Free Tracking

Most of us commit to learn new skills with our dogs to enjoy time together and to strengthen our relationship with them. However, with the excitement of learning the new skills, we can easily be side-tracked from our original objectives and start to put pressure on ourselves and our dogs as we want to succeed.

Placing pressure on ourselves and on our dogs will often have a detrimental effect on the dog’s confidence and enthusiasm to work for us.

Let’s clarify one thing, putting pressure on our dog can sometimes be intentional but, in most cases, it is unintentional; often we do not readily realise we are doing it. A miss-timed command, a change in our intonation or a slight jerk on the lead can be all it takes to knock your dog’s confidence.

By this stage in the course your dogs should be able to follow a track over a variety of distances and ground types and keep following the track when it changes direction. I would now like to introduce your dogs to “Free Tracking”.

With Free Tracking we remove the handler and let the dogs track a scent trail on their own. It is a great way of removing any pressure resulting from the handler.

In this exercise you just need to lay your treats along a track of any form, or shape and just let your dog investigate and find the treats. You can do this exercise at mealtime; it is a great way to enrich their mealtime session and to slow down dogs who tend to eat their dinner too quickly.

You can play this every day if you want, it is just a fun session for you and your dog. You can also learn a lot by just observing how they are tracking for their food.

Increasing the length of the track and number of turns

The next stage when your dog confidently tracks turns is to increase the number of turns and the overall length of the track.

When marking out your longer tracks, remember to include reset areas as and when required; do not forget that your dog has only been tracking for 7 weeks and still needs to build its confidence and stamina. Do not be over eager to build a track that is too long and difficult for your dog.

Just like you have been working the straight-line tracks in previous weeks, vary the complexity of the exercises by building some short easy tracks to balance with the more difficult tracks.

By adding more turns, varying the length of the legs between each turn, and varying the overall length of the track, you will start to see the sort of behaviour from your dog that you could expect to see if it was naturally following a scent in the wild.

We have included below a video of a training session with Sparky working on his turn. Although it is out of the scope of this course, you will also see Sparky retrieving objects along the track during this video.

Reducing the treats at the Turn

As you may have realised, the next exercise is to reduce / fade the treats that we have previously being positioned to mark out a turn in the track.

Showing this progression via a series of videos would be difficult and unclear as such I have decided to simply describe the steps required.

Although I introduce this topic after introducing turns with the Change of Ground, in fact both exercises can be worked in parallel.

If you are introducing more difficult or unfamiliar ground, introduce the turn with a high frequency of the treat as described in week 6. When you are training of familiar or / and easier ground, aim to gradually fade the number of treats to handle the turn.

When you teach the turn to the dog there are 3 aspects which determine how successful you will be.

  • Your dog can follow properly the first leg of the track up to the turn point
  • Your dog is taking the turn confidently
  • Your dog is following the second leg of the track and is not re orientating back to the path of the first leg of the track.

Once your dog can do all three of the above its time to start gradually fading out the number of treats that you are using to indicate where the turn is. Some dogs will struggle with less treats indicating, again, be patient and work the exercise gradually.

When we introduced the turn last week, I recommended putting treats at every footstep for approximately 10 steps on the approach to the turn point and for the first 10 steps of the second leg away from the turn point. The reasons for this are:

  • It helps dogs struggling to follow the track due to the influence of the wind to find the turn
  • It helps dogs lacking motivation or confidence to continue moving along the track
  • It helps slow down dogs that track quickly which may, in haste, continue moving forwards past the turn point
  • Encourages the dog to follow the start of the second track
  • Discourages the dog to turn back towards the original leg of the track.

Fading the treats around the turn is in general a 4-step process.

Step 1 – Fading the treats on the second leg of the track

Fade sequentially the treats along the second leg of the track, starting from the furthest away from the turn.

When you have reduced from 10 treats down to 5, you need to do several exercises where you randomly remove some of the remaining 5. For example, lay a track with treats under the footsteps 1,3 & 5, and then another track with 1,2 & 5 and another with 1 & 3 only.

In this step you are:

  • You are making sure your dog is following the first leg of the track
  • You are making sure your dog is finding the corner
  • You are teaching your dog to start tracking the second leg with less treats without orienting itself back to the orientation of the first leg

Step 2 – Fading the treats at the turn

When you have faded the treats of the turn treat of the second leg to a minimum (i.e. treat placed only under the first step after the turn), place a next set of treats approximately 5-7 metres away from the turn point. The frequency of rewards after this point should vary based on your dog’s confidence.

  • By limiting the treats at the turn to just one or two footsteps, your dog is now practicing following the human scent to take the turn
  • By laying a set of treats approximately 5-7 metres away from the turn point, the distance is short enough so your dog can find the treats quickly which will boost its confidence.
  • By laying a set of treats approximately 5-7 metres away from the turn point, this set of treats is also far enough away to limit the risk of your dog simply air scenting the treat rather than tracking the footsteps.

Practice until you are only left with a treat at the turn point and a first set of treat 5 to 7 meters away from the turn

Step 3 – Fade the treats on the first leg of the track

Fade progressively the treats along the first leg of the track, starting from the furthest away from the corner. This is making the approach to the turn point harder for your dog.

Gradually fade the treats approaching the turn along the first leg of the track

Step 4 – Remove the treat that marks the turn

Remove the treat that is used to mark the turn point. Your dog is now learning to handle turns without any additional markers for assistance.

Finally, gradually start increasing the distance from the turn point to the next set of treats.

Change of Ground

As soon as you feel that your dog is understanding and expecting turns along a track, the first parameter that you can change is the ground type.

Start to lay tracks on the different ground types that you have already worked upon with your dog. Introduce turns whilst tracking on long grass, forest tracks, stubble fields & hard ground types, the options are now becoming endless.

When introducing a new ground, especially if it is a ground that you may have noticed your dog struggles within the previous weeks, I recommend that where possible you attempt to align the track with the prevailing wind direction.

In most situations however, you will find that the prevailing wind direction will not conveniently align with the crop direction. This will make the track much more of a challenge to follow.

To help your dog to be successful, ensure that when you build the track to vary the frequency of the reward based on the difficulty of the track.

The demonstrations in the videos in this topic have once again been recorded whilst tracking in Stubble fields. I have always found introducing turns in a stubble fields to be a challenge for the dog as they must not only address the turn but also the dramatic change of air flow due to changes in orientation of the crop lines which disturb the airflow.

At this point I am still recommending that you attempt to align the track with the prevailing wind direction. In the best-case scenario, the direction of the wind direction may match the lineation of the crop; this will mean that you can to start the track perpendicular to the crop lines, this makes the tracking difficult for the dog on the first leg of the track, but you will finish parallel to the crop which is much easier.

In the following video you will see Manouk struggling to accurately follow the track. When recording this video, the wind was gusting quite strongly which was having a significant effect on the scent making it drift away from the line of the track. As Manouk struggled with this track the next tracks that I did with him were much easier and did not include turns. These were used to help him improve his tracking skills in the stubble fields when there is significant wind. The key consideration here is not to keep building tracks that your dog will fail to accurately follow. If you struggle with a track, build easier tracks and slowly increase the difficulty.

Obviously, you may not have access to stubble fields, but you can introduce turns with different types of ground. Where possible keep moving on to more difficult ground types to challenge your dog’s ability.

Working with all wind directions

Last week I recommended that you set up your tracks so that the second leg of the track after the turn was orientated in the same direction as the wind; initially tracking the second leg upwind and then, to add difficulty tracking, it downwind.

Tracking when the wind is affecting the scent trail along the track is a difficult skill for some dogs to develop. As such you may need a lot of repetition and practice.

If you feel you dog is tackling the turns confidently, it is now time to start varying the orientation of the track in relation to the prevailing wind and build some tracks that are orientated crosswind for both legs.

Before following the tracks, try to visualise the effect of the wind on your track and how your dog may compensate for this. By doing this you will be prepared to understand your dog’s behaviour when it attempts to follow the track.

Practice with tracks where the prevailing wind blows the scent either into or away from the turn as shown in the next two images. Pay specific attention to how your dog follows the track at the turn point.

In example below you may see that your dog tracks past the turn point before turning back towards the second leg as it starts to pick up the air scent from the second leg.

In the following second example you may find that your dog starts taking the turn early as air scent from the second leg starts to interact with the scent from the first leg of the track.

TIP: If you feel your dog has difficulty handling the turns because of the effect of the wind, you can start by simplifying the tracks by removing the turn and only working with straight lines with different orientations relative to the wind. In doing so your dog builds more experience to handle the wind before you reintroduce the turns.