Every dog knows how to track. That is how they would find their dinner (or at least how their ancestors found their dinner a looong time ago) in the wild following the scent of their prey on the ground. The modern dog’s dinner finding skills are usually reduced to vacuuming all the interesting scents that they can find on their walks and occasionally finding an interesting track left by a squirrel or a raccoon, which can lead them to pull the human counterpart’s arm out of its socket or to just take off into the land of the promised smells. Most dogs go frantic when they get to Smell Stuff outside. I just read in Alexandra Horowitz’s book Inside of a Dog that human noses have about six million sensory receptor sites for detecting smells whereas with dogs this number can be over three hundred million. Of the dog breeds beagle noses are on top of the list in their smelling ability. In other words, the life of a dog is all about smelling.
This brings me to the reason why I love tracking: it is the most natural thing for dogs to do! Well, let me re-phrase this a little bit because what tracking usually means in the dog world is tracking human scent. Of course if given the choice, the dog would rather track a deer than a human. But if we consider all the other things that we train our dogs to do, such as obedience heeling, opening and closing doors for us, posing for a judge, shaking paws or jumping over fences, tracking any scent is undoubtedly much closer to the natural behaviors of a dog. Obviously we need to train the dogs that it is the human scent that we would like them to follow, but what you see after a short while is that the activity of using their noses is such a self-reinforcing behavior that just being able to do it acts as a positive reinforcement for them. And lets face it: we humans stink. Again a borrowed line from Inside of a Dog: the human armpit is one of the most profound sources of odor produced by any animal. We are gross, aren’t we?!
My beloved Dea was a search and rescue and tracking dog, notice in this order. Search and rescue is much about finding lost people using air scenting, whereas tracking is nose down behavior. In precise tracking if the nose is not down the dog can easily miss a turn that the lost person or the bad guy (police dogs) has made. The tracking challenge that I had with Dea was that she was very air scent oriented because of the search and rescue training and I was too lazy to start correcting this. As with any activity, when under stress the dog always reverts to the behavior that was first learned, hence I found it hard to start making Dea’s tracking more precise, she was an air scent kind of a girl. I usually had to run behind her through the bushes to keep up with her. Therefore, now with Forbes I have decided to be very systematic and thorough in teaching him nose down behavior for tracking.
Steve White uses a technique called Hydration Intensified Tracking Training (HITT) where he sprays a stream of water on the ground and then steps on the wet ground to lay the track. Water acts as an adherent for all the scent molecules that we humans shed around. Two important points for starting this training are, first of all, the water you spray has to be deionized water, i.e. no chlorine anywhere near the water because chlorine kills the bacteria that we are covered in. Second, the basis of this training is that you start from hard surfaces first because these are the most difficult ones for the dog. This way since you will have started the training on the most difficult surface, when things get rough for the dog, he will have a much better chance of succeeding. First asphalt, then concrete, dirt, grass and last the forest. Again I am reminded of Dea who learned to track in the forest, the luscious easy vegetation, no wonder she was running around with her nose in the air.
Steve White’s approach in HITT is pure and simple classical conditioning: food is laid on the track and therefore the dog will learn to associate the scent of the track-layer with food. And it is amazing how quickly dogs start to skip the treats when they get euphoric about sniffing the ground! Very gradually you fade out first the treats and then the spray of water. I have been watching Steve’s tracking videos and he compares the tracking training to jujitsu. How many times does a marshal arts student have to repeat a certain movement before it becomes so deeply engrained in the neuromuscular memory that is automatic? An average number is 3000 times. So apply this to your tracking training. It is also very important that you change one criterion at a time when planning your tracks. If you start fiddling with several criteria and something goes wrong you will have no way of finding out what the reason was. This suits my simple scientific mind perfectly!
What you need to start the training is a spray bottle and a lot of small treats. I started with a regular spray bottle, but oh boy your thumb becomes very sore after a while, so this week I took out the big guns:
The following movie shows Forbes’s tracks # 14 and 15. Both tracks are about 30 m long and S-shaped. In the first one I had placed the treats 50 cm apart and Forbes lifted his nose up twice. I wasn’t happy with this, so in the next track I spaced the treats 30-40 cm apart and this time he nailed it, nose stayed down the whole time! Forbes skips about 50% of the treats at this point, he just wants to use his nose. I apologize for not so great quality of the movies, I just placed the camera on the ground as I had no-one to do the shooting. At the end of the second track Forbes located the camera pouch that I had forgot on the ground and kind of tried to pick it up, so I turned it into a retrieve exercise which will be his article indication method. More about that in my next tracking diary!