Tracking with Eli
by Trish Wright
(published with the permission of the author)
Eli and I began our tracking career late
last summer. My friend Val told me about a Tracking Trial that was going
to be held nearby in early October and asked if I wanted to join in the
fun and begin to train Eli. I was apprehensive at first because I didn’t
know much about tracking. I assumed that I needed Eli to be more OBEDIENT
then he is known to be- Eli likes to do his own thing some times…wink
wink. “Not to worry,” she said, so I agreed to give it a shot. Besides,
Eli needed a job and maybe this would teach him a little more self-control
Vicky Hall and Pioneer's Wylie v. Krugerrand RN CD
Photo by Tom Jaskiewicz
What is Tracking? Tracking is following the
scent trail left by a human being (or other animal) that has passed along
a certain route. A dog tracks when he follows that scent and 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, and well-trained
pets can find lost items. Many dog owners, including myself, are involved
in tracking with their dogs for fun, or as a sport to earn titles; perhaps
to do both.
Did you know that dogs' senses are generally
much more heightened than ours. Because of this, dogs have been able to
help us for centuries.
Sight Dogs can see far better than humans
can. They have heightened peripheral vision, and excellent night vision as
well. Interestingly, dogs can sense movement much better than humans, but
we see stationary objects clearer than they do. This is a piece of dog
heritage still at work—since dogs only hunt things that moved, they had no
need for good stationary eyesight.
Hearing Dogs hear better than humans at both
a lower volume and a higher frequency. Sometimes dogs hear sounds at such
a high frequency that humans cannot even hear them at all. Again, this
heightened sense of hearing helps dog with tracking and hunting down prey.
Smell The sense of smell is a dog's most
highly developed sense. Their wet noses dissolve the scent molecules and
help them detect smells that we, as humans, cannot recognize. Many dog
experts believe that the canine sense of smell helps dogs ``talk" to each
other and help define their relationship. Dogs use their olfactory senses
to interpret other dog's pheromones (external chemical messengers) and
learn important information regarding gender and receptivity to mating.
Mary Alice Eschweiler and CH Shepherdspatch Hercules TD
Photo by Tom Jaskiewicz
Eli already had a drafting harness, so that
was a bonus and we had plenty of old leather gloves lying about that we
could use. Val loaned me her 30 foot leash , and she also had flags to
mark our tracks. Last but not least, we had our pouch full of bait and
always brought along water for the dogs to drink. Tracking could be hard
work! I got on the internet and read some various articles on tracking to
give me a basic understanding of what Eli and I would be doing.
Eli and I started out very slowly. He needed
to understand what the term “Find it” meant so for the first little while
we concentrated on learning that concept. I took and old plastic tub and
turned it upside down on the lawn. I got myself plenty of bate for our
game and then put Eli on a sit stay about 4 or 5 feet from the bucket. I
walked to the bucket, turned around so he could see me and placed the
treat on the bucket. I returned to Eli and told him to “Find it” in an
excited voice. Eli went to the bucket and retrieved his treat with me
following behind him. I praised him lavishly. “Good boy, you found it!” We
repeated that game over and over again until I was confident he understood
what Find it meant.
Next, I added length to the game and started
to lay a bit of a track for him, but this time I ditched the bucket and
substituted it for a leather glove. I put Eli on a sit stay and stomped on
one spot in front of him for a few seconds. That would be the scent pad he
would sniff and pick up the scent he would follow. Then I walked a few
feet and dropped some cheese along the track. I walked a few more feet and
dropped some more bait. Finally, at the end of the track, which wasn’t
more than 15 or 20 feet to start, I loaded up the glove with bait and
dropped it on the grass. I made sure this time that he did not see where I
dropped the glove and walked past the glove a bit, then turned around and
walked back on the same track I just laid. That is what they call a double
track.- laying a track and then walking back over it. When I returned to
my tracking dog in training, I put the leash on him and walked him up to
the scent pad. I pointed down to the scent pad and repeated the term “Find
it” to Eli a few times. His head automatically went down to see what I had
pointed at and sniffed the scent. At first he was a little slow to get
going to I walked ahead of him a bit to lead him into the track. His head
was down sniffing the ground and I would praise him when he was following
along the track- “Good boy, Eli. Find it” As Eli moved along the track he
found pieces of bait and each time he was encouraged and praised for his
good work. Finally, Eli came upon the glove and spent a few moments trying
to get at the treat inside. Again, I praised him, patted and played with
him, and grabbed the glove to toss and make a game of it.
We practiced little exercises and games like
this for a few weeks. We would spice things up every now and then.
Sometimes I laid short little tracks; sometimes I laid the tracks a bit
longer. Sometimes he got cheese as a baiting treat, sometimes it was
leftover pork chops or ham, and sometimes it was cheerios. Sometimes, we
would play hide n’ seek with the girls. Eli and I would remain at a sit
stay and the girls would run and hide from us. I would count to 50 and
then I would give the command to “Find it.” Off we went and had a ball
trying to find the girls. They would squeal and giggle when he found them
and they always had a treat for him.
Eli was doing a great job and he graduated
quite quickly to more intense tracking; partially because I knew he was
ready and partially because the trials were a few weeks away and we had no
other choice. We moved the tracking to hayfields close by where the dogs
would have an assortment of scents to work with and challenge their
Stephanie Biksacky and Brighteye Wilanie Rosette CD
Photo by Tom Jaskiewicz
Sally, another friend who has a Golden
Retriever, Val and I started out with the very basic of tracks. We didn’t
want to over do it with the dogs and have them lose interest or get
discouraged. We were committed to making it as fun for the dogs and
ourselves as possible. We tracked twice a week to start. Basically, for
the first few weeks we laid small, straight tracks and the nice thing
about it was that we each got to lay tracks for each other now instead of
me laying a track for Eli with my scent-now he was getting a new scent he
hadn’t been used to smelling.
When we laid the tracks we planted a
starting flag along the edge of a field and stomped on a two-foot square
by the flag to lay our scent and mark the beginning of the track. We
walked a few paces, dropped some bait, and then continued to walk a few
more paces, dropping bait as we went along. We planted another flag in the
ground about 30 to 50 feet from our starting flag to mark the initial
direction of the track. Basically, we did the same thing as Eli and I had
been practicing in the back yard, only now it was on a grander scale and a
bigger playing field.
Below are some sample tracks that you can
lay for your dog.
Eli took to tracking like a duck to water,
like fleas on a dog, like flies on ….ah…garbage. Yes…garbage. Work? I had
never seen Eli so excited, interested, and attentive to anything before. I
think he was even more excited about tracking then the cute little bitch
he bred last summer. To be honest, we both got hooked and there was no
turning back now. We were going to train hard for a Tracking title.
We spent the next few weeks building on the
basics and adding more to our tracking routine. We moved to bigger fields
and laid longer tracks. We added corners and we began using less bait. We
went from laying double tracks to single tracks. We went from not aging
our tracks to letting them sit for sometimes up to 60 minutes before we
started. We tracked in different types of terrains and in different
weather conditions. Throughout it all Eli did fantastic and was always
focused on his job. I never worried and was very confident he as leading
me in the right direction. I put my trust in his sense of smell and he
never let me down. The time for the trial was near and I knew we were
ready. So were the other dogs we trained with.
A few days before the trial, Eli developed a
lump over his left eye. He had had some type of allergic reaction the
previous spring and we thought he was suffering from the same thing. It
certainly looked the same at first and I didn’t worry all that much about
it. I consulted the vet who eased my fears and sent us home with a pat on
the head and a “Let me know if the swelling doesn’t ease in a day or two.”
Eli still had tons of energy, was eating fine and was eager to track so we
continued to practice for our trial that was to be held on that coming
Lois Leidahl-Marsh and CH Swissmyth Balder the Beloved CD TD
Photo by Tom Jaskiewicz
Saturday morning, Val, Sally and I loaded up
the dogs and headed for a nearby field for the last track before the
trial. We each laid a track and let it age almost an hour. The weather was
overcast and had a strong wind. We knew the wind would be blowing the dogs
off the track a bit, but we also knew the dogs were smart enough to find
their way. It wasn’t long after the tracks were laid that the weather
shifted and the heavens got heavier and darker. Still we persevered. Val
and Spot went first and did a great job. No rain. Sal and Nikki went next
and did well, too. The skies started to sprinkle and the winds got
stronger but still Nikki found her leather glove. By the time Sal and
Nikki finished the heavens began to open. But the track for Eli was laid,
he knew what he was there for and I knew I couldn’t disappoint him by
throwing in the towel. I opened up the truck to get Eli’s harness on and
noticed his eye looked droopy. The lump was the same size but I thought it
might have been the way he was holding his head. I took him out of the
truck, inspected his face but other than the droop, he was fine. I wasn’t
sure what to do but decided that since it was a fairly short track that we
would continue. He knew what he was there for and I didn’t want to end
this on a sad note of quitting. I took him out to the starting flag,
promising the whole time I would call the vet when we got home.
We walked up to the starting flag and I
pointed to the scent pad. Eli put his head down to pick up the scent.
“Okay Eli, find it!” I told him. Eli started tracking, his tail wagging.
The wind felt like hurricane force, and the rain was pelting us head on by
that time. In a matter of minutes I was drenched and I remember Eli
looking up at me and turning his head away from the track. The rain was
beating right in his face. I thought very hard about calling him off the
track but I didn’t. We kept going but I didn’t think Eli was responding as
he normally had. He kept walking but his head was up in the air. His nose
was rarely to the ground. I looked to Val, who laid the track, for any
signs of sympathy and encouragement that he was on track. The rain kept
falling, the wind kept beating, my dog kept moving and I followed. I
praised him and encouraged him to find it. And then BOOM….there was the
leather wallet Val had left and a soggy piece of cheese to reward his
effort. Good boy, Eli. What a trooper…what a puffy eye.
I quickly loaded up Eli and my soaked bones
into the truck and headed for home. I called the vet from my cell phone on
the way and told them to expect me in 20 minutes. They were waiting and
the prognosis was not good. Eli had a abscess and it was about to
rupture…he needed to have it drained that afternoon. I knew that his
tracking test the next day would be out of the question with tubes to
drain the abscess coming out of his head. My heart ached for him having to
have this abscess drained and for missing his golden moment on the field.
Judges at the BMDCA 2005 Specialty Tracking Test
Photo by Tom Jaskiewicz
I pulled Eli from the trials. Word traveled
quickly amongst my friends and many people called to see how Eli was and
cheer me up. I remember Val calling and expressing her disappointment for
us. What she had seen that day with Eli impressed her. She had noticed
that because the weather was so bad, the track was very aged, and the
scent probably very faint by the time Eli worked it, that he had overcome
the conditions. He was tracking in the air and not on the ground that day.
That explained why his head was up the whole time we worked. And I thought
he was just lost and couldn’t get the scent of the track. I knew that Eli
was a good tracker and Val’s observation just carved that idea in stone
for me. It made the fact that we missed the trail even that much harder to
get over, too.
Eli recovered completely. He looked like a
freak with the tubes in his head and the girls wouldn’t even look at him
for the first few days. His hair took a few months to grow back but he
loved the extra attention he got- as if he doesn’t get enough already! The
girls began to feel sorry for him a few days after his operation so he
felt much better when the girls began to love him up again. We put away
the tracking gear for the season and I promised Eli that we would try
again this year.
Val and Spot missed their trial. Spot got
whiff of a fox or something and off the track he went but Sal and Nikki
tracked with perfection. I was so happy for them. It was all bitter sweet.
What’s that famous saying…if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
We’re looking forward to trying again in the weeks ahead and seeing how
much we remember about tracking.
References and Good Reading:
Tracking From the Ground Up by Sandy Ganz
and Susan Boyd (Show-Me Publications). An easy-to-use resource. Perfect
for the beginning tracker.
Enthusiastic Tracking, The Step-by-step
Training Manual by William R. Sanders. Presents a structured and thorough
motivational training method that prepares the dog and handler for the TD
& TDX tests.
The Tracking Page:
http://www.workingdogs.com/book015.htm A great site for books on a
variety of topics including Training and Behavior, Health and Diet.