Monday, September 28, 2009

Sarah: What Happened?!

The last workout I did with Pip, just before leaving to teach in Colorado, was a typical day out tracking meaning it made me cock my head and think, "Huh?"

Lately, I've been focusing on building Pip's drive for the game. That particular day the fields were lush and green, it had rained the day before, the air was cool -- it was, in all ways, a perfect day to track.

I had laid out three "L"s which could be clearly seen. As I walked Pip through the knee high cover, she pulled hard along my path. Things looked good!

Pausing near the start flag, as we always do, I harnessed her up and, anticipating what fun we were about to have, happily told her, "Track!" She... ate grass.

Now, grass eating is often a sign of stress in a dog - doubt, confusion. I paused. "Huh?" Add to this that Pip also eats more grass than your average Holstein so maybe a cigar was just a cigar and this was tasty grass.

In a nice, relaxed, happy voice I encouraged her onward. I'd rather risk rewarding the unwanted than stressing her about the sport. Her motivation just wasn't that deep yet (clearly) that I could quibble over details.

After a few moments, she got going and did a fine job. Not stellar but not terrible. What she did seem to enjoy was the hunks of fresh tuna in the tupperware hidden along the track. (And no, don't go out and buy tuna for your dog - Brian had gone fishing with friends and landed one and there is only so much tuna anyone can or should eat in a week. Pip was the happy recipient of the leftovers.)

Then off I went to Colorado, which means there was two weeks between workouts.

Today, I decided to be conservative. The workout was just three starts with straight legs. I had no idea what dog would show up in the fields today but I was concerned that if she had been stressed last time that a break in practice might have set her back a bit.

Pausing near the start flag, as we always do, I harnessed her up and, anticipating that she might stall or be distracted, happily told her, "Track!" She... put her nose down and TOOK OFF!

She worked quickly and confidently down the track to the first article. I rewarded her but before I could get back up she was off again. She tracked the legs between tracks, she hunted those corners briefly and effectively - she was on fire. Normally, I would stop a dog after the article and walk her to the next flag but stop a dog who is JOYFULLY making a giant leap forward? Not on your life!

As she tracked and I laughed, I also shook my head. This is one of the things I just love about tracking. All dog training is really just your best guess applied, assessed and adjusted. But in the sport of tracking that is never more clear.

I have no idea what happened to my dog exactly. Maybe the tuna was truly inspirational. Maybe taking a break helped her. Maybe the brandy new harness and two-tone 40' tracking line I got her had magical powers. ;) Who the heck knows. All I know is, whoever this dog is, can I keep her?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Melissa: Track for me today

Ahhh... misty, off-and-on-rainy, cool... a perfect day for tracking. Being outside in the rain always brings back fun memories of playing on rainy days with my siblings. Today I'm going to be visiting a friend who lives an hour from here in beautiful farmland, and will pass some excellent fields I've tracked in before. A great day to take Milo and enjoy an afternoon in the fields. Except...

He came up lame yesterday evening and wasn't weight-bearing at all on his left front for a few hours. I called the vet and they said to wait until this morning, then take him in if he was still off it, so I iced it last night, put him on crate rest, and leash walked him when he needed to go out. Fortunately he's walking normally this morning, but I'm going to give him at least today to rest it and heal fully from whatever was wrong. Maybe it was just a bee sting, but I don't want to push him if it was any kind of soft tissue injury, so no tracking for today. Bummer!

I'll visit my friend, walk one of my other dogs in the field, catch up on some work I need to do (there's always plenty of that), and have some quality lap time with Milo.

So please, track for me today then tell me how it goes, so I can enjoy tracking through your words.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Map Making #1: Two Points Define a Line

In this sport, to reach your team's full potential you must keep records, and the record you keep in tracking is a map. The first key concept? That two points are required to define a line.

TWO points.

TWO stationary points. Learned this the hard way when, years ago, I used a parked car as a line up point. It did not stay parked.

TWO stationary points that are a good distance apart. The bigger the distance apart, the better the definition of your track. (The pix above are pretty close together, but you can still see how it is both obvious when they are lined up and when they are not.) Next time you're walking along, pick two things ahead of you and line up so one thing is in front of the other. I frequently use street lights, signage, trees, tufts of grass etc. Now, walk toward the object closest to you, the one in front. Take a big step to one side. Now the objects aren't lined up anymore, correct? That is how you know you are off the track. But there is more...

TWO stationary points that are a good distance apart and that are in front of you. Having now taught a few seminars and many students, I have found this to be a common newbie mistake. They pick a point in front of and one behind them, thinking that this way they will walk along the line. Nope. The two points must in in front so you can line them up properly.

TWO stationary points that are a good distance apart and that are in front of you that are unique. Ooo, this one is a toughy, at least for me. I get so focused on laying my track that I line up a distant tree with that fabulous bunch of Queen Anne's Lace. Perfect! Only to realize when I get to the start flag with my dog that the field is FILLED with Queen Anne's Lace!


So now you have a basic but fundamental principle of tracking under your belt - that when making a map of your track, you need two stationary, unique points in front of you that you can line up. Sounds easy enough, yes?

In theory.

You might want to start off with making some maps of tracks - leaving articles behind and then returning later to refind everything without your dog. This allows you to learn without risking any canine confusion.

Getting this worked out will make you a better coach for your dog and you will move forward with more confidence and clarity. Go track!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Map Maker, Map Maker, Make me a Map

When I first started tracking, Sarah impressed on me the importance of making a map. I made maps for a while, then decided it was a hassle, and had to find out the hard way that she was right. It really is true (at least for me) that "The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory."

When I neglect to make a map, I am sure to forget where I laid the track or where I placed articles. Milo doesn't generally need help finding the track, so that's not a issue with him, but he is inclined to skip over articles as if they are unwanted litter on the track. And since he tracks with such enthusiasm, we can be long past the article before I realize he's skipped over it. Doing that for a while caused Milo to develop a habit of ignoring articles, which caused me to become a bit discouraged.

Now that I'm back into map-making, I really enjoy it and use my maps to help me plan my track, to help me remember it (just the act of drawing it out helps me remember, plus I can review it before running a track in a training session), and to have a record of what we've practiced and how Milo did. Since I know when Milo's approaching an article, I can insist he stop and indicate it, then reward him richly, so he learns that articles are worth his attention.

As Sarah mentioned in her last post, I came up with a list of over fifty variables to train for (eighty-two so far, to be exact), and by looking back at my tracking journal of maps and notes, I can see what we've worked on so far. I also find it both satisfying and motivating to have a journal filling up with my maps.

Here's a track I did with Milo in July:

And here's what I did with him today, along with my plans and notes:

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sarah: How to Develop a Plan

In all areas of life, having a plan makes success more likely. Tracking is no exception. This is a sport of endless variables, so once you learn how to develop a tracking plan for the day, you will have no issues with this concept. A few of the variables to consider are:
  • Track age
  • Topography - hills, ditches, mowed paths
  • Cover - length, changes in, variety of
  • Weather - rain, drizzle, dry, humidity, heat, cold
  • Wind direction - into, away from, across
  • Articles - indication, type, placement
  • Starts - angle of, direction of, your behavior at
  • Corners - obtuse, 90 degree, all directions, on, across and at hills, changes of cover, etc.
  • "Dumb handler" exercises - "immunizing" your dog against fumbling, bumbling and error
  • Distractions - people following, people talking, other animals near by 
  • Crosstracks of all sorts - "dirty" fields.
  • Losing the track
  • Working blind tracks
The list goes on. When I asked Melissa to list all the variables she could think of for TD work, she came up with over fifty. I'd call that a good beginning.

When contemplating your plan of action keep this in mind: Most AKC teams fail at the start or the first turn. So what is my favorite sort of tracking workout? Stacked "L's" Meaning I lay three shorter tracks, each one presenting a different puzzle or exercise to the dog. If I am working hill starts, I'll might lay one "L" starting up hill, the next starting down and the last across.

This is also why keeping a list of your maps is critical. That is the only way you can "check your work" and see if you really have worked everything you wanted to prior to a test.

Getting in the habit of developing a plan each and every time you enter the fields is one of the ways to ensure success.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Melissa: A Plan Applied

Every time I track with Sarah, she asks me beforehand what I’m planning to work on that day.

Hmmm… I used to just lay a track then run it without much thought, other than some vague hope that my dog would do well following the track and indicating the articles. As with many other educational situations, the lack of a plan usually led to a lack of progress or, at best, limited progress with some confusion and frustration thrown in.

Today I found a new place to track—Val-Kill—the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, that has a huge field that is currently sprinkled with big round hay bales. I’ve been shy about trying new places, but I asked a ranger and was told that on-leash dog walking on the land is fine. Hurray! A beautiful place to track not far from home!

As I gathered my gear so I could lay the track, I suddenly heard Sarah’s words echoing in my mind: “What’s your plan for today?

I paused and thought about our last track. Remembering that Milo had had a hard time at the start, perhaps because we had almost started then I stopped to get a glove, I decided to pretend to be confused and fumbling at the start flag. I want him to learn to overlook my confusion and still start the track with confidence, especially since I'm likely to be nervous and fumbling on test day.

Then I figured I’d lay at least one leg along the side of a hill, which would cause the scent to flow downhill from the track in the hopes that Milo would get pulled off the track and have to find it again.

Finally, because the big round bales were right there, I planned to walk between some that were close together. Milo sometimes gets a bit stressed in close quarters and new situations, so I like to give him positive experiences with walking through narrow spaces, especially since I’d like to work toward a VST with him.

I laid my track, let it age, then ran it with Milo. He did FABULOUSLY! I fumbled and acted confused at the start flag, and he just waited for me to get my act together and tell him to “Go Track,” which he then did with confidence.

On the hillside, he stuck right to the track, never drifting downhill at all. Good for him, though we didn’t accomplish my goal of trying to get him to stray from the track and need to refind it.
At the passages between the bales, Milo slowed down and went forward cautiously, but he never entertained the thought of stopping.What a good boy and what a good worker!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sarah: Milo Works Acute Turns

In AKC tracking, there is an extremely high likelihood you and your dog will be lost at some point during a TDX test. At over 800 yards long and at least 3 hours old it is challenging enough but I have seen TDX tracks go in and out of woods, over streams, across sand and gravel, over and along roads and much more. Part of the fun of TDX work is the diversity and demands of it.

But while teams are working all the other variables, it is easy to forget that working through being lost is as important a team skill as handling a road crossing or a change of cover. My mentor, Lily Mummert, advised that a dog should be able to search calmly, productively and independently for 5-10 minutes. There are many ways to build this drive. I present problems to the dog as opportunities well worth working through.

With advanced dogs like Milo, who have tons of drive to track and plenty of experience under their olfactory belts, it can be a bit of a challenge to get them lost and then it is a whole other skill set, as a handler, to allow them to figure things out without giving them any "hints" about where the track goes.

"Hints" include praising the dog when he is over the track and being silent when he is off it, stepping with him immediately when he is right, stopping at the corner instead of waiting for your dog to indicates scent loss, holding your breath and then releasing it when the dog is over or investigating the track... the list goes on.

All of these things are absolutely deadly on test day.

To proof against all this, one thing is to do acute turns, which is exactly what I did here. Enjoy the video - and feel free to ask questions.

Melissa: A Morning Track

I stop and look. The huge field stretches before me, silvery-blue from the heavy dew, crystal drops poised on every blade of grass. The stalks all bend in graceful arcs under the weight and, when touched, drop the clean, clear water onto my shoes and pants. Soon I’ll be soaked to the knees, but I don’t care.

Tracking, for me, is not only a sport but also a meditative pastime. When I step into a field, I slip from the past and future fully into the present. Somehow, gazing over a field captures my thoughts and emotions and fills me full as I look and breathe.

I love laying tracks, the longer the better. I focus on the distant view when I pick two points to guide me in a straight line for each leg. Walking the leg, I then notice what’s near me–spider webs, the rustling of small animals, the details of terrain I would normally go around—swampy areas, stone walls—and thus see nature I might otherwise miss.

Today, though, Sarah has laid a track for Milo and me, and in the dewy grass the track shows bright green—not exactly a blind track, but still very good practice. Milo won’t pay attention to the green; he works with his nose.

We start out, and again, all else drops aside, I am fully in the moment, in sync with my dog. Milo leans into the harness, tail wagging joyfully, and I follow. He hesitates, I stop, waiting and handling the line while he checks to be sure he’s on the track. Soon he pulls forward again and I follow.

My attention almost completely on my dog, I notice his every movement, every bob of his head, every brief slowing of pace. I’m a beginner, so I don’t always know how to respond, but each time I track, I read Milo more clearly and feel a bit more confident. For me, there’s no comparable experience, and as we finish the track, I’m brimming with the good feeling of being in close partnership with my dog and in close communion with the beauty of nature.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sarah: Getting Pip to Play by My Rules

AKC tracking dogs tend to fall into one of two categories: Track-focused (Milo) or Article-focused (Pip). A track focused dog loves tracking for tracking sake, blissfully blowing over articles as if they are so much junk littering the track. The job with them is to make the articles relevant.

The majority of the dogs I have trained have tended to this.

Pip is cut from a different cloth. She loves the articles. For her, the track is something that may or may not help her on the way to her goal: the article. My job with her is to make the track an interesting place. My first thought was to use food - freeze-dried lung. But lung was too strongly scented, it caused her to duck downwind and then cone back up to the food.

Okay... so I moved to clicker work - tossing food in front of her. And that helped - it usually does - but it didn't seem to change her mind about the track much and, left to her own devices, she would stand, nose up, air scenting for the article and then head for it in a straight line - track or no track under her feet.

Back to the drawing board we go.

Now, the good news about my girl is that she is both fabulously food-focused and delightfully play-driven. I decided to use both forces in my new approach.

I shortened the track way down. I used two small tupperware containers with her breakfast in them. And I dug out Pip's all-time, bar-none, best-thing-in-the-world toy - a floating kong on a rope. I stuffed it in a glove with a bit of the rope sticking out of it. I laid the track with short steps, I left the tupperware lid downward in the track, tucked into the grass so nothing was exposed. Along the way I dropped single pieces of kibble. At the end, I deposited the glovekong.

With Pip on a short lead, I worked her down the track. Gently refocusing her onto the track with a movement of my fingers should she start to work the airwaves nose up. It took two tracks (and two meals) and two games of fetch that kong for her to suddenly begin to grasp the THRILL that is staying on the track.

That was 10 days ago. Yesterday, when she lost a turn at the crest of a knoll, she cast around and barked her frustration. Excellent! She also pulled so hard she had her front feet off the ground for a few steps. Not ideal but I like the commitment. NOW I can start working on details of the work. As with all training, it is a balance between motivation and precision. Without motivation, you cannot ask for (or get) more precision. I never know what is ahead in this sport, but I know now that we are better equipped as a team to move forward, now that she sees the point of both the track and the articles.