Back in 1966 I was waiting for my 3-month old puppy to grow up enough for tracking when I received devastating news: my only two reliable track layers were leaving town! Something had to be done. Why not start the pup out on their “stranger” tracks? ‘‘Self’’ tracks could come later when she’d learned to stay. It worked, and saved a lot of trouble. Tracking interest has burgeoned here since then but we’ve continued to work with the puppies. There is one great big problem, though: puppy pushing is pure poison! We start the pups as early as 8 weeks. Plant a flag, put a harness on the pup, get a long line (the pup won’t need it, but the handler might as well start learning how to untangle the thing!), send a “track layer” out 5-6 feet to wave a glove. Handler holds pup and talks excitedly. Glove may be baited with a tidbit (if handler doesn’t think it’s sinful) or a squeaky toy. Cheer the pup out to the glove, make much over his “track”, play with him. Gradually lengthen the distance, bring the track layer back before the pup starts, make the drop less obvious, then divert the pup so that he sees neither the track layer nor the glove. At first the pup will probably try to locate the glove by vision or by air- scenting it. While you’re trying to get him eager to get the glove, this does not matter. But he must eventually learn that ground scent is reliable; air scent and vision very fickle. So as soon as he seems to understand that he’s to find the glove, make a track with the wind and hide the glove in the grass. When he starts to sniff the ground, praise to the skies.
Encourage him to pull – no one has told him not to pull on his collar yet! Practice letting the lead out smoothly; hold it in both hands near the harness, letting the rest trail behind you. With a small breed of pup you can let it slip through your fingers; with a larger one let it out hand over hand without jerking. Find out how hard your puppy will pull without any dampening of enthusiasm. Keep the pup quite close to the track where you know there is ground scent by giving him only 6-10 feet of lead for now and staying on the track yourself. If he wanders off, stop him smoothly without jerking. If he forgets why he is there, take him by the harness and point to the track with your arm perpendicular to the ground – don’t point ahead! – and say “track” when his nose wanders, “good” when he points it to the track. Then make your tracks and your sessions shorter!
Once he is consistently doing a straight track of a length appropriate to his size, put in a turn. Most pups will figure out a 90º angle very quickly. Have the track layer plant a second flag or use a patch of vegetation as a land mark, go 3 more paces, then turn into the wind at a 90º angle, go 15-20 paces, drop the glove, and continue 20 paces before coming back to the road. Using about 10 feet of line, send the pup out. If he sniffs the flag, don’t scold him as it has the track layer’s scent; give him a grudging “good” and an eager “track!” When you reach the flag or landmark, stop, give the pup an extra 5-10 feet of line and let him nose around. Eventually, he’ll find the track – praise him and immediately go out behind him. If you have trouble you can make your turns 150º, and then 120º, then 90º a la Strickland. Now make most of your turns with the wind until you’re sure the pup is following ground scent, then go with him. When he seems to have mastered turns, wait for him to pull you before you make the turn yourself. Work the pup at most 10 minutes. This is usually enough for 3 very short tracks or 2 longer ones. One session a week is plenty and an over-eager handler must be forbidden to work the pup between sessions.
After each lesson, take the pup for a walk. A tolerant older dog who loves to run over all sorts of terrain and who will come when called is a great help; Junior will tag along behind him. Take the pup through all sorts of local cover, especially high weeds, entangling vetch, brambles, boggy spots. Try the woods and a bit of plow. Creeks are sometimes easier to get into than out of, aren’t they? Cheer him when he successfully negotiates an obstacle, help him only if he’s trapped. And that’s it. The puppy is familiar with all tracking equipment and all types of cover. He knows that gloves are fine things, harnesses are meant to pull in, and tracks make 90º turns.
Now proceed with one of two courses:
1) Except for refresher once a month or so, stop tracking until the puppy is mature. Then start lengthening the track and aging it. Dampen down herding dog circles and sporting dog zig-zags. Stop varmint chasing and insist that dog follow the ground scent of the track layer until called off. And above all, learn how to read him.
2) Continue the weekly sessions, but keep the tracks short. Enough variation to maintain interest can usually be obtained by using different terrain and aging the tracks. If the pup loses his eagerness, take him, handler and helper to a strange field. Have the handler hide and let the helper handle the pup on the handler’s track. Then go back to shorter tracks and more praise; if the puppy continues eager, ease out the length of the track; proceed from L’s to U’s, Z’s and boxes; slowly and gently get the controls listed in (1).
And when is a dog mature enough for a full-length regulation track? Some time between 6 months and 2 years; there is no way to tell except by feeling him out.
Two of our pups have passed official AKC test before sexual maturity. But their owners aren’t bragging about their precocity; they’re working hard on advanced tracking along with us owners of later bloomers. We’re all proud that our early-started dogs seem eager to give us the benefit of their extraordinary sense even under difficult and unpleasant conditions. It is here and only here that early training pays off. By taking advantage of the age of easy socialization you save the time and energy you might have to put into teaching the older dog to pull, to go into high cover, to get his pads damp, to go close to flapping flags, etc. etc. You have fewer problems to overcome and can con- centrate on the positive aspects of tracking, or any other training. But if your aim is for a “UDT before he’s a year” you’ll overestimate the pup’s attention span and strength and turn him off all obedience work – perhaps permanently.
©1974 E. Conrad, M.D.