Longer tracks and quantification

Once your dog is showing confidence with working on a new ground type, it is time to start increasing the length of the track and reducing the frequency of the rewards as you were doing when working on Grass in Week 4.

As you have been working with longer tracks and fewer rewards previously, you should find that you can relatively quickly extend your tracks on the new ground type.

Again, use the quantification methods you learnt and practiced in Weeks 3 and 4 to assess how well your dog is following the track.

Week 5 Summary

In summary switching your tracks to a new ground type can introduce new challenges. Not only are there a new cocktail of smells for your dog to isolate the scent of your track from, but the possibility of the scent being affected differently by the wind and as well by different type of distraction.

When swapping to a new ground type with your dog, start with smaller tracks with more rewards and then build the length and reduce the rewards, try not to rush.

Working in urban areas also introduces the potential for a lot of scent contamination from other humans so your dog will have to work harder to isolate the specific scent it is trying to track.

Remember, repetition is the key to building experience and confidence.

Share with us some videos of you working on different ground types and comment on your dog’s behaviours, your observations and how difficult or easy your dog found the new tracks.

If you have the opportunity you can also start to work on tracks that are laid over multiple types of ground provided that your dog is confident at tracking on each individual surface first, for example:

  • Short grass –> long grass
  • Short grass –> gravel / dirt lane
  • Short grass –> tarmac –> short grass

Mixing the type of surface

The next exercise was filmed in autumn within a Stubble field that I have easy access to. I am aware that you may not have access to such a field to work in so you will need to be imaginative; it may be that you are able to work in an area of long grass, or within a woodland or forest.

I wanted to show you the work in a stubble field as I find this environment quite challenging for the dog as there as so many changes of ground condition along the track.

If you observe the aerial photograph below you can see:

  • The crops have a very geometrical shape which will affect the air flow
  • area with more dirt and areas with more crop
  • areas where grass is starting to grow
  • Tractor/Machinery tracks with crushed crops
  • Different crop orientations
  • Disturbed soil due to Moles

If you have the opportunity to work on such a ground, I strongly advise you to try it, it is a really interesting challenge. I suggest that if the wind direction allows to start to work along the direction of the crop first; starting to build tracks in an upwind direction, then switching to a downwind direction.

When your dog is confident to work in the crop direction then you can attempt to work in a cross-crop direction. Your dog will have to start to cope with the various types of ground scent and air flow turbulence

Tracking on Hard Ground – Wind and Temperature

When working on an area of hard ground, not only will the environmental odours be completely different to working on grass, but the flow of air over the surface will also be different.

On a windy day, if you work on flat ground in an open area, there are less obstacles/features to disturb or trap the air flow. This can result in a track far harder to follow as the skin rafts marking the track may be blown and dispersed away from the track with nothing to trap them as for example grass stems or ground undulation would do.

Taking note of the wind direction before building the track is important: if your dog deviates from the track, it may be because the wind is dispersing the skin rafts. Wherever possible start with tracks that are orientated in an up-wind direction and then progress to those orientated in a down wind direction as you did in the previous weeks in a grass environment. Avoid setting tracks across the wind direction, although this may not always possible, especially if you are restricted by the local geography you are working in.

In warm countries, a hard ground track may be quite warm and dry.  With less humidity, skin rafts will also be dryer and therefore less scented. In this case here are a few tips:

  • You can manually hydrate your track using a water spray (this is also valid for windy regions), this way the skin rafts will “stick” more to the track and the rafts will re-hydrated. Re-hydrated skin rafts will release more odour. To efficiently hydrate your track, you need to spray at every footstep
  • Work on surfaces that are in shadow as they will cooler than those exposed to sunlight. You may find that your dog will be less inclined to follow scent trail a on a hard surface such as tarmac which is too hot.
  • Track in the early morning or late evening when the temperature is lower. When tracking early morning as the ambient temperature increases the scent will start to rise from the track; whilst tracking in the evening as the temperature cools down, the scent will settle down along the track and can also become trapped within minor undulations on the ground surface.

Some dogs tend to pick up and ingest small stones. If your dog has this habit, please be very mindful of the type of hard ground you are building your tracks upon and avoid non compacted gravel surface.

Tracking on Hard Ground

When marking out your track on a hard ground you will not be able to plant poles at the start and the end of the track. As such I use various objects, a plastic cone for example, but it is possible to use anything so long as you can see the line of your track between them.

To ensure that you dog is effectively tracking and is not just learning to head toward the end target where the final reward is located:

  • Vary the type of object used to mark the track
  • Laterally offset the end of track marker so that it is not located directly next to the high value treats used at the end of the track.

Considerations for track laying in urban areas

The cool thing about starting to work on hard ground is that if you live in an urban area is that you will now be able to have endless possibilities to track. When attempting your first tracks you may find that your dog appears to be regressing and tends to divert from the track more often. The likely reasons for this are:

  • The influence of the wind as explained in the previous topic.
  • Contamination of the track by various other human and non-human scents associated with Urban areas. It is going to be far more difficult to locate an area of ground that has lain undisturbed.
  • External distractions that your dog is also responding to, for example the presence of other people, dogs, and traffic in the vicinity of the track.

If you are starting to build a track in an urban environment, it is likely that many people (as well as dogs, bikes etc) will have walked along the path. This adds much more complexity to the track; your dog will have to differentiate the odour you wish it to track from the cocktail of odours from other humans. This is the reason why placing treats at the start to the track for a few steps helps to make sure you dog recognises and associates with the human odour you would like them to track.

As the environment is both new and more complex for tracking, I would advise to be patient when build the complexity. Increase the length of track and the reduction of rewards slowly.

Tracking in an urban environment is a great exercise as you are now introducing human scent differentiation in the exercise!

Considerations for track laying in rural areas

As I live in the countryside the dirt lanes or tarmac roads that I use have very little human scent contamination, but they do have contamination with other odours which are also significant distractions; Pheasant, Deer, Rabbits, & Hares to name a few. We also have different external distractions. When we filmed Mozzie’s first track on hard ground, as shown in the next sequence of videos, the field next to us was full of sheep keeping a watchful eye on us; do not forget that Mozzie is a trained sheepdog who loves working sheep so the fact that he was concentrating on the track rather than the sheep was a great result.

Adding or working with external distractions to the tracking exercise gives a good indication on how focused your dog is on following the scent track you laid out for it. But again, build the distraction gradually if you can.

Your first tracks on Hard Ground

Increase the length or the track and decrease the frequency of the reward only when you feel your dog is comfortable and confident with working on this type of ground. As I have stated before, and will no doubt state again, remember that practice and repetition are the keys to success.

Introducing different ground types

Last Week you learned to increase the length of your track and reduce the frequency of the reward along the track, this week I would advise you to continue working on the exercises from Week four and slowly decrease more and more the frequency of the reward and increase the lengths of your tracks. Experience for you and your dog will only come with practice.

Do not forget to continue to frequently build some much shorter tracks that your dog will find it easy. You do not want to only build difficult tracks as it might impact your dog’s motivation and their confidence.

Over the last four weeks of this course, you have primarily worked with your dog tracking on one particular type of ground, namely short grass. This week we are now going to introduce another complexity by changing the type of ground your dog will be tracking on.

As you have up to this point being concentrating on grass, the result is that your dog has built experience to recognise the cocktail of odours coming from the human scent and the grass along the track, as well as how the air flow is behaving within a grass environment.

This week I am encouraging you to find some new types of ground to track on. Try to work on at least two new different surfaces.

If I were to rank the difficulty of the ground for tracking, I would say from easy to harder:

  1. Short grass
  2. Long grass
  3. Dirt ground with limited vegetation
  4. Dirt / gravel Lane
  5. Tarmac
  6. Stubble fields (oblique or perpendicular to the crop): one could argue that the stubble field should be easier than a dirt path, but personally I have observed a few dogs struggling to track in stubble fields. This is because there are many changes of ground texture in a stubble field. We will discuss this later in this week’s topics

In this week’s videos I am going to show you tracking on two different types of ground: A hard dirt/compacted gravel lane and a stubble field. They will provide quite different cocktails of odours and environments for your dog.

As your dog is by now becoming more confident with tracking both of you will probably progress much faster than you previously experienced over the past 4 weeks. Nevertheless, it is key to be aware and remember that there are many variables along the track and surrounding environment that you cannot visualise nor control: as these variables can dramatically influence the difficulty of the track only exposures and extensive practice will build your dog’s understanding, experience, and confidence.