Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Melissa: Fall in a Field

I grumbled a bit as I grabbed my keys and headed out the door. Why, oh why does some neighbor have to play a saxophone by an open window starting at 6:30 every morning? I didn’t really feel like going out, but I wanted to find out who was so inconsiderate, so we could ask them to please shut their window before practicing.

Well, I didn’t figure out who our morning musician is, but I did decide that, since I was already out anyway, I might as well go lay a track for Milo. In theory I love going out to lay a track first thing in the morning. In practice, it’s hard to get dressed to leave the house, when I’m usually still padding around in pajamas and bathrobe with a steaming mug of tea. Actually, I scarcely qualified as “dressed” this morning, which I realized when I got back home and looked in the mirror to see my hair unbrushed, my shirt askew, with the collar cockeyed, and my nice blazer now covered with stick-tights. I don’t normally wear a blazer to lay a track. In fact, I don’t normally wear a blazer at all. It just happened to be the nearest thing when I grabbed for something to keep me warm in my not-quite-awake state. I was also wearing crocs, not my hiking boots, because that was what was by the door as I hurried out. Did you know that laying a track on a dewy morning in crocs is akin to taking a foot bath?

The field was heavy with dew and had a magical feel in the quiet of early morning. Apricot colored clouds piled high in the sky, shimmering in the sunrise. Fortunately, given my atypical garb, I was alone in the field—always a plus for this nature-loving introvert. I found my two points and walked, then looked back to see my path clear and straight, dark green through the light-colored wet grass. Birds called, but otherwise the morning was quiet. Too cool for insects to be on the move yet, but the wildflowers were raising their pretty faces to the sun. I lost myself in the joy of being out alone, and didn’t notice the stick-tights or the wet pant legs and socks until I got back to my car. And I didn’t care then, either; it had been the perfect start to my day.

Three and a half hours later I returned to the field with my happily dancing Beagle, both of us eager to run the track. The fields were now dry in the sunshine, the fragrance of fall-on-a-warm-day filling the air. A fragrance that instantly brings a kaleidoscope of memories to mind—riding my bike through leafy paths as a young child; running through cabbage fields for cross-country practice in high school; toting a heavy bag of apples across campus in college. I paused to relish my memories, then was brought back to the present by my gleeful Milo, who could hardly contain his excitement.

We ran the track, Milo tracking enthusiastically and well, me enjoying the connection with my dog, the connection with nature, and the connection with the part of myself that thrives on the simple pleasure of being outside with my dog. Another simple yet powerful memory added to my kaleidoscope of fall beauty.

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll find our saxophone alarm clock and lay another track.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Wondering if you're ready to try for your TD this fall?
Read on and find out...

You and your dog reliably and confidently do “blind tracks.”
This means someone else lays the track, no corner markers of any kind and then your tracklayer walks behind you and says absolutely nothing as you run the entire track.

Your dog confidently starts at all angles of legal approach to the flag.
Dogs learn what we teach them, and if we always approach a track so it is straight in front of the dog, then that’s what the dog thinks will always happen. I start angled approaches from the very beginning so I do not have to unteach something I should not have taught in the first place.

You and your dog reliably and confidently run tracks that are two hours old.
While most TD tracks are run at around 45 minutes, a slow team or two can push the later tracks up in age. You and your dog should be confident at two hours; if you were one of my students, I’d want you confident at 2.5 hours.

You can handle your dog while looking at the ground just in front of you, reading your dog’s behavior through the tracking line.
If it’s hard to get a blind track laid, then try this. Start your dog and look down at the ground. Follow and stop as the tension on the leash tells you to do and see how you do. This can be a very informative game.

Your dog reliably indicates articles in a way you can easily detect.
This means your dog stops himself when he gets to an article. It’s easy, if you lay the track yourself, to slow down or increase tension on the lead or move up the lead a bit or restrain your dog when the article nears. Easy but unhelpful as your dog isn’t learning to stop himself. So work hard not to indicate the article in anyway yourself, so your dog can learn to do his job himself.

Your dog works tracks enthusiastically without any food on the track itself.
Using food too much for too long can mean some dogs really don’t track well, or soon stop tracking, if food doesn’t appear on a regular basis in the track. While food can and should be used throughout training to reward increasingly specific behaviors, it should be used variably so your dog does not come to depend upon it in any way.

You can smoothly and briefly restrain your dog when he is on track or working a corner and he will lean into his harness and give you a good pull in the right direction.
At some point on a tracking test you are bound to get confused, second guess your dog and restrain him when he is correct. Luckily, you can train your dog to handle such moments using what I lovingly refer to as “dumb handler exercises.” This concept should be a part of every team’s development just as soon as the dog understands the task and is working enthusiastically.

You can follow your dog off track and, when he realizes he is off, he can refind the track and start off again with confidence.
Your dog leads and you follow, in tracking. So when your dog takes you off course, how quickly can you recognize his loss of scent signal and then, once you have planted your feet, how quickly can your dog problem-solve himself back to the track? Answer to both should be “quickly.”

Your dog can search for scent for at least three minutes without losing focus or enthusiasm.
This one can be difficult to set up - running acute turns up a hill can set up the situation - but whenever your dog is hunting for scent, relax and smile: this is a great variable for him to work. Try to keep your feet planted and your mouth shut - let him work. If he wanes, you can encourage, but until then, let him be.

You and your dog can confidently and successfully work a variety of cover and changes of cover including: sidewalks, bike and jogging paths, through openings between fields and from short to taller grass and back again.
Due to increasingly limited fields for tracking, the AKC loosened the rules around TD cover changes. So now, be ready for everything that is legal, and I would do some training on sand and gravel as well.

Your dog can sit in the car for hours, be taken out for walks and put back and still work the track confidently.
Some dogs are “rules” dogs - they believe what we teach them and are thrown off when things change. So if your dog is always tracked when taken out of the car at the tracking fields, he can be surprised when, at a test, he is taken out and then put back up again. Practicing this periodically can prevent this from causing confusion on test day.

Your dog works confidently in heat, rain and everything in between.

If you are a weather wimp, expect your dog’s tracking to be weather dependent. As my mentor, Judge Lily Mummert, used to say to me when I moaned about tracking in a downpour. “Do you know what the weather will be test day?” And she was right. Again.

Your dog works confidently at all hours of the day.
As per above, if your dog only tracks in the early hours, he may be thrown off by a high noon start time on test day. Mix up tracking times during training so this never becomes an issue.

You know the AKC rules, understand what is and isn’t “guiding” and how you can legally help your dog when he or she loses the scent.
It’s your job, as the human, to know the rules. It’s a heartbreak when a team who is doing well fails because of human error. It happens, but it doesn’t have to. Get a copy of the AKC rules. Read them, then if you don’t understand, ask people who do until you do. You’ll be glad you did on test day.

You can answer a confident YES to all of the above? 
You’re ready to test!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Melissa-- Tracking: A Channel of Communication and Connection

I stepped out into the sunshine, placed my steaming mug of tea and my book on the deck table, then let the dogs out to play. I turned to sit and watch the dogs do their wild morning running... but there was no running. All three dogs were engrossed in sniffing around a Jolly Ball in the yard right in front of the deck.

Clearly someone, most likely a wild canine someone based on the level of interest, had been visiting during the night. The thorough sniffing continued for several minutes, then Milo began to slowly and purposefully move up the yard, obviously following a track footstep by footstep. He paused every yard or so, casting back and forth a few inches until he found what he was looking for, sniffed to verify that this was what he thought it was, then moved on. His tail wagged cheerfully while he moved, slowed when he paused to check his work, then signaled his satisfaction when he started up again.

When Milo reached the crest of the hill, about 60 feet from me, he stopped, one paw raised, tail up and wagging, and stared at me. I smiled at him. He still stood and stared, tail wagging a bit faster. His request was clear-- "Follow me, Mom." As soon as I took a few steps in his direction, Milo turned, put his nose to the ground, and started again to slowly sniff his way along an unseen track, every now and then looking back to be sure I was following.

I love the dance of communication between my dog and me that tracking facilitates. In today's tracking fun, there was no formal tracking; no harness, no flag, no tracking line, and I neither set up nor initiated the situation. Nature laid a track, and Milo initiated our session together. Even though it was in no way formal tracking practice, I learned to read my dog a little better and we both felt the joy of being in sync on a track. I know that will benefit our "real" tracking practice when the snow has melted and we can get out again with harness and line.

I am an observer by nature, but I know I miss much that my dogs try to tell me. Tracking together provides yet another channel of communication, a channel that goes both ways, so that I better learn the language my dogs speak, they gain confidence in their ability to successfully communicate with me and in my responsiveness, and together our connection grows.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sarah: Working Variables: Persistence


One of the most important skills your dog can have in the sport of AKC tracking is a calm persistence about seeking the track once it is lost. And in AKC tracking - especially at TDX and VST levels - the track will be lost.

Having a dog who hunts for it independently and happily for five or more minutes makes refinding a lost track much more likely.

The challenge is - how do you create this situation without risking demotivating or stressing your dog? This is one way - play fetch in the snow. The toy disappears from sight making nose use key. Your dog is not in harness so stress is less likely to transfer to tracking and can be addressed away from the tracking fields.

It's pretty simple: When you have snow, toss the toy and let your dog hunt for it. (This can be done in tall grass as well but snow is ideal as visual searching is all but impossible). As long as your dog is happily seeking - be silent. If your dog becomes stressed or gives up - go to the general area and encourage them to look for it by pointing to the area and looking downward yourself.

Even if you see the toy, do not point to it but excitedly encourage searching and then throw a praise party when your dog "discovers" it on their own.

Don't have a toy motoivated dog? Toss a treat.

Now... while your dog is hunting observe yourself. How long can you tolerate this without becoming stressed? ....Relax.... Let your dog work.

Playing this game will increase your dog's searching behaviors and your tolerance for searching behavior - both are valuable assets in tracking.

Now please note two things: One, I thought she was on to the toy early but... I was wrong, oh well, in tracking get used to being wrong....and two, no command was given. This is not a "tracking exercise" but rather just an informal "keep trying" exercise.