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%.