The perils of track laying

As you progress on to laying longer tracks and start adding quantification markers, there is a good chance you may sometimes find the activity awkward and even strenuous. Do not worry, you are not alone in your feelings. Through our live classes we have had people comment that they did not realise that they had enrolled in an aerobics course or applied to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly walks (if you are too young to remember this look it up on YouTube).

Fortunately, relief is coming. As you continue to progress through the course you will start to modify the frequency at which you need to place treats on the track you are laying which greatly reduces the amount of bending and contortions you will need to do.

For those of you who think, “how hard can it be to lay a track in a straight line?” the following video is an apt reminder.

Increasing the length of the track – Week 3

One of the key aims of this week is to continue increasing the length of the track that you and your dog are following. Like last week the exercise here is not about reducing the size of the treat or the frequency that you are placing the treats, you should still be placing treats at each footstep. The same factors we discussed in last week’s Increasing the length of the track topic apply this week, so lots of repetitions and good lead control to help maintaining your dog’s motivation and stamina to follow a much longer track

This week’s aim is to increase the track length to the region of 50 steps. My advice when building up to this sort of distance is to start to vary the length of the tracks you are doing with your dog; do not just keep setting long tracks of 50 steps each.

For example, build and then follow 4 tracks of the following different lengths:

  1. A 15 Step Track
  2. A 30 Step Track
  3. A 50 Step Track
  4. A 15 Step Track

The reasoning behind this is that we do not want our dogs to learn to anticipate the length of a track and stop tracking at a certain distance; dogs are very adept at learning behavioural patterns. Mixing some shorter tracks in with the longer ones means that your dog to gets some easy wins with lots of treats which help to keep high motivation levels when following the longer tracks.

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.

As you start to make longer tracks you will need to pay attention to keep marking your track out in a straight line. A quick tip is to pick a Landmark to walk towards when laying out the track. We will revisit this in more detail next week.

About your dog’s vision

Although this is a scent work class, in this topic we are going to quickly discuss about how a dog’s vision compares to our own and how we can use this to our advantage in our track laying.

Dogs do not have the same scope of colour vision as Humans. They are effectively colour blind to red coloured objects. To a dog red and green objects look to have the same colour.

The eyes of both Humans and Dogs contain specific types of photoreceptive cells in their retinas (the back of the eye) which are responsible for different aspect of our vision. They are referred to as Cone cells and Rod cells; not surprisingly they are called rods and cones because of their actual physical shape.

Cone cells are sensitive in brighter environments and are also capable of colour vision. In addition to sensing colour, cone cells are also more responsible for spatial acuity (that’s sharpness or the ability to detect small details).

Rod Cells are more reactive in low light and to movement but are poorly equipped to detect colours.

Dogs have more Rod than Cone cells within their retina. Their vision is therefore more adapted for darker environment and detecting movement, but it is not as adapted as ours to bright environment.

As Dogs have less Cone cells than us in relation to Rod cells their ability to distinguish detail is also far lower than ours, and results in what we would consider as soft focus or blurry vision

Finally, whilst Human have cone cells that detect red, yellow, and blue light, dogs have Cone cells that only detect blue and yellow colours (the techy term for this is that dogs are Dichromate and Humans are Trichromate). This means that a dog has a limited range of colour vision, which is similar to a colour-blind person.

The photograph below provides a simulated comparison of what it is believed a dog sees compared to a human.

We are going to take this knowledge to our advantage for the next exercise, by using art foam squares in a Red or Green colour. As Humans you will be able to visualise them easily whilst they will not be as evident for your dog.

Is your dog really tracking every footstep?

As your dog is negotiating a track, how can you be sure that it is locating each of the footsteps you marked out? How can you get a quantitative idea of how well your dog is tracking?

The trick is to use discreet visual markers that you as a human can clearly see but that are not as evident for your dog. You are going to place the treats you are laying out along the track upon these markers.

To do this we are going to use small squares of thin art foam approximately 3-5 cm in size. As you are still tracking on grass the colour of the markers should be green or red to minimise your dog simply locating the treats visually (remember dogs have problems distinguishing red objects from green objects).

When you are building your track, at each step where you are usually putting only food, place a square of foam first and then step on it to push it into the ground. Then place the food specifically on top of each square. Ideally the dog should not see the little foam square as they should not be too obvious, so make sure you really step on them.

Please see the following videos that discuss the use of the foam markers and how to set a track using them.

When your dog has finished following the track, go back along the track (remember to do this without your dog) and check the track to count how many little squares have food left upon them. This will give you a quantifiable indicator of how well your dog has followed each step of the track. You do not need to use the foam squares every time you do a track, but it is a useful tool to use occasionally to help check how your dog is progressing.

Why is it important that your dog follow each step along the track?  Firstly, you want to make sure your dog is following the track with its nose down, not just following the wind scent. Secondly when you start to search for objects placed along the track in future sessions, if your dog has learned to skip too many steps it may well miss some of them. The patches of Foam will help you understand how accurate your dog is before moving to the next stage.

I also often use this exercise to demonstrate which type of treat / food you dog is finding as a good reward along the track. When people use different value treats along the track, it is not rare to find out that the dog is leaving what it considers as low value treats and only eating the high value treats. This gives an indication to the owner of which food to use to track (only the high value food).

For this exercise I suggest you only build track of around 25 steps. You will find that the track is not easy to build. When you have completed the track and counted the number of missed squares, simply multiply this value by 4 to get the percentage of missed steps along the track. Ideally, I would like this value to be below 20%.

Wind Matters

It is always essential to note the wind direction when you are tracking as the direction of the wind has a significant impact on how your dog is going to track.

A rough method of determining the wind direction is to take a few pieces of grass, throw them in the air and look at which direction they are blown. A more accurate technique is to use a Wind Vane (sometime also known as a Weather Vane).

With a constant breeze, the scent along a track is blown away downwind, roughly in the shape of a 3D cone from the source location. This is known as the scent plume. In essence the further away from the scent source, the broader is the scented region, but the more diffuse is the scent by itself.

If the tracks are set up so that the dogs starting point is downwind of the track and they move forwards into the wind (i.e. they track upwind) they will be receiving a lot more scent information about the track than if they were starting the track upwind and tracking in a downwind direction. This is because the scent plumes from all scent locations along the track are being blown directly towards them.

When teaching live classes, the first tracks that I have students mark out are always upwind of the dog to give them a better chance of success on their first attempts. It helps build understanding and motivation of the inexperienced dog) as the scent plume is directed towards the dog.

Tracking into the wind has two major negative aspects:

  1. It can teach the dog to scent the air rather than keeping their nose on the ground as the wind is carrying the scent and some drifts away from the source point
  2. It reduces the accuracy of the search along the track as the wind is carrying the air and drifts the scent in a 3d cone shape. This means there is a broad “region” of scent away from the source point.

From now I would like you to mark out your tracks moving downwind. So, for the live classes where we track upwind in Weeks 1 and 2, we switch the orientation of the track by 180 degrees.

The start of the track will be upwind and then you will build the track in a downwind direction so that you dog will be tracking in the same direction as the wind is blowing.

This way the dogs will not be able to have any information carried to them by the wind as the scent plume will be blown away from your dog.  Therefore, your dog will have to concentrate in following the path with its nose and will learn to be more accurate in following each step on the ground as there will be no “contamination” from the scent plume.

Finally, I have a couple of comments about the wind

  • Wind is capricious:  it can change direction unexpectedly. So, it is possible that the track you have built 10 minutes ago will not be in the right orientation for your dog; this is a common problem. This will affect your dogs’ tracking just be aware of it and if you see your dog slightly off track, drifting slightly in one side of the track it may be because the track is cross wind.
  • Wind is not a linear flow; it can have complex flow pattern and is affected by its strength, the environmental temperature or humidity and the landscape to name just a few factors.  Wind conditions have significant impact on the shape and strength of the scent plume. For example, in a strong wind we probably lose more skin rafts but these skins raft are probably dispersed over a broader area that a day with no wind.