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Doing It All | Performance Puppy: Tracking

dog sniffing something in the grass


In honor of this month’s Performance theme, I am presenting an article on teaching puppies to track—since it’s a great time of year to track. I hope you decide to give it a try, as I think it’s fascinating. I will resume the series with Factors Affecting Learning next month. Enjoy!

Tracking is a sport in which a tracklayer walks a predesigned trail, dropping articles such as bandanas, gloves or leather objects for a tracking dog (open to all breeds) to find. There are four different tracking titles a dog can earn, each with specific age, length, and obstacles for the dog to negotiate. Dogs love using their noses to find the hidden treasures for their handlers. Tracking is a sport that utilizes a dog’s best sense and most natural instinct. Besides that, it is a great way for owners to bond, enjoy the outdoors, and get some exercise.

Puppy Tracking
‘Clipper’ and Sarah Cunningham with the final article on his TDX track.

Many trackers talk among themselves about teaching their dogs how to track, but in all honesty, dogs don’t need our help learning how to follow a scent trail. Their experience begins in the whelping box, where blind and deaf newborns can be seen crawling in Mom’s direction any time they are hungry or cold. A warm, sated puppy separated from its mother will probably lie there and sleep. But a puppy that is hungry or cold will be stirred into action. Using the only sense it has at this age, pups can be seen “tracking” Mom. If one watches more closely, one can observe the pups swinging their heads and “sniffing” as they move in Mom’s direction. After watching this behavior multiple times, I have developed the routine of teaching puppies to track as young as eight weeks with much success.

Since puppies have been tracking in the whelping box from birth, I capitalize on this skill and start my puppies as soon as the rest of the litter goes home. I like this plan, as puppies pick up AKC Tracking easily, gain confidence as they learn to work, build decision-making skills at a young age, burn up some of that puppy energy, and can engage in a sport that isn’t too hard on them physically.

Puppies learn how to learn and become better Performance dogs when their “work” begins at an early age. It is not uncommon to watch these puppies progress and pass a certification test by six months, ready to enter their first Tracking Test. I have started puppies as young as eight weeks, and have had some take off and track quite well right away. Others don’t seem to be able to stay focused at this age, so I put tracking aside for 2-3 weeks—with noted improvement when they resume work.

Puppy Tracking
Typical Judge’s Map of TDX track. This dog passed.

Here is one example (not the only puppy I have seen work this way) of an early tracking program and how well this young dog has done. “Carly,” a yellow Labrador Retriever, began tracking when she was eight weeks old. We did not track daily, but once or twice a week. She figured out the game right away and loved it. She would do short straight-line tracks of up to 30 yards, initially watching the tracklayer. But after only three sessions, she would track readily without watching her tracks being laid.

At 10 weeks, she ran a 17-minute-old 50-yard track, taking all of two minutes to find her glove. We tracked four times between January and April, and she progressed unbelievably. By April 19th, she was running regulation tracks with three right angle turns that I did not “teach” but added to her tracks and let her figure out for herself. I then quit for the summer. We resumed tracking in December and tried to certify in January. She was “off” and didn’t pass.

We resumed practicing over the winter, and after six more training sessions, Carly passed a Tracking Test to certify before being able to enter a licensed Tracking Test. One month later, at 18 months, she got into a Tracking Test where she literally ran a 455-yard track in six minutes. She titled after only 20 practice tracks over 14 months, despite significant breaks for Field work and Conformation events. I do not think this is an exceptional dog; I think she is a product of an early start, when tracking was a very natural thing for her to do. It was amazingly easy for her.

Puppy Tracking
‘Nina,’ the Clumber Spaniel, started her tracking career at ten weeks—the day after owner Merrielle Turnbull brought her home.

That was not my first experience with a puppy tracking unbelievably well, so I encourage anyone to consider getting that new puppy started in this sport. Here are some ideas to help you achieve the same success with a dog that is a prime candidate for Tracking—even as a little one.

When I start a puppy, the first thing I do is play “Get It” games with an article I intend to use when we track. I want the puppy to love that article, such as a glove or a sock, for the fun it represents. I throw it short distances, get the puppy to chase it, and then celebrate when the puppy brings it back.

Not all puppies return with the article; some may run away with it, and some may run back and then past me. If I have trouble getting the puppy to come back to me, I play our game in a hallway (with all the doors closed) and give him no options but to come back to me. When he does, I grab the puppy, not the article, as I want the pup to “own” it for a while and to be praised for coming. I love to make a big deal about the return so that the game is about us playing together. I want him to understand how much his actions please me, and thus, learn to love to work together.

If I grab the article instead of the pup, the pup learns either that I am taking it away immediately (so why bring it back?) or he learns to drop it as soon as he arrives. These play sessions are short because pups tire easily, so I don’t want him losing interest. I would rather stop early and want him to want to play this game more, rather than walk away tired of our game. My purpose here is simply to build interest in the article, excitement to work with me, and motivation to find that article.

Sometimes puppies don’t have any interest in the article you choose, so you may need to be creative when you choose an item that will be motivational for your puppy. As you watch and play with your pup, ask yourself what the puppy really seems to like to play with. Some may have a favorite toy, a ball, a water bottle, or even an old sock. It doesn’t matter what it is, as anything will work. Once you identify something, keep that item special and put it away to be gotten out just for the “Get It” game.

Food works too, especially if you play around mealtimes. Take small pieces of a high-value treat, put it into the article you are wanting the pup to track in the future, and toss it a short distance. Help the puppy get the article and bring it back to you so that you can get the food out of the article for the pup. Stay close to the puppy so that the glove is not eaten. If you are doing this activity when the pup is young, this shouldn’t be a problem. If you are trying this with a large, older puppy, you might be wise to put a leash on him to help yourself control his movements after he picks up his article.

You could avoid this problem by using a small plastic container that the pup can’t swallow; just smear it up so that it smells delicious. Use the leash to guide the puppy back to you if he doesn’t come on his own. Give him the treat and repeat. Again, keep the sessions short. You are ready to move on when the puppy seems to understand that the article you have chosen is fun and he wants it.

If your pup’s motivator and a tracking article are not the same item, the next step is to build an association between the two. After playing the “Get It” game enough so that the pup understands and loves the game, get a fabric tracking glove and put the special item in the glove, and repeat the “Get It” game with the pup until the puppy is just as excited about getting this fabric glove as he was his motivating item. Make sure the puppy sees his special toy being placed into the glove and consider letting part of it hang out of the tracking glove. You are ready to move on when the puppy seems to be just as excited about the tracking glove and his motivator as he was for the motivator alone.

Puppy Tracking
‘Kellie’ as a ten-week-old baby, working her start.

At this stage, I am ready to start tracking my puppy. I use a six-foot leash and a small harness to start. I have someone help me at first, because this step demonstrates to the puppy that his special article, motivator or tracking glove, is out there and visible for him to go “get,” but this time without a throw.

In this introductory method, one of us holds the dog while the other takes the motivator and begins laying a track at a typical start flag. The person holding the puppy should help the puppy pay attention to the “tracklayer.” Every five steps, have the tracklayer turn around, wave the beloved object at the puppy, and call the dog’s name to get his attention and tease him with his treasure. For small dogs, I lay a track that is 10-20 yards; large dogs, 20-30 yards. At the end of the “leg,” have the tracklayer turn around and again show the puppy the article, call his name to make sure he is looking, and let him watch the article being placed on the ground.

The tracklayer should then walk straight ahead another 20-30 yards and then make a big loop around to the start of the track. Once the tracklayer is back to the start, the dog may begin his search for his prized possession. His search at this point may be mostly visual, and that is fine. He may need encouragement to keep looking, and that is fine too. But once he finds his treasure, throw a party, as the puppy needs to know that he is brilliant and that you are out-of-your-mind happy with him. At this point, I like that party to include the “Get It” game or fun tosses that he learned to love when all this motivational stuff began.

If you use food, make sure he gets his treats at the glove. If you use a favorite toy, make sure he gets to play with it for a few minutes as a reward for a job well done. In general, I like to repeat this short track a total of three times per training session and will ask my tracklayer to lay two more tracks in a new spot, repeating the same process. The lengths of tracks two and three depend upon how the puppy does with his first track of the session. Any time the puppy does well, I add 5-10 yards for small pups and 10-20 yards for large ones. If the pup struggles, I may keep the length the same or even shorten it. The idea is to help the puppy succeed.

Puppy Tracking

Once your puppy seems to understand that the flag, harness, and tracklayer mean there is something out there for him to find, I no longer let the puppy watch the tracklayer. Matter of fact, from here on until I am ready to certify, I prefer to lay my own tracks which helps me learn to read my dog (an upcoming issue). I start again with short tracks, as now the puppy will be forced to use his nose rather than his eyes to find his treasure. If he is struggling, I pat the ground and tell him to “Find It,” “Get It,” or “Track.” Most puppies switch to using their noses pretty easily and will follow a fresh scent trail to find an article. Once the puppy has found his article, “party hearty,” play and give him his treats.

My favorite motivator is food, as Labradors are truly chow hounds. So, food has always worked for me. I like using food because I can place it in many spots along a track to reinforce the decisions my tracking dogs are making as they work. I can use as little or as much food needed on a track, depending upon what we are practicing.

As with any other venue, food has to be faded gradually to avoid having a dog give up if he doesn’t find food in the time he expects to do so. Once faded gradually, the lack of food can become a greater motivator, as the dog is certain that the food is just a little farther down the track. If you decide to use food, track your dog before he eats; no one is motivated to work for food when they aren’t hungry (well, maybe a Labrador).

Secondly, choose a food with high value and use it only for tracking. Working for the same old kibble may work, but watch what happens when that treat becomes chicken, liver treats, hot dogs, or some such doggy delicacy! If you decide to use food, you can jump-start a dog by smearing hot dogs (or something as gooey) onto the tracklayer’s feet so that he is laying a track that is very attractive to the dog. Using this method really helps to get a dog to put his nose down to search for more.

I caution you to use this trick for the first 3-4 tracking sessions only. Prolonged use of food on the feet will make a dog too dependent upon the notion that the only trail to follow is food. I also put tiny food drops down on the track as it is laid, to reinforce the pup’s efforts. At first, I may place food in every footfall for small dogs, or every other footfall for larger ones. As soon as I see the puppy following the food trail, I space it farther and farther apart so that the pup has to do more work before it is rewarded. Besides, excess food on a track distracts and slows down a puppy. Use it as a reward, but not a crutch.

Off you go to start your puppy! Have fun! (I’m yearning to start another baby, but please don’t tell my husband.)

P.S. This same process works for adults.