Puppy Tracking Training

Posted on: May 20th, 2013 by Gary Roe No Comments

This article is copyright ©1998 by Daniel E. Tratnack

When my new Terv puppy, Quick, arrived in March, I immediately noticed a behavior that brought joy to my heart. When I strolled around the yard in the evening, this two-month-old bundle of fur followed behind me, putting his nose in each footstep that I made in the damp grass and sniffing deeply. I knew then that I had a fine tracking dog.

Although he displayed an early aptitude, I elected to wait until June to begin his tracking training. In the initial stages of training, I like to track the dog every day, and that only became possible when school was dismissed for the summer. Before starting, I reviewed my favorite tracking references. I am very fond of “Tracking From the Ground Up,” by Sandy Ganz and Susan Boyd. There are other books out there for novice trainers, but I find the Ganz/Boyd book so easy to use. I think that anyone who has a willing dog, a few hours a week, and this book can train a dog to be nearly ready for a TD test without any outside help. Another tried and true reference is “Tracking Dog: Theory and Methods,” by Glen Johnson. This book is currently out of print, but ask any tracking enthusiast and he or she is likely to have it on the bookshelf. The Johnson book is much more technical than the Ganz/Boyd book, and suggests a training program that few working people will have time for. Yet it is a resource that every serious tracker should read.

After reviewing both books, I began Quick’s training. When starting a dog or puppy, the first goal is to get him to understand that by using his nose to follow a scent from one place to another, a reward will be found. This might take a few days, and patience is very important here. You cannot progress until your dog is actually “tracking,” which means deliberately following the scent path. I began by doing three tracks every morning, each one short, straight, fresh, and heavily laden with food. For the first few days, the tracks were only ten to fifteen yards long with food in every footstep. I kept him on a six foot leash to prevent him from drifting away from the track (known as “casting”). At the end of each track was a favorite toy with a big pile of food on top

We kept it very simple at first. It took my “natural” tracker about two weeks to reach the point where I felt that he comprehended what he was doing. I waited until he was following the track in a straight line without casting, with his nose in the grass sniffing for the food drops, and stopping at the articles to eat his food and play with the toy. I knew then that he understood the game. When he reached this point we were ready to start the next stage of tracking: increasing age and length. If the dog truly knows his task, this can be done rather easily. Over the next week we made rapid progress as I increased the age of the tracks about three minutes a day, so that by the end of the week Quick was following three tracks per day that were 20 -25 minutes old. I also increased length to 50 – 60 yards, but still in a straight line. At the same time, I reduced the amount of food I was using to one piece every 5 -7 steps. During this phase I also switched to a longer lead and gradually allowed him more line, working twelve feet behind him by the end of the week. I then paused and carefully planned the next step.

Training turns is a critical phase of teaching a dog to track. If not done properly, a dog can easily learn bad habits that will haunt the trainer for the duration of the dog’s career. I decided that I would try something different with my new puppy. I wanted to try using “serpentine” tracks to teach Quick the concept of turns. A “serpentine” is a track that, as the name implies, progresses from start to end in arcs. At first, the arcs should be very broad with a radius of, perhaps, twenty yards. I did not increase the length of the tracks as I began using serpentines, limiting them to 60 yards at first. Gradually, I reduced the radius of the arcs and began increasing the length of the tracks. Next, I began putting longer straight legs between the arcs. In a short time, Quick was doing 100 yard tracks with two or three arc turns.

Once he was comfortable with turns (at least, arc turns), I turned my attention to increasing age and length. There is supposedly an age “hump” at about thirty minutes. Dogs are known to have difficulty progressing from 25 minute old tracks to 45 minutes, and then have an easier time after that. To tell you the truth I’ve never noticed it in my own dogs. Quick proceeded methodically from 25 minutes to 45 minutes to one hour. I increased the length of the tracks steadily, being careful not to ask more from him than his short attention span would permit. At this point in his training, Quick is reliably doing 200 yard tracks aged one hour, with three to four arc turns and food drops about every twenty steps. I am giving him twenty feet of leash (the required length for an AKC test) and he is finding his articles with ease.

My goal is to have my puppy ready for his TD test next spring. Between now and then, there are some important things I plan to do. First, I will gradually decrease the radius of the arc turns until he is doing right angle turns. If I do this right, it will be a seamless transition and Quick will never notice the difference between an arc and a sharply angled turn. Second, I will teach reliable article indication, preferably the down. I haven’t touched on this part of the training because his response to verbal obedience commands just isn’t strong enough. I’ll also steadily increase age and length until we’re doing at least the maximum requirements for a TD test: 500 yards, 2 hours old, with five turns. Of course, goal achievement is nice, but the important thing is that Quick loves to track and I love to follow along behind him.

Permission has been granted to mytrackingdog.com by Daniel Tratnak.