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Handling at Tracking Tests

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It is not uncommon for a handler to help the dog find the track in a training session, especially when the dog is honestly trying to work out a difficult problem. The last thing you want to do in training is make tracking so difficult that the dog gets frustrated, thereby learning to dislike tracking.

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2015-03-23

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Handling at Tracking Tests

by Craig Green

Tally-Ho: May/June 1993

Guiding Your Dog

It is not uncommon for a handler to help the dog find the track in a training session, especially when the dog is honestly trying to work out a difficult problem. The last thing you want to do in training is make tracking so difficult that the dog gets frustrated, thereby learning to dislike tracking. Unfortunately however, some handlers forget that this is not permitted at a tracking test, or don't realize they are guiding their dogs.

According to AKC tracking regulations: "The purpose of a Tracking Test is to demonstrate the dog's ability to recognize and follow human scent..." The AKC does not recognize the dog/handler team, but the dog alone as being the one who finds the article at the end of the track. The regulations also state: "Guiding is defined as behavior by the handler which influences or determines the dog's direction. Guiding is prohibited and the dog shall be marked failed." A literal interpretation of this suggests that any restraining of the dog is guiding. However, most judges I know interpret this rule more liberally.

In my opinion, there is often a fine line between guiding your dog and restraining or body language. Most trackers would have no problem recognizing obvious guiding, such as pointing to the track ahead of the dog, moving the dog from one place to another, or walking along the track ahead of the dog to encourage it to get busy. However, it has been my experience that most guiding is less obvious than this.

Restraining a dog at a tracking test is not necessarily considered by most judges to be guiding, but it can be. If a dog sticks its nose down a critter hole, or is trying to chase a bunny it flushed on the track, the handler may hold tightly to the lead and try to prevent or limit these distractions. However, when the judges think that the handler can see the track (which sometimes happens from dew or other conditions), such restraining might be interpreted as guiding. In wet conditions, I have seen a handler come to a turn which was clearly visible, and not let the dog go any direction except the right one. That is guiding. Although the judges in this case did not call it guiding, one of them later confided to me that she regreted the decision to allow this dog to pass.

Body language can be interpreted as guiding. I have seen handlers lean severely one way or another, to indicate to the dog where they think the track goes. This sometimes is a carryover from training, in which case the handler may not know he/she is doing it. When you know where the track is in training, you sometimes develop such body language without even knowing it.

Some dogs are very tentative in their tracking behavior. They track for a few steps, and then get distracted by something else. These are the most difficult dogs to handle, since in training the handler may have to repeatedly restrain or correct them. It is very difficult for handlers of such dogs in tracking tests to avoid all suspicion of guiding. Training on blind tracks may help the handler reduce or eliminate these bad habits, but some dogs just seem to need every break they can get. If you are unsure about whether a behavior you use in training is guiding, ask the judges before you begin a tracking test.

The tracking rules allow handlers to approach their dogs and untangle their leads or give the dog a drink, or in TDX, to help them over a difficult physical obstacle. However, this doesn't mean guiding. While this is open to different interpretations, I think an important distinction is whether the handler's action tells the dog where the handler thinks the track is. If the handler lifts a dog over an obstacle, it is important for the handler to simply put the dog down on the other side and not indicate to the dog a location or direction where the track might go. This means not pointing to the track. Some judges and AKC reps interpret any pointing to the ground as guiding.

My advice to handlers is to use restraining and similar techniques sparingly, and only when necessary to prevent the dog from doing something that is clearly not tracking. This is not always easy to figure out, but doing too much for the dog may lead to an embarassing failure at a tracking test.