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Tracking

What Is Tracking?
A dog’s keen sense of smell has been put to use by humans for as long as the two species have lived together.   The dog’s ability to locate other animals (possible food!) using their sense of smell was probably one of the earliest motivations for humans to develop partnerships with dogs, and that ability is still put to use by modern hunters.  With training, a dog’s innate scenting ability can also be channeled to help us locate hidden drugs, chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives, and flammable material left over at possible arson sites.   Dogs have also been trained to locate edible truffles that sell at over $1000 per pound, and are used by wildlife biologists to locate specific types of animals either directly or by locating their scat.  Dogs are also used in search and rescue to locate people who are lost, people who have run away from a crime scene, or people trapped in rubble from collapsed buildings and other structures.  Tracking is one set of scenting skills that may be used in locating people who are either lost or deliberately hiding.  In tracking, a dog follows the trail of scent left on the ground whenever a person walks somewhere.  Although the trail may be more difficult to follow in some conditions, it is not unheard of for well trained dogs to follow tracks that are well over a day old, to remain on the track of a specific person even if that track has been crossed by many other people, and to follow tracks over a variety of vegetated and non-vegetated surfaces.   Besides having practical applications, tracking is an activity that is enjoyable for both the dog and his human partner.  Following behind a skilled tracking dog provides the handler a glimpse into a complex sensory world that is otherwise almost non-existent to humans, and forces a good tracking handler to work in genuine partnership with his dog, trusting that the dog truly knows more than the human does in some situations.


Collies and Tracking?
Most dogs, certainly including collies, are physically capable of following tracks left by humans.  To be successful as either a “professional” or hobby tracker though, the dog also has to be physically sound enough to traverse uneven terrain for some distance, must have a strong enough work ethic to persistently search for difficult to locate scent, and must have a strong desire to work with his human partner on a specified track without being distracted by other inherently interesting scents.  Collies are an ideal size for tracking - large and agile enough to cover ground at a steady pace, but not so heavy that they tire or overheat quickly.   And most importantly, collies enjoy working in partnership with their human.  They are willing to stick to a task if the trainer makes that task rewarding, are generally less distracted by the scent and sound of birds than many of their keen-nosed brethren in the sporting group, and less easily tempted by the trails of bunnies, mice, deer and other mammals than their scent-obsessed friends in the hound group.  Collie owners interested in tracking should keep their collie lean and fit (and it doesn’t hurt to keep the handler lean and fit as well!).   If seeking a collie specifically for tracking or for other types of scent work (search and rescue, arson detection, drug detection), owners should look for collies that are easily motivated by toys or food, that enjoy interacting with people, that are structurally sound, and that are persistent in attempting to get what they want. 


Tracking as a Sport
Even if one never becomes involved in the more professional applications of scent work, tracking can be an enjoyable hobby that physically and mentally stimulates both the collie and the handler.  Although tracking requires a certain level of physical fitness in order to eventually put in a mile or two of walking during a training session, it is a low impact activity that is friendly to joints of “mature” collies and handlers alike.   Training usually begins with the novice dog literally following a trail of cookie crumbs until he finds an article like a glove or wallet dropped by the tracklayer.   These beginning tracks teach the dog to associate the smell of a track with lots of yummy treats, and to develop a dependable desire to stick to the track rather than exploring other enticing smells along the way.  Gradually the treats get spaced farther apart, the tracks get longer, turns are added, the age of the track increases, tracks are crossed by other people and animals, and obstacles like road crossings, fences, changes in vegetation, and hard surfaces like pavement are added.  In the beginning stages a trainer can lay a track for his own dog, but eventually it is beneficial to work with other trainers to lay “blind” tracks for each other and observe whether the dog is remaining on task and on track.   Beginning tracks can be laid in a decent sized back yard, but fairly quickly the tracking team will need access to some open fields of at least a few acres in size.  The fields need not be pristine though, and many tracking enthusiasts do much of their training in city parks and large school-yards.

AKC Tracking Tests
The American Kennel Club (AKC) currently offers titles for three levels of tracking proficiency, and a dog that achieves all three titles is designated as a Champion Tracker (CT).  All AKC tracking dog tests are judged as pass/fail; there is no competitive scoring or placements given at a tracking test.  The Tracking Dog (TD) title is awarded to a dog that successfully negotiates a track of about a quarter mile in length over relatively uniformly vegetated terrain.  The track must have been laid between 30 minutes and 2 hours before the dog starts the track, and must include 3 to 5 abrupt turns.   Before entering an official TD test the dog must be certified as capable of passing by a licensed AKC judge.  Certification involves successfully negotiating a track with all the same elements as an official test track, but may take place informally at a time and date arranged by the judge and handler.  Once a dog has passed a TD test, it is eligible to enter both Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX) and Variable Surface Tracking (VST) tests.  A TDX track is about a half mile long, includes 5 to 8 abrupt turns, is aged between 3 and 5 hours before the dog runs the track, is crossed in two separate places by people other than the original tracklayer, and must include at least a couple obstacles like road crossings, changes in vegetation, steep grades, fence crossing or other similar scenting challenges.  A VST track is about 700 yards long, and must cross a variety of surfaces.  Much of the track must be on non-vegetated surfaces like pavement,  packed gravel, and sidewalks.   These tests typically take place in city parks, on campuses, or in industrial parks where any number of people may cross the track as it ages between 3 and 5 hours.  The presence of buildings that inevitably generate swirling air currents also adds to the challenge of a VST track.  A few breeds like golden and labrador retrievers, German shepherd dogs, Belgian tervuren, and rottweilers tend to earn the most of the tracking titles conferred by AKC.  But, with the exception of these few breeds, collies compare very well with other breeds in tracking.  Generally about 3 or 4 collies per year will earn a TD title, and on average one collie per year earns the TDX.  So far only two collies have earned the highly challenging VST, which along with their TDX’s entitles these two collies to the high honor of being designated Champion Trackers.

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