Before You Finish TD. Tracking Philosophy
Your goal might be to work on multiple articles for one session. It might be to work crosstracks in another. Often, your goal might just be to create an easy workout for the dog for motivation after a tough previous workout. A goal might be to lay off a week or two.
Now that you've endured my series on training a beginning tracking dog, I thought it would be appropriate to write an article about TDX training. I train in a dry climate, so my experience with aging tracks may be considerably different than training elsewhere. However, most of my TDX experience should be relevant just about anywhere.
When I begin a new TDX dog, it's usually after a layoff of several months. I can't remember beginning TDX training right after finishing a TD, but I know many people want to do this. My only caution is to avoid TDX activities which might mess up the dog's TD work before getting that title. This includes aging and crosstracks. I have noticed that some of my TDX dogs working three hour old tracks have trouble going back to a half hour track, although people elsewhere have told me, "No problem." At the 1987 Colorado Basset Nationals, our dry climate provided an example of this. A dog entered in both TD and TDX did a much better job on the older track. Although many of my tracking friends from wetter climates tell me their dogs routinely alternate between half hour and three hour old tracks, I've found this to be a problem at high altitude and low humidity.
With crosstracks, I've seen my dogs do lousy work at turns after too much crosstrack training. So I prefer not to train a TD dog beyond one hour and never work crosstracks until the TD title is obtained.
An important point is: NEVER TRACK UNLESS YOU HAVE A GOAL FOR A PARTICULAR TRAINING SESSION. Many people keep tracking even after their dog begins to have training problems, without knowing what the problem is or what to do about it. It's better to quit than to keep tracking without solving a problem.
Your goal might be to work on multiple articles for one session. It might be to work crosstracks in another. Often, your goal might just be to create an easy workout for the dog for motivation after a tough previous workout. A goal might be to lay off a week or two. In any event, establish a goal for each session. If you can't think of a worthwhile goal, then just go out into the field and go for a long walk with your dog. This almost always has a motivating effect.
The first thing I do in TDX is introduce the single start flag and multiple articles. This seems to go fairly smoothly, and I have no problem throwing both of these at the dog at once. After these two simple items, I focus on age and obstacles. As I have written in earlier articles, my TDX dogs in the Denver area usually "hit the wall" at about an hour and a half to two hours. After gradually working up to this age, we expect at some point for the dog to tell us there's nothing to track. We just quit, go for a walk and go home, rather than make it a frustrating experience for the dog. Next session, we back up 15 or 20 minutes and gradually work through the age block. Once we get through this, moving up to three or more hours is no problem.
We look for easy obstacles at first, usually working a paved road crossing early in TDX training. When the dog reaches the road and doesn't know what to do, we just walk him across the road and tell him to track on the other side. After a couple of times, he learns to look for the track on the other side of an obstacle. Then we try fallen logs, ditches and woods.
We used to train a lot of crosstracks, but our dogs began to have trouble at turns. So we backed off of crosstracks, and now only work them a little near the end of TDX training. We do a couple of crosstracks, and if the dog has a problem, we just show the dog the right track to help him get back on it. We don't work crosstracks more than two or three times before entering a test. There are a lot more turns than crosstracks, so it makes sense not to overwork crosstracks. If the first crosstrack experience is easy, then we wait a couple of weeks and try it again. We don't believe one performance sets a trend.
If the field you work in is "dirty" (with scent from other people and animals), your dog may have already learned about crosstracks without specific training.
One of the most common problems in TDX is loss of motivation. Since TDX tracking is so intense, it's very easy to inadvertently teach your dog to hate tracking forever. There are several ways to minimize this risk. They all depend on dealing with the dog's frustration as soon as possible.
The first thing we do is to rarely track a full-length TDX track. Instead, we'll track 500 to 600 yards one week, and maybe 300 the next. Anytime our dogs have a particularly tough track, which could lead to frustration if not dealt with, we want to follow it with an easy track next time. This tends to keep the dog's interest up.
As mentioned in the TD training series, we get our dogs in shape by running them in the field; not by tracking. After each training session, we run the dogs about a mile (twice the length of a TDX track). This lets them know we get to play and have fun after tracking, which encourages them to look forward to it. We track once a week and go for a walk (dogs run) three times a week.
It's much more important for your dog to be in shape in TDX than in TD. For example, many dogs flunk easy turns or crosstracks at the end of a TDX track after breezing through them at the beginning. This is usually due to a lack of stamina. The concentration required for TDX can produce fatigue in the late stages of the track, and I've found that regular field work does two things: motivation and stamina.
Last time, I covered the basics of TDX training. This time, I'd like to discuss the AKC's rules about TDX, and how to handle a dog during a TDX trial.
When I became a tracking judge in 1985, I thought I knew the AKC's tracking rules. I didn't - not until I had to interpret them and defend them to others. Exhibitors often asked about my interpretation of the rules, which I compared with other judges. It became all too easy to criticize exhibitors for their lack of knowledge of the rules, without realizing that I used to make some of the same mistakes I was seeing in exhibitors. It was a humbling experience.
Following is a summary of TDX rules:
The dog and handler are brought into the field by the judges at an angle less than 90 degrees from the direction of the first leg, but not lined up with it. The dog must find the proper direction and track. Once the track has begun, the handler may not restart or guide the dog's direction, but may stop and give the dog the scent of the starting article. The handler may help the dog over physical obstacles if necessary, but may not indicate direction of track to the dog.
Handling a dog in TDX is more difficult than in TD. You have to worry about obstacles, crosstracks and multiple articles. Because your dog has to find three unknown articles (the first is obvious at the start flag), you need to keep a sharp eye out for your dog's indication of articles. The best tracking dog I ever had wasn't particularly interested in articles, so on her first TDX, we both ran right over the second (first unknown) article. After that, we trained more on articles.
Many of my friends with other breeds teach their dogs to do certain things at the articles: usually to sit or lay down. However, considering the hound's stubborn temperament, I'm pleased if my dog just stops and way his (or her) tail. So, it behooves you to check out possible articles. I usually drop the lead, walk up to the dog, and pick up the article if it is one. Whether it's an article or not, I stand there and wait for the dog to track another 20 feet before following. I always pick up the articles and wave them overhead so the judges can see them. The rules require you to present the articles to the judges at the end of the track, but if they see you find and pick up each one, they probably won't strictly enforce this rule (I wouldn't). If one of the articles falls out of your pocket and gets lost, you may wish you had waved it clearly for the judges to see.
When the dog is working a turn or crosstrack, I try to stand still and let the dog work at the end of the 40 foot lead if necessary. This gives me some reference as to where the dog was last tracking, rather than wandering all around the field and getting lost (from the track). Only when the dog has committed do I turn and follow. If the dog can't seem to find the track, I usually back up a few steps and let him work a wider area.
At a road crossing, especially paved ones, I expect the turn to go straight across the road. This is not always the case, as an obstacle can be right on a turn, but it is usually the case. So, both in training and at a test, I usually let the dog wander across the road any way he wants, and then I expect to see him pick up the scent approximately lined up with the direction we started across. If he indicates no scent in that most obvious place, then I let him wander over a wider area to look for the track.
Guiding the dog's direction, which is against the rules, is subject to many different interpretations. Most judges consider pointing to the ground after the track has begun to be a restart, which is not permitted in TDX. Some judges don't, however. Verbal commands are usually not guiding, but obviously if you yelled, "left" or "right," and your dog responded, that would be guiding. Restraining your dog is usually not considered guiding unless the judges think you know where the track is. Use caution and ask questions if you can see footprints.
If your dog becomes entangled, stuck, or can't physically get over an obstacle, then drop the lead, walk up to the dog and help him. Then, take a few steps backward and wait until the dog moves out at least 20 feet before following. If you have to help the dog a lot, such as on a lengthy obstacle, it's a good idea to turn around and ask the judges if you can do it. In my opinion, guiding is the most difficult and subjective rule interpretation. So, you need to be cautious when doing anything that might be interpreted as guiding.