After talking about how to start your dog tracking, and assuming that you have managed a straight line for around 100 yards to a toy at the end, it is perhaps time to start thinking about laying tracks and handling. As I said in my last article there is no shortcut to tracking and no substitute for experienced help but if you are struggling on your own it may be helpful to know some basic ground rules. The first and probably the most important is to know where your track goes. Now this probably sounds obvious and you will think that of course you know where it goes as you laid it, but although that may be perfectly true and very simple when you are walking a straight line, once you start turns it is very easy to forget.
The first line
The first turn you teach your dog is the easiest for you as there is nothing to remember, this is because the best place to teach a dog to turn is at the start pole, and you already have a marker to let you know exactly where this corner is. So to begin with just walk off in a different direction from the pole, still in a straight line to a toy, but going either right or left from the pole rather than straight ahead, and making this quite a short leg so the dog is rewarded quite quickly for choosing the right direction.
I am assuming that by this time your dog has learned the tracking ‘set up’ and so it will come to the pole ready to track without having seen it laid.
Up until now it has just gone straight out from the pole and without doubt this is what it will do this time, reach the pole and charge straight ahead. This is where you play a waiting game, allowing the dog to make this mistake and seeing it suddenly realise that there is no track to follow.
On no account must you stop the dog from going ahead or try to influence it to go in the right direction, you must just wait patiently for the dog to work it out. Although the line prevents the dog from going completely wrong it should not be used to guide the dog, and so do not be tempted to either hold the dog back or to let out loads of line, but try to let the dog search around on the line that is already out. If it loses heart or gives up it is perfectly okay to encourage verbally and point at the ground, but this should be around where the dog is and not in the direction the track goes.
Depending on the dog this may take a few minutes or no time at all, and it is always lovely to see the penny drop on the first turn and realise that the dog is actually tracking.
Over the next few sessions this method can be continued to ensure your dog recognises a corner, and you can observe what your dog does and how it looks when it finds the right direction. This will prove invaluable experience for both of you, so don’t be tempted to hurry it or skip ahead as you will lose the opportunity to learn how to read your dog in a situation when you can be 100 per cent sure exactly where the corner is.
While practising these directions from the pole do not forget to include straight ahead as well as left and right or your dog will never think to check that direction. Later on when you have been tracking right angled patterns for some time you can return to this method to teach diagonals and cut backs.
So now your dog can track straight lines and recognise a change of direction from the pole it is time to try a turn away from the pole, and here is where you need to start thinking about how you will ensure that you can be totally confident about where the track goes. Sometimes this will be easy, and mud, wet or long grass and some crops will all show an impression of where the tracklayer has walked but unfortunately more often than not there is no visible sign, so it is necessary for the tracklayer to use other methods to identify exactly where they have walked.
I have heard all sorts of ideas about the best way of doing this, and some experienced tracklayers swear by a compass, while others line up distant landmarks to identify turns, but for beginners laying for their own dog anything that works is acceptable, and such things as turning by a thistle or plant or throwing out a pole to mark the corner are commonly used methods; I personally used a puffer pack of builders white chalk to mark my corners, so don’t be afraid to mark by whatever means will not affect the dog and leave you 100 per cent sure of knowing where the track goes.
The first corner
The first attempt at a corner away from the pole will just be a right angle with the reward coming soon after the turn. This can progress to a three sided square without becoming too ambitious. Remember to walk both left and right turns otherwise your dog will learn to always cast one way and use the same patience on these turns as you did at the pole.
To begin with the dog will probably take a little while to realise the track has stopped and it is important that even though you know exactly where the turn is you do not stop the dog. You can stop on the turn so that you don’t forget where it is but just let your dog continue, letting out line if necessary until it realises that there is no more track and comes back to find it. This is when you can watch the dog work it out just as you did at the pole and hopefully from the work you put in at the pole you will recognise when your dog finds the new leg.
It is only by tracking your dog on tracks that you have laid yourself that you are able to learn to ‘read’ it and understand the difference between searching and finding the new leg. It is this early training which will give both of you the experience to work someone else’s track and learning to recognise and understand your dog on your own tracks will give you the valuable skill of reading it on a competition track.
All of this will take you a step further along the tracking journey but once again no amount of written instructions will teach you to track. The above information will hopefully give you a taste of what tracking is like, and allow you to decided if this is something you want to pursue. But I cannot emphasise too strongly that in order to reach competition standard and be able to lay and work your own tracks, read your dog, and handle your line to the best advantage of both you and the dog, you really need some ‘live’ help from time to time.
Nothing can make up for experience and you will need to have the successes and failures to help you understand this unique and fulfilling pastime, but some help along the way will increase the successes and cut down on the failures.
Someone once told me if you can’t handle failure then trials are not for you, and at the time I didn’t fully understand how true that was. Now I do, and I realise that it is the failures that make the successes so rewarding.