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.”