Kelly Felstead and her Cocker Spaniel, Henry, discover how tracking can strengthen the bond between dog and owner.
When you think of tracking, images of police dogs with their noses to the ground searching for bodies probably spring to mind.
In fact, tracking is an activity any owner can enjoy with their dog and it can help to bring them closer together.
My Cocker Spaniel, Henry, is always sniffing the ground on walks and loves playing scent-based games, so I was convinced that tracking would go down a storm.
Our beginner's guide to tracking was with dog behaviourist and trainer Pat Tagg at her base in Dorset.
Tracking is where a dog, with his nose on the ground, follows the scent molecule picture left by a person or animal. This picture will also be affected by environmental conditions.
In Pat's training workshops, dogs are asked to follow the scent molecule disturbance made by someone walking away from a pole stuck in the ground.
Pat explained that you don't teach a dog to track - the handler has to learn how to join in. "All dogs will track, the reason they can all do it is because it's part of their foraging sequence: exploring, tracking, and searching," said Pat. "Tracking has many purposes, fi nding a mate, food, or checking territory."
The art of tracking requires owners and handlers to trust their dogs and allow them to take control.
"The main barrier to people enjoying tracking is that their body wants to take over," she explained. "The focus of control is with the dog, not with us as in other training - that's why dogs love it.
"Owners need to learn how to join in with their dog and have fun but understand that it's actually the dog who's doing the tracking."
Following Henry's lead
I borrowed a harness and long line from Pat and we took off to the training field to lay some tracks.
People attending Pat's foundation workshops in tracking work in pairs: owners do not lay their own tracks at first to protect their relationship with their dog, so the second person acts as the track layer. The track layer will watch the dog at work and guide the owner on handling.
Pat was my track layer; she put a pole on the ground to signal the start of the track and stepped in front of it briefly, putting a few bits of cheese behind her heel. She quickly walked away a short distance, then put some cheese and a toy at the end of the track.
At first, tracks should be laid with the wind behind you or perpendicular to the track, as going into the wind can be physically demanding for a dog.
Pat asked me to approach the pole and let Henry find the cheese. He sniffed and checked the area and then lay on the grass and looked around. Later, Pat told me that Henry had indicated several times that there was a track but was asking for permission to follow it. After some encouragement from Pat, he put his nose to the ground, and took off following the track.
I remembered Pat's advice and let Henry take the lead; Pat called out to me to keep my head up, shoulders back, and hands low on the long line. Handlers shouldn't pull their dog, or allow the line to become slack.
When it came to the second track, Henry didn't need any encouragement to follow it. It was interesting to see him watching the track layer intently as she walked back to the pole, signalling that he could go down the track.
Henry followed five tracks in total, which got progressively longer. The last track was about 80 metres long. His confidence grew quickly with each track. As he eagerly took off down each track, Pat shouted words of encouragement and praised us both.
I made a fuss of Henry once we got to the end of the track.
One track was uphill: Your Dog photographer Bob Atkins lay on the track to try and capture an image of Henry running towards the camera. Pat said it might distract Henry. We followed the track and when we got to Bob, Henry put his nose down to go under him as the track went underneath; he was asking Bob to move.
On a couple of occasions Henry went off track slightly. Pat called out to me to stand still and take a step to the left or right to get back on track, and get Henry in front of me. As soon as I did this he was off again.
"Henry was very sure from the beginning," explained Pat. "The turning around and lying down was him waiting for me, his track layer, to give him some instruction because that's what usually happens in other types of training. He had to work out whether he was allowed to take off down the track.
"As soon as he realised he was in control, off he went. He didn't lack confidence - he was just checking the rules of the game.
"When I laid the second track, Henry looked at me - he knew I was a cue to go tracking."
We had a break so Henry could have a drink - tracking makes dogs very thirsty - and a rest. We then went back to the field and Pat laid one final track. Henry went slightly off course a couple of times, which Pat said indicated that he was tired.
Pat was very pleased with Henry's work and called him a tracking dog of the future!
It was incredible to watch Henry at work using his natural abilities, and he enjoyed it more than any other activity we have tried so far in the series.
Others who have done tracking with their dogs describe it as the ‘best feeling in the world'. I agree - there is certainly no activity quite like it.
Q & A
(Q) What's the difference between tracking and scent work?
(A) With scent work dogs are basically searching. They will look strictly in the area they are searching, for a single scented item or a single scent. They can be taught to look for things such as money, drugs, or cat nip. With tracking, the scent make-up of the track is changing all the time. "People think the dog's reward is the end of the track - it isn't," said Pat. "The reason dogs are so motivated to keep tracking is because every step of the track is its own reward."
(Q) Which dogs can track?
(A) All dogs can track as long as they can breathe normally. Their impediment is us! Pat said if people run into problems they should look at the track laying and their handling skills.
(Q) What equipment do you need for tracking?
(A) A really good v-necked harness which comes down low, so it doesn't impede the throat, and clips above the top of the ribcage; a comfortable long line which you can grip and won't cut your hands; a tracking pole; something to encourage the dog to put his nose at the pole, such as cheese, and something that makes it clear to the dog he's found the end of the track, such as food or a toy.
(Q) Is it an expensive hobby?
(A) No. The equipment can last a long time. Pat explained that the harness she uses on her dog, Lara, is about 10 years old.
(Q) What are the benefits for dogs and owners?
(A) It gives owners a sense of respect for what their dog can do. It confirms and enhances the relationship between dog and owner. Tracking is mentally and physically rewarding as an activity.
"For me, the best benefit is the teamwork," said Pat. "You see the dog's personality and ability. It adds to your relationship if you can let go and trust your dog to show you the things he can do."