Tracking for Schutzhund is, like the "blind search" more of an obedience exercise than a true search. Certainly the dog uses his senses to complete the exercise, but he has to do it in a prescribed way. If you watch your dog searching for a dropped toy, you will see that he might first lift his head to scent the wind, and begin circling, only when he gets closer and the scent gets stronger will he drop his head. Some dogs are naturally inclined to air scent, others you will see naturally explore their surroundings with their noses very close to the ground from a young age. For Schutzhund, the dog is expected to follow a footstep trail with a "deep" nose (nose very close to the ground) and to indicate articles along the way.
Before you get started, you will need some equipment. When you start with your puppy you can begin on a flat collar with an ordinary light-weight leash. Place the leash under one front leg. Once you move on to straight tracks, you may find that two leashes and a fur saver help you to steer the pup, and keep him straight on the track. The leashes can be attached to separate links on the collar, and passed under each front leg. For this, I use 15' tubular climbing lines from REI. A pup up to 6 months should fit a 17-19" 3.0mm chrome fur saver. When the pup is almost full grown, I splash out on stainless steel. Once you get to competition level, you will need a regulation 33' line. I love my 1/4 inch coated rope from Palomine Lines. It is made of Biothane and doesn't get clogged with dirt or heavy when it is wet, and it does not slip through my hands.
It is never too early to begin tracking training. Pups are always hungry and they can be fed their meals on a scent pad with a flag placed in the ground. A scent pad is created by stepping in a 2 feet diameter circle for small pups, step all over the circle and drop food within it. Small pieces (about the size of a dime) of thawed frozen Bil Jac, dampened kibble, hot dogs chopped small or dehydrated meats work well. We have also found that some of the foods that come in chub format are easy to cut into small pieces for tracking. Happy Howies or Natural Balance chubs work very well, and are available from most pet stores. Make sure puppy is hungry. The first few times he may not be fully focused and may play with the flag or look around, but it won't be long before he is pulling and maybe even squeaking to get to that flag! You can make the scent pad larger as he grows, and when he is showing lots of intensity to find the food, you can begin small tracks.
I usually track puppies 3-4 days a week for about 4 weeks, then if the pup is showing good interest in tracking and is doing well, we take a break for a week or two, do something else and then come back. For adult dogs, and when preparing for trials, some dogs do better if the only time they get food, is on the track, so we track 6 days a week until we are getting good results, and then take a rest for a while. You need to be tracking enough to allow the pup to learn from session to session, but not so much, that he gets bored. Create a scent pad at the start of each track and ensure your pup stays on it until the food is gone so he gets in to a good habit of soaking up the scent he has to follow before starting. Step a track with the heels and toes touching and a piece of food in the heel and in the toe for each step. Put a smaller scent pad at the end and the rest of the food. This marks the end for now, later that last scent pad will contain an article. Tracking with 2 lines is the easiest way to help a pup learn to search both right and left footprints. Use a fursaver and clip the lines 3-4 links apart and pass under each front leg.
As the pup grows you can gradually begin to stretch the steps apart, hide the food in the grass so he cannot locate it with his eyes. Stetching the steps also makes him search more carefully and slow down. If he is rushing the track reduce the amount of food at the end and put more in the footprints so the reward is for tracking and not for getting to the end. To view the tracking playlist on youtube, click here
There is no substitute for mileage and experience. Track your puppy on all kinds of terrain and across pathways, introduce corners and serpentines and get a friend to lay cross tracks. While your puppy still has food in every step, this is an excellent time to introduce all the possibilities he may meet later in his tracking career. Once your pup is eagerly running to the flag, searching well for the food, and you have done at least 50 scent pads or tracks you can begin to insist that he keeps his head down while on the pad or track. If his head comes up more than a couple of inches, he gets removed from his track and put up. You can give him another try in a few minutes. This helps to teach the pup that keeping his head down gets food, and responding to distractions does not. Be careful that he has plenty of drive for the food before you do this, otherwise he will not have any impetus to work it out. A lower drive puppy needs patience and creativity, initially help him out by pointing to food if he gets stuck. Try new food items, hot dogs, bil jac pieces, pieces of cooked chicken or beef, dehydrated meats etc. Try to ensure that he is hungry before tracking, by feeding a smaller meal the night before.
Another important part of the schutzhund track is the articles (most people use a down or platz to mark their location). This can be taught with the clicker very easily. Place an article on the ground, a piece of leather which you have kept in your pocket for a while is a good one to start with. I use pieces about 2 inches by 3 inches with 1/8 inch thickness. Place the article on the ground, and if the pup looks at it, click and treat him. Gradually shape the behavior to treat him for taking a step towards it. When he reaches the article start feeding him on top of it, to reinforce staying with the article. If you have already taught the "platz" command, he may offer it, or you can help him by using that command. Reward him for going up to and laying down near the article and then begin to ask for the article to be between the paws before clicking. Move articles around, take them outside on grass and dirt, place them in a different room of the house and ask the pup to "find it" so that he learns that articles with your scent on them are a good trade for food. You can pair the correct behavior with the word "article", by saying "good article" before the click. Then you are ready to use it on your track. If you use 2 lines to track, it is easier to stop him turning towards you when you give the article command. Make sure you are right up beside him as he gets to the article so you can help.
Gradually stretch out your tracks and your steps and begin to remove food from the track. Try not to stick to a pattern, sometimes put more food on the first leg, sometimes more on the final leg, and sometimes evenly throughout. When your dog has plenty of energy left at the end of the track, you can stretch it out. Vary the difficulty and keep in mind that environmental conditions may result in more difficult or easier tracking, there are several variables to take in to account when tracking:
The variables are not discreet, a track on dry grass will be more difficult than a track on wet grass even if all the other variables are the same. You can make a tracking plan with the basic idea of what you are aiming for, but you may have to change that on the day if the environmental conditions vary.
Below is an example tracking plan which we put together when I was preparing Bodeus for our first SchH3.
|Track No.||Paces||Corners||Articles||Food percentage||Age in minutes|