My tracking system

Through various practical experience gathered during many years I have created my own tracking system that is quite different from the mainstream approach. I think it has proven to be a successful one. With my own young dog Daneskjold Hawk I managed to achieve 3rd place at the Estonian IPO-FH Championships with result 183 points (91/92) and qualified to the FCI IPO-FH World Championships as reserve dog when he was just 2,5 years old. Steps of the different stages of his training are well visible also in this VIDEO.

Results of my trainees, more videos about different training stages and also pictures from some of my seminars can be found at our TRACKING page.

I have been making lots of tracking seminars in different countries among them farthest location being New Zealand and closest Finland. After the seminars I have got plenty of requests about writing an article about my methods in tracking, so the people participating in the seminars could understand the whole picture better and get some ideas how to move forward. As I have been analyzing tracking exercises in my club blog with videos and schemas (in Estonian), people have been also telling, that they are really tired of using the Google translator :). So now I try to gather here some basics about how I train tracking. 

I have been training tracking for about 15 years. Basic things I have learned while training my own dogs. I started to compete with dobermann Hainide Ona-Orcana. I succeeded quite well here in Estonia on IPO-3 tracks. But it’s worth to mention that the fields were also not so difficult. With my next dog Onaoma De-Light I have had a really long journey. In the beginning I made some serious mistakes as I listened too much what others said and tried to copy ideas from seminars and as a result of this I got enormous problems with the corners on the track. My dog lost self-confidence in the corners and felt that this is the place for additional stress. Because of this I found myself eventually in a situation, where I was close to quitting competing with this dog. But I managed to solve the problems and on basis of the experience I got from this process, I set more serious goals and started to train more difficult surfaces and conditions. In the end of this I managed to get 10th place in the IDC IPO World Championships for dobermanns in Apolda in 2009 and this success was achieved mainly because of the really good tracking result in difficult conditions (I had 5th best tracking result of these championships). So having this knowledge, I went on and made more experiments with the dogs who were training with me. I analyzed a lot the trainings and changed my methods step by step. I am glad that I have managed to help several dogs in Estonia about tracking and two of them are now the Estonian Working Champions in IPO. Kairi and Apollon, who have been training tracking with me, have managed to get 2nd place in 2010 and 1st place in 2011 in Estonian Championship of IPO-FH and also achieved good result in the FCI World Championship of IPO-FH in 2011. 

Now I will tell about basics – how I train and what I consider most important in tracking. If we speak about training tracking, I think the worst misconception is this one, that a lot of the handlers want to teach tracking to their dogs. As all dogs know, how to use the nose and can track from the first weeks of their life already, and at the same time, no handler can track, this way of thinking (we teach the dogs to track) leads to many mistakes. Handlers mess up the things that dogs own by nature. These mistakes are creating conflict to the dogs, make the training unnecessarily complicated and slow down the training process considerably. 

Another problem rises from the situation, that many handlers are often somewhat afraid of moving on and making more demanding tracks to their dogs, so dogs are not used to track with stress and solve problems under stress. So if dogs come across a problem during the track, they start to behave hectic and do not try to solve the problem. Dog’s sense of smell, ability to concentrate and rely on his nose are all dependant of dog’s self-confidence and overall state of mind. So the dog who is not used to working under stress, can make mistakes even on a really easy track, as his senses are blocked because of his nerves.

I start with puppies as soon as they arrive to their new home. As a first thing I try to create maximal motivation as quickly as possible and make the first image of tracking really positive for the dog. The most important thing in this step is to move on quickly. If you train too long in this manner (food in every step, very similar tracks), dog won’t develop and he gets used to the idea, that tracking is just eating from this particular kind of ground. Also there is a big risk that dog will be leaded by handler and will start to use his head (following handler’s instructions) instead of the nose. I prefer to move on quickly. But in this situation it is really important that the dog gets the right kind information at every level and that there will not be holes in the “road”. The meaning of the first step is to build motivation and create a positive picture. To achieve this, I start with three short tracks (30-40 steps) laid after little pauses. Food is in every step plus more food at the end. The first track is steps at once (no tunnel). I think that this is more honest towards the dog, if the track is as similar as possible to the one necessary in the future. Steps will be very small and there is just a little space between them, but anyhow they are steps. I also make corners already in first tracks. I like the puppy to feel, that track can turn, so he will be introduced to more real tracking right away. I take the puppy from the car, carry him to the starting pole and put him on the ground telling “track” and letting the dog move on. Usually in the first track the dog does not understand the meaning of the tracking. So I also help him. At the end I praise the puppy a lot and carry him back to the car. After 5 minutes I take the puppy again from the car and make second track and then after 5 more minutes comes the third time. Usually one training is enough to reach the goal that is important in this step. When I work with the puppy, I always track with him from the first steps. I want to show him, that we are searching together and I am all the time with him. This is also important for the next step, when I start to introduce corrections in tracking. If necessary, I make also the second training with three tracks, but most often one time like this is enough. 

Next step is to show to the puppy, what I want from him, when I tell him to track. The goal of this step is to give to the dog the right – black and white – picture of tracking. Usually from 2nd or 3rd training I lay little longer tracks (about 50-60 steps), still food in every step and with corners. And again, I work closely together with the puppy, praising all the time for the right work, but also giving corrections for wrong moves. It is amazing how quickly dogs understand, what handler wants, if it is shown in a black and white way. In this stage handler must be really-really careful, that the dog maintains the previously created image, that tracking is a lot of fun. So the corrections and motivation must be balanced in this way, that there would be more motivating moments than getting negative emotions. That is also the reason why I work closely together with puppy. If I would stand up straight and then felt the need to give correction or praise at some point, I would have to come to the level of the dog and the puppy could become afraid of this situation where I suddenly lean over him. As I described for the previous stage, there is also a need to move on quite quickly in this one. As the dog is getting a lot of feedback from the handler (both positive and negative), he may easily acquire a picture, that the handler is tracking instead of him. I also start changing the fields and surfaces at an early stage, as anyhow there is food that is helping the dog to track. I want the dog to get the experience of different grounds as early as possible (before the picture of tracking has developed on the basis of just one type of ground). The dog that has not so many experience about tracking at this point, will understand, that the normal track also contains corners. In the same way I introduce cross-tracks and different grounds.

Next thing I change is taking food occasionally away from the track. I do not want the dog getting the picture, that tracking is just eating in the field. I also like the idea that dog would get the pure smell of the disturbed ground, not this smell mixed with food smell as soon as possible. When I take the food away, I still continue with my positive and negative signals the same way as I did earlier. So this familiar thing is helping the puppy to go to through the empty steps. I start to make tracks with empty parts inside already during the 8-12th training, depending on the dog. 

As I do not want the dog to consider my positive and negative signs as inseparable part of tracking, I try to start giving independence to dog as soon as possible. If you have made the start in the proper way, it is possible already around the same time (8-10th training). 

After the first 3-4 trainings I try to age the tracks more and go at once to 1-hour tracks. The purpose of this is to let the dog know, that this kind of smell also exists. Also, as there is less smell of the owner on the 1-hour track, this makes it clearer to the dog, that he should be following the scent of disturbed ground when working the track. If I make cross-tracks, then they are just 5-10 minutes old, so the dog can definitely smell the difference. As previously stated about corners, the cross-tracks are also introduced with food being near them to help the dog in the beginning. If dog goes to the cross-track, I am not correcting him first, but I letting the dog check this smell. Sometimes they decide to come back by themselves. But if the dog won’t come back, then I make the correction after being sure, that the dog really smelled the difference of the tracks. Dog must learn that he needs to control and analyze, not be like a robot, but on the same time he must be accurate enough.

When the dog has done about 20 tracks, it has gone through a lot of the pieces of the final track, such as empty footsteps, corners, different grounds (also more difficult), crossing tracks and also different ages of the track. I also use more leash length while tracking and have the surface changing within the track (see videos). Of course it is very important to make things right. If handler moves forward too quickly or makes things in a wrong way, he can also make dog unsecure, lacking self-confidence; teach him to run or circle and wonder off from the track. So it is really important, that handler uses its voice, hands and leash correctly. Inappropriate praising or correcting or a lack of them at the right moment can have bad consequences. All these new and a little difficult tasks for the dog must be carried out in this way, that the motivation of the dog would not disappear, but increase all the time. Even correction can actually increase motivation, if it is done correctly and dog basically knows the process of activation from the negative feedback.

After puppy knows all basic things and works nicely on different surfaces I just start to build his self-confidence and give even more experience. As puppy’s ability to learn and analyze things is limited, I cannot move on with difficult and stressful tracks too quickly. But there is still really a lot of possibilities to develop the puppy and only limit is owner’s fantasy. So as next step I will start to work with dog’s self-confidence and right attitude on the track. It needs a lot of “playing” with different surfaces, grounds, lengths and schemas of the track. I always plan track in this way, that every part of it is playing certain role. This means, that for example, I put food just in these places, were I assume, that the dog will show the right attitude and state of mind when tracking. So food will be like a reward for this. To get the dog to the right state of mind, I use corners and different traps in the track. During the track I try to make the dog tracking in this way, that he would come to the trap or corner in the right way and I could use this element to change the mood of the dog. So element by element I guide the dog towards the right attitude and state of mind and at this point dog finds food. 

With young dogs it is necessary to make sure, that the tracks won’t be so difficult every time, that the dog would lose the fight against the track. Dog must always win the track. That means that if one day there is a difficult track, then another day there has to be a recovery. But recovery is also not just doing a track, it must still have a certain idea inside. For example, track will be easier for the dog, if handler makes more corrections or if there is food at the more difficult places. A correction can also have this kind of influence to the dog, that it helps the dog and leads him to the right speed of tracking etc. So these recovery tracks can be for example working with left-right-left-right tracking technique. This kind of track is easy enough to raise the motivation of the dog and at the same time we had little improvements in the technique. 

If it is obvious, that dog feels self-confident and knows the basics of the tracking, I start to build up more of the right attitude. Usually the dog’s age is over one year at this point. Right attitude means, that the dog must be worried about track. He must be motivated enough about reaching the end of the track, but at the same time he must be worried about losing the track. I build it up in this way, that I play a lot with the leash. The leash can be used different ways – 

a) It can be like a correction
b) It can be like a praise
c) It can raise the drive
d) It can help
e) It can make dog unsecure
f) It can make dog secure

I set up the tracking schema in this way, that there will be corners and traps. When working the track, I can choose to let dog “running free“ over the corner, the leash is completely loose. In this case the dog finds out, that the help (partner behind him) is disappearing and he must work the situation out by himself. Very often this makes dogs work more carefully and they will start to worry more for the track. If the dog runs too far, then I give a correction with my voice and demand, that dog must be more careful and start searching with the right attitude. I am not punishing the dog so much because of the corner he ran over, but for going into the wrong mood. It is quite easily visible, when a dog gets too free working the track, from one moment he will be having wrong attitude and this is right time for correction. When dog shows with his bodylanguage, that he does not care about losing the track and he feels like doing whatever comes to mind (running or circling or just sniffing around), then there is the right moment for correction. On this level I do not correct for not being accurate anymore, but I punish the wrong attitude. That’s because on this level the dog already knows how to track. Usually he is still not tracking correctly in this sense, that he is not having the right attitude yet. So correcting about the attitude will immediately make the dog tracking in the right way. Letting the dog run over the corner and loosing both – the track and the handler – feels like double punishment for the dog. He notices that the handler is not satisfied and yells at him and in the same time he has lost the track and all of this is very unpleasant. I try to make this part as unpleasant to the dog as possible. I also do not help the dog in this situation, as I want to see, that dog finds out, that if he loses the track, he needs to find it by himself. So with this activity I can teach two things to the dog: 
a) that if he is going to the wrong state of mind, he will lose the track and this will be a really bad situation for him and he does not want to drop into this situation anymore
b) having stress in the situation, I teach the dog to handle the stress and work with stress 

Depending on the dog’s motivation and also self-confidence, after the dog has solved the first corner with all this negative emotions, I can sometimes correct the dog in the next corner, if he makes even a tiny mistake and goes just one step over the corner. As the dog is already quite down, he learns, that he must work more precisely and also that after stress there can be stress again. Then at the third corner I let dog work in peace. Usually after these two problematic corners, the dog works very well with right tempo and attitude and is also precise and then he will find food. This is one example about how I teach dog to work with right attitude and also under stress. It is little hard to explain, as so much is depending on the “feeling” – reading the dog and also playing with leash in the right way at the right moment. 

If I train like I described here, then it is also good in this way, that the dog never gets signals with leash in the same way. So the dog must be working by himself and not waiting signs from handler. 

I always try to show the dog, that if he has the right attitude and proper work, then I am as one team with him and help also with the leash. So the dog will feel, that we are on the same side and working together and his only responsibility is to work in a certain way. 

From this step I go on with just working with dog’s right attitude and state of the mind, as I believe, that there are two important things about tracking: 

a) the dog must be worried about track and about losing the track, then he works in a precise and correct way 
b) the dog must know, that working under stress is normal and he needs to find a way out of the situation. If there will be problems during tracking in the competition, then dogs knows, that this is just an exercise for him and he can win in this unpleasant situation. 

With a little older dogs (more than 1,5 years) I start to build tracks in this way, that if there is stress, then after solving the problem the dog won’t get food or peace, but is up against a new problem and even more stress. Then the dog knows in the future, that the dark tunnel can be long but in the end of it there will be still light. Very often in the trials we can see, that it’s not the first stressful part that is killing the dog in tracking, but the next one, as dog has learned, that when he finds the way out from the difficult part, then it is soon followed with food or help from the owner. But if in the real situation during the competition (not so much in IPO-3 but more in FH) the dog will lose some self-confidence with the first problem, then he cannot recover so quickly and he will be also little unsure about the next unpleasant moment and not tracking well. Very often he falls very quickly to the next hole. As he already feels not so well, the level of stress is rising very quickly. If it is not the second problem, then the third one surely kills the work. 

Like I said, with little older dogs (more than 1,5 years) I start to build tracks in this way, that I can make dog work and solve problems under the stress.

Here is one example of how I do this. This is 1 year and 10 months old dog. It is a 2,5 hours old track made by the owner. 30 minutes before going tracking, I went walking across the track with my dog . So there were cross-tracks made by me and my dog running around and playing in several places. At the end there was also a situation, where I made cross-track just 1 meter before the last corner and my dog came and took the reward (ball) from the end of the track. So there was a lot of things not letting the dog work in a right peaceful way. But if you look the video you will see how self-confidently the dog works the last long leg and last corner and all this is not creating a problem for her.

This exercise was built up in this way, that there were three different surfaces. The track started from dirt, which was quite hard and had little green inside. I wanted to make the dog immediately a little unsecure with a more difficult start, than she expected, then in this state of mind there would be the change of the ground and then crossing the deeper tractor tracks, just after a corner. The idea was to make the dog unsecure from the start and put her under stress. So as you can see, for the dog in this state of mind, it is easy to make the corner and track very close to the tractor track. Dog feels even so well, that there is no problem with making the next corner. But then the dog will start to feel a little too relaxed and because of this, she will circle too much. As there will be two traps on the way – the track is interrupted by stepping sharply to left or right, then the dog must find the solution. So I took the leash to give more help to the dog in the right way. You can see in the video, that after this the dog starts to track in a much more self-confident way and solves the first trap well. Then for the next trap I let leash much longer to get dog in this state of mind of working and solving situations more independently. You can see, that it won’t be a problem and the dog also solves the corner well. Then there is some food. The food is placed in the little “parking place” and there is a little more of it in quantity. So the dog gets the feeling, that she has worked the difficult parts and gets the reward. The idea of this food is also to provide little rest for the dog before the next longer leg with problems and also to mess a little with her mind, as getting so much food makes her more relaxed and not so worried.

On the next longer leg there are crossing tracks at two places. And as there are also articles, I know that these are also changing the dog’s state of mind. There is also little food in the some steps, to get the dog’s self-confidence higher and make the dog feel, that she can work this track easily. This is also like a trap. This is necessary for provoking a mistake at the first crossing. If she would have the right attitude, she would not fall into this trap. So at the first crossing the dog is going to the wrong track. I let her go, to be sure, that she understands the difference in the smell. After I saw, that the dog doesn’t see a problem in going to the wrong track that has more smell, I punished her for going to the wrong track and after dog would start to be stressed, I punished for wrong attitude. In this moment the dog feels really bad and will be much more precise after this. I help the dog a little with the leash, that she would get more self-confidence and after that I leave the dog work independently. As you can see, there is no problem for the dog at the next crossing and at the change of the ground. There are two purposes for going into the longer grass. First is to give the dog little rest for the last longer leg, but also to get her more relaxed (food also helps to achieve this), so that going back to the dirt will be little more difficult for the dog. Basically all the work, that was done on the first 2/3 of the track is just foreplay for the last 1/3. The idea of this track was to make the dog solve the problems under stress and show her, that she really manages to solve them and give her possibility to find the right state of mind. As you can see in the video, the dog is going from grass to dirt very accurately, she is not letting cross-tracks made by other dog, human or tractor confuse her and also she does the last corner perfectly even having crossing track just 1 meter from it. So the dog was tracking the last 1/3 part of the track in a perfect way, she got praised, she found peace and also the end of the track. So she learned, that if she works in this way, then she is winning the track and is unbeatable and also getting feedback, that this is the way the handler likes her to work and she will get positive reinforcement just for the right work. As I told before, this is the idea, how I like to train dogs. The dog must understand, that if he works in a right way, then he will win all problems, but if he works in a wrong way, then there will be really unpleasant consequences and not just because the handler makes corrections, but mostly because he creates next problems for himself. From the experience the dog will understand, that he really needs to work in a proper way.

All the things I wrote here about how I train, are just pieces about the whole conception. It is hard to explain everything within such a short story. The main idea of this article is to give some ideas for people, who are training dogs in tracking. Hopefully some of them got some. I also think, that it helps the people who have been to my seminars, as it explains the whole system.