“What is “tracking?”
A dog is “tracking” when he is following the scent trail left by a human being (or other animal) that has passed along a certain route. Following a track is one of the many useful things dogs can do to help humans. Hounds track game, rescue dogs track lost children, police dogs track suspects, well trained pets can find lost items. Many dog owners are involved in tracking with their dogs as a hobby (for fun) or as a sport (to earn titles), or both. In the United States and Canada, tracking titles are offered by a variety of dog associations.
Purpose of Tracking Tests
As stated in the AKC Tracking Regulations, the purpose of a tracking test “is to demonstrate the dog’s ability to recognize and follow human scent, a skill that is useful in the service of mankind. Tracking, by nature, is a vigorous, noncompetitive outdoor sport. Tracking tests demonstrate the willingness and enjoyment of the dog in its work, and should always represent the best in sportsmanship and camaraderie by the people involved.” Most dog owners involved in tracking do so because it’s an enjoyable way to spend time with your dog and enjoy nature at the same time. Earning formal titles at tests allows people to earn some gratification and tangible rewards for the time and hardwork they invest in training their dogs.
Equipment You’ll Need For Tracking
To begin tracking you need a healthy dog, the proper equipment, and time. The special equipment needed for tracking includes a tracking harness for the dog a long lead (25′ or longer), a few articles (leather glove, old wallet, old sock, etc.), some treats for the dog, and several flags to mark starts and turns (brightly colored clothespins are also useful for marking turns). Eventually, you will need one or more other people to lay tracks for you. You should also invest in a few good books on the topic.
You’ll also need some open fields or grassy areas to train on. In early training, only a couple of acres are necessary. For advanced tracks, twenty acres or more may be required to adequately challenge the dog.
Just as importantly, you need to be in reasonably good physical condition yourself. Tracking requires a great deal of walking in fields and woods. You may need to to walk up steep hills, hop over ditches, and climb over fences. To lay an advanced track and run it later may require you to walk well over a mile in rough terrain. In short, tracking entails hiking. Of course, it’s great fun and will prolong your life.
A good harness is the first piece of equipment you’ll need. The harness should fit the dog properly and be designed so as not to restrict shoulder movement.
The most commonly used materials are leather, nylon and cotton. The main disadvantage of leather is that it requires care — cleaning and oiling — from time to time. A leather harness may also feel heavy to a small dog. Nylon harnesses are lightweight and require no care. Be sure to get one with straps wide enough that they don’t hurt your dog if he pulls hard.
For dogs that pull while tracking, a padded chest plate is nice. Many handlers want their dogs to lean into the harness, and some padding will make it more comfortable for a dog that is asked to pull.
Whatever the material, be sure to buy a harness that is fully adjustable so you can customize its fit on your dog.
Not all harnesses on the market are appropriate for tracking. A pet store harness may not be designed to allow free, comfortable movement. Carting or other types of pulling harnesses may be too heavy and cumbersome for tracking. Shop around and buy the right type for your dog.
A long leash is the second piece of equipment to consider. The length depends on your needs and specific preferences. In the early stages of training you’ll need only 6-10 feet of line, but as your dog progresses you’ll need 20 feet or more.
The AKC Tracking Regulations require that the leash “be 20-40 feet in length and be visibly marked at a point 20 feet from the dog.” In a TD or TDX test, the handler must follow the dog at a distance of at least 20 feet.
The material is also a matter of preference. Nylon mountain climbing rope — available at camping outfitters — has become popular. It is comfortable, stays relatively dry, and does not become easily tangled. Flat nylon lines are also common, but are less comfortable in your hands and may actually hurt if your dog pulls hard. Cotton lines are inexpensive and comfortable, but are very heavy when wet and get caught on dense cover more easily than nylon.
There are two primary uses for track markers: to mark the start of a track and to mark turns. At times, you may also want to mark the end of a track or place a marker in the middle of a leg if the terrain or vegetation makes it difficult to remember where the track is.
Start flags can be simple or fancy, depending on your taste. Utility flags are very inexpensive, but lack aesthetic appeal. Wooden stakes or dowels will work, as will fiberglass poles and PVC. Flagging can also be as simple or as fancy as you like, from surveyors tape tied to the post to bright nylon cloth. The most important thing about flags is that they be durable and easily carried. Turn markers should be easily visible. Many people use clothespins that are either painted a bright color or tagged with a piece of surveyors tape.
You should train your dog to be familiar with a variety of articles. The dog should recognize and indicate scented items made of leather, fabric, plastic, metal or wood. Popular items include gloves, socks, wallets and coin purses. Articles must be carried on the track, so they can only be so large. Other than that, your selection of articles is only limited by your imagination.