Saturday, January 27, 2007

Snow Tracking

Yesterday I laid a long track in one of our snowy fallow fields. It had been a while since Laev tracked, and I was concerned about keeping her head down and in the footprints -- she would like to track at a trot or even at a slow run -- and so I baited the track very heavily, leaving food in every single footstep at the beginning and then at irregular intervals and strategic points during the track. Where the track paralleled a fenceline where I knew I'd have barking dogs, for example, I baited every footstep again, to reward Laev for staying on task during such a huge distraction. I laid right angles, acute corners, serpentines, everything I could think of. And since I was told that older and colder tracks would help Laev slow down, I thought we'd be pretty good.

Well, I made a mistake in bringing Laev directly from her kennel to the track, on leash and without any energy-venting. She was HIGH when she saw the flag and oh-so-desperate to get started, so our heeling to the flag was, um, not pretty. :-) Then she dove onto the track like a coyote catching a mouse, and I just couldn't get her to stop and take scent at the scent pad. She flailed and dug trenches in the snow and, when I blocked her with the tracking line, got frustrated and just lay down as she used to when she was 10 weeks old and I wouldn't let her track at a run.

I gave up and let her move forward, hoping she'd stop for the food (good stuff, by the way, chunks of Pet Botanics Lamb Roll and a few Charlie Bear treats) and slow herself. Nope -- Laev had nothing at all to do with food on her track. She'd hesitate long enough to give it a cursory sniff and then move on. I watched her paw a piece out of the snow and then skip it. I blocked her with the line, picked up a treat from a footprint, handed it to her, and she ate it with the air of, "Can we get on with it, please?"

Okay, you win. Go track.

Once I stopped arguing with her, she did slow a little, but she was still faster than what a judge would like to see. But she was incredibly accurate, staying right in the footprints and cornering as if on rails. She even tracked on as if there were not two dogs barking at the fenceline, completely on task. She ate nothing. :-) She picked up her head a couple of times briefly, but overall it was a beautiful track for the first time ever in a new field and a long break from tracking.

*I* was much more comfortable in the snow -- instead of worrying about keeping the dog right on the track and thus worrying about where my track was exactly, I could just relax and let the dog work. I could drop back further and still see that she was exactly in the footprints. I was a better handler, and that might have something to do with her success.

I approached the end of the track with some concern about how I would finish it. Tracks don't "end" except in our mind -- it's not like the scent just stops when I reach the end of what I wanted to train! I wasn't using articles on this track and I'd left a large pile of food at the end, but if she weren't eating, would she pause for it? I didn't want to pull her off the track, nor did I want her to track me all the way home...! But Laev apparently decided that a pile of cubed lamb roll on top of the snow was more worthy of her attention that single pieces or small handfuls buried in footprints, and she stopped and ate, and I praised and released.

I still had a long track with lots of food on it, though, so I brought Shakespeare back to it. The track was now double-laid and had an extra Doberman's scent, so it was probably an easy one to follow, but he worked with much greater enthusiasm than normal. No pausing for him, either, and I went all the way to the end of the 33' tracking line without any change in his behavior. There was not much left for him to find at the end of the track, so I simply praised and released when he paused to check out the munched area. :-)

This morning I arrived first for club tracking practice and snagged the best remaining snow on the field (that wasn't my intent -- I simply laid the first track in at the side, to maximize space left for others -- but it was a nice benefit, I realized afterward!). Tracks weren't so long, but Laev settled more quickly this time, after another over-eager start. Again, she ate almost nothing.

I was given advice to use something extremely over the top for snow tracking food, as the thought was that she didn't want to go through the snow for it. I have a tough time imagining Laev being too delicate to go through something (and that was *before* our training later today!), but I'm game to try it, even though I was already using a favorite treat. So when I stopped this afternoon on the way home, I bought a big package of hot dogs. Blech.

Shakespeare did very well on his track this morning; apparently yesterday's easy and rewarding track was a big motivator for him. Very nice.

Now freezing and slicing hot dogs is on my do-list. I hate hot dogs....

(By the way, the dogs don't seem to notice that they can follow the footprints visually. They still checked briefly at corners. The fact that the snow was patchy by now may have helped, but I've been told by more experienced tracking handlers that many dogs don't ever seem to see the footprints. Maybe because the visual line extending to the horizon isn't so obvious from a few inches above the ground...?)

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