I call this my colored dot concept. Let me be clear here, this is totally made up and only an aid to help people understand things a little better. As you all know (if you don’t you should) dogs are macrosomatic animals. Loosely translated that word means, large nasal cavity. All animals that are categorized as macrosomatic are animals which use their sense of smell as the sense they trust in the most and through which they primarily perceive their environment.
As we all know things are not what they look like to our dogs, until they get to smell it first. We have to understand then that our dogs use their noses in a similar way we use our eyes. They literally “see” with it. So let’s talk about what they “see” when they are tracking. Imagine that you could see what a dog can smell. What would you see when you look at an individual footstep? This is where the colored dot concept comes in. Imagine for a moment that each footstep and the damage it does creates a picture made up of a set of 20 different colored dots. Much like the color-blindness charts that an optometrist may show you. The number 20 is of course completely arbitrary and serves a purpose only to illustrate the concept. But imagine for a moment that each footprint contains 20 dots. And each footstep contains the same 20. You would be able to follow this visual track quite clearly. Even if there were other footprints around that had a different set of 20 dots, you could very easily compare them and pick out which print is part of the track you are following and which one is different. I imagine that a dog has that clear an image in his mind when he sniffs a footprint.
Let’s expand on this concept a bit further and use it to illustrate difficulties dogs have when they track. Dogs who do not concentrate well and who have a bit of a superficial attitude about the whole thing may not take the time to clearly identify all 20 dots. I have worked with many dogs who had their foundation training with very smelly bait. These dogs seemingly track quite well, as long as the bait is there, because the bait for them represents a constant that is not found anywhere else. But what often happens is, that by having the scent priority reversed, the dog never really identifies all 20 colored dots in the “track scent picture”. So when the constant scent of the bait is removed, the dog is working on a pretty flimsy and sketchy idea of what a track “looks” like they may have a picture of only 5 dots. And that often leads to problems until the dog is taught to properly identify and “see” the track (in other words all 20 dots).
Another common problem with any dog is the terrain change. Even different grass length and having a different mix of plants on a field will create a slight change in the scent picture for the dog. It may only be one or two dots out of 20 that are changing in the overall picture. But there is definitely a difference for the dog. Dogs who work by identifying all 20 dots will pause at the change, and then go with picture that resembles the original the closest. Dogs who work with much fewer dots, because they do not concentrate well, or because they do not take the time to identify all 20 dots before they head along a track will run into problems, because too large a percentage of the track scent picture has changed for them so that the changed track hardly resembles the original track at all. It only stands to reason that a dog who is “looking” at a completely new “picture” will act confused and will not know exactly what to do next. Corners are such scent picture changes that we lay for the dog. We should know that we are making a change in the scent picture. In other words we are adding colored dots or taking some away, or changing some of the colors. One thing is for sure, the picture will not remain the same for the dog.
I often hear analogies about how a dog will run the same zig-zag pattern on a field that a rabbit ran, so corners mean nothing to a dog if the motivation is high enough. WRONG! When a dog follows a rabbit it always smells like rabbit. Before the corner, on the corner and after the corner, it will always smell like rabbit to the dog, so the scent picture is always the same for the dog.
But when a dog follows the scent of crushed vegetation, the scent picture will change. The different wind direction will affect the degree of fermentation that happens. Plants face in different directions depending on where the sun is in the sky, and a different part of a plant will get damaged by a step, etc. There are changes that a dog can and will notice. And he should. He should realize there is a change and work through the change with the skills we are teaching him. What we have to realize is that some of the colored dots will change for the dog at a corner. We have to allow him to acknowledge this change, and make a clear decision to follow the slightly changed scent picture and make that his new set of 20 dots to compare things against.
Dogs who work with fewer than all 20 dots will have greater difficulties to work out problems such as corners because the change in the scent picture will be much greater in their perception. So keep that in mind as we go on. Dogs can follow one or a few colored dots just as much as they can follow 20. But the clearer and more accurate a picture the dog has of the track he is supposed to follow, the higher his likelihood of success.
As we stretch out the lengths of the tracks we present to the dog, we will inevitably encounter changes in conditions, drier grass, longer grass, shorter grass, more clover, less clover, sparser vegetation, different plant composition, etc. All these changes in cover help a dog to adapt to changes in his track. When a change is very obvious and visible to us, we should use that as a teaching opportunity. My approach is to not place food at any changes that are significant enough for a dog to register. I have some food leading up to the change then no food while the dog is going through the change, then food again at increased frequency after the change. What is the reasoning behind that? I believe the dog has to acknowledge the change he is working through and should not be guided along with food reminders to a degree where he will not notice that anything has changed. Changes in the scent picture are inevitable in tracking and we should prepare the dog for those changes by letting him learn that they happen and that he has the skills to work through them. Corners are one such change that we set up deliberately for the dog. How do we lay corners for teaching? Naturally, there are different ways. I will give you my way of laying corners for most dogs.
I “railroad” my corners. That means I stop single step walking, and shuffle my feet along and around the corner without lifting my feet up off the ground. I make as close to a 90 degree angle as possible and do not round the corner much at all. But I lay a continuous strip of slightly heavier ground damage for the dog to guide him around the bend. I do not believe in double laying a corner, because as the tracklayer I will deposit an unusually concentrated pool of air scent around the corner (by moving his own body back and forth) that will only confuse the dog.
So, I stomp along laying my track. Putting food in about every footstep until about a dog’s body length before the corner. Then I stop with the food. I railroad about 3 feet before and again 3 feet after the corner. Then I resume stepping again by about the first or second step, I will also begin putting food again into every footstep.
Another point to make here is that I will base where I put my corner on the length of track the dog has done in straight lines. Meaning if the dog has managed to work 80-100 pace tracks without any difficulties, I would put a corner near the 50-60 pace mark and then proceed for another 20 paces after the turn.
I want the dog to be well in the track and confident in his pursuit when he comes to the turn. I want him to register the turn. He will show a slight hesitation as he heads around the corner and onto the second leg. A moment of doubt will occur. This is all perfectly normal and understandable. Aside from the colored dot concept that should help us understand that there is a scent picture change for the dog, we also have to realize that a dog also uses landmarks to guide himself along in his environment. And as he makes a turn all landmarks, including where in relation to him his handler is, will change. The dog will have his moment of doubt. He should use his nose to guide himself forward, and right at the point where he says “this is not the same, but it is close”, he should be reinforced for his efforts by finding perfectly placed food right there. He will get confirmation that he is in fact “on the right track” and continue from there with confidence.
Naturally, this has to be repeated many times and in both directions. More difficult terrain conditions will make the issue larger. Again, the harder it is for the dog to have a clear and accurate picture of a track, the harder hit he is by changes in that picture. Be aware of what you are asking your dog to do when you lay a track. It will let you be more fair and certainly more understanding to the troubles he may have.
Patience, patience, more patience
This concludes the bulk of foundation training in tracking. The hard thing in this discipline is always that we are only guessing at what we are seeing. When a dog sits, I know he sits. But when he is tracking, many things are going on that are much beyond my understanding of what exactly occurs inside the dog’s brain when he is doing this “tracking thing”. And that is why here more than in any other phase we have to be patient and if we ever make an error, let it be an error on the side of caution. Because we can’t ever be 100% sure the dog is not doing what we hope he is doing. Patience is the biggest virtue you can have in this discipline.
Going back a step is more common and more necessary here than in any other phase. Take your time, stay on squares. Go back to squares if you feel you went on too fast. Stay away from turns unless your dog has shown he is ready and if he acts confused and bewildered take it as a sign that you went one step beyond his skills, not that he is defying you.
Up to this point tracking is totally up to our macro somatic partner, because we don’t have a clue how to do what he is supposed to do. A square will never hurt your dog. It may not accomplish all you want it to, but it will surely never hurt. And none of what I have described will cause any problems for you or your dog. So it is safe to do.
Naturally we are far from finished. Up to this point all the work has been purely motivated by the dog’s inclination to do the work. We have no sense of duty yet, except for whatever a dog may impose on himself to find food. We have not addressed articles yet. And we have not come close to doing all this without any food on the ground. So, as you can see, there is more to do.