GETTING STARTED TRACKING VARIABLE SURFACES
You take your dog out of the car, attach his harness and approach the track. The dog takes the scent from the bandanna left at the start and, nose down, begins tracking along the edge of the parking lot. After 50 yards, he turns, enters the parking lot and passes several parked cars. He makes a turn in the middle of the parking lot and leads you through a number of children getting out of their car. You follow your dog out of the parking lot, across a strip of grass, and onto the beach. There is another turn past windsurfers getting their boards ready for the water. With only a glance at them, your dog tracks past and indicates the article, a large metal belt buckle, left by the tracklayer. A quick drink of water and he is off again. You follow him down the beach, make another turn, and enter the picnic area. He tracks past the tables and barbecue pits, into the weeds and scruffy grass alongside and finds another article. This time it is a small leather eyeglass case. Down the track, one final turn, and he is tracking along the edge of the road leading to the beach. He finds the last article, this time a plastic credit card holder, and the track is finished.
This is the practical world of variable surface tracking, done in urban areas that are also used by the general public. My dogs have run tracks like the one described, and with the proper preparation, so can yours. It takes very little time when beginning and there is no need to drive to empty fields that you can traipse through for training. It does require two things however: a committed handler and a motivated dog.
As the handler, you must be convinced that this is possible; any doubts you feel will be communicated down the line to your dog. When she has problems, and along the way she will, you must continue to believe this is possible. And without strong desire on the part of the dog to track, she will not have the drive to continue when it requires concentration from her. It is not within the scope of this article to discuss ways to build motivation; talk to other experienced tracking handlers for ideas. The dog who wants to track in the field will still want to track on the pavement; the dog who has trouble running a beginner's track will not have the perseverance needed to continue onto the more difficult surfaces. Build this motivation before you begin training variable surfaces. Watch for signs of stress such as whining by the dog and be prepared to help her work through the problem area. It is vital that she feel successful to prevent her shutting down.
The variable surface track must include turns on surfaces which are not vegetated. Some of these surfaces are considerably more difficult for the dog to work than others. You can introduce bare dirt, landscape bark and gravel, and other rough or porous surfaces with considerably less difficulty for your dog than such smooth surfaces as asphalt, concrete, or sand. An experienced tracking dog will likely have little trouble tracking through these porous new surfaces. For this reason, when talking about teaching variable surfaces, I will be referring primarily to paved surfaces such as roads and parking lots.
Because this is advanced tracking, a dog should be ready to run a Tracking Dog test before beginning this training. Use common sense; if you plan to enter a TD or TDX test within the next several months, wait to start. Don't take a chance that your dog might encounter difficulties that cause him to lose confidence if you don't have time to build it back. In our classes, we introduce dogs at the TD level to the concept of cross-tracks, while the dogs in training for TDX are exposed to some nonvegetated surfaces. We never progress so far that the dog is given scent puzzles to work out before he has the background to be able to do so.
When training for a variable surface test, you will be running your dog in areas which have scent from numerous other people. This means that your dog must be able to discriminate between the scent of the tracklayer and others who have walked across your track. There are several ways to introduce your dog to this concept. One of the easiest is to have two people leave the start of the track walking side by side. One should leave an article at the start so the dog can be given the scent of the person he is to follow. After 30-50 yards, the two will split into a "T" pattern. If this split must be marked, the person who did not leave the starting article should do so. Each person walks away from the other, and the tracklayer the dog is to follow leaves a second article after another 30-50 yards.
The dog who does not understand scent discrimination will not understand which track to follow where the two separate. Give the dog the scent from the starting article again, and help her make the correct decision. There is no need to age this pattern as you are not working age but training cross-tracks. When she understands this pattern, she should work the turn as though only one person walked the track. Be sure to do this with both right and left turns for the dog to make. If the dog is inexperienced, pick up the start article with a plastic bag in the same manner as if you were cleaning up after her. Then if you need to refresh your dog with it, the only scent on the article will be that of the tracklayer, and you will avoid the possibility of confusing your dog with your own scent.
Another pattern is to lay intercepting stair steps. At each zigzag, one track's "risers" will intercept the other's "steps". This can be run by two dogs at the same time to build concentration around distractions, or it can be run by the less advanced dog first, with the other having not only the tracklayer's but also another dog's scent to provide cross-tracks with additional age. If the individual legs are long enough between the turns, a third track can be woven into the pattern. Pay careful attention to wind and make sure legs are long enough to ensure the dogs cannot air scent from one leg to another. You will need a dog which tracks with a very deep nose close to the ground when you transfer his skills to pavement. For this reason, try to discourage the dog from following the scent blown through the air. We always make each leg a minimum of 50 yards, and on windy days increase this to 75 yards.
If your dog is not reliably indicating articles, lay your pattern in the shape of a grid with right angles, working the sides of the field and running back and forth across it. Have the cross-tracklayer walk through the center of the field. Articles should be dropped fifteen to twenty yards after each cross-track. This will give the dog practice with turns, cross-tracks, and articles. Again, keep the legs long enough to prevent the wind from carrying the scent of one leg to the next one downwind.
Sometimes it is necessary to teach article indication separately from the tracking itself. Placing as many as 30 articles, ten to fifteen yards apart, down the sidewalk or at the park will help the dog understand that each article is important. Put the dog in her harness and tell her to track. Although she will probably use her eyes as much as her nose, insist that she indicate every article and reward her for each with a tidbit. If she indicates by sitting or downing on the articles, make her stay in this position while you reward her. This will keep her on the track and ready to continue. If your dog indicates articles by retrieving them and has been force trained to retrieve, you can use a correction if it proves necessary. By the end of this exercise, there will have been ample opportunity for even the most stubborn dog to realize that not only are articles important to you, but good things ensue for her as well. Because articles for the variable surface tracking will be metal and plastic as well as fabric and leather, be sure you have used a good number of these. Keep them large enough so the dog who indicates them by picking them up and retrieving them is not in danger of swallowing any.
Remember that the smooth surfaces of metal and plastic articles, just as the ground itself, will be a different scenting experience. As the tracks you are running get older, be prepared for times that your dog will miss articles. Make sure their location is well marked, either at the site or on the tracklayer's map. Help your dog realize that the fainter scent on plastic and metal requires greater concentration. While he may indicate that a fabric or leather article was left on the ground even if it has been taken away by a passerby, there is less likelihood that he will make this indication with the other materials. This is the reason that a missing article on a VST track will not require that the dog run an alternate track to pass if he does not indicate an article was there. Try to use flat articles; they are less visible to the dog on pavement.
The start of the variable surface track will be like that of the TDX track, with the initial direction of the track unmarked. To ensure that the scent is taken at the start, I down my dogs and place the starting article at their noses. I keep my dogs down until they show me they have the scent, and I like to see them rising up while the nose stays down as they begin the track. This method prevents a lot of the wandering around at the start of the track commonly seen at TDX tests. If your dog does not know or reliably do a "down", this is not the place to teach it. Save any dominance battles and the resulting ill-will which could result for a place other than your track. Tracking should be positive, not associated with corrections.
To proof your starts, try a start which is unmarked. Rather than starting at a flag, have your tracklayer toss the start article off to the side about six to ten feet from the track. Take your dog to the article, give him the scent and tell him to find the track. If he can locate and follow the track when he does not begin on it, he should do clean starts when downed at the flag.
The dogs in our class working variable surface tracking all either have or are ready to test for their TDX. Because they learned to go across the roads and find their track again on the other side, we have had to back up and do some remedial training. The biggest problem, not surprisingly, has been convincing them that there is scent to follow on the pavement. Ultimately, we all resorted to laying tracks only in parking lots. By staying away from any vegetation at all, even at the start, the dogs stopped trying to get off the pavement and back to the surrounding area at every possible opportunity. Empty parking lots such as at churches during the week or shopping centers very early in the morning offer ample opportunity to lay long tracks without ever approaching the edge of the pavement.
To mark our tracks, we use sidewalk chalk and write turns directly on the pavement. Check your chalk before using it; some construction chalk is marked hazardous if inhaled or ingested. If your dog indicates the chalk, encourage her to ignore the marks just as you did when she indicated tags on her marked tracks when training for TD and TDX tests.
Begin with short, fresh, straight tracks. Don't be afraid to experiment. One member of our group laid all her tracks barefoot to leave more scent. While effective for her dog, it did not help mine. This was apparent the day I forgot to take my sandals off until I had laid half the track; I stopped, took them off and carried them for the rest of the track. The dog looked equally unsure of himself for both halves of the track. There is one major advantage of this method of tracklaying however: you will be aware of the temperature of the asphalt and learn to recognize any differences in the head carriage of your dog when working warmer surfaces.
We eventually found that most of the dogs became determined to try tracking on the pavement when we dragged raw beef bones or liver behind us. For the least possible mess, put it into a pantyhose leg at home, and then bring it to your tracking site in a resealable plastic container. The strong scent left by this drag encouraged the dogs to keep their noses right on the pavement, and once we had that style, it remained when we stopped the drags. One of the dogs needed six tracks like this, one needed only one. Let your dog tell you when she is convinced she can track in a parking lot. If you choose not to do a drag, try rubbing a greasy meat such as hot dog or salami on the soles of your shoes or marking the pavement with a "hot dog crayon". I do not recommend actually putting food on the track as is often done in introducing tracking to a new dog. The visually oriented dog will learn to use his eyes to look for the food rather than his nose to smell for it. My dogs still check every bird dropping, each piece of gravel, and each bit of trash they see near their tracks to determine if it is an article. Putting food down will encourage this, especially when it is easier to look than smell.
After your dog will follow a straight track in the parking lot, it is time to introduce turns. Do not rush this point; if your dog is not confident running a straight track, she will not develop confidence when having to make a change in direction. Introduce turns the same way you did when beginning them at the TD level. Shuffling around the turn, rounding it off, or triple laying it by walking five yards beyond the turn, backtracking around the turn five yards and then walking in your footsteps again, will all help the dog. The method that was most successful initially will probably work best again. Stay close to your dog and be prepared to help her if she indicates the turn by showing she has lost the scent ahead but does not check to either side. Articles placed 10 to 20 yards out of the turns will give you the opportunity to reward her for making the change in direction.
Add age and distance very slowly. It can very possibly take six times or more out before your dog learns to recognize the scent on pavement. This tracking is very difficult for the dog initially because of the difference in the scent. When tracking through vegetation, the dog not only has the tracklayer's body scent to follow, but also the scent from the ground and the vegetation crushed by the tracklayer's feet. Be patient while your dog learns to recognize that there is less scent and of a different nature when on pavement. Pay attention to the weather. Wind will blow the scent considerably further, without the shade of vegetation the scent will desiccate and evaporate faster, rain will spread it further, and melting snow will run it all over the parking lot. Hot days will seem hotter, and on cold days the scent freezes and disappears on the pavement. In general, all factors which affect scent on vegetation are amplified both in scope and age when the track is laid upon pavement.
As your dog becomes more confident, you can begin to age the track while making it longer. Take your time; one of my dogs did not work a track older than 30 minutes until he had been working variable surface for four months, and this dog already had his TDX at the time. Watch for signs of stress; whining and frantic movements are indications that the dog is having trouble. Be prepared to help. You may stay as close at ten feet to your dog during this test. Take advantage of this and work your dog at the shorter length.
Remember as in all kinds of training, make only one thing harder at a time. Thus if you add age, leave other things the same; if you increase distance or try a new surface do the same. New weather conditions can have a significant effect on how your dog experiences the track; again, do not add additional problems for the dog to work out at the same time.
Also watch your dog's style of tracking. As my two dogs have become confident with this surface, their style has changed. They still work vegetation with their heads down at the ground, but when on the pavement, the heads are higher and they move somewhat faster. Another dog has intensified her style, and on the pavement all but inhales the asphalt. Her teeth literally turned black from the tar one warm day. All the dogs get sandy noses on the beach. Learn to recognize your dog's individual style and be conscious of any changes that may occur when on these new surfaces. Most dogs will work the cracks in the pavement that trap the scent if the track follows in their general direction; they will also follow the paint stripes if going down a road or along painted parking spots in a lot. Curbs, parking bumpers, and other raised edges will also trap the scent, causing the dog to work at the edge of the pavement.
A word of warning: be aware of possible hazards to you and your dog. Besides the need to watch for traffic, be alert to the possibility of road salts, oil, antifreeze, and other chemicals, both on pavement and lawns. Office parks may not post their grass after the ground crew has sprayed pesticides, weed killers or fertilizers. Become acquainted with the area in which you will be tracking and any possible treatments which could be dangerous for your dog.
Finally, be prepared to find that once your dog reliably tracks nonvegetated surfaces, he has trouble tracking vegetation, both short lawn and taller field grass. Give him time to readjust to the scent on vegetation. Once he reliably tracks on grass, he should be able to work a complete track, putting all the pieces together.
Those of us who have tried variable surface tracking are hooked. Our dogs are delighted also; while the scent work is difficult, the physical aspects of the test are designed so old dogs and their aging handlers can easily negotiate the track. Your retired tracking dog will thank you for giving him a chance to do again that at which he excels.
Watch your dog and let her tell you when she is ready to progress. Don't rush at the beginning; it will take longer than you expect for your dog to become confident. Finally, remember to trust your dog. As with all other kinds of tracking, once she learns how to do it, she will take charge. All you need to do is stay back and follow her for the thrill of your life as she leads you down the road of variable surface tracking.
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