have been to no avail.

In conclusion, if you have managed to instil in your dog all six of the factors mentioned, you should have The Makings of a Good Tracking Dog.

Don Harrison
White Rose Schutzhund Club

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