Week 2 Summary

For this week we introduced the concept of better lead control to assist your dog and discussed avoiding introducing distractions by over handling either verbally or your position relative to the dog. Before next week’s lesson practice your lead control and learn to moderate the pace at which you attempt each of your tracks. If you are confident that you have good control start increasing the length of the tracks but do this with gradual increases in length and use lots of treats to reward your dog’s behaviour.

Increasing the length of the track – Practical

The practical exercise for this week is consolidating the behaviour for marking out a track and improving your handling with better lead control as you progressively increase the length of the track.

Start to steadily increase the track length from the ~10 paces that you were doing last week. Do not suddenly add too much length to the track. Start by adding 5 extra steps to your track. If your dog is comfortable working this longer track, increase your next track by 5 steps again. If your dog starts missing lots of your steps, keeps losing the track or loses motivation to drive ahead over the longer distance revert to laying and working on shorter tracks until your dog gains confidence.

When tracking concentrate on how you are using the lead as described in the Lead Matters section. As you are behind your dog and are not giving it verbal cues, you use the lead to subtly aid your dog as it follows the track.

The following videos that recorded a group of handlers going through the same lesson have been annotated to provide you with information on what you should typically be looking at improving and provide pointers to help you progress with your dog. If you compare these videos to those in Week 1 you will see a marked improvement in how the handlers are assisting their dogs with much better lead control.

The following video of Sally & Mia demonstrates excellent lead control

When tracking remember to have patience with your dog. Through their noses they are sampling and processing a large cocktail of subtle odours that us mere humans with our comparatively feeble sense of smell are simply not aware of. It may appear at times that your dog is aimlessly sniffing about and not attempting to locate or follow the track, but this is almost certainly not the case. It is probable that there is another ‘contaminant’ odour present that has piqued your dog’s interest and/or is masking the scent it was following. It is also possible that the wind has carried the scent it should be following away from the track. Give your dog ample time to use its nose to work out what it should be following. We will discuss the influence of the wind in more detail in a later lesson.

Increasing the length of the track.

This week you are going to increase the length of the track progressively but remember that you are still working to develop value for the track so be patient.  The length of the track you will build this week will vary for each dog. It will depend on:

  • how much you have progressed since last week
  • your dog’s understanding of his “job”
  • you dog’s focus and attention span

If you feel that your dog is easily tracking the short 15 steps track from last week with enthusiasm you can start to increase the length of your track by 5 steps at the time so that at the end of the week your dog can track confidently a 30 steps tracks. This means you will have doubled the length of your track already.

The exercise here is not about making the track more difficult for your dog by reducing the size of the treat or the frequency of the treats – Do not change any other parameters than the length of the track.

With tracking, there are a lot of variables that we cannot control but are influencing the difficulty of the track.  So, you need to get enough repetitions in to account for them.

In addition, how you are handling your dog and especially how you are handling the lead can dramatically affect your dog’s behaviour when tracking, so make sure you review the Lead Matters topic provided within this week’s lesson.

Finally, try to remember how many steps you feel that your team is comfortable to work with so you can work the track accordingly next week.

Lead Matters

With tracking you are learning to trust your dog to be in control. Your behaviour as your dog is tracking the scent will influence your dog’s behaviour and ability to learn.

  • If you talk too much to your dog it is likely that your dog will not concentrate as much on the track and will start to expect some guidance from you; remember to stay as quite as possible. Although you may think you are simply giving your dog encouragement you are conditioning the dog to expect that your input is part of the tracking process.
  • When your dog temporarily loses the track, if you redirect your dog too quickly to the track rather than giving it time to reacquire the track itself the likelihood is that your dog will not learn to concentrate for the full length of the track and will learn to wait for your direction. It will also probably learn to re-orient itself towards you for some information
  • If you stay too close to your dog, you will still be its peripheral vision and it will not fully concentrate on the track. Your dog will be aware of your movement and body language and will be considering these additional visual cues
  • If your position places you too close to the track that the dog is following you are adding to the cocktail of odours that your dog must filter to find the reference odour that it’s trying to follow. You also risk directly contaminating the track with your own footsteps.

To summarise: having shown the beginning of the track to your dog, you need to stay behind your dog. Initially this may only be only a couple of meters away but with time this distance will increase as your dog gains the confidence to move on ahead. Avoid talking to your dog and making any other distracting noises.

If you consider that you have now effectively handed control of finding and following the track to your dog and you are no longer giving your dog verbal or visual cues how can you give your dog assistance when it struggles to locate the track? The answer is that you will use the dogs lead to gently provide some control and guidance by subtly applying and reducing tension on the lead. Getting the level of lead control right can take a little time to master but it is a valuable skill that I encourage you to develop.

The secret to good lead control whilst tracking is to apply smooth and constant tension on the lead. Jerky movements of the lead that are caused by sudden increases of tension on the lead will most likely result in your dog stopping tracking and diverting its attention from the track back to you.

The method of maintaining good lead control this outlined below although getting it right will only come with practice:

  • The lead needs to be fully unravelled and lying on the ground behind you when you start the track. This allows you to let the lead easily slide between your fingers
  • Hold the lead in both hands with the hand that is closest to your dog out in front of you (we call this the controlling hand) and your second hand next to your thigh or slightly behind you (your trailing hand). For both hands, the lead should be able to slide easily. Your controlling hand is being used to apply tension to the lead and your trailing hand is used to take up any excessive slack in the lead.
  • To apply and remove tension to the lead between your controlling hand and your dog you can simply raise or lower your controlling hand. Raising your controlling hand will add tension and lowering it will reduce tension. In effect you are simply using your controlling hand like a pulley and using its height to adjust tension. The changes in tension that this will produce are very subtle.
  • For most dogs having a slight tension on the lead will trigger a desire to pull forwards. Some dogs that may be lead sensitive will need you to reduce the tension to virtually nothing.
  • As your dog starts to track forward let the lead smoothly slip through both hands but maintain the same level of tension on the lead.
  • Once your dog is tracking ahead of you, you can start to follow it but only at a pace that matches your dog’s pace and allows you to maintain the same level of tension on the lead. If your dog starts moving ahead faster let the lead slip through your fingers and allow your dog to move away from you. Do not grip the lead or try to slow your dog by suddenly adding a lot of tension as this will produce a jerk of the lead which will distract your dog. Do not attempt to walk faster than your dog to catch up with it. It is fine, and in most cases desirable to be many metres behind your dog.
  • If your dog stops tracking forwards, you should also stop moving forwards. Using your controlling hand maintain the tension on the lead. If your dog loses the track and either starts to move off track or even starts to return along the track in front of you, use your trailing hand to take up the slack in the lead whilst lifting the controlling hand to maintain tension on the lead between yourself and your dog. Once your dog locates the track again and starts moving forwards again allow the lead to slip through your fingers again.

The following two videos demonstrate how to handle the lead to maintain a constant tension whilst enabling your dog to move forwards and allowing you to take up any slack should your dog deviate off the track or back track towards you.

How much Human scent do we leave on a track?

Our dogs can track our scent because we are leaving tiny traces of organic material carrying our odour behind us along the track. The main component of this organic matter are dead skin cells. Our skin cells are constantly dividing and as such our body continuously makes new skin cells to replace all the skin cells we lose. In general, the accepted figure is that every person loses around 40,000 skin cells per minute, that is the somewhat surprising figure of approximately 57 Million cells per day!

These dead skin cells take the shape of tiny flakes called skin rafts. Once shed from the body these tiny skin rafts can float on air currents and/or drop to the ground depending on humidity levels, wind currents, sunshine, cloud cover, terrain, and temperature.

At a walking pace of approximately 3 miles an hour and a shedding rate of 40,000 cells per minute this equates to around 150 cells per foot of distance walked. When laying a track for your dog you are moving forwards at a much slower pace than normal walking pace so will be leaving lots of dead skin cells for your dog to track.

If you are interested in investigating this further there is more information around this topic available on the Ohio Valley Search and Rescue website.