First published in B.I.P.D.T. Journal Summer 2007
Of all the disciplines of the ‘general-purpose’ police dog tracking has always been my favourite. A policeman can search for a suspect or property, albeit not as quickly or thoroughly, however they can’t follow a track over a variety of terrains sometimes hours old.
I remember my first operational track, a stolen car had been abandoned and although the passenger had been detained, the driver had decamped over fields into the pitch black. I arrived some 15/20 minutes later with my police dog ‘Jipp’. I cast across the field and Jipp immediately indicated the route the suspect had taken. Jipp was a very strong tracker and to be fair there was not much finesse about my line handling, it involved a lot of hanging on and trying to slow him down! We crossed the field and the dog went through a hedge, as I negotiated it I found the barbed wire running through the middle. I saw that there was a road on the other side then another field. Worried about possible traffic I had to let Jipp go carry on across the road, then once into the next field I shouted for him to ‘down’. When I finally extricated myself from the vegetation I looked into the field and was very relieved to see Jipp lying impatiently for me. I pretended not to see his disgusted expression, and we continued to track across the field to an old barn. Inside was a large rusty metal cabinet, as soon as Jipp started barking I heard the proverbial; “OK I give up”. It’s not easy to describe how I felt, after the many hours of training, a sense of achievement couple with enormous pride in the dog, which explains why we spent a short while just enjoying the moment. I am not sure what the suspect made of the spectacle as Jipp and I congratulated each other. Incidentally Jipp was a big old beast so there was no chance the suspect was going to try and leg it across the field (unfortunately).
It was when we went to return that I realised two things, first that the field was full of cows, and second I had no idea where I was. I have heard of sportsmen being in ‘the zone’, and this was my first experience of it, being so focused on the dog that everything else was ignored. Anyway the local area car came and found me and a fresh round of congratulations for Jipp from the locals followed, I felt pretty neglected but never mind.
It is these moments that make me really appreciate being a dog handler. A few years ago I was invited to give a talk/demonstration to a dog training club in Sussex. I had a wonderful day and met a mixed group of about 30 people with their dogs ranging from collies, spaniels, terriers and a lurcher. They were all fantastically enthusiastic about dog training; I decided to introduce every dog to tracking. Fortunately my son, who was 14 at the time, fancied himself as a cross-country runner. Using a toy reward we laid each dog a straight leg or two and without exception each dog began to track.
Unfortunately due to work commitments I was unable to return. What I would have liked to show them was continuation tracking, this is used in the police to improve the dogs in tracking involving a strong pack element, but I believe it should be a sport in it’s own right.
You get a group of 2 – 6 handlers and their dogs, and 1 or 2 stooges to go into the countryside and lay the track. The track can be a number of miles over varied terrain, (going across streams and through bramble is practically a must!!). The stooges take a rubber ring for each of the dogs, and these are used as changeover markers. The team harness up one of the dogs and start to track, the rest of the handlers follow with their dogs on the lead. When the tracking dog comes across their toy, they are praised and taken to the rear, allowing the next dog to take over. What is emphasised is that this is a team game; if the lead dog hits a problem another can take over, or verify if there is some doubt as to direction. Especially since the team inevitably consists of varying experience in handlers as well as dogs. The bottom line is that the whole team either succeeds or fails.
One thing I do know about dog training is that if you are going to write about it, you had better have a thick skin. So bearing this in mind, here are a few thoughts on introducing a dog to tracking. There are a number of methods but this is what has worked for me. Firstly we don’t train dogs to track they already know how, we just have to show the when and how we want to do it. The aim is to get the dog to follow a scent pattern formed from ground disturbance and body odour etc., but we want the dog to put its nose down and follow the ground scent and not to trail an air scent.
To start with, I will pick a field with little dog or human traffic, then with the dog on a lead and leather collar get a helper to walk out in front of the dog with its toy. Walk for about 30 – 40 metres then put it down. The helper then continues for about 15 metres and in a big arc returns to the dog and shows that they no longer have the toy. Ideally the leg should be laid in a gentle breeze blowing in the same direction as the track. You then simply walk towards the toy every now and then the dog will put its nose down and track, say nothing but when they get to the toy praise and play with the dog (especially tug of war not just throwing the toy). Each time you do this, lengthen the leg and you will see the dog spend longer with its nose on the track, until it will complete the whole exercise with its nose down.
During this period, as a separate exercise, get the dog used to the tracking harness. Once comfortable with it always use it for tracking and nothing else, this will help immeasurably to key the dog in.
Once the dog has learnt the straight leg it is important to keep progressing the exercise, you can do this by;
- Increasing the length of the track
- Leaving it longer between being layed and working it.
- Lay the track out of sight of the dog.
- Introduce the dog to the track at a right angle.
With this last exercise hopefully the dog will pick up the track and turn on to it, at this moment you know for sure that the dog is tracking and you can gently praise him, too much praise may distract the dog. This exercise also helps to prepare the dog for teaching the turn. This can be a tricky test for the dog; I like to introduce it by having the wind from behind the dog on the turn. By this time the dog should be working in the harness with about 10’ – 12’ of tracking line. As you approach the turn make sure you know EXACTLY where it is. If the dog wanders off the track let it, but stand still, when the dog works it out and starts down the turn gently praise it.
At this stage there is no reason why you can’t lay your own tracks, however, make sure that you mix it with other tracklayers, use as varied a diet of helpers as possible.
Once the dog has mastered the turn things can get more interesting, such as
- More turns and complicated track patterns
- Older track
- Introducing property onto the track
- Changes in terrain
- Tracking to helpers
- Continuation tracking
I have introduced dogs to tracking from 12 weeks to 18 months old and I believe that, although earlier is better, it is not essential. The important thing to remember is that at no time is there any element of compulsion; it is an exercise in fun.
“The quickest way to develop a relationship with a dog is to engage in hunting games with it”.
This article is not meant to be a complete treatise on the subject; it is intended to encourage those who have never tried it to give it a go. Just keep it simple, think about what you are doing and use common sense, any problems you know how to contact me. Above all enjoy the challenge and always finish a successful track with enthusiastic play and praise for the dog.