Tracking with your dog: An introduction
Tracking... All dogs can do this
But be warned…….. Tracking is addictive
The dog's ability to track – that is, to follow a scent trail – is well known. Man has utilised this ability for centuries. Dogs have helped the hunter to find game and food. In France and other countries, dogs hunt for exotica like truffles. Dogs have long been used by police and armed services to hunt criminals and enemy forces, and by search and rescue workers to find lost people. See the links page for more information on Search and Rescue.
Tracking is something that all dogs can do. It is a natural instinct for a dog to use this ability. From birth, a puppy makes its way to its mother’s nipple for a drink. How? The puppy is born blind. It uses its sense of smell.
The dog's tracking ability is extremely acute; we still don't fully understand the dog's capabilities in this area. The dog's olfactory sense is much, much more greatly developed than humans. Dogs naturally track for food; we could call this their hunting instinct. We don't have to teach a dog to track; we use their natural instinct to teach them that we want them to follow a certain track.
In Australia, most tracking dogs and their owners are involved in tracking as a recreational sport. Many people who have trained their dogs to compete in obedience or agility trials also train them to track and then enter tracking trials where they compete for Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC) titles. All types of dogs complete in these trials from toy breeds such as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels to larger gundogs and working breeds like German Shepherd Dogs and Rottweilers.
How do I get involved in tracking?
The Tracking Club of Victoria can help you to get started (see club info for contacts). Some obedience clubs and some private training schools also hold regular tracking training.
How do I train for tracking?
There are many ways to train a dog to track. As noted above, we are not actually teaching the dog to track. It was able to do that from birth. What we are doing is training the dog to follow a designated scent. The most common way to start in tracking is to attend a seminar or course and then form into a small self-help group to do regular training. Unlike obedience or conformation you cannot easily take group training, as the space necessary is quite large and the time taken for each dog is too great to make it viable to train more than a few dogs at a time. Hence most people find it more practicable either to do most of their training on their own or in small groups. Whichever way you train, you will be constantly surprised at the ability of the dog to track and to differentiate various scents.
Do I need special equipment?
Dogs are required to compete in a harness and a lead with a minimum length of 10 metres. Harnesses can vary according to preference from a simple figure 8 made with tape and D rings, to a traditional leather harness. Leads need a secure clip and can be made of many materials; preferably lightweight and easy to hold.
How do I enter tracking trials?
Several dog clubs in Victoria and other states regularly conduct tracking trials.
Schedules will be advertised and entries usually close 2 or 3 weeks prior to the trial date. Entry forms are available from Dogs Victoria. In Victoria, tracking trials are usually held from May to October. Trials are usually held over two or three days and can be held on farmland or bush areas. In Victoria as in all areas of Australia, available land is difficult to access and the club holding the trial will make arrangements with farmers or landholders to access their land under strict conditions. The dogs will often be required to track among stock, usually sheep and cattle and wildlife such as kangaroos are a common distraction.
Are there any prerequisites for entering a tracking trial?
Any dog that is registered with Dogs Victoria is eligible to enter a tracking trial. No obedience qualifications are necessary. Clearly, it is not advisable to enter a trial until the dog has been trained so that it is likely to pass Test 1 which involves finding the tracklayer at the end of a trail of 400 metres with two turns.
What tracking titles are available?
Tracking Dog (T.D.) Tracking Dog Excellent (T.D.X.) and Tracking Champion (T.Ch.)
How many different tests are required?
In order to qualify for Tracking Dog (T.D.) there are three tests. As noted above, Test 1 is 400 metres with two turns. Tests 2 and 3 are both 800 metres with a minimum of two turns. There will be two articles placed on the track. The dog must find at least one article and the tracklayer to pass. For Tests 1 and 2 the handler is able to nominate the tracklayer. After Test 2, all tracklayers will be unknown to the dog. To qualify for Tracking Dog Excellent (T.D.X.) there are three tests. Tests 4 and 5 are 1000 metres with a minimum of four turns and Test 6 is 1200 metres with a minimum of five turns. The Tracking Champion (T.Ch.) test (Test 7) is 1200 metres with a minimum of six turns. The age of the tracks varies between a minimum of 20 minutes for Test 1 to a minimum of 90 minutes for Test 7.
Where can I go to train and compete after my dog becomes a Tracking Champion?
Unlike most other disciplines where you can continue to compete indefinitely, Tracking can not be continued once you have achieved the final title. You can only qualify at each test once. To keep the experienced dogs interest up the Tracking Club of Victoria runs a members competition called Champion of Champions each year, where Tracking Champions can continue to show off their skills.
With the introduction of Track and Search our dogs have the opportunity to continue in competition, using their noses as only they can do.
Track and Search
A new form of competition was incorporated into the ANKC Rules in 2008.
It is called Track and Search. It has been very popular among dedicated handlers and the success rate so far has been very high. Not all dogs or all handlers continue on after Tracking but those who do really enjoy it.
Currently it is possible to achieve two titles; Track and Search Dog (TSD) and Track and Search Dog Excellent (TSDX). Proposals to include a Track and Search Dog Champion title are under active consideration, but it is not in place at present.
The tests are meant to be as close as possible to a real life situation where a dog is meant to find a missing person in varying terrain.
Various surfaces including gravel, sand, paved surfaces, timber decking and dirt and asphalt roads are used. Ordinary grass and pasture can be used, but 25% of the track for Tests 1 to 4 must be laid on surfaces other than plain grass. Test 5 and 6 are laid in suburban streets and the track is substantially on paved footpaths. Tracks are also meant to meander rather than continue in straight lines as in traditional Tracking. Also unlike traditional Tracking, tracks can be laid in contaminated areas where the public and other animals may be encountered.
Tracks also vary in complexity with differences in length, time delays and numbers of diversions and cross tracks.
For the earlier tests, the handler has the choice of starting the dog on or off lead and then attaching the line to the collar once the dog has found the scent. The dogs also should find articles that someone might have lost in real life eg. Mobile phone, notebook, toy, wallet or anything that can be imagined that is small and harmless to all.
There are also cross tracks and diversion tracks, sometimes where two people start off together and one walks off in a direction that is different from where the tracklayer has gone.
Judges always give the handler a description of who they are looking for. The descriptions can be very entertaining indeed. Our handler/dog teams have looked for drunks who have lost their way home, grannies who have escaped from nursing homes and in one case, a Russian spy.
The later tracks are held in streets where cars and pedestrians and dogs and cats must be negotiated. The final track to gain the title of Track and Search Dog Excellent is held in the streets at night. Always good fun on rubbish bin night!
The night track is always a spectacle with judges, helpers, handlers and dogs decked out in safety gear and headlamps. Some people are very creative and have flashing lights on collars and lines. Safety is very important so everyone must be visible.
In summary, Track and Search does take a lot of training as do most disciplines. Of course as in Tracking, the dog already knows how to track. You are only teaching him how to follow the scent you want him to follow. In Track and Search this is very important as the dog has to differentiate between various tracklayers and find the one whose scent he has been given at the start.
This very complexity is what makes the dog so interested in this form of tracking.
At the beginning of this article it was mentioned that tracking is addictive. It certainly is, and if you get to the stage of achieving the TSDX title you will have proved that you and your dog have come on a very interesting journey together, hopefully strengthening the wonderful bond between you and your dog.