The Newfoundland Club of America—responsible for the preservation, protection and welfare of the Newfoundland Dog in America since 1930.
I realized how little most people knew about tracking when I saw that someone had changed the caption for one of my dogs from UDT to UDX, thinking the "T" was a typo. They did not realize that the "T" meant that the dog had an AKC tracking title in addition to her utility obedience title. Tracking has been around for a long time as an AKC event, but it remains less familiar to the average dog person than such things as conformation and obedience. For one thing, tracking is traditionally not performed close to public view. It is held in out- of-the-way fields and unimproved recreation areas. For another, tests and training are frequently held in inclement weather. Tracking fashion consists of a non-restrictive harness and 40 ft. rope for the dog, and all-weather gear and waterproof boots for the handler (high fashion gear might be purchased from L. L. Bean-I get mine from Wal-Mart).
Newfoundlands, however, are excellent trackers. My dogs have earned four Tracking Dog (TD) titles and a Tracking Dog Excellent title (TDX), all on the first try. Because a TDX or a Variable Surface Tracking (VST) test has a maximum of six tracks, just getting into a test can be the biggest challenge.
What is a track? It is simply the path a person (tracklayer in training or a test) has walked at a normal pace. Nothing is dragged; the person wears whatever footwear is suitable for the conditions. It consists of straight legs and definite turns to the right and left. At least one turn must be a right angle. The tracklayer carries the articles and drops them on the track for the dog to find. In training the tracklayer is responsible for knowing where the track is. At a test, the tracklayer and the two judges know the route and have it mapped.
Dogs are born knowing how to track. Training consists of teaching them to persistently follow the track we want them to follow and not the track of the rabbit that went across the field earlier in the day (or maybe while the track was aging). We don't know exactly what a dog scents, we can only guess from its behavior in different conditions. We do know that a track laid on a vegetated surface has scent from the tracklayer, as well as the scent released by crushing the grass and disturbing the soil. Scent spreads out along side the track with more on the downwind side. Some dogs like to follow the fringe where the scent is just fading out, others quarter back and forth from fringe to fringe on either side of the track. The training method I use encourages the dog to step track; that is to follow the actual footprints of the tracklayer.
The key to all tracking training is MOTIVATION. You cannot make a dog track. Your job is to make the track the most interesting place in the field. Most of the trainers I know use food. At the beginning of training there is a treat at the start, about every ten yards in footprints, and in the glove at the end. For very young puppies, there might be even more frequent food drops. However, dogs love to track and in a short time many of them start tracking right over the food without stopping to pick it up. They are eager to find the glove at the end where there are special treats or a larger jackpot and they gets lots of praise. I carry my dog's breakfast with me, and at the end of the last track, I feed them their breakfast in a little bowl. For dogs that consider a meal a religious experience, as do mine, this is a powerful motivator. We start training with short, straight tracks, which the dog watches being laid. The dog is allowed to dash down the short little tracks to the food drops and the glove. It does not take very long at all for most dogs to learn that the easiest way to find the food is to follow the footprints. Even tiny Papillons drag their handlers along. The handler starts with a six-foot leash and quickly graduates to a 40-foot line. In a TD or TDX test, the handler must stay at least 20 feet behind the dog unless the dog comes to him.
Training continues with longer and longer straight tracks, tracks the dog does not see laid and gradual aging of the tracks. The dog is then introduced to turns and to tracking under different wind and terrain conditions as well as older tracks. Of course, the food is gradually phased out also. As the dog is learning to follow the designated track, you are learning to read him so you know he is truly on the track or lost. Is she searching for a new direction at a turn or hunting mice? You learn to feel your dog's commitment through the taut line and keenly observe subtle cues in behavior to let you know when the dog needs help or encouragement during training. You learn to stop and wait until you are sure your dog is tracking confidently.
The dog must indicate the glove in some clear fashion. Spookie and Kili retrieved the glove. Mauli stops, puts his head up and cocks his ears back while he waits for me to come up and praise him. Some dogs sit or lie down when they find an article. It does not matter, as long as it is clear to the two judges. I have seen dogs so eager to track that they ran right over the glove and tracked the tracklayer back to the parking lot. They fail however, if they do not indicate the glove.
If you are persistent, you can actually train a dog to enter a TD test in six weeks-but you must actually get out there and train. In Northern California, we can only track in the winter because of the danger posed by foxtails (burrowing grass seeds) during the dry season. In the winter it rains, so we track in the rain. Contrary to popular belief, rain does not wash out the scent. In fact it enhances it. The worst conditions consist of bright sun and a dry, strong wind. Tracking is so addictive that we crawl out of bed in the dark to get out in the rain and mud at dawn to lay a track and run it in time to get to work. It is harder with TDX training because of the importance of aging tracks. I have known people who laid their tracks in the evening and then ran them the next morning.
All trackers tell stories. I have gotten my car stuck in the mud twice. I got myself stuck in the mud once and had to dig my boots out with my hands and then roll out of the mud to keep from getting stuck again. I LOVE tracking!
Compared to many dog sports, tracking is cheap. In addition to the above-mentioned harness and rope, you need a few cheap work gloves, some flags (I use irrigation or landscape flags-anything will do), a tablet and pencil to map your tracks, and plenty of treats. For TDX work you need some other articles such as a sock, and a plastic checkbook cover. For VST work, you must also have a metal article. You also need to carry water for your dog. In addition, I like to use bright plastic clothespins to mark my tracks while I am training so I don't get lost in case my map is a little inadequate. It is amazing how different a landmark can look after the sun comes up! It really helps to have a tracking buddy to help motivate you to get out of bed. You then lay tracks for each other. You can also lay most of your own tracks and train alone as long as you get someone to lay an occasional "blind track" so you are sure you are not guiding or cueing your dog.
Tracking is great for dogs and people at any age. AKC allows dogs to enter tests at six months of age, but you can start training with puppies as young as six weeks. At the other end of the spectrum, it is a great sport for older dogs. There is no time limit as long as the dog is working. They can go at their own pace. Spookie was nine years old when she earned her TD. The TDX is a little more strenuous because of the greater distance and the need to negotiate obstacles, but still a good sport for healthy older dogs. You can help them over fences and such, if necessary. I have little experience with VST, but it appears to be quite suitable for older dogs as long as they can maintain the intense concentration required. When you are tracking, it is just you and the dog, with the dog in charge. It is a wonderful feeling to watch your dog work out a difficult turn, then yank you nearly off your feet when he finds the new direction and takes off I suggest you try tracking some time soon. You too will have funny stories to tell.