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The AKC awards four tracking titles - Tracking Dog (TD), Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX), Variable
Surface Tracker (VST), and Champion Tracker (CT). The first three titles only require your dog
pass a test once at that level. The final title is automatically awarded to dogs that complete
the other three titles. Additionally tracking titles are included as part of the Versatile
Companion Dog (VCD) titles.
So whata ya gotta do? Because dogs already know how to use their noses most of the training
involves teaching the dog to follow a specific scent and to tell you when they've found something
with that scent on it. Sounds easy? Well, it would be if you could explain to your dog in words
just what you want. Most trainers put their dogs in planned situations and reward appropriate
responses and prevent or punish incorrect responses. However tracking generally requires more
positive reinforcement because you don't really know what a dog is scenting, and it would be
confusing to him if he was corrected for doing what he thought you wanted him to do.
A good place to start is by signing up with a tracking trainer or a tracking club. For those
do-it-yourselfers, it's possible to do most of your training on your own. A good book to start
with is Tracking Dog Theory and Method by Glen
R. Johnson. Although it's more than 30 years old it includes a lot of information on how scent behaves and it has a step-by-step
approach to teaching a dog to track. A couple of updates since the book was written: dogs can track on hard surfaces
like concrete or asphalt and dogs should be taught turns much sooner than Johnson advocates.
What do you need to start (besides having a willing dog)? A collar and leash. Once your dog realizes that you want him to
follow the scent you can start to use a harness. You will also need to find something that motivates your dog. Many
people use food to start, others might use a ball or bumper. And you need a place to track. An open space area or a
private pasture is ideal. Public parks can be hard to use, not only because of the number of people and dogs that use
them, but also because of the chemicals and fertilizers that may be applied to the grass. An office park can also be used
if it has some grassy areas. If you plan to take your dog through VST you should introduce different surfaces (such as
asphalt, concrete, gravel, wood chips) very early in your dog's training.
Once your dog realizes that you want him to follow a specific scent you can provide a variety of experiences to
prepare him for the tests. Gradually add length. Then shorten up the length and gradually age the training tracks. Gradually
add turns. Johnson advises to make your first turn a right-angle turn to the right and to triple lay the next leg.
More modern trainers use gradual, rounded turns and even serpentines to teach the dog that the track doesn't always go
Then teach your dog to indicate articles by retrieving, by sitting, or by downing. Track in different places, utilizing
various cover such as mowed fields, new green grasses, old and drying grasses, bare dirt, alfalfa or other crops. Include
hard surfaces. Track over and around obstacles, such as lightly traveled roads, trees and shrubs, hay bales, buildings,
fences, streams, etc. As your dog becomes proficient and confident introduce the longer tracking lead (20 to 40 feet).
Stay close in the beginning and don't hesitate to move up if your dog seems less than confident. By the time you've
completed these steps you'll probably see your dog's eyes light up when you get out the tracking gear.
So whata ya gotta do to get a title? Start by having a tracking judge certify that your dog is ready to pass the TD test. At the test you will see tracks that are: 440-500 yards in length, between 30 minutes and 2 hours old, and have 3 to 5 turns. The starts are marked with 2 flags - one at the beginning and one about 30 yards out to show the track's initial direction. An article, often a leather glove or something similar, marks the end. Be sure to listen for the judges and spectators honking and hollering when you pass.
After receiving a TD title you can enter your dog in either TDX or VST. At a TDX test you will see tracks that are: 800 to 1000 yards in length, between 3 to 5 hours old, and have 5 to 7 turns. The tracks will include at least 2 obstacles, plus 2 sets of fresher cross-tracks, and they have 4 articles (start, end and 2 somewhere along the track). The starts are only marked with 1 flag where you will find the first article. All 4 articles must be found to pass.
At a VST test you will see tracks that are: 600 to 800 yards in length, between 3 to 5 hours old, and have 4 to 8 turns. The tracks will include a minimum of 3 surfaces (vegetation and 2 hard surfaces) and buildings or other structures, such as fences, ramps, or bridges. There are also 4 articles that must include one leather, one plastic, one metal, and one fabric article. All 4 articles must be found to pass. The start is on vegetation and has only 1 flag with the start article. Often these tests are held in office parks and schoolyards where there will probably be a lot of cross tracks.
Gotcha interested? Maybe you have an old campaigner that just can't keep up as well anymore or a young dog that needs to mature yet or you're looking for something fun to do with your dog. If so, start tracking!