Oh, tracking! Many of us have a love-hate relationship with tracking. When we have a dog that is a natural tracker with a calm, methodical approach to work, this phase can be an absolute joy. But for others, tracking can feel like an eternal struggle. The dog doesn’t start well, or tracks too fast, misses turns or articles, quarters back and forth on the track, rockets forward on re-starts, and does everything except track calmly.
Over the next few blogs, I will cover several common tracking difficulties handlers face, and offer some possible solutions. But just as there are a number of ways to teach a dog to track, so are there a number of different solutions for each problem, and it is impossible to cover them all! Additionally, every dog will respond differently to a potential solution; it is up to the handler to figure out what works for their dog – and to give it time! Usually it takes about three weeks of multiple sessions per week to notice a consistent difference, so if you are trying to change the way your dog tracks, pick one thing at a time, and be consistent for a sufficient amount of time before evaluating if it works or not.
COMMON TRACKING TROUBLES
Common tracking troubles include:
Tracking too fast
Being ‘hectic’ on the track
Changing speed after turns
Missing or walking articles
Hectic starts and re-starts
And I am sure there are more! In this blog, we will tackle the issue of speed! Ready? Let’s “Such!”
ISSUE: DOG TRACKS TOO FAST
First, what do we mean by “too fast”? A dog can earn top points even if they track quickly, as long as they have great focus, a deep nose, correct article indications and restarts, a correct start, and consistent speed. But usually by “too fast” we mean the dog is rushing or even bolting down the track, slowed only by a handler struggling to keep up while being dragged at the end of the line. This type of speed invites error: overshooting articles, overshooting turns, losing the track and zipping around frantically, failing to start well, and more.
Speed frequently is a problem with excitable, high drive dogs who have a great desire to track. These energetic dogs show great enthusiasm for the work, and as their drive levels go up, their focus may decrease, making for a fast, hectic track. Handlers can also create speed in their dogs without meaning to do so. The more we hold the dog back, for example, the stronger the opposition reflex, and the more the dog will pull. Some become almost frantic in their desire to get down the track the more the handler holds them back (speaking from experience here!). Some handlers resort to prong collars and other corrective devices on the track in order to slow the dog, but for many, as soon as these collars are removed in a trial, the dog resorts to the same fast speed.
Troubleshooting Speed Problems
So, how can we slow a dog down on the track? Below are several different options. These are not the ONLY options, of course, but they will provide some ideas and a few more 'tools' for the handler's toolbox.
1. Foundation, foundation, foundation. It’s all about a proper foundation. Laying the right foundation will help prevent speed problems, as well as many of the other problems seen in tracking. Foundation work for tracking varies immensely by trainer. Most use food in every footstep at first. However, some methods allow the dog to work the track out on its own, making mistakes and learning from them with minimal interference from the handler, learning to set its own speed without pulling against a line or having the handler interfere. Other methods involve strong handler control from the start so the dog never has the opportunity to get off the track and make mistakes at all. Whichever way you choose, don’t rush the foundation! Rushing or laying an improper foundation can create multiple problems and 'holes' in the dog's tracking skills.
2. Look at how you laid the track. Sometimes it is how we laid the track that causes speed problems. Examples of this are tracks that are “too bold” and easy to follow – tracks that are double-laid, or laid with footsteps too close together almost like train tracks, or in vegetation that releases overwhelming scent and needs longer aging, or in dirt that provides perfect view of every single footprint – or tracks that are “too boring” and easy with long straight legs. Other examples that can cause rushing are:
pulling food off the track before the dog is ready
putting a ‘jackpot’ of food at the end of the track (can cause the dog to rush to the end)
moving too soon to articles, and then spacing them too far apart and making the only rewards on the track at articles (so the dog rushes to find the article and indicate it, skipping the rest of the track.)
Remember, this also depends on the dog. Some dogs do fine with a jackpot at articles and the end of the track, while others won’t. But if your dog speeds down the track, take a look at the way you lay your tracks first before making any training decisions.
3. Create a calm start. Many dogs that struggle with speed completely blow through their starts. It may take them 50 paces or more to settle into the track and get into a tracking rhythm. It is vitally important that these dogs learn how to calm down and focus at the very beginning of the track. Get their brain focused at the start, and the rest of the track should be in order. Some possibilities for creating a calm start include:
Downing the dog before the track and waiting until the dog settles down before starting. Be prepared for a long wait with some dogs! Feeding/rewarding the dog for a calm down here may also help.
Performing scent pad work with several heavily baited scent pads (and no actual track), and teaching the dog a calm approach (see next tip).
Baiting the scent pad and downing the dog before it, then letting him sort of ‘sneak’ into the start as he leans toward the food (currently one of my favorites, and a tip from my mentor John Riboni).
Exercising or walking the dog before tracking to help burn off some excess energy.
Some handlers do obedience before the scent pad in training, but be aware that this can also amp dogs up and create a hectic start for some dogs. The more control you ask of them, the crazier they get when you release them to track. Have your training buddy film you and watch the way your dog starts, and use their feedback to pick out which method may work best for your particular dog.
4. Create a more complex track. Some dogs rush because they have been taught that there are long straight highways of scent to follow, where they only need to check closely once in a while to ensure they are on the right track. This happens when handlers are in a hurry to build out long tracks or move to trial-like tracks too soon. Creating a more complex track with multiple turns and articles can help slow these dogs down. Switching to shorter tracks with lots of articles of varying shapes and sizes can also help slow dogs down, as long as the dog knows and values articles, and as long as the handler is willing to enforce indications.
5. Stop holding the dog back. Holding the dog back causes the dog to oppose the handler and pull forward into the line. It becomes a tug of war between dog and handler. If this describes where you are at with your tracking, it will require some retraining for both handler and dog. And it will be messy at first. One way of breaking this habit involves going back to the foundation of tracking with food in every footstep, with the dog dragging the line loose behind him until he learns to adjust his speed on his own over many repetitions. When the dog tracks calmly, the handler can then pick up the line, but must keep slack in it so as not to change the dog’s pace. Eventually the handler can move to having a slight tension on the line, just enough to "feel" the dog and communicate as needed.
It’s going to be messy at first to fix speed. It will require calm, consistent efforts to address the problem, with a diligent training schedule for a long period of time. Unfortunately, most instances of speedy tracking cannot be permanently fixed in just a couple of sessions.
What have you done to successfully slow down a speedy tracker? Share in the comments below! And join us next week for Tracking Troubles, Part 2!