Aging and Blind Tracks
Once your dog can complete a three-turn track 200 yards in length (50 yards for each of four legs), then use only the single track at each training session. As tracks have been getting longer, they have naturally been aging for a few minutes.
In my previous two articles, I began a series on training the beginning tracking dog. The first article described the first day of training, and the second described subsequent training sessions. This article covers aging tracks and getting ready for certification.
Once your dog can complete a three-turn track 200 yards in length (50 yards for each of four legs), then use only the single track at each training session. As tracks have been getting longer, they have naturally been aging for a few minutes. Now, purposely age tracks from 5 to 10 minutes old, working up to 30 minutes after several training sessions.
Leave the dog in the car, and lay the track. Then, take him out at the appropriate time and run him on the track. You should be aging the track up to 30 minutes within three or four training sessions, unless the weather is hot and/or the vegetation is dry. Once you begin aging tracks, you can lay your own tracks, and can do without your original tracklayer for a while. However, it is more fun for two people to train two dogs, and work with each other throughout the weeks (and months) of training.
As you train for more age, gradually increase the number of turns to four, and the total length to 400 yards or more. You should begin tracking only once a week by now, unless you have a high energy dog who loves tracking an almost full-length track (over 400 yards) more often. If this is the case, you might try one full-length track each week, and a much shorter track during the other one or two sessions. If your dog is doing well, you may be ready to get certified by a tracking judge. However, I recommend some additional work before certification.
Before you are ready for certification for a tracking test, you must learn to handle your dog when you don't know where the track is ("blind track"). The key to this is learning to recognize your dog's tracking behavior.
You should not attempt to run a "blind" track until your dog is tracking consistently, and isn't having any major problems. You must be able to tell the difference between tracking behavior and other behavior. Hopefully, your dog will display a difference in body language.
Your tracklayer should lay a track without flags, except for the first one and a second one thirty yards from the first (to simulate a tracking test). Hopefully, the tracklayer will be able to draw a map of the track, noting specific landmarks so (s)he can later tell exactly where the legs and turns are, even though they are not marked. This is not an easily-acquired skill, and you both may have to practice drawing maps and laying blind tracks before trying it with the dog. In fact, it might be a good idea for you to lay a blind track, drawing a map, and then run your dog on it. Although the track will not be "blind" to you, this will help you learn about landmarks and what else you need to do to lay a blind track for someone else.
When your dog is working a marked track, notice the difference between his behavior when tracking and when looking for the track. Most dogs exhibit some difference between these two activities, and even different behavior when just fooling around. Learning to "read" your dog's behavior is not always easy, unless you have an exceptionally honest dog (CAUTION - Some Basset Hounds are liars!). However, learning this is important so you will know what to do on a blind track.
In addition to learning to read your dog, learning to handle the lead (leash) is also important. Generally, it is a good idea to handle the lead so there is a SLIGHT amount of tension between you and the dog when he is tracking. With a large, aggressive dog, this tension may be considerable, and with a small dog, it may be just enough to keep the lead off the ground. Depending upon the specific dog, use just enough tension so that any slowing down or change in direction by the dog can be detected by your feel of the lead. When the lead goes slack, pull the excess toward you, trying to maintain some tension. Be careful not to jerk the lead or otherwise send a signal to the dog that something is wrong, unless you want to restrain the dog. If this is the case, increase tension; but don't jerk the lead. Never use a flexi-lead in tracking; it jerks the dog.
When the dog has indicated loss of track, it is sometimes a good idea to back up a few steps, especially if the dog has a tendency to overshoot turns. By backing up, you give the dog a better chance to pick up the scent if he has overshot the turn, and you avoid fouling what might be the track in front of you. There is not enough space here to adequately treat this difficult subject. Suffice it to say that lead work is as important as your dog's tracking ability. I suggest watching expert lead handlers at tracking tests, and learning from their example. You can also learn from the mistakes handlers make at tracking tests.
It also helps to practice lead handling with two people and no dogs. One person (acting as the "dog"), ties the lead around the waist and walks forward in an erratic manner. The handler can then practice handling the lead without sending negative messages to the real dog. This works; try it!
Proofing means teaching your dog how to handle different situations that might come up during a track. Two of the most obvious and important things to do now is to expose him to other tracklayers besides the original tracklayer, and to track in different fields that he has not seen. Don't throw too many new things at him at once; but allow him to learn to track under different conditions, and work up to aging tracks from 45 minutes to one hour old. Keep it interesting for the dog, so he doesn't get bored; but don't overdo it. Age makes a much greater difference in dry climates than in wet ones; consider your particular area and how your dog responds to increases in age. When he has shown that he can track under different conditions, and can complete a full track, he is ready for certification. Any tracking judge can do this, although the AKC may make special provisions if there are no judges in your area. Call the obedience department of AKC for information.