The Basics of Tracking
by Martha and Walter Galuszka
Reprinted from What You Should Know About The Giant Schnauzer, 5th Edition ©1988
Their eyes will pick up anything that moves, they hear extremely well, but they can smell with even finer discrimination. To direct this capability in a standardized exercise is a satisfying achievement.
It is really a very basic notion. Any dog will pick out an interesting scent in the air or on the ground and attempt to follow it to its source. (Ask anyone who complains about how their dog sniffs all the time.) The object of 'tracking' is to be able to indicate to your dog where the scent occurs which YOU want him to follow, to disregard the other enticing scents, and continue to follow that particular scent until there is some sort of completion. An article, person, food reward or some other justification for the tracking must be out there waiting for the dog to come find it. It is a self-reinforcing motivation to track when the dog finds the reward and enjoys the praise and/or goodie to eat.
The time Involved In training can be less than the other obedience training, time wise, but the individual training session may take longer because it does require some planning, space, and generally is done away from your home. A couple of hours a week is probably enough, although your dog will want more, and progress of course will be slower on this timetable. Two to three sessions a week is better, and some experts insist on daily workouts of shorter duration. Several tracks can be done in one day, but the dog should have time to relax in between.
Tracking is hard work, but it must be approached like a game. Motivation is the key to tracking, because you cannot force a dog to do it. If it doesn't want to use its nose your way it is certainly capable of refusing. However, if your dog likes to go outside and play with you and follow you around a field it will most probably take to tracking.
The equipment is very simple and fairly easy to obtain. In the beginning you only need a nonchoking collar and leash, an article such as a glove or wallet for the dog to find, a couple of flags to mark your track and perhaps a few edible goodies such as hotdogs to get the dog's attention. Dog cookies and dried snacks are not very interesting to the dog because their dryness makes them hard to find. A small chunk of cheese, salami, or hotdog will give off more odor.
When the dog is ready to workout in front and pull you, you must get the dog adjusted to wearing a regular tracking harness. These are not sold in pet shops, so the best way is to start the dog in tracking while you mail‑order the harness. Obedience equipment catalogs will carry them and recommend the correct size. You will also need a longer leash and ordering is usually the cheapest way. If you enter competition it must be at least 20 feet long and not more than 40 feet. You will have to follow your dog at least 20 feet behind, and the normal, most comfortable length seems to be about 30 feet. It sounds like a lot but you get used to it. You and the dog really need that length to maneuver around bushes and rough ground as you go.
The beginning tracks are short and straight with an article and a reward at the end. You will gradually increase the length of the track and then begin letting it 'age' a bit before using it. Eventually, for competition, the dog must be able to follow a track of 500 yards, with 4-5 turns and aged about two hours. Many dogs which enter the tests are capable of much tougher tracks, but the test tracks are designed to objectively examine the basic ability of the dog. Once the Tracking Dog (TD) title is earned the dog can enter the Tracking Dog Excellent test. Of course it is much more difficult and is not usually earned in only a few months. With a TD level you have proved that your dog can be directed to find the correct scent at the start, follow a track of reasonable length to find the missing article, and do this without stopping to play or investigate other things off the track. It is definitely a directed exercise, it is not an accident that the dog found the article. At the TDX level the dog must work a track that is considerably longer and older, meaning the air has had a chance to blow the scent away, and a couple of strangers will have crossed over the track to test whether the dog is distracted by fresh scents.
The dog has to find several articles dropped on the track, and be willing to continue tracking to find all of them. It can't quit at the first one as it did at the TD level.
Working toward the tracking titles is both work and fun. It is nice to be out in the fresh air doing something constructive with the dog and the dog will respond by enjoying the work with you, being partners. The dog can't do it alone, and you can't track without a dog's nose. It is a satisfying effort and one which perfectly utilizes the natural instincts of the dog. Many trainers begin their very young puppies on this before they are old enough for formal obedience training. It instills confidence in the dog, the dog forms a bond with the trainer which can help later training, and it's wonderful exercise for that growing body. Dogs as young as six months have earned their TD.
The Giant Schnauzer is ideally suited to this training as it has the strength and stamina in its size and the necessary acuity in its nose. It helps to justify calling it a working breed.
(Editorís Note: This article was written before the VST and CT titles were available.)
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