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PUPPIES AND TRACKING
By Joe Hamzy
My experience in training puppies to track is limited to my own dogs. All are Flat-Coated Retrievers. Kelsey was two when we started tracking training so she doesn’t count as a puppy, even though she acted like one. Rory started tracking at 6 months old and was certified at 10 months. Sam started tracking at 17 weeks and was certified at 5 months. Rick started tracking at 14 weeks and was certified at 4.5 months. Kid started tracking at 11 weeks and was certified at 9 months. Ilsa started tracking at 21 weeks. Quite a difference in certification ages but not much of a difference in talent. And no difference in the intensity of training for the last four, either. There was a difference in the time of year that each started and that may have been a factor (heat, wind speed). Also, these times are when we actually started a formal tracking schedule. Retrieving the glove and ‘hide and seek’ preceded tracking by three to fourteen weeks. I don’t put much weight on when a dog earns its TD but I like to get it over with so that we can concentrate on TDX. My dogs have not been good with ‘fresh’ tracks after we age to 3 hours for TDX and VST so in order to do the advanced stuff it’s important to get the possibility of a 30 minute old test track out of the way.
There was not any thought of organized training when I started Kelsey. She had just earned her JH and we looked for another venue. We found a group that tracked and we joined. We walked in the fields, dropped gloves, and ran tracks. Rory’s training was based on Glen Johnson’s Tracking Dog. With Sam I used Sandy Gantz’s, Tracking From the Ground Up. The program in this book, with some modification, forms the basis for all of our dogs’ training now. The charts outlining times and distances are reasonable and tracking every day is a great way to teach a dog to track. The biggest change I’ve made is that food is not used – ever. Also, after starting Kid in the winter with very strong winds, I’m now more inclined to wait for calmer days.
A new puppy is so full of promise. A blank slate so to speak. At seven or eight weeks they are like sponges – eager to absorb all of the information around them. We let our puppies be puppies but there is structure presented to them immediately. They learn to live with the other dogs in the house. They learn to relieve themselves on command. Their first obedience word is Come. We start retrieving with them. And what do they retrieve? The leather glove that they will use in tracking. Because we do not use food in our tracking training, we develop an intense desire for the glove and it’s retrieve. This serves as the motivator when the puppy is first asked to leave the handler and ‘Find It’.
When the puppy is absolutely enthusiastic about the glove and is able to retrieve the glove in the type of cover that we will start tracking in, it is time for us to begin tracking. Ilsa’s tracking started so late because she was more interested in sniffing in the grass than retrieving to hand. Retrieves in the house were good but there was too much for a puppy to absorb when outside. Because the puppy’s training is scheduled so frequently, it is easier for me to train by myself. I can go off early in the morning before work, track for a short time, and be done with tracking training for the day. I do want the puppy to see me leave on the very first tracks so it is helpful to schedule those first tracks with someone available to hold the dog. The puppy’s crate also works. With the experience from Rick and Sam’s VST training, I started Kid on mowed grass and hard surfaces early. It was easier to use a neighborhood park than haul off to big fields and tall grass. The motivation through the early weeks is always the glove and time with Dad. As the dog progresses, the motivation seems to transfer to ‘a job well done’. When you have a puppy that will leave you towards the end of that first week on those first tracks into the wind, you have a dog that understands tracking. There will always be new challenges – turns, length, time – but as soon as the dog can no longer see the glove that you have dropped, it will track to retrieve it.
It’s important to establish a ‘tracking routine’ with your dog. You should be comfortable with this, as you must repeat it every time you track. First, make sure the dog is aired before you track. Commands come in handy for this, as you don’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time with it. This command will transfer to any performance venue and will sometime save the interruption in the field/failure in the ring that an unaired dog will surprise you with. Second, decide where you will harness your dog – at the car or at the flag. I like at the flag as this gives me time for the dog to focus just before running. My dogs sit about ten feet from the flag and wait while the harness is put on. I’m usually licked during the process but that’s ok. Some folks are too nervous for this and for them at the car is best. The third part of the routine is the command you use to start your dog. I use ‘find it’. I hear a variety of commands from my students. Pick one that suits you but is not harsh. Many nervous handlers who use ‘track’ don’t realize how harsh this sounds.
I use all sorts of cover now when I train my puppies. Some is TDX cover. As long as the dog can physically make it through without getting de-motivated, anything goes. Kid’s early tracks were in cattle pastures, a huge landfill mound, parks, schools, neighborhood lawns and driveways and fields around a sewage treatment facility. Some interesting smells and taste sensations there but none interfered with his desire to track. Track lengths and ages come from Gantz’s book – three or four short tracks a day at first and age added almost immediately. Time is a tracker’s friend. I’ve always felt that is easier for a dog if the track is aged. This seems to be especially true for hard surfaces.
Because I generally train by myself, my puppies rarely have someone else to follow. The first track that Rick had that I didn’t lay was his certification track. I’ve never found the transition from self-laid to stranger-laid to be a problem. There is a great deal of discipline required, though, on the part of the handler. You must not signal the dog where the track is. There can be some surprises, though, when your dog sees that first track that someone else has laid. I use single flag starts from the beginning and they are generally two types of flag, small plumber/surveyors flags and three-foot high wood stakes with triangular flags. When Kid had his first track laid by someone else he went nuts at the thirty flag. It was big and different and a great new thing to play with. One tracklayer for Kelsey used a pair of opera gloves rolled up as the final article. She ate them. These surprises are ok when they are in training but not the sort of thing you want at a test. So for convenience I lay my own tracks but I sure want to be proofed on someone else’s track before I enter a test.
I’m not too concerned about the type of article indication as long as there is one. Rory would concentrate so hard on a track that he would sometimes only dip his nose to indicate articles. This can be dangerous for a dog that is not exactly on the track but in his case I could rely on him being accurate and me seeing the article. Kid downs at the final article but generally not intermediate ones. Rick, Sam and Kelsey retrieved their articles, something that requires the handler to be very aware of where they are. I’d like a stand at every article but I’m not going to force the issue with my dogs.
Life is one big distraction for a puppy. It is priceless to watch their reactions. You get them through the everyday ones in training and cherish the ones that happen when the track really counts: Kelsey and a tennis ball in a TD test; Rory and cow poop in his certification; Sam and a twig that she retrieved from 5 feet off the track (the certification judge had broken it off and thrown it); and Rick spotting a little white flower ten feet off his TD track. Distractions happen. Train for the ones that you can control (flags, dogs, people in the field) and don’t worry about the ones that you can’t.
I’ve found that by the sixth week of puppy training, the puppy is probably ready for certification. Nothing rock solid but the puppy can handle TD track age and length. Whether the puppy can drag an inexperienced handler around a TD track is unpredictable. If you have a test available soon it’s worth a shot. If not, then keep training until the dog is ready for anything. Cross your fingers, take a deep breath and enjoy every minute of your certification and TD. It’s not like agility where you get to run course after course in trial after trial. It’s tracking…You won’t have many opportunities to show in tracking events so every track is special.
If you are serious about earning an AKC tracking title quickly with your dog, be prepared to work daily in the beginning. Tracking for short distances on a daily basis will build a solid foundation. Daily tracking need only take place for 3 or 4 weeks. It works. In the first couple of weeks, go to the AKC web site and find the Tracking Regulations and download them. Or pick up a copy at a breed show. Read and understand these rules. Ask questions. Tracking, although a team sport (especially at the higher levels), is a venue where the dog has the upper hand – his nose. It is a sport that is often quite enjoyable to a dog. When your dog lets you share that enjoyment, you have found a great way to spend time together.
Joe and his wife Mary Ann live in Florida with their three Flat-Coats, Rick, Kid and Ilsa. Gone to the bridge are Scotty, Kelsey, Rory, and Sam. Kelsey earned a TD. Kid has his TD and is ready for TDX and VST tests. Rory and Sam earned TDXs. Sam was the best VST dog but she died way too early. Rick is a CT.