I've had Best in Shows, a Best in Trial and Best of Breed at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney but nothing, nothing compares to the lift you get as your dog pulls down into his harness when he is onto the scent.
It is so different to showing or doing obedience because the dog is in control almost completely. He knows where the scent is and which way to go, while the handler has no real idea. Experts cannot even agree what the scent is that is left when the tracklayer be it human or animal moves over the ground. How does the dog know which way the quarry passed along the track? No one really knows. It is fair to say I think that you cannot teach the dog to track, all you can hope to do is to learn to read the dog's body language so that you can improve your collective technique, build up the dog's self confidence so that he will take decisions and motivate him as best you can. You can learn from books how the scent changes in response to different conditions, be they climatic or physical, but only you can learn how those changes are 'read' by your dog Interesting isn't it. George and I have been at it for nearly two years now and I'm still not very good, though he seems to know what he is doing. Which is perhaps as well!
So what is a track? In it's simplest form a tracklayer walks a set course and hides at the end of it. Sometime later the handler with his dog, having been shown where the track starts, puts the dog to the track, the dog follows the scent, finds the tracklayer and is rewarded.
Quantify it you say ... well the time delay between the track being laid and the dog being put to the track is between 30 minutes and 3 hours, the distance is between 800 and 1200 meters, there are between two and five turns on the track and at the higher levels decoy(s) cross the track to make things more difficult. Equipment? A number of suitably smelly socks for the dog to find on the track, a harness and a 10 metre lead, add one dog and away you go. Tracking is limited to the winter months because snakes don't like tracklayers and the feeling is mutual.
You can imagine that at a trial, what with stewards, tracklayers, decoys, administrative staff and a time/space limitation of about six competitors per judge, the ratio of 'players' to 'support' is horrendous. Add to the vagaries of tracking which results in very few passes and you can see that the people who run tracking trials are very dedicated indeed. There are always more people wanting to compete than there are places in trials, so the entries are subject to a ballot system.
When the vehicles carrying the judge, steward, tracklayer, handler, dog and spectators arrive back at the base camp blowing the cars' horns to signify a successful track, everybody claps and smiles and hugs go all round. Some of the elation rubs off on the rest of us and we imagine ourselves in that blessed state with your dog pulling down into the harness ... but this is where I came in. You ought to try it some time.
This article first appeared in "News Spots" the journal of the The Dalmatian Club Inc, in October 1995.
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