Please note: This article is recommended to Police and Working K-9s, not Schutzhund or Search and Rescue
TRACKING: GENERAL INFORMATION, AND PRACTICE TRACKING
Tracking training requires two things: Scent and Motivation
Scent is produced by the human body, and when vegetation on the surface of the ground is crushed or disturbed when trod upon by a person. The tracks your dog will be exposed to in training and in service will always be a mixture of Human scent and Ground scent
Some components of scent are heavier then air and tend to fall to the ground more or less where they are produced, other components of scent are lighter than air and tend to be carried away on existing air currents. The mixture of human scent and ground scent that ultimately accumulates on the ground, on or very close to the actual path where a person walked is called The Track One goal in setting up a tracking exercise is to produce a track with a sufficient density of track scent for the dog to detect, from start of the track to the end, while making sure any airborne scent produced during the track laying has dispersed, moved or otherwise diminished before the dog starts the track. To accomplish this, the following should be considered:
- Generally speaking, a track should be laid in the direction of any air movement, (going the same direction as any breeze) in this way any airborne scent produced during the laying of the track will be carried away from the dog at the starting point preventing the dog from being able to wind scent the person laying the track, this will preventing the dog from being able to simply following the track layer’s scent cone in the air.
- Beginning tracks should not be laid on surfaces which produce very little scent such as hard packed dirt, sand, clay or paved lots such as parking, lots. Ideal tracking surface for starting a dog is open land with short ground vegetation (10 inches tall or so)
- Beginning tracks should not be laid in direct sunlight as this will often result in rising scent and the phenomenon we call burn off which means, the life of the scent is greatly reduced by the effects of direct sunlight and accompanying heat, that is to say the period of time scent remains dense on the ground and strong enough for the dog to detect is greatly reduced.
- Beginning tracks should not be laid where there is an abundance of fresh human scent of persons or animals other then that of the track layer. Using a school play ground where children recess for example would not be desirable.
- A beginning track should be started as soon as you calculate any airborne scent produced during the track laying has dissipated or been carried away on the breeze, but before the ground scent deteriorates below a level the dog can easily detect. Generally the delay will be only a few minutes. Ideally the ground scent will be strong enough for the dog to perceive the long solid scent track to follow, this will improve the dog’s conscious recognition and awareness of the game, i.e. following the track to find the track layer.
Anything that has a strong motivational affect on your dog is called a Motivator. Pleasure and Pain are excellent examples of motivators. Before a dog will track it must anticipate finding something at the end of the track which the dog finds extremely desirable. This thing (motivator) whatever it may be will serve to motivate the dog to search. The three motivators commonly used in tracking training are, Food, A toy, and a Person acting the part of a bad guy or decoy. Regardless of what you use for a motivator the fact of the matter is this:
Your dog’s motivation to track is a direct reflection of the relationship between him and the Motivator
If your dog is highly motivated by a ball for example, his tracking performance will reflect this high motivation. The same is true of any motivator you may select and so it is imperative for the handler to, properly manage the relationship between the dog and the motivator to assure it has the strongest motivational affect possible on the dog. You must see to it that nothing occurs which will tend to diminish the motivators affect on the dog.
Generally speaking this relationship is maintained by limiting the contact between the dog and the motivator. If a ball is used it serves no good purpose to allow the dog to constantly have a ball in the back of the patrol car or to play endlessly at home with the dog and a ball. If food is used it is most effective when food has been withheld until the dog is very hungry.
The use of a decoy is a very strong motivator for patrol dogs. The motivation for the criminal apprehension transfers to tracking smoothly and naturally. This transition is perceived by most dogs as little more then an extension of the criminal apprehension work, it generally occurs naturally within only a few exercises.
When a decoy is used for tracking the game really starts when the criminal apprehension training is done, for it is during this training that the relationship between the dog and decoy is established. It is this relationship which will be reflected in the tracking behavior. If during the criminal apprehension work the dog comes to really like to engage the decoy, once the dog becomes aware the decoy is “out there somewhere” he will be really motivated to search for him.
In the initial stages of tracking training we must cause the dog to understand that he cannot find the decoy with his eyes or ears, this will greatly diminish the animals reliance on these sensory organs and so the dog will come to rely upon its olfactory and so, While the decoy will be required to gain the dog’s attention on the initial tracks by making some visual display along with an audible display, as soon as the dog sees or hears the decoy and shows signs of being motivated to head in the direction of the decoy, the decoy must silently slip from sight into the distance until he can an no longer be seen or heard by the dog, leaving behind only a trail of track scent for the dog to discover and follow.
In this way the decoy makes the dog aware that he is out there somewhere hiding, thus providing motivation for the dog to search. Without such awareness the dog will have no reason to start searching at all.
Note: We know that visual images dissolves in a dogs conscious mind in a very short time, perhaps as little as twenty seconds and so before the dog is allowed to start the track he is held back for twenty to thirty seconds. This will prevent the dog from simply dashing off to the point where the decoy was last seen. This phenomenon can be seen in detector dog training where a dog locates narcotics or explosive substances in a large room of a building, the dog is rewarded and taken from the room and after thirty seconds the dog is brought back into the room and given the signal to seek. SOME dogs will immediately go to the area where the substance was previously found. MOST dogs will not however.
Most dogs will simply start searching as if this was a new room, the mental image of the hide location from the previous search having dissolved from memory. The same can be seen with a simple game of fetch. Toss a ball into a field of knee high grass, hold the dog back twenty or thirty seconds and then release him for the search. Most dogs will dash about randomly with little awareness of where the ball was last seen, that image having dissolved in the delay time.
At the point the dog looses the conscious awareness of where he last observed the decoy, he will attempt to look and listen for the man. If the decoy remains out of sight the dog cannot see him, if he or she remains quiet the dog cannot hear him or her and so if the dog is to find the person he must use his olfactory. When the track is set up properly there will be virtually no airborne scent to follow but there will be an abundance of track scent for the dog to detect and follow.
Most dogs will quickly become conscious of the correlation between discovering scent and following it to the decoy, this is after all a natural behavior in dogs. A dog will always do what in the past was followed immediately with a desirable result and so if your dog was previously trained for building search, the dog will have many experiences at success in finding the decoy by detecting scent in the air, generally finding the man very close by this pool of airborne scent.
This training will interfere with the starting tracking exercises, the dog will probably attempt to wind scent the person and when it cannot initially find airborne scent will attempt to bound randomly across the field searching for scent in the air. If this occurs the handler does not advance one single step from the start, the exercise ends with the dog simply being taken from the field.
A new field is then selected where the grass is at least 20 inches tall thus enabling the decoy to lay flat without being immediately seen by the dog until he is very close to him. The decoy makes a short track, thirty or forty feet long, and lays down flat on the ground. At the point the dog is motivated to search the handler allows the animal to take leash to the end and then when the dog is pulling hard allows the dog to advance for the much anticipated encounter with the decoy.
A few of these exercises should cause the dog to anticipate finding the decoy on the ground. When the dog comes to this point the next track has the decoy positioned several yards further away from the starting point. The dog again reaches the end of the leash and continues to search the ground to locate the man. So long as the dog is working close to the ground the handler allows advancement until the dog finds the man.
As training progresses the instinctive drive to search remains high but the actual search behavior becomes more the result of memory with each successive experience and repetition until ultimately the search behavior is the result of 80% memory and 20% environment. In drug work we see this concept at work, initially the dog will dash about in an instinctive random manner.
Nature causes the dog to act this way because the more ground covered by the dog on a natural hunt, the greater the chances of striking prey scent. Once the dog finds the reward in a particular location over and over, let’s say hidden on a vehicle, the instinctive random search dashing about becomes less and less and the conditioned search behavior based on memory becomes more and more common and so the dog eagerly approaches and searches the vehicle.
There are a few things to consider when starting a dog tracking: The decoy must never hide behind a bush or object, this may cause the dog to always anticipate the man behind something and so the dog will tend to simply look for objects to go to and search rather then following track scent. Some refer to this sort of behavior as bush hunting. The same is true of tree hides, if the dog locates the persons hiding in trees too often the dog will tend to wind scent the person detracting from the tracking behavior we want.
To help understand some of this look at your dogs articlesearch behavior. When you give the signal to article search does the dogs nose go up in the air or on the ground? Probably on the ground. Why ? Because the dog has always found the article on the ground and so there is no reason for the dog to search high. Tracking should be seen as little more then an article search in which the article just happens to be a decoy, who is always found on the ground.
When done properly the dog will also come to see not only is the decoy always on the ground but he is always at the end of a long track of scent. One of the most destructive things a handler can do is to help the dog. This will quickly become a way of life for the dog and then a necessary part of tracking, the dog will come to rely upon the handler for help. If the dog is not successful in a track, the exercise should be ended in such a way that the dog is further motivated for the next track.
The decoy may jump up and dash off while the dog is taken back to the patrol car or any number of other things can be done. If the handler helps the dog by assisting on corners and so on, the dog will do less and less searching with each exercise relying more and more on the handler.
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