All last night, I lay awake, worrying that I would get lost. Or, rather, I worried that the tracking dog would get lost, and when I would be asked to show the dog and handler the way to get back on track, that I’d be lost, too. I kept re-running the course and my map in my mind, and all of it was clear to me except this one spot where the grass was 5 feet tall and no landmarks were easily visible to which to orient myself.
This weekend was my first experience being a track layer for an AKC TDX (Tracking Dog Excellent) test. Actually, it was my first real experience with tracking at all. I’ve taken a few seminars in the distant past on teaching a dog to track, but I’d never seen a tracking test, much less work on one.
I’m not going to try to explain a lot about tracking in this post — you can read about it on the AKC web pages about tracking. But basically a dog follows a trail of scent left behind as the track layer walks along a course set by two judges. Along the way, the track layer leaves behind a number of articles — things like socks, handkerchiefs, wallets, glasses cases — that the track layer has gotten her scent on. The dog follows the trail and finds these articles along the way. This is how the AKC describes the TDX test:
The TDX track is 800-to-1000 yards long with 5-to-7 turns, and aged from 3-to-5 hours. The track also has two sets of cross (diversionary) tracks and has some of the aforementioned obstacles. The start is marked with a single flag and the dog must determine the direction of the first leg. There are four dissimilar articles for each track, one at the start and three more on the track.
Fortunately, I got some good instruction on making a course map from the Trial Chairman and from the judges, and, best of all, I didn’t get lost.
This is the map I made as I followed the judges when they were setting the course.
The judges created the course yesterday (the day before the test), and along the way, they set flags on the course where they wanted the dog to turn and where they wanted me to leave articles for the dog to find. Then this morning, when I would walk the course 3 hours before “my” dog and handler team would start the test, I had to leave articles behind in the designated spots and pick up all the flags. The dog is supposed to figure out where to go based on scent, not on a bunch of flags. And then, if the dog lost the track and couldn’t find it again, my job would be to show the handler the track. So, since I don’t have a nose like a dog, I had to make a map so I can figure out where the course is without the flags.
If you have studied navigation for boating, you know about orienting yourself to two unmoving objects, one in the foreground and one in the background, that, in the position you are in at that moment, appear to line up with each other. If those two objects ever appear out of alignment, then you know you are not heading in the direction you set out toward. So I had to do the same thing while creating my map. You’ll see little drawings of trees in the background with a clump of dark grass in the foreground. Or a yellow traffic sign in the distance lined up with a metal pole, or a distant white stake lined up with a more distant conifer. Where I had these landmarks, finding my direction was relatively easy. Then all I had to do was count steps so I knew how far to go in each direction.
But there was this one section, almost in the middle of the field, where we had to go down into an (empty) irrigation ditch, come up over a culvert, then duck under a low tree branch, and then head out east-ish between some cattails and an old orchard. Well, the space where we came out from under the tree branch was filled with 5 foot high grasses. I couldn’t see anything distinct in either the foreground or background. And in the damp early morning light, everything was even less distinct than it had been the afternoon before.
And sure enough, the dog lost the track in the ditch and failed the test (which is really too bad, as she’d been doing a fabulous job up until then). So, while the judges left the course, I had to show the handler the way to get back on track.
Fortunately, it was still morning, and sunlight was still glowing through the cloudy east. I knew we were supposed to go pretty much east, so I pointed that way. As soon as we got through the grass, the track was clear and my landmarks showed up. The rest of the track was easy for me because I had a map. The dog got off track once more, but found all her articles and generally did a pretty good job.
Overall, it was a fun weekend. The test was put on by the nice folks of the Idaho Capital City Kennel Club, and I met a bunch of new people. One even volunteered to help me get started tracking. Probably I’ll start working with Carlin. He’s less likely to get distracted by critters than Tooey, and I know there are already many IWS who track successfully. It’ll be fun to give it a try — it’ll be another way to be outdoors and doing something fun with my dog.