All of the versatile hunting dog tests that I have participated in or read about have a portion of their test that is dedicated to evaluating how well a young pup follows a scent trail. Some tests, such as those that are affiliated with the European clubs, often will evaluate this trait while tracking a furred animal, such as a rabbit. Most North American based tests use birds for tracking. The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) generally uses a pheasant for this portion of their puppy test. In my humble opinion, this part of the Natural Ability test is the most unpredictable, even for the most seasoned of handlers. However, fortunately, there are some things you can do to improve your pup’s odds of success.
Tracking comes naturally for some dogs and less naturally for others. That said, pretty much all versatile hunting dogs can be decent trackers; it just needs to be brought out through some training and exposure. I am going to provide some ideas on how to go about bringing this trait to the surface. I have trained my dogs using different methods in my efforts to teach them to follow their nose on a scent trail or track. The primary goal, in my mind, is simply helping your pup learn that if they follow their nose on a scent trail that they can be successful in finding what is at the end of the trail, and that what they find is rewarding to them.
It is important to consider the direction of the wind prior to laying the track. It is best to lay the track so that there is a crosswind or a tailwind as the dog works it. Personally, I prefer a crosswind on the first several tracks that I put my young pups on because a tailwind has proven more difficult for the inexperienced. Choose a grassy area that has shin to knee high grass. Keep in mind that grass that is overly thin will not hold scent very well and grass that is overly thick or tall holds the scent so well that a young dog has a hard time picking it up on a cross wind (unless they are right on top of it). Remember, the goal is to do your best to ensure success in these early stages, so initially make things pretty simple. Once your pup is consistently successful on easier tracks, you can make things incrementally more challenging for your pup.
How to go About Laying the Scent Trail by Drag
I generally start young dogs in training for the track by using a defrosted bird (e.g., quail, chukar or pigeon). Make sure your puppy cannot see you lay the drag. To lay the scent trail by drag, I use a dog leash and attach it to the defrosted bird’s foot, pull some feathers from the breast of the bird and place the feathers on the ground. The feather pile marks the start of the track. (Tip: Place a hat or some other object near the feather pile, so you can easily find it when you bring your dog up to work the track). Place the bird on top of the pile and walk along as you drag it behind you using the leash. I’d suggest making the first few tracks pretty short, no more than about 15 yards at first.
As long as your pup is successful and finds the bird, make things incrementally more challenging. You can do this several ways. You can do this by making the drag/scent trail a bit longer over time and/or putting a turn or bend in the track. You can also us different types of cover and thickness of grass as well as by laying the drag/scent trail so that the dog has to utilize a tailwind vs a crosswind to work it.
Two Methods for Laying a Track Using a Live Bird
Dragging a dead bird tends to leave quite a bit more scent behind for the puppy to follow than a live bird running through the grass on its feet. Once your dog is doing well following the drag, it’s time to do two things: 1. Take the human scent out of the equation and 2. reduce the bird scent for the pup to follow. From now on, when laying the track either use a long PVC pole of about 12-15 feet or a fishing pole. I’ve used both methods with good results. Using either of these methods will accomplish the mission of reducing your human scent, which is right on top of the bird scent when laying a “drag.” It’s also time to switch over from a dead frozen bird to a live chukar or pheasant, which will accomplish the goal of reducing bird scent.
1st Method – PVC Pipe for Laying a Track for Training
Here is how I go about utilizing PVC pipe for laying a track. Get the proper length of PVC, as mentioned above, and attach a 5-6 ft leash to the end. Gorilla tape works well for attaching the leash to the end of the PVC pipe. Put the bird in the appropriately sized bird harness (you can purchase one at www.gundogsupply.com) for the type of bird (e.g., Pheasant or Chukar) you plan to use, and attach the leash to the bird harness. Before laying the track using a live bird, make sure that you pull its flight feathers on one wing. This does not hurt them, but it does render the bird less capable of flying. At the start of the track put a few of the bird’s breast feathers on the ground and place the bird on top of the feather pile. I know I said this earlier, but place a hat or other object near the pile so as to find it easily when you bring your dog up to find it. Lay the track while carrying the PVC pipe extended out to your side. Make sure you are on the downwind side as you walk along with the PVC pipe extended towards the wind if you are laying it so that the pup will be utilizing a crosswind. This way the dog will have less human scent to use when working the actual track. Once you are at the place you plan for the track to end, simply drop the PVC pipe in the taller grass with the bird still attached so the bird does not run off from the area. This way you can reuse the bird for future training. The dog should not be able to see the PVC in moderate cover once dropped. If your concerned about this, simply purchase black vs white PVC pipe to reduce the visibility of it.
2nd Method – Fishing Pole for Laying a Track for Training
The second method for laying a track that I use makes good use of a fishing pole. In some ways, I prefer this method if the cover is not very thick, because it ensures less human scent is near the track. However, in thick cover the PVC pipe works better for me, because in thicker cover it is challenging to coax/move the bird through it by using a fishing pole due to the fishing string getting caught up in the cover.
Anyhow, when using a fishing pole, I use the bird harness described above. Once the bird is in the harness, simply attach the line (using a fishing swivel) to the harness. At the start of the track, place the bird on the small feather pile you have put down and have a helper hold it there. Consider which way the wind is blowing to determine which way to walk, so that the pup won’t smell your foot scent. Walk perpendicular from where you plan for the track to be laid, letting out fishing string the entire way. Go as far as needed to ensure the dog won’t smell your foot scent. Now, turn and head in a circle or arc from the bird until you are near where you plan for the track to end. Instruct your helper to release the bird and attempt to scare it towards you to get it going, but ask them to not move past the feather pile, if possible. Slowly, but deliberately reel in the bird using the fishing pole. The bird is now moving along and laying the track for you. Just as with the PVC pipe, once the bird reaches you, simply toss your pole down in the grass.
Consider Which Way You Walk After Laying the Track
Whichever method you use for laying the track, put some thought into what path you’ll take to go get your dog after laying the track. If using a crosswind for the track, for example, walk downwind a bit and then cut over to go get your pup. It would be a shame to go to all this work to reduce human scent and then inadvertently put excessive amounts of human scent on the upwind side.
Properly Releasing the Pup on Track
There is a proper way to release a dog on the track that will increase the chance of success. First, I try to do things the same way every time I bring my pup up to the start of a track. Our dogs read nonverbal cues very well, so utilizing a pre-track routine using certain nonverbals, as well as verbal cues, at the start of a track will help your dog learn what is expected for the task at hand. The best tracking dogs are able to calm down and focus when tracking. Through your verbal and nonverbal cues, you can help your dog learn how your expectations for each task (i.e., field work, water work and tracking) differs. I will now get into the details of how I personally release my dogs on a track when both training and at a test.
When I bring my pup up to the start of a scent trail, I have a routine that I always go through. I walk with the dog on a leash up to the track, and try to have them remain calm. Before I reach the pile of feathers, I stop about 10 yards shy. I kneel down by my dog and put my hand on their back. I stroke there back with my hand and talk softly and gently to them, trying to promote calmness. At this point, I am also reading the wind and trying to get a feel for its direction. If it is a crosswind from left to right, for example, then I know that my dog is likely to smell the scent being pushed off the track by the wind on the right side of the track. In this case, I will do my best to release my dog slightly to the right of the track. Once my dog is calm, I stand up, slide my four fingers under their collar on top of their neck. Just so you get the picture, my fingers are now under the collar and my palm is facing forward, towards the start of the track. I slowly walk up to feather pile, kneeling down as I approach the feather pile, and do my best to ensure the dog acknowledges the feather pile by using my other hand to pat the feather pile and somewhat direct my dog’s nose towards it by pushing/pulling him up close to it by his collar. Once my dog seems somewhat excited and acknowledges the pile of feathers, I walk down the path the judges indicated the bird traveled several steps. (Note: The judges will usually tell you the general direction the bird went from the pile, and you are free to ask the general direction if they don’t say so immediately.) I still have the pup’s collar in my hand, as I’m saying “Track, Track, Track” while kneeling over walking down the path. When I can tell they are on the scent and tracking, I let them go.
Preventing Field Search While Training for the Track
As stated earlier, it is important to try to ensure success while tracking. Your goal is that the dog learns that something positive is at the end of the scent trail as long as they follow it to its end. Many driven bird dog puppies will approach the track like they do field work with a large search. This is especially the case after their motors have been kicked into overdrive through field work. They have been successful in finding birds by search, so it only makes sense that they would do what has worked for them in the past. However, there are times when it is much more efficient to follow a scent trail to locate downed game, so dedicating some time to bring out this inherent trait in your versatile hunting dog is invaluable for the recovery of wounded game. Also, if you choose to test your dog, your dog will not get as good a tracking score if they find the bird by utilizing an expansive field search.
In most of my training for the track I use a check chord. This ensures the pup does not go into search mode. Here is how it works. In training, I have the check chord on the pup as I walk up to the start of the track. I go through my usual pre-track routine and release of the dog, just as described above. The difference is that I have a check chord on for training vs a leash. This is useful to ensure the dog does not go into search mode and stays in the area of the track. When I release the dog during training, I allow forward motion of the pup as the check chord glides through my hands while the dog works down the track. During most of my training for the track, upon release, I am moving forward behind the dog past the feather pile with check chord in hand. If the dog attempts to move way off the track and go into search mode, I simply stop walking and stop the pup using the check chord at 20-30 ft off track. Usually, I don’t say much at this point. The dog typically hits the end of the check chord and comes to a halt and moves back towards the track. As soon as I can tell they are on the track again I begin allowing forward progress and walking (sometimes trotting) behind them until they find the bird at the end. They may attempt to go into search mode several times during early tracking exercises, but this happens less often with experience. So, basically, as long as they are working the track they get to move forward, but if they attempt to go into search-mode they are stopped with the check chord until working the track again. Versatile hunting dogs are generally very intelligent and will do what works for them. This is low pressure and allows the pup to determine what works and what does not during training for the track.
Tracking Doesn’t Always Look Like You Think
One thing to note is that the harder the wind is blowing, the further off the actual track the dog can track the scent trail. If you have a strong crosswind, the dog may be able to follow the scent trail 15-20 feet off of the actual track laid. This is fine. They don’t have to track right on top of the scent trail like we often envision a Bloodhound doing. Versatile gundogs make good use of both ground scent and air scent. In a test, judges will note the wind conditions and will score the dog appropriately. Your dog can still receive a maximum score in the Track portion of the test while tracking several feet off the track, if the conditions call for it. In training, keep this in mind and allow leeway for this.
Puppy Test Day Tips
Before releasing your dog on a track, you sometimes might have a hard time getting the dog to acknowledge the feather pile or the track just prior to releasing them. If you can tell your dog is “not” focused on the track as your traveling down it, do not release your dog. Simply do a 180 with your dog in tow, walk back to the feather pile and repeat until you can tell they are on it. This does not hurt your score in any way. The judges do not start to judge your dog on the track portion of the test until you release them. At the test, you are not allowed to move forward anymore after releasing your dog. However, many people don’t know this, but, as indicated above, you “are allowed” to walk several steps past the feather pile while still holding onto the dog by its collar when attempting to get your dog on the track.
I have discussed in some detail how to enhance the inherited trait of tracking in your young pup. Just to give you a general timeframe on when I work on these things, I usually do a handful of drags with young pups when they are around 16 weeks or so just to awaken these genetic traits. Then, a month or so before their test I will do a couple more drags to get them going again, then switch exclusively to live birds about two to three weeks before their puppy test. Some folks use chukar for training for the track and have good results, so if you can’t find a pheasant using a chukar will work just fine. The beauty of working with your pup to enhance their innate ability to track game is that this preparation will make them a better hunting dog in real world conditions when you need them to dig a little deeper to bring that wily wounded pheasant or duck to hand. I wish you the best as you prepare your pup for whatever test you have coming up or as you prepare your young pup for the next planned hunting adventure.