Training a Dog to Track Back

Although not now included in any of the Working Trial Regulations the track back or seek back is a very useful exercise to teach. It can be good fun for both dog and trainer and can be practised any time when out for a walk. It is merely an extension to retrieving and any dog worth training will soon seek back quite long distances. The easiest way I have found to teach this is as follows.

First of all get the dog retrieving reliably. When out for a walk and the dog is running free ahead of you, preferably on a path or track of some sort, drop a conspicuous article, such as a handkerchief. Walk a few yards, halt, call the dog back to you and send him for the object which he can see in front of him. When he retrieves make a great fuss of him and proceed on your walk. Now repeat the process but this time walk a but further before sending the dog back. Continue on these lines until you can send the dog back about twenty or thirty yards for an object he can see.

Once the dog shows some enthusiasm for this game drop the object out of sight — perhaps in some long grass by the side of the path. Call him back to you and, if you give him the same command to carry exactly as before, he should use his nose to locate it. It does not require a brilliant dog to do this. When a dog cannot see an object it is as natural for him to use his nose as it if for us to put out our hand to find the door knob in the dark. If any trouble is experienced it is likely to be because the dog is not keen enough on retrieving. As soon as he will seek back for an object in response to the command to retrieve add another command such as ‘Seek’. Start with ‘Seek-carry’ changing to ‘ S-e-e-k-carty’.

If the dog finds the object, continue as before, increasing the distance until he will seek back quite a long way. Vary the distances you send him and make him work on crooked tracks as soon as possible. If a keen dog is always sent back on a straight track of say zoo or 300 yards he is liable to overrun completely an object left just twenty-five yards in front of him.

Tracking

The first thing to remember is that tracking comes, or should come, almost as naturally to a dog as eating his dinner. The wild dog used his nose to locate his quarry and the first use to which man put the dogs he domesticated was to hunt, occasionally by sight but usually by scent. In practically all breeds of dogs the majority will use their noses — if there is a reason to do so.

When I was a small boy I had a terrier, one of the toughest and nastiest-tempered dogs I have ever known, who disliked practically everyone except me. Boys in shorts he regarded as particularly good prey! When we played ‘cops and robbers’ I was always a ‘cop’ with Caesar on a length of rope. He would find ‘robbers’ anywhere and could climb a ladder quicker than a boy. His enthusiasm arose from the hope, not infrequently realized, that heL would manage to bite one of them!

Later when I was shepherding at home I had a Cairn terrier which almost invariably accompanied me. But at times, such as lambing, I did not want an extra dog with me and left him at home. If he got out after I had gone he would always find me. Sometimes he would escape three or four hours after I had left, and I have watched him in the distance working my line often for two or three miles.

Practically any keen working collie will, without any lessons in tracking, follow the line of a sheep that has strayed. The subject is not, therefore, something new-fangled — it is something the dog did before men domesticated him. The sense of smell and the instinct to hunt can, like other instincts and senses, be strengthened with use or weakened by disuse.

The first problem in tracking, therefore, is to discover what the dog wants to find, and how best to encourage him to find it. One dog may go mad to find an object which does not interest another dog at all. What may encourage one dog may put another right off. Remember that you can make a dog lie down, you can make him pick up a dumb-bell, but you cannot make him use his nose. All you can do is to develop the instinct to hunt and the sense of smell which are there — or at least you hope are there.

A puppy can, with advantage, be allowed to do simple tracks as soon as it shows any inclination to do so. One of the best trackers we ever had was a bitch from a home-bred litter of Alsatians. At the time we had just moved and, having no proper runs, the puppies more or less ran wild. Usually a five-week-old puppy, if it gets lost in trying to follow a person, sits down and howls. But we noticed that these puppies put their noses down and tracked — at five weeks. This intrigued and amused my wife and me, so we frequently called the litter and then ran away and hid where we could watch them. All seven of them would put their noses down, their tails up, and, like a pack of miniature foxhounds on a cold scent, would slowly and deliberately work the line. It was easy to hide as they became so intent on their tracking that they never saw us and if we stood still would actually bump into our feet. I I might mention that not all puppies would do that sort of thing. These were by an imported German working dog out of a closely inbred bitch from the famous `Crumstone’ working strain owned by the late Mrs M. Griffin, B.E.M.

In starting tracking I never use a line or other mechanical device. We are now trying to encourage a dog’s natural abilities instead of subduing them as is the case in nearly all the obedience exercises. The more freedom he is allowed to use his own initiative the more initiative he will develop. The fewer instructions he is given the less inclined will he be to rely on help from his handler — a handler who in this case cannot do what the dog can do and unless he knows where the track was laid, is unable to give any help at all. Moreover, if he thinks he knows where the track is laid a handler may well lead his dog ‘right up the garden path’.

The easiest method (and I am all for the easiest method) we have found to start a puppy tracking is to start before he has had any obedience training. I hold the puppy and my wife runs off and hides in some bushes, calling the puppy as she goes. I then release the pup, which will dash off to the spot where my wife disappeared. Quite often it will but its nose down and go straight to her at the very first attempt, when a great fuss is made of it. It may just rush around willy-nilly, whereupon my wife calls it again so that it can find her by sound. This is repeated, food being offered as an extra incentive for a greedy pup, until it uses its nose. It would surprise many people to see how quickly the majority of pups do use their noses when played with like this. We also reverse the process so that I do the hiding and my wife releases the puppy.

As we release the pup we give the command ‘Seek’ in an enthusiastic tone. As soon as it has got the idea one of us goes to hide when the puppy is not present. The other, knowing the direction in which the tracklayer has gone, takes the puppy to where the latter has left a mark by scuffing the feet. The puppy is then encouraged to ‘seek’, which it is almost certain to do. If not, the tracklayer, who is watching from some hiding place, will call it by name to get it started.

We continue this game (it is important to remember that it is a game) using as many different people as possible to lay tracks. We find children very useful for this and they enjoy it as much as the puppy. We keep only bold pups which enjoy a rough and tumble with any child, which is sufficient reward for it to go and look for the said child.

By this method the hunting instinct strengthens, making the pup keener every time he does a track in exactly the same way as it makes so many pups keener and keener to chase bicycles. We expect almost any puppy trained, or rather encouraged, by this method to do a fresh 400 or 500 yard track by the time it is four or five months old. Once it is really keen — not before — we put on a light harness and line and run behind the pup. This method of training I can thoroughly recommend to any readers who tend to be overweight! When he is quite happy with this we apply some pressure to the line and gradually slow him down to a walking pace. We don’t just slow him right down in one lesson, but on each successive track over quite a long period.

From then on everything should be straightforward. It is simply a question of getting him on to the tracks of complete strangers, of increasing the distance and the length of time the track has been laid. When you have taught him to retrieve you can teach him to pick up the tracklayer’s object at the end of the track or any other objects he has placed by the way.

Another method I use, usually with an older dog which has not been taught as a puppy, is based on the retrieve. This method is probably in more general use than the previous one.

Begin by teaching the dog to seek forward which, as the term implies, is not very different from the seek back. Start when the dog is fresh and make him keen by throwing an object for him to retrieve in play. Now make him sit beside you, walk forward about twenty paces and place the object where he can see it. Next retrace your steps to the dog, stand beside him and make him retrieve. Make a great fuss of him and let him run about for a bit and then start again. This time walk forward and, when the dog is watching you, place the object where he cannot see it — for instance in long grass. Be careful to walk back on the track you laid going out. When you send the dog this time it is likely that he will either put his nose down on your track or he will run to where he thinks you placed the object and start hunting for it on the wind. If he takes the latter course there is no point in going further until you get him to follow your track. Sometimes it helps if you place the object further away. Putting the dog on a lead or tracking line may help too. But don’t just lead the dog to the object. You want him to lead you. Use the line just as a means to stop him hunting backwards and forwards.

When the dog is obviously following your track to the object you can gradually increase the distance and make right-angled turns in your track. You can lay a track before you bring the dog out and, instead of carefully retracing your steps, you can return by a different route. Be careful to return down wind of the track you have just laid to avoid your scent blowing back on to it. As soon as he is fairly reliable you can get someone else to lay the track and place the object, starting with someone the dog knows and going on to complete strangers.

Scent is a big and fascinating subject. Much has been written about it and still very little is understood. The following information is for the benefit of the complete novice who may not even have seen a dog tracking.

In Working Trials ‘One peg, not more than thirty yards from the commencement of the track, will be left to indicate the direction of the track’. The tracklayer starts by placing a peg at point A and then proceeds say twenty-five to thirty yards to point B where he sticks another peg in the ground. He then proceeds forward in the same direction for some distance before changing direction. When the competitor brings his or her dog to the ground the judge indicates the start (point A). The handler then starts the dog off in the direction of B, and it is up to the dog to find where the tracklayer has changed direction.

It is only in films and newspapers that ‘tracker dogs’ take the scent from an article left by the criminal. In practice criminals do not go around leaving scarves, caps and other objects for the benefit of their pursuers! It may be known that a burglar came out of a certain door or window – he may even have left a footprint where he dropped to the ground. Or someone could have seen a man or a lost child enter a wood at a certain spot. These are only two examples of the types of clues one finds in practice. In trials the handler should imagine that the judge is a passer-by who has seen a wanted person moving from point A to point B. It is then up to the dog to follow the track until he finds the object which the tracklayer has left at the end of it.

It is an accepted fact that weather conditions affect scent in many ways. So many that we cannot deal with them all here even if we knew them all. The most important and most obvious are the strength and direction of the wind. A cross wind will blow the scent quite some distance from the actual track. It can also blow the tracklayer’s scent back to the dog when he is working another part of the line.

When teaching a dog to track always lay the track down wind. In other words when you go to hide or place an object see that the wind is on your back. If you lay it upwind your scent will be blown straight back to the dog who will be encouraged to hunt on the wind and discouraged from putting his nose down and tracking. And don’t forget that the wind may change between your laying the track and putting the dog on.

Apart from wind direction the dog may be distracted in other ways and, although you cannot do much about the former you must do what you can about the latter. The track of a rabbit,’ hare, or, worst of all, deer will prove far more attractive to the average dog than that of a human being. Also many dogs will leave the line they are on when it is crossed by a fresh human track. This must be corrected and it can and often does prove to be quite a problem. To start with any dog intended for tracking work should never at any time be allowed to hunt game. If your puppy picks up the line of a rabbit and goes yipping after it don’t be amused. Get after him and correct him quite severely while he is still doing it. If you are not agile enough to catch a young puppy you will have trouble teaching tracking anyway! With an older dog it is not so easy but you must get it into his head that everything that runs is taboo except a human being.

But you may still find that he prefers the track of an eatable rabbit to that of an uneatable human being — and who can blame him! To correct this you must do as much tracking as possible on ground that is fouled by game of any sort. And you must know exactly where the track is laid, for which reason it is usually better to lay the track yourself. Choose a calm day so that the wind does not blow the scent and you will then know exactly where the dog should be if he is tracking properly. If he now leaves the track and goes off in the wrong direction you can correct him as he does it. With a trained dog a severe scolding may be sufficient but sometimes a more direct approach may be necessary. One way of doing this is to have a fairly short lead from the harness in the left hand and another from the slip collar in the right. You can now correct him with the right hand as and when he goes wrong.

Before correcting him make quite sure that it is the dog and not yourself that is wrong. A remark that goes for all training. If the dog loses the scent because of an air pocket or particularly dry piece of ground he may start searching for it and leave what you know to be the line you have taken. To correct him for this can do untold harm. The real answer lies in learning to read your dog. To an experienced handler most dogs indicate quite clearly whether they have picked up a fresh track or are trying to find the old one.

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