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Addicted to Tracking

The Newfoundland Club of America—responsible for the preservation, protection and welfare of the Newfoundland Dog in America since 1930.


There is no organization named Trackers Anonymous for people who are addicted to tracking. If there were, I would be a likely candidate for membership. My addiction started innocently enough. I noted an ad in a show catalog regarding tracking lessons and thought it sounded interesting, so I called the telephone number to inquire. I was surprised by the answer I received. The woman on the other end of the line said, "It's April and I'm not taking on a big black dog with summer coming." Fortunately, the second trainer I talked to said, "Come out, and we can give it a try."

One year later the training paid off Ally entered her first test and earned her Tracking Dog (TD) title on April 26, 1992. I was hooked. She was the first Newfoundland in Colorado to earn her TD. Unfortunately, Ally's tracking career ended with an eye injury that was completely unrelated to tracking. The vet was able to treat the injury, but he said that the eye would be very vulnerable to re-injury and that I should keep her out of fields with brush and other sharp objects.

When 12-week old Lucy came to be part of our family, tracking was back on our agenda. She had her first tracking lesson the next week and is now just as addicted as I am. She completed her TD on April 15, 2001, and requalified two weeks later. Some said, "She already has her title, why go out and try to re-qualify her?" Remember what I said about being addicted.


Tracking is probably the most natural skill a dog can learn. Let's face it, Newfoundlands have a wonderful sense of smell and they use that sense constantly. Without that sense, they wouldn't survive beyond the first hours of life. As you know, puppies are born with their eyes closed. The only way that they can find their mother's nipples and their first meal is by using their olfactory sense.

Teaching a dog to track really involves helping the dog understand that we want him to follow a certain scent, usually that of a specific person. The AKC states in their Tracking Regulations book, "The purpose of a tracking test is to demonstrate the dog's ability to recognize and follow human scent, a skill that is useful in the service of mankind." Certainly, we have all witnessed the work of scent-trained dogs in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

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When it is time for the dog to run the track, the handler knows where the track starts and the direction the first leg travels. The dog works on a leash that is between 20 and 40 feet in length. The leash is attached to a harness. With the handler required to be at least twenty feet out on the leash, there is little for the handler to do except to trust his dog's ability to find the article. Some say, "The handler is just the dope on the rope."

One of the great thrills in working with your dog is to have him complete a track and find the article. When the handler holds the found article in the air for all to see, the judges come rushing up to congratulate the dog and handler and sign the glove. Cars in the spectator area honk their horns, and a wonderful spontaneous celebration takes place. It's quite a thrill.

The AKC offers three levels of noncompetitive tracking tests. They are Tracking Dog (TD), Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX), and Variable Surface Tracking (VST).

The TD title is required before one can enter either of the other two tests. The TDX title is the next level for traditional tracking. VST is the newest form of tracking. A dog that earns all three titles is awarded the Champion Tracker (CT) title by the AKC, a title that appears before the dog's name.

16 week old Dani works a track on a hillside. Photo by Sue Lynn Morton

16 week old Dani works a track on a hillside. Photo by Sue Lynn Morton

TD and TDX tests are held on vegetated surfaces. The TD test track is 450-500 yards long with three to five turns. There are no major vegetation changes and no physical obstacles. There is only one article for the dog to find, a glove or a wallet, at the end of the track. The dog runs the TD track 30 minutes to two hours after it is laid. Before a dog can enter a TD test, an AKC judge must certify that he is ready to pass a test.

The TDX test is also held on vegetated surfaces, but the track may cross a variety of obstacles including paved roads, fences, small streams, deadfalls, major cover changes, etc. In addition, the track is crossed in two places by a fresher track. The track has four articles the dog must find. TDX tracks are run after they have aged three to five hours, and they are 800-1000 yards long with five to seven turns.

AKC Tracking Judge, Terry McGauley, praises 16 week-old Dani as his thrilled owner, Robin Love looks on. Dani completed a 220 yard track.

AKC Tracking Judge, Terry McGauley, praises 16 week-old Dani as his thrilled owner, Robin Love looks on. Dani completed a 220 yard track.

Variable Surface Tracking is a totally different type of tracking. The tests are generally held on college campuses or similar environments. The track starts on vegetation, but at least a third (usually more) of the track must be on non-vegetated surfaces such as parking lots, parking garages, sidewalks, mulch, gravel, etc. The tracks are 600-800 yards long, three to five hours old and contain four to eight turns. While no official cross tracks are laid, the environment in which the tests are held assures that the general public will cross the tracks frequently. There are four articles, as in the TDX test. The VST is the AKC's answer to urbanites who wish to participate in tracking but lack access to open fields. It is a very difficult test with an average pass rate of just 4 percent. This contrasts with an average pass rate for the TDX of about 20 percent and a much higher pass rate for the TD test.

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