Surprise your dog – Part 1

In this exercise we are going to increase the distance between the rewards but keep the distance at a regular interval. In the example videos below, we are going to be regarding every 5 steps along the length of the track. The goal of this exercise is to try to make the dog understand that they may not be finding food at every footstep anymore, but we want them to be able to continue following the track. An overview of the track is shown schematically below.

Please note that I am always mentioning odd numbers when it comes to the number of steps, the reason is you need to ensure that your dog is always tracking the parts of the track that were left by your left foot and your right foot. If we used an even number, the treat would always be placed under the heel of the same foot each time when you lay out the track.

The following videos provide a demonstration on setting and following a track where a reduced number of treats laid out at a regular interval have been used. The first video also covers the use of reference landmarks as bearing points to help keep the track in a straight line as discussed in the previous topic Keeping your track straight.

If you feel your dog is easily able to follow the track only receiving a reward every 5 steps, repeat the exercise but try to increase the gaps between each reward to 7,9 or even 11 steps. Keep practicing on tracks like these until you are comfortable that your dog is easily following the track with the reduced number of treats.

Week 4 Summary

You are now at a stage that you need to work at your own pace, do not push your dog. Keep building their motivation and confidence, but do not under value their ability either.

Over the next few weeks, you have all that is required to build a great tracker. Play with all the components we discussed and build various tracks, but remember:

  • Vary the length of the tracks you are setting. Make some long ones and some short ones
  • Always have a high value rewards at the end of the track. It can now be a toy providing your dog does not see or smell it at the start of the track or whilst it is working along the track.
  • Fluctuate the frequency of the rewards along the track
  • Work sometimes with treats placed at a regular frequency and try to decrease this frequency
  • When you are building very long track (100, 200, 500m), build in some Reset Areas with high frequency of food
  • Use the foam squares to periodically quantify how well you are doing.

It is time to quantify!

As you should now have progressively reduced the number of rewards and are varying the frequency at which you place rewards along your track it now time to quantify how well your dog is following the track. To do this we are once again going to use the foam squares that we introduced last week.

Take 10 pieces of foam and periodically along the track place these with a reward on top of them. Remember to try and push the foam to the ground so your dog does not see it.

For this exercise you have the choice to either work along a track where you are fluctuating the spacing of the rewards or along a track where you are providing reward every five, nine or eleven steps.

When your dog has completed the track, go back along the track and count how many pieces of foam your dog has missed. Multiply that number by 10 to get the percentage of missed pieces of food along the track. Use this number as an indicator of how accurately your dog is following the track. Remember that this will only work if the value of the treats put on the piece of foam is high enough for your dog to encourage it not to leave it behind!

If your dog is missing more than 30% of the treats on the foam along the track it is a good indicator that the distance between the treats may be too large. Reduce the distance until your dog’s accuracy increases again.

Every time you feel you have pushed your dog’s tracking ability to a new level remember to use the foam squares to quantify how accurate your dog is doing. You do not need to use them for every track but use them as a tool to see how you are progressing.

Longer tracks and Reset Areas

If you have now progressed on this topic it presumably means that you have worked on the previous exercises and you found out that your dog is able to track without losing its focus and motivation for at least 10 to 15 steps without a reward

Please let me know on the Facebook group how many steps you and your dog are now able to work without placing any reward and keep that number in mind. For the next exercise we are going to work on increasing the length of the track again and reducing the reward.

When marking out a track, as a rule of thumb I aim to place rewards before the distance that I know my dog is going to give up. Do not have too long a segment without some rewards or your dog will start to lose its focus. If you have a very motivated dog, you might not have this issue, but if you have a dog whose less confident it may happen.

It is important to consider the confidence of your dog as you progress with tracking. It is not uncommon for the dog’s handler to get overconfident of its dog’s abilities. After all, in a few short weeks most dogs will be easily tracking over decent distances with a good accuracy. But as you start reducing the frequency of the rewards this can negatively affect your dog’s confidence. If the reward can be located by your dog a short distance away your dog’s confidence may not be affected. On the other hand, if the next reward is too far away, your dog may start doubting if it is following the track correctly. When this occurs, you will typically see the dog start coming off the line of the track, turning back on itself, looking at its handler and missing rewards placed along the track.

It is much better for us as handlers to be structured when we increase the length of the track and reduce the frequency of the food slowly and gradually, so your dog is still building the confidence.

The objective now is to be able to build track where you are going to reduce the frequency of the reward while still increasing the length of the track.

As the tracks you are now setting with an irregular reward spacing start to get longer it is good practice to include several locations where rewards are offered at every footstep. This I refer to as a Reset Area. The Reset Area acts to reinforce to the dog that it is following the right track, especially if the segment of the track that it has just been following had widely spaced rewards.

Adding Reset Areas within a track have the effect of splitting a long track into multiple shorter tracks without stopping the exercise. This is an excellent way of building stamina and focus because you are now following a long continual track but are also helping to build and maintain your dog’s confidence as the Reset Areas will help your dog re-orientate itself if it was slightly off tack.

Consider a track of 100 steps with rewards fluctuating between 10 and 20 steps. If a Reset Area of at least 5 to 10 steps where rewards are placed every step is placed in the middle this gives a big confidence boost to your dog when it arrives at the reset zone; If your dog has been in any doubt the Reset Area indicates to your dog that it has been following the correct track. If your dog was starting to loose concentration, the Reset Area with a lot of easy to find treats will help refocusing the dog. If your dog had lost the track, a reset area may help the dog orienting itself along the track again.

When you have arrived at a level where you are able to reduce the number and vary the frequency of the rewards along your track it is going to be possible to start building much longer tracks of several hundred meters simply by the inclusion of several Reset Areas within these.

With time you will be able to really start cutting back on the number of treats that you are having to use along the track. As your dog’s confidence grows you will also be able to reduce the frequency of the treats in your Reset Areas and ultimately reduce the number of Reset Areas that you need to include. There will be some dogs that will be able to do 50 steps by now without a reward, however some others might still need a reward every 10 steps. Do not feel any pressure to force the distance, work at the speed of your dog.

As we have said in previous modules in this course it can take time and patience to progress. Practice and repetition are the keys to moving forwards. There is no hard or fast rule about how long a track you should be expected to be able to do by this point in the course, for each dog this going to be different, but by now you should have all the fundamental skills that allow you to keep building upon.

By reducing the rewards, you should also be at a point where your dog can progress along the track smoothly at its own rhythm and has the confidence and motivation to keep following the track.

If you have any questions or concerns at this point please post them in the Facebook group and I will provide you with help.

Surprise your dog – Part 2

As you have started reducing the frequency of treats along the track, you now also need to start varying the distances between the rewards along the track. This is an important component as your dog really needs to engage its nose to follow the track to locate the rewards and should not be able to predict the distance in-between each reward.

If you have worked on increasing the distance between the rewards as described in this week’s Reducing the frequency of the reward and Surprise your Dog – Part 1 topics, you can now start to vary the distances between the rewards along the track. An example to start off with is given below:

  • At the start of the track reward at each step for 5 steps
  • Move forwards 3 steps and place a reward
  • Move forwards again, but this time for 5 steps and then place a reward.
  • Move forwards and place a reward under each step for 5 steps
  • Move forwards again, but this time for 4 steps before placing the reward
  • Move forwards again 3 steps and then place a reward
  • Finally place rewards at each step for a further 5 steps.

You will have a track of 30 steps with an irregular distance between the rewards.

Again, as described in the previous topic, try to ensure that, as you start building more complicated track, you are not always placing the treat under the heel of the same foot.

As you decrease the number of rewards along a track one benefit is that you are going to be able to mark out tracks considerably faster (and longer) than you have previously been doing; because of this the temptation is to keep building longer and longer tracks. As previously discussed, I recommend that you continue to fluctuate the length of the tracks you are setting, by adding in some much shorter tracks. This is all about encouraging and maintaining your dog’s motivation. Long tracks with fewer treats to a dog that is still learning can simply become not enticing enough to be worth their effort or may wreck their confidence.

Keeping your track straight

When your dog is naturally following a scent trail itself whilst out on a walk, for example a deer track or rabbit track, it is obvious that these tracks are not in straight lines and you dog has no issue following them. If we apply this to our Tracking exercises, there is nothing in theory stopping you from laying out a meandering track for your dog to follow. However, when you are teaching your dog to track you need to know that your dog is following the track that you have laid out for it. On many surfaces it is not going to be possible to easily see where you marked out the track so working with known straight lines provides a much better indicator that the correct track is being followed.

As we saw in the Perils of Track laying topic, making sure that you mark out your track in a straight line is not necessarily all that easy. As you and your dog progress and the tracks that you are marking out are becoming longer it can be increasingly difficult to keep to a straight line.

When we introduced you to working on shorter tracks, we advised you to take a bearing to a Reference Point/Landmark in front of you and try to follow this bearing, this is normally fine over short distances.

When working on longer tracks it becomes more difficult to keep a straight line when marking out the track. It is likely that you will find that some of your tracks curve like a banana. This is simply because using a single Landmark is not sufficient to guarantee that you stay on track, it just provides a target to move towards. If the track is not straight this adds difficulty when latter following the track as you are never sure your dog is actually following the track that was built for it.

The simple trick to keeping to a straight line is to use multiple reference points to which you orientate your track. From your start location, looking in the direction that you wish to lay the track, identify a landmark that is in line with the anticipated end of your track; this landmark for example could be a bush, a tree, or a fence post.

Having done this then identify a second landmark further away than the first one, but still in the same orientation.

As you move forwards from your starting point you simply need to keep the two landmarks aligned to ensure you are moving in straight line.

Another tip is that this becomes more accurate the greater the distance between the two landmarks.

Natural flow of movement

I would like you to take some time to review some videos of your dogs or some of the dogs that were presented in the previous 3 weeks of this class and observe how each dog is moving as it follows the scent with a reward positioned at each step.

With rewards placed at every step you are most likely going to notice that the dogs are struggling to walk at their own stride pattern, this will be particularly true with larger dogs.

To compensate for this, a dog may roach (arch) its back to allow it to walk at a shorter stride: a roached back produces a restriction in the range of movement. Another behaviour you may also see is the dog “crabbing” along the line: its body being orientated diagonally to the direction of the track rather than being orientated in line with the track.

You might also observe that a dog is moving along the track in a Zigzag motion rotating its back end from side to side, or tends to turn back on the track as it picks up scent coming from behind more easily, which is of course an undesirable behaviour.

If you consider for a moment how awkward it can sometimes feel when you are marking out a track; not only is this because you must bend to place a treat, but it is also partly due to you subconsciously walking with a different posture. As you are now going to start to reduce the number of rewards, you will feel much more comfortable, you will walk in a more natural manner. And you will start to walk quicker.

The same will occur with your dog. With less reward along the track, your dog will start to develop better mechanics and flow of movement along the track and it will also probably start moving along the track faster.

As you reduce the number of rewards you need to place on the track you as a handler will also find it much easier to build a track. You will find that you walk more naturally yourself between each location that you are going to place a treat at, and you do not have to bend over anywhere near as much so track laying becomes faster and less of a workout.

Introduction to reducing the frequency of the reward

Over the past 3 weeks you have been working on getting your dog to understand the concept of tracking.

So far you have been placing treats at every footstep along the track in addition to placing a larger and/or higher value reward at the end of the track.

By positioning food at each footstep you have developed its enthusiasm and confidence to track, and by slowly increasing the length of the tracks, you have built its tracking stamina.

This week you are going to be stepping up the challenge as you are going to start to reduce the number of rewards placed along each track.

You still need to position a ‘Jackpot’ reward at the end of the track. For dogs that are toy rather than food motivated you can now start to place a favourite toy at the end of the track rather than a food treat if you wish to. The reason that I did not suggest using the toy before is simply because a toy is a very visual marker, and it has a specific odour. If you place a toy at the end of the short track, the dog may be inclined to use its vision and it may also encourage your dog to scent the air rather than the track. Now that your dog understands how to track and the tracks are longer, these two common problems are less likely to occur.

This week you will learn how to gradually fade the frequency of the rewards along the track. However, do not get carried away; do not increase the distance between rewards too rapidly. If you suddenly increase the distance too much, it is likely that you dog will soon lose motivation and/or confidence.