Tracking … Not Just For Big Dogs!

On April 27, 2008 my Lakie girl, Herrington Commander Amanda ME RE TD became the first Lakeland Terrier in the country to earn an AKC tracking title. While I am inordinately proud of her and would love to take all the space allotted to me to tell you about my wonder-dog, I am also very much interested in promoting the sport of tracking amongst Lakie owners, so I’ll start there and save Amanda’s story for the end.

First, let me try to give you a sense of what tracking is all about … the marvelous nose of our canine companions. Glen Johnson wrote one of the most impressive stories about the dog’s nose in his Tracking Dog: Theory and Methods (Arner Publications, 1977). In 1974, he was commissioned to train dogs to search for and locate leaks in the new Alaskan pipeline. The pipeline, 12” in diameter and 94 miles long, was scheduled to open in just nine days but was defying the engineering firm by continuing to leak in spite of thorough testing with all the instruments that existed. They contacted Glen and asked him if he would try finding the leak with his dogs. I love to imagine the conversation this group of engineers must have had when, faced with instrument and project failure, someone suggested getting a dog to help! Glen had just nine days to train his dogs, get to Alaska and search 94 miles of pipeline buried under at least six feet of wet, heavy clay. But two and one half days after the initial phone call, Glen had three German Shepherds trained to find ten parts per million of butyl mercaptan odorant and was headed for Alaska. The first day the dogs found twenty leaks which, not too surprisingly, no one believed so they spent the second day digging at fifteen of those locations. All fifteen locations were found to be sources of leaks and that was the end of the dog-doubting. The bottom line? The dogs could detect at least one part per trillion – the instruments couldn’t measure any further than that – at distances of over forty feet. All in all, Glen’s dogs found over 150 leaks and 4 leaky valves (one over twelve feet underground) while they worked in snowstorms and zero-degree weather and covered 94 miles of terrain that included quicksand, rivers, highways and plowed fields. And they did it all in just seven days. By the way, the smallest leak found was microscopic in size and buried eighteen feet deep!

Most of us don’t have stories to match Glen’s, but watching your own dog using his nose is one of the greatest thrills tracking offers. The first time you lay a track with a ninety-degree corner in a field of indistinguishable grasses and your dog, twenty feet in front of you, turns on the corner, the sense of mystery and appreciation for your canine partner is simply overwhelming. I had the good luck to lay a friend a track through fresh snow in a woods area one time and was fascinated to see all the animal and bird tracks. They were criss-crossing through the woods like a Rand McNally highway map gone nuts. I realized that what I was seeing with my eyes was what my dog was “seeing” with her nose. Those scent highways and byways with their drunken clover leafs and ten-way intersections exist in the snow, grass, and concrete and your dog knows where they are and which direction each is going. Wow.

The AKC offers three tracking titles. The first level, Tracking Dog (TD), dates from 1936 and it was required as part of a Utility Dog obedience title for many years. In 1979, the Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX) title was added to offer additional challenges to the trackers. Both of these tests are conducted in open fields and require the dog to follow a particular human scent that has aged from thirty minutes to five hours on a track that is 450 to 1000 yards in length and which has from three to seven corners. The dog must find all of the articles left by the tracklayer. The Variable Surface Tracking (VST) title was added in 1995 in recognition of urban sprawl and the reduction of available fields. To get this title a dog must track on at least three different surfaces (e.g., grass, bark chips, asphalt). A dog who titles in all three tests receives his Champion Tracker (CT) title. All tracking activities are on leash with the dog leading the handler generally by a minimum of twenty feet. The AKC website has detailed information on the requirements for each title as well as a history of tracking.

Tracking is a great venue for dogs with bright, busy minds. The focus and mental work that tracking requires provides a good workout for those active brain cells. And, oh yes, dogs really seem to love to track. Whether it is because it is a “natural” activity and as such, makes sense to them, or because they are, indeed, in control (we often refer to the handlers as “dopes on a rope”), is a matter of speculation but the point is the same: dogs love tracking.

Back to Amanda’s story … April 27, 2008 dawned bright, cool and calm. Yea! Great tracking weather! Given that the previous day had brought blizzard conditions and 12-14 inches of snow just a few miles to the north of us with mere life-toppling winds and horizontal snow bullets to the judges and tracklayers plotting Sunday’s test tracks, this was a very good omen indeed. At least the weather was helping build my confidence. The previous week at our practice track, my girl – always a terrier – had refused to even start her track. Nor was there anything that was going to change her mind. But when it came to running track #2 on April 27, she was all business. She strolled (literally) down the first leg, overshot the first corner, returned and took the corner dead on and then – well, I must admit that after about 50 yards on that second leg, I had no idea where the track was going. All I knew was that I was in tall weeds with a short dog that was going somewhere. I kept my ears tuned to the sound of a whistle since the judges, who can be several hundred yards behind, blow the dreaded thing to communicate to the handler that the test has been failed. When we didn’t get blown off and didn’t get blown off and still didn’t get blown off, I decided that either the judges and tracklayer had all fallen into a very large hole or Amanda was doing her job. That’s about when the glove came into sight – with one small Lakie making a beeline straight for it. She stopped and stood on the glove, turned around and waited for me to catch up – and yes, there were tears in my eyes. We have worked hard for each of her titles but there is no question about this one being really, really special. Her fan club, waiting on the road and holding their breath the whole time, yelled and cheered and hooted. I think Amanda understood that she had done something pretty darn wonderful as she went around to each person there several times to get her congratulatory attention. One of the judges told me afterwards that she had been dead on the track the whole way after that first corner. What a girl!

If you are interested in tracking – and I hope you are by now! – do check around your area for tracking groups. It is very helpful to be part of a group that can lay tracks for each other, offer ideas and support and have fun picnic-tracking outings. Watching dogs of other breeds track will also show you the range of tracking styles used by dogs, from quartering to footfall-by-footfall tracking. If there’s no group in your area now, start one! Check AKC’s website for the judges list and contact those in your area. They can help you get started. While you’re on AKC’s website, review the tracking regulations for a thorough description of each test’s requirements. Do read Glen Johnson’s book; it provides great insight into the sport of tracking as well as sound “how to do it” advice. Keep watch for tracking seminars; there aren’t a lot of them but they do exist and are usually well worth attending.

Most of all, tracking, like other dog activities, is about having fun with your dog so, in the paraphrased words of some old timers, “happy tracks to you!!”

— Mary Beth Percy