I just returned from a tracking seminar with Al Kerr, USA Schutzhund judge and three-times world champion in FH tracking. It was very interesting how he trains dogs to track. In a nutshell, Kerr says:
Don't worry about a young dog rushing down the track -- that is the thing he likes to see in a pup. Don't correct them; let them work out their own mistakes.
His tracking program for any dog is as follows:
Tie the dog up where he can see you. Then double or triple lay a short straight track with a small amount of food on the scent pad, with a bowl of food (the dog's breakfast, basically) at the end. Note: There is NO food on the track itself. Give the dog a few pieces of food before starting, then walk over to the scent pad. Once the dog puts his nose down on the scent pad and eats, let the dog find the food dish by letting him track as fast as he wants. Stay a leash length behind the dog -- keep out of the dog's face.
Next step is to lay another track, also where the dog can see you do it. Make this straight track a bit longer and put a few hotdog pieces about 30 paces down the track in a small pile. Don't place any more food on the rest of the track between this pile of food and the food bowl placed at the end of the track -- about 30 more paces.
Now, lay a track without the dog seeing you. You can still double or triple lay it (he is big on this). Use a track similar to that described in Step #2. Now, however, you're going to use a 30-foot line and let the dog proceed at his own pace. If the dog gets off the track, let him find it again without any help. He will quickly learn that in order to eat, he needs to use his nose to find it. Again, none of this "food every footstep" thing! Only place several pieces of food, together, halfway down the track.
When the dog is proficient at that, introduce 90-degree corners. Play the lead out for the full 30 feet and let the dog work it out. This builds confidence in the tracking dog, and will allow him to learn that tracking isn't something to be stressed about. Kerr lays the first track toward a fence or wall. About ten steps before the wall, he makes a 90-degree turn and lays the track to the left or right. This way the dog doesn't have a choice about going straight. It will be easier for him to figure it out without the handler interfering. After the dog is comfortable with this step, lay a similar track, with 90 degree turns, but without a wall to reinforce the turn. Again, place food maybe only once or twice on the track, with a big reward at the end.
After the dog has Step #4 down pat, introduce articles. Kerr believes that article training should not be introduced until a dog has done obedience, and that in turn, obedience should only be started after the dog is biting well in protection. Use lots of articles on the track, and when the dog encounters an article, give the platz command and physically pop down on the dog's shoulders with your hands. This is important to do every time, because eventually the article itself becomes the cue to platz, not the command. The platz at the articles is done by compulsion only. The dog does not get food rewards for doing so. That's why articles are taught after the dog already is sound in obedience training.
That's it for now! I guess I can rest easy with my fast pup on the track. Kerr observed her and was glad she has the drive she does. He likes to see a pup charging down the track. And hey, he has the results and winnings to his name to prove that it works!
Copyright 1997 by Susan Hutson. First published on TGSD-L. Reprinted here with the permission of the author.