Home
behavior
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Living in a Multi-Dog Household
A Full House
Illustration by Lauri Luck

My multi-dog household includes three unrelated, rescued mutts with golden fur and bushy tails, each weighing around 50 pounds: one female (Bahati, 13), and two males (Tex, 7, and Bentley, 2). On a typical morning, Bentley and Tex play in the living room, biting at one another’s hind legs. Tex flops onto the rug, Bentley bites at Tex’s neck and Tex flails his legs in defense. Their play rouses Bahati, who has been napping. She trots into the living room and plunges between them.

Bahati stands tall, holding her ears as wolves do when courting: the inside of the earflaps face out to the side and the backs nearly touch over the top of her head. Ever eager to flirt, Bentley positions his ears the same way and cautiously places his chin over her neck. She leaps away, then starts to scamper with him; it almost looks like they’re dancing. When Tex moves toward them, Bahati rears up to wrap her front paws around his neck in a bear hug. Watching them with a silly grin, I can’t imagine a better way to start the day.

In addition to my delight in the dogs’ antics, I like having a multi-dog household (three or more dogs) for other reasons. I have three playmates instead of one, and three dogs to comfort me when I’m down. With three, I’m more likely to have a snuggly companion on the couch or bed, and I love being welcomed home by three madly wagging tails. With three dogs, I have more friends, more silliness, more beauty, more life.

Living in a multi-dog household is also better for my dogs. For one thing, I’m not solely responsible for their entertainment. They wear each other out when they play in a way that’s impossible for me to replicate. They’re never alone, and I feel less guilty about the parts of my life that don’t include them. Although they still adopt the “I’ll die if you don’t take me with you” look when I leave the house, their so-called suffering is belied by the toys I see scattered around when I return.

Despite the many benefits of multidog homes, however, there are also costs, and they’re not all financial. Wiping 12 muddy paws or trimming 54 toenails is exponentially more tiresome than dealing with four paws or 18 nails. Walking three leashed dogs can be complicated, especially when our leashes get tangled with those attached to several dogs from another household. If we don’t want to unclip the dogs, the only way out is to perform what my friends call “the leash dance,” in which each person holds his or her leashes high overhead while twirling until the two sets disentangle — a most interesting way to meet one’s neighbors! And, of course, training three or more dogs is harder than training one or even two, especially when it involves behaviors they tend to do in unison, like barking at the UPS man or rushing to the door when the bell rings. For many people, such training requires more time and patience than they have.

Domestic Disharmony
Dogs don’t always get along, of course. I’m lucky in that generally, hostilities in my house are largely limited to growling in defense of the best spot on the bed. Sometimes the tactic works, but often, the other dog jumps up on the bed anyway, blithely ignoring the warning. Moments later, I usually find them resting together, sides touching.

Although a lot of “aggression” between familiar dogs is ritualized and harmless (see “Fighting without Biting,” May 2011), it sometimes escalates, especially when a new dog is involved. While researchers have not systematically observed multiple pet dogs living together, a few studies have examined data from canine behaviorists who had been consulted for help with intrahousehold aggression. Unfortunately, these studies do not involve a comparison group of households whose dogs do get along, which makes many of their findings hard to interpret. Nevertheless, they tend to agree on a few patterns: aggression is often instigated by a newly matured dog or by a new household member against an older dog, and is more frequent within same-sex pairs, particularly when both dogs are female (more on this in a future article).

Aside from avoiding the most common triggers — the presence of food or toys; proximity to the owner; high-arousal situations, such as greetings or preparations to leave; and being together in a confined space, such as a narrow hallway — other treatment recommendations include medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and following a “nothing in life is free” program.

Canine behaviorists also sometimes encourage people to consistently favor one dog over the others (e.g., the older or higher-ranking dog) by giving him or her resources and attention first. In her DVD, Dog-Dog Aggression, Patricia McConnell argues against this because, in her experience, it doesn’t work. She suggests other methods of decreasing intra-household aggression, including training dogs to be in close proximity to one another while waiting in turn for a resource. The DVD includes a wonderful example involving McConnell’s own dogs. She asks three Border Collies and a Great Pyrenees to line up, then kneels in front of them holding a pan in which meat has been roasted. By name, she calls one dog forward to lick the pan, then asks that dog to stop licking and back up when it is the next dog’s turn. Her dogs’ body language indicates how much self-control they must exert to succeed in this situation, but succeed they do. The lesson? When dogs learn that they get what they want by politely waiting their turn, they are less likely to bully each other (or you!) as a way to gain resources.

In any event, when intra-household aggression is a serious problem, consult a certified canine behaviorist with a background in this type of situation. In addition, it can be very helpful to learn as much as possible about canine communication to better understand dogs’ interactions. For example, being tuned in to postures and facial expressions that often precede aggression — such as a dog standing very still with his muzzle tightly closed — can allow us to intervene before an attack is launched. (For more on dog-dog communication, see resources at below.)

Pleasures of the Pack
Based on my own experience, I hypothesize that relationships between a household’s humans and dogs, as well as relationships among the humans, influence how dogs get along. People who model peaceful, generous and courteous behavior create a household culture that dogs, who are highly attuned to social etiquette, recognize. Puppies growing up in such households are especially likely to adopt that culture.

More often than not, multiple dogs do get along. In addition to the benefits mentioned previously, having several dogs is just plain more fun. One of my favorite activities involves walking my dogs off-leash in wild areas far from roads. Each dog understands that when I say, for example, “Bahati, lead!” I will follow the dog who has been singled out, so long as he or she doesn’t move toward anything dangerous. All my dogs love being the leader, yet will relinquish that role when it’s the next dog’s turn — or mine. It’s fascinating to see where each dog chooses to go; their noses lead us to places I might never find. Also, I can relax because I’m not making all the decisions; it’s fun to be a follower for a change. Finally, letting the dogs be in charge helps balance power in the human-dog relationship. None of my dogs has mutinied, which I think effectively demonstrates that we don’t always have to be “the decider” to have well-behaved dogs.

Based on what scientists know about people, dogs and their mutual histories, these outings in some ways mimic the original relationship between human hunter-gatherers and canines. Hunters traveled with multiple dogs, some of whom tracked and chased game while others protected women and children when they were out foraging. Since dogs can smell and hear better than we can, as well as see better in the dark, it made sense for our ancestors to sometimes defer to canine judgments about where to go (or not go). Most of the time, neither we nor our dogs can live this way, but we get a taste of the wild by going on long outings and allowing our dogs to lead.

Hanging out with multiple dogs after everyone has exercised and eaten is my favorite way to spend the evening. During these times, I notice subtle behaviors that warm my heart. For instance, when Bahati approaches Tex while he is lying down, Tex sometimes extends a paw to pet her on the head or neck instead of performing the usual nose-to nose greeting. I also love it when, after resting for a while, they simultaneously feel compelled to zip around the house and up and down the stairs as fast as they can go. Just as suddenly, they return to their senses, stop running and go back to lazing around, smiling and panting. Who can remain in a bad mood after watching such an explosion of joy?

Another plus to living with multiple dogs is the opportunity to observe relationship dynamics. Groups of dogs are systems, which means that if any part changes, everything else changes as well. Through such observations, I’ve learned that dogs take their relationships with one another seriously. Bahati and Tex are old friends whose interest in playing together gradually decreased over the years. But after young Bentley arrived, they not only played with him, but also spent more time playing with one another. Bentley’s youthful, evercheerful disposition improved everyone’s life, including mine.

Several years ago, I lived with three female dogs; at one point, they were joined by Osa, a middle-aged male who needed a temporary home. Safi, the undisputed lead dog in my group, had known Osa well five years earlier, and they began playing almost immediately.

However, Safi was by then older and weaker than Osa, and she objected to some of his rough play moves. After clearly communicating this several times, she lost patience and moved to discipline him. Instead of submitting, Osa grabbed Safi’s neck and briefly forced her to the ground. Less than a minute later, Safi approached Osa to reconcile (more about this behavior follows), but he ignored her. From that moment on, Safi gave Osa the cold shoulder, refusing to interact with him in any way. The other two females, who had merely witnessed the event, also ceased engaging with Osa, even though both had played with him before. To my amazement, all three females ostracized Osa during the rest of his stay, a full seven weeks. I was reminded of situations in human families in which people refuse to speak to one another for years.

I urge people who live with several dogs to pay attention to their interactions. One thing to look for is reconciliation behavior. Research shows that shortly after a two-way conflict within their group, dogs and wolves tend to approach the former opponent to do something nice, like touch muzzles or invite play. Dogs and wolves are especially likely to reconcile when they place a high value on a relationship, and “making up” can be a window into their feelings. For example, Tex sometimes gets grumpy when playing with Bahati or Bentley, but within a few seconds, he nearly always offers a muzzle lick. The same study documenting reconciliation in dogs also showed that if the combative parties fail to reconcile shortly afterward, a third dog, uninvolved in the event, is likely to approach the “victim” of the squabble in a friendly manner, perhaps to offer comfort.

Notice, also, the way dogs who live in the same household behave when they meet another dog. Many times, I have seen them close ranks when an unfamiliar dog exhibits the slightest unfriendly move toward one of their own. If that behavior escalates to a real threat or fight, a dog may intervene directly to defend a housemate. Such defense is particularly striking when a dog supports someone she doesn’t especially like when they’re at home.

Moments like this remind me that my motley crew of mutts really are packmates at heart. Because we’re humans, we focus on our dogs’ relationships with us. But the most amazing thing about dogs is their capacity to become integrated into both human and canine society. In the past, dogs usually lived in multi-dog, multi-human groups. Multi-dog households are, in a sense, their birthright. No matter how much we love our dogs, to be fulfilled, we need other people, and no matter how much dogs love us, they need other dogs to experience and express all of who they are.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Reactions to Pregnant Women
Dogs’ behavior may change
Pregnant Karen & Tulip

Sniffing your belly. Backing away from you when you walk. Being more responsive to your cues. Being less responsive to your cues. Staying right near you all the time. Growling at you. All of these are possible reactions by dogs to a pregnant guardian.

I’m often asked if dogs are able to sense when a woman is pregnant. I spoke to Rachel Rounds, a journalist in the UK who was expecting, and she incorporated my answers to her questions into her article “Clingy, need and moody. It’s Rachel who’s expecting – but it’s her dog who’s gone all hormonal.”

I’m not aware of any research that directly addresses the question of whether dogs know that their guardian is expecting, but it would be very surprising if dogs didn’t at least pick up on some of the accompanying changes and react to them. Dogs can obtain an amazing amount of information about other dogs just from smelling each other or even each other’s urine (e.g. Male or female? Intact or spayed/neutered? In heat? Young or old? Familiar or a stranger?) Given what we know they are able to perceive with their nose, it’s a bit hard to imagine that they can’t detect at least some of the many hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy in a person living in their house.

At the risk of giving too much information, I can detect pregnant urine. I knew of a few friends’ pregnancies before they announced them just because I happened to use a bathroom at a social gathering immediately after them. Since I, a mere human, have a nose for it, it’s more than likely that dogs do, too. Of course, it’s hard to say whether dog know what the change in odor means, but it seems unimaginable that they don’t detect it.

Once a pregnancy is far along, women change their movements a bit, partly because of the normal loosening of the joints, and partly because carrying another person in your abdomen is cumbersome, to say the least. Dogs are very sensitive to movement and posture of the most subtle form in other individuals. That pregnant kangaroo stance and that waddling gait are far from subtle, and cannot be hidden from people or from dogs.

Pregnancy is often accompanied by behavioral changes, and these can extend beyond the woman expecting to other members of the household. Those changes may have to do with the schedule—more sleep, fewer walks and runs, more time spent redecorating—or may be emotional with shorter tempers, conflict, stress, or other issues in dealing with one another.

Most dogs are going to pick up on at least some of the changes associated with pregnancy, and these can certainly have an influence on their behavior. Did you notice any changes in your dog’s behavior when you or someone else in your family was pregnant?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Peeing on the Christmas tree
Another holiday hazard

The first year I took my dog to my in-laws for the holidays, I was concerned that he might pee on the tree, so I took steps to make sure that he didn’t do so. I went back to Housetraining 101 for the first 24 hours of our visit. By that I mean that 1) I took him out to the yard and for walks often so he had plenty of opportunities to eliminate. 2) I reinforced him with top quality treats for peeing outside, and I did it every time to make sure that he knew where he was supposed to go in this unfamiliar place, and 3) I never let him out of my sight while we were inside. In addition, I practiced using “leave it” for a variety of objects in the house that were off limits, including the tree, and I reinforced his correct response to this cue with treats, play, and chew items. He never goofed, and I felt good about helping him avoid a mistake that might have lowered his popularity with the family.

Every year I am inundated by requests for advice about how to prevent dogs from peeing on the Christmas tree. It’s a legitimate concern and I’m always pleased at how many people are thinking ahead and being proactive about dealing with a potential behavioral issue.

It does happen sometimes that dogs use the Christmas tree as the bathroom, and regrettably, it so often involves a handmade tree skirt or other priceless family heirloom. On the bright side, many people find that their fears are never realized—the majority of dogs who are thoroughly house trained do not eliminate indoors just because a tree is suddenly under their roof.

To make sure that your tree stays dog pee free this year, there are several strategies, and your success is more likely if you take advantage of all of them. Largely, this is a management issue, so focus on preventing your dog from having an opportunity to eliminate on the tree. Consider blocking your dog’s access to the tree with gates or other barriers. Supervise your dog so that there is no chance for your dog to sneak towards the tree. Watching the dog constantly is the best way to guarantee that your dog will not decorate the tree in a way you don’t like. With smaller dogs, tethering your dog to you with a leash is another way to be sure you know where your dog is and what he or she is doing. Be alert to the signs that your dog may be about to eliminate such as sniffing or circling. Take your dog out often and reinforce elimination in acceptable locations.

By the time a dog has started to lift a leg or squat, it is often too late to stop your dog from urinating. If you do see your dog doing this by the tree, make a sound that’s loud enough to cause a startled reaction, but not so loud that it’s scary. Take your dog outside immediately and reinforce your dog for urinating outside with treats and praise. If the tree has pee on it, clean it thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner so the area will not smell like the bathroom to your dog.

I hope that those of you who have a tree inside are able to help your dog understand that this is a special, indoor tree and that it doesn’t mean that there is now a bathroom inside. Has your dog every peed on your Christmas tree, or have you been able to prevent this behavior?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Optimization of Fetching
Do dogs know calculus?

Mathematician Tim Pennings watched his dog Elvis fetch balls thrown in the water and noticed that the dog consistently chose the quickest route. Running is faster than swimming, so the overall time the dog spends heading to the ball depends on how the dog decides to split his path into running and swimming parts.

Elvis could run directly into the water and swim a long way to the ball, which would mean traveling the shortest distance, but not getting there as fast as possible. Another possibility is to run on the sand until he is even with the ball, and then swim to it. A third option is to run part of the way along the shore and then finish traveling to the ball by swimming in the water. Elvis always chose this last option, which resulted in reaching the ball the fastest. Mathematicians describe his actions by saying that Elvis optimized his travel time.

With information about the position of the ball and the dog, and the dog’s running and swimming speeds, it is possible to use calculus to determine the exact place at which the dog should switch from running to swimming in order to minimize his travel time. Pennings has suggested that dogs do in fact know calculus, because their paths match what the mathematics of calculus predict.

I think it’s more accurate to say that dogs act as though they know calculus rather than to say that they actually know calculus. It’s a small, but important distinction. I agree that dogs act to optimize their travel time when fetching in the water—I’ve observed dogs doing this—but that does not mean they are making complex mathematical calculations. It’s more likely that their experience allows them to make choices that result in getting to the ball faster.

Watching dogs fetch in an optimal way is no less remarkable to me than if they were using calculus. Have you seen dogs performing the kind of behavior that led Pennings to suggest they know calculus?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Head in the Wind
I liked acting like a dog

I stuck my head out and caught the wind on my face and began to enjoy myself. My inspiration was a strong desire to alleviate seasickness during a boat ride between the Indonesian islands of Lombok and Bali, and it worked. My stomach felt good. I felt good. The breeze on my face was refreshing, the smell of the ocean was invigorating and I felt cool for the first time in almost two weeks. The whole experience was better.

A side effect was looking like a dog.

I’ve always known that dogs like to put their heads out of the window on car rides to feel the breeze and smell the smells, but this was the first time I shared that feeling. It really is a fantastic way to experience a journey. I did not expect to feel a kinship with dogs on this particular outing, but I felt just like a dog as I leaned out past the boat’s protective shield and experienced high-speed windy travel.

Of course, I am aware of the dangers to dogs of riding with their heads out. Their eyes are at risk of damage from rocks, dust and any other kind of debris. Their ears can be hurt by flapping in the breeze. Dogs can even fall out of the window, though luckily that’s rare. Dogs who are restrained in the car are safest, and if properly restrained, they can’t reach the window in the first place. So, I am not recommending this mode of travel for either people or dogs, but simply commenting on a new understanding of how enjoyable it can be.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Sudden Bouts of Playful Energy
Fun and craziness for all

The puppy friskies, the evening zippies, the canine crazies—No matter what you call them, those furious bursts of energy are common enough that most dog guardians experience them regularly. It’s hard to nail down the cause of them, but the result is dogs flying back and forth across the yard or the house, leaping onto the furniture, pushing off the walls, trampling the garden, twisting and turning in mid-air, and perhaps simultaneously playing with toys or chasing other dogs. Wheeeeee!

Though it can be hazardous for house and limb, I adore these moments. Sure, the dog in such a state has gone a little loopy, but the joyfulness of these brief periods of reckless abandon more than make up for that.

The precursors of these bouts are not always clear. Some dogs act this way at certain times of the day. Others seem to respond to environmental factors such as excited kids, a visitor that is especially adored, or multiple squeaks from a toy. Food puts some dogs in the mood to express themselves in this canine version of the happy dance. Still other dogs seem to respond to cues that they alone recognize.

What makes your dog race around in one of these displays of genuine athleticism and fun?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Mess Around Water Bowl
Handling daily drips

While Hansel and Gretel are famous for leaving a trail of bread crumbs, most dogs would never waste food like that. There are many, however, who do track water in every direction from their water bowls. Some dogs seem to hold the water in their mouths and purposely transport it before expelling it from their mouths. Others simply seem to collect it on their furry faces and inadvertently drip it around the house.

A few well-placed towels and the willingness to sop up the water regularly is all that most of us need to cope with this minor inconvenience of having dogs. I try to be cheerful about it, but there are moments when the puddles seem problematic instead of just comical.

Is there some reason that I always step in the water without shoes on when I haven’t done laundry in ages and I’m getting low on running socks that aren’t weird as it is? Can it possibly be coincidence that my kids slip on the water only when holding something like blueberry pie or a container of water that they have been using to clean their paintbrushes? And why do the puddles seem to be at their biggest and most treacherous when an elderly neighbor stops over?

Have you had an “exciting” moment related to the water that your dog has drooled about the house?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Cell Phone Use During Walks
Is this a problem?

He didn’t notice that his dog had picked up a plastic bag during their walk together. The dog began to gag slightly and a little kid on a skateboard said, “Is he supposed to eat that?” Only then did the man, who was talking on his cell phone, look down at his dog, and react quickly, pulling the bag, and the food inside it, out of his dog’s mouth. It could have been a very bad situation, but turned into just a little blip in the day’s walk.

Rarely do our dogs get into potentially dangerous situations while out on leash walks with us, so this was exceptional. It sure made me think, though. Does it make a difference to our dogs if we walk them while we talk on our cell phones or not? I think it does, because it prevents us from being truly present throughout the walk.
 

Sure, part of the value of the walk for the dog is the exercise and also being outside sniffing and otherwise having their lives enriched with stimulation beyond what’s available at home. Yet, the social aspect of the walk, attending to the same things and each other—experiencing it together—is lost if one member is lost in cell phone land.

I think there is great value in walking our dogs without talking on our cell phones, but I’m not a purist about it. I think it’s better to walk your dog while you talk on your cell phone than to skip the walk and make the call from home. I’ve certainly walked dogs while I took care of things by phone. Sometimes it’s because I really need to make a call before business hours end, but I want to take a walk before it gets dark. Other times it’s because my day is so busy all around that I multi-task every chance I get. I work hard to make sure my life is not always like that, but it still happens sometimes.

What do you think about walking your dog while talking on your cell phone? Does it make a difference to you or to your dog?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Halloween Costumes Impose Limits
Be aware of your dog’s struggles

Gray Dog was adorable dressed as a shark, and he was definitely the unofficial winner of the costume contest at a recent early Halloween party. (He was the only dog there, which may have given him an edge, but he was deserving of the triumph.)

Gray Dog is a well-adjusted, social, go-with-the-flow dog who accepted his party clothes without incident. He seemed to welcome the extra attention from people and generally ignored the costume as far as I could tell.

The only difficulty he had was minor—it was a touch more challenging to fit through his doggy door with his costume on. The stuffed shark, complete with dorsal fin, on his back added significantly to his height. He made it through okay the first time, although perhaps more slowly than usual and with the costume rubbing the top of the frame. After that, he negotiated the doggy door as easily as usual, apparently adjusting to his temporary size increase. It did not seem to bother him, but many dogs might have found this new experience upsetting.

This was my first Halloween party of the year, and it reminded me of the importance of assuring that dogs are not limited in any significant way by their costumes. Many costumes inhibit walking, running or play, impair vision or hearing, or prevent dogs from fitting through tight spaces. Others interfere with their ability to eat, drink or eliminate.

It’s no fun for a dog to be in a costume that seriously gets in the way of basic functions. For some dogs, no costume, no matter how minimal, is fun in any situation. Whether to dress dogs up for the holiday is an individual decision.

I think if the dog enjoys it, then it’s fine, but if the dog is distressed at all, it’s unkind and not worth it. Part of making sure that a dog is okay with being in a costume is making sure that the costume does not limit what the dog can do. So, if Gray Dog had struggled with the doggy door, I would have been in favor of removing his costume. Since he was able to roll with it, I was charmed to see him continue to be a shark.

I know people who love to dress their dogs in costumes for Halloween, and others who are opposed to it for their dog and every dog. What do you think? Will you be dressing your dog up for Halloween this year?

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Scent Tracking with Your Dog
Tracking showcases your dog’s most scentsational talent

When long-time tracking enthusiast Penny Kurz discovered that her mailbox had been vandalized, she took action. Harnessing up her tracking dog, Deuce, she set out to find the perpetrator.

“Deuce sniffed around the mailbox and started running what looked like a car trail to me,” says Kurz. “A car trail will hang along the curb or edge of grass along the sidewalk. When he puts his nose down into footprints, it looks different. He took me up a couple blocks, made another corner, up another street, then all of a sudden stopped. He went across the front lawn, poking his nose into the footprints, went to the front door and sat down.

“I was ready to knock on the door, say someone broke my mailbox and my dog tracked to this house,” says Kurz. “Then I looked down at Deuce. Unfortunately, you lose a little credibility when you’re standing there with a Miniature Poodle. I chickened out—if I can’t fix the mailbox, I’ll borrow a German Shepherd and go back.”

Follow the Dog
If your dog has a nose, he can track. Surely you’ve seen him do so on walks with his nose to the ground or lifted high in the air. The sport of tracking harnesses that natural ability by demonstrating the dog’s ability to follow the scent of one particular person, the tracklayer, over various kinds of terrain. Each level of competition features greater challenges—a longer, well-aged track; more turns; and multiple scent articles.

Unlike agility or obedience, where the handler gives instructions and the dog is expected to follow, in tracking the dog is in charge. He wears a harness attached to a 30-foot leash and pulls the handler down the trail. Some dogs are confident and fly down the track, whereas others are methodical and take their time. In a test, each dog receives his own track, and two judges follow the dog-handler team. Putting on a tracking test is labor-intensive and requires a lot of land, so the dog must be certified prior to entry to ensure that he has been trained to the proper level.

Three main organizations sanction tracking tests. The American Kennel Club (AKC) is probably the best known, but allows only purebred dogs. For the beginner level, or Tracking Dog (TD) title, the dog must follow a track 440 to 500 yards long with three to five turns and aged 30 minutes to two hours. At the end, he must indicate a scent article, such as a glove, to the handler. The Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX) title requires intermediate tracking skills. At the most advanced level, or Variable Surface Tracking (VST) title, the track is 600 to 800 yards long with four to eight turns, aged three to five hours, and covers three different ground surfaces, mimicking an urban environment.

To give you an idea of the degree of difficulty, AKC Field Representative Herb Morrison says the TD has a 55 to 60 percent passing rate, the TDX has a 20 percent passing rate, and the VST has a 5 percent passing rate. The rare dog who passes all three levels is a Champion Tracker (CT).

Elizabeth Falk and her five-year-old Bull Mastiff, Archie, recently made AKC history when he passed his TD. He became the first of his breed to earn his VCD (Versatile Companion Dog), which requires Novice-level titles in agility, obedience and tracking.

“One of the challenges was me trusting my dog,” says Falk, who accidentally flunked Archie at their first tracking test. “He was trying to turn, but I thought the track went straight [and] it was a deer track. Our first trial was definitely a valuable lesson.”

The World of Scent
Both the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) and Deutscher Verband der Gebrauchshundsportvereine America (DVG America) welcome purebred and mixed-breed dogs. If you choose to compete in a specific venue, you’ll want to find an instructor who can tailor your training to that organization’s tracking style. For example, AKC does not require that a dog track with precision, meaning his nose does not need to follow the track exactly as long as he stays within 30 yards of the trail and appears to be working.

On the other hand, DVG America, which offers tracking as part of its Schutzhund working dog program, requires the dog to be right on top of the trail or risk losing points. Whether you decide to track for fun or compete, the key is to be open-minded about your dog’s abilities. Carolyn Krause, author of Try Tracking!, began tracking in response to a comment by a sport writer who described Dalmatians, her chosen breed, as “stone-nosed.” Over the past 25 years, her dogs’ multiple tracking titles have clearly proven him wrong.

“If you have ever looked at grass with dew on it and saw all the trails from animals crossing,” says Krause, “that gives you an idea what the world of scent shows your dog. We can see it for just a few minutes. By simply taking your dog to different areas and trying things in the book, you can learn a lot about your dog’s personality and temperament. You don’t have to pursue a title, but you do need to make a commitment to it. You have to drive around with a “tracking eye”—oh, there’s an interesting place—and wonder if your dog could follow that. It’s amazing what your dog will show you.”

 

Pages