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Tracking with the Clicker: A Cocker Spaniel

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From Carolann D'Agostino:

I train with my lively cocker in agility under wonderful instructors using your clicker training methods. I am shortly going to attend my 1st tracking seminar. I have read a beginner's tracking book. In your book Clicker Training for Dogs you say clickers can be incorporated into tracking training. Since I am olfactorally challenged by dog standards could you give some insight how I can start with clicker training in tracking? I don't want to be reinforcing the dog for following the wrong scent and thus off the laid track. I understand that tracking training is different than training in obedience in this regard.

Dear Carolann,

Congratulations on your agility clicker cocker! You ask about using the clicker in tracking: an interesting topic. Tracking is so mysterious (as you say, we are all clueless compared to the dogs) that there is a huge body of superstitious behavior attached to the training. Don't believe everything people tell you about it; use your brain.

K9 Police Officer Steve White has developed what I think is a wonderful clicker way to start training tracking. He calls it Scent in a Bottle. He presented it at one of my seminars in Seattle five or six years ago. I'm sure he's taken it a lot further by now, but since I moved to Boston I am somewhat out of touch with West Coast events. I don't want to steal his thunder, but here's my take on it as Steve taught it to me then. Get a spray bottle of some kind--Steve used a backpack type garden sprayer that you pump up, so you can carry a lot of water. Soak a sweaty t-shirt in water overnight, to get a good human scent. Go to a parking lot and lay a straight line of this scented water about four yards long on the pavement. The point is, YOU can SEE it, so you can tell when the dog is working on the scent. Click the dog for noticing the line, then for sniffing at it, then for nosing along it.

When Steve did this at one of my seminars we had about twenty dogs participating, on a dozen different lines. People clicked for audible sniffing, and for coming back to the line if the dog veered away, and so on. Many dogs just started following the track right away; I have two funny photos somewhere of a Pharoah Hound following the line, and then, having been clicked, whipping its head around toward its owner with an expression of astonishment on its handsome face--"You mean I get clicked for THAT?"

Once the dog has the idea, you can lay longer lines and make corners (I would teach cornering this way, and early, with the clicker.) Then carry the track across short distances where you can NOT see it, i.e. across patches of grass, so you learn to trust the dog. Then I'd try making the track a bit gappy, so the dog has to cast around to find the next part. If you need behavior related to articles, I'd teach that on a visible line, too. I think I'd also teach the dog that the game is Tracking, and not doing anything else--by putting people, tennis balls, hotdogs, and other enticements outside the track and clicking and jackpotting the dog for going right past such temptations, all on the visible track. (You may have to respray from time to time, especially on hot days.)

You can do all this by yourself, with no one telling you you're wrong and your method is crazy. The benefit is not that the dog learns to track; he knows that. It's that you learn to trust him on the track, and you learn to read his behavior when he is not on the track, on the track but confused, off the track but searching for it. And he learns the other things you want, such as whether he has to keep his head down all the time, what to do at corners, how to respond to articles, etc. There are different requirements for different tracking sports.

When you go to tracking human footprints in an open field, you can also help yourself (the dog doesn't need help) with flags, or some other tip to you, so you can check on and thus trust the dog. Move these additional cues around and fade them after one or two tries, so the dog doesn't start to use them. Good luck!

Karen Pryor

From Carolann D'Agostino:

I wanted to tell you of the great success I had this morning with my little American Cocker Lila in employing your suggestions on tracking training. I soaked a pair of my son's socks in water for 2 days and transferred the scented water to spray bottles that I use normally to mist my plants. I drove to the commuter rail station in Kingston, MA, which has parking for 1,000 cars (read very large and deserted on Sundays). I left Lila in her crate in the car so she would not know what I was doing and laid the 'track". I did this across two parking spaces with the space between about the recommended 4 yards, for a total of 48 Ft. When I took her out of the car she scented the air and immediately went to the track! She had her nose down all the way and when she came to the end lifted her head and looked around sniffing the air as if to say"Where is he?"

I clicked and treated her and drove to the far end of the lot. I then laid another track and threw one of the socks (which I had kept in a plastic zip lock bag) into the field rough at the other end of the lot. Didn't that little girl go again right down the track and into the rough to find the sock! Jackpot for her! She was still sniffing the air to see if she could find him.

Now all I have to do is enlist the good graces of friends who have smelly garments that they don't mind donating to my 'training cause'. I thank you again Karen for your help and look forward to more 'training sessions '. I am sending a copy of this to my friend Bobbie who lives in WI and field trains her cockers for hunting and now tracking!

Karen Pryor comments: Carolann is saying something important when she puts "training cause" and "training sessions" in ironic quotation marks. This is not training, as we've always meant it, or even conditioning. The behavior is perfect already, and this process was more like a conversation. You might say that the clicker enabled Carol to tell the dog exactly what she wanted and would pay for. You could just as well say that the setup enabled the dog to teach Carolann to click it for tracking. And the whole business was accomplished in two clicks.

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