Tracking with Puppies

By: Shirley Murphy

In 1999, the Papillon Club of America offered its first tracking trial at a National Specialty. This effort highlighted the fact that tracking is a wonderful pursuit for Papillons, and I believe availability of tracking at the National specialty can only encourage more pap owners to start tracking.

At that ground-breaking event, Mickthea Aussie Ahtee CD, owned by Jolene Roudebush, earning the Tracking Dog title, and Loteki Secret Agent UDX,TD,MX,AXJ, owned by Gerianne Darnell, earned the Tracking Dog Excellent.

Is It OK to Track with a Puppy?

Now, for those of you going “Papillons … Tracking?? Are you sure a toy dog can track?” We only need look at the results from the National – three dogs took tracking tests, two successfully completed the test and one was very close to a success. OK, so Papillons can track. But what about tracking with a puppy. Is that a good idea?

Believe it or not, tracking is a wonderful pursuit for puppies. Many trainers start their puppies with tracking because it is so instinctive and so correction-free. Moreover, the tracking harness, if properly fitted, puts no pressure on that fragile looking Papillon neck. “Tracking From the Ground Up,” by Sandy Ganz and Susan Boyd[1] has this to say about puppy tracking:

“Puppies can track as early as 7 weeks of age. They have no inhibitions, are easy to work with, and get hungry frequently. Tracking is good exercise, low key, informal and unstressful. The handler has an opportunity to learn patience with the pup while the dog/handler team is developing. The puppy’s physical endurance builds along with his concentration.

On the other hand, the handler must remember that he is dealing with a young dog that is easily distracted and has a short attention span.

My little guy, Calypso Oui Willie Wonka, had just turned 4 months old when he ran his first tracks. I was attending a tracking seminar, mostly to help me with handling skills for work with my older dog Chessie, but I knew it would also be a terrific opportunity to get Willie started.

Getting Started

The seminar instructors, Julie Hogan and Donna Thompson of Pride’N Joy Springers, were thrilled when they learned that I had brought a puppy because they were eager to demonstrate techniques for starting a puppy, as well as the almost guaranteed immediate success that most people achieve with puppies. The demonstration with Willie probably took all of 5 minutes, but it showed how strong the instinct is.

With the tracking harness already on him, I interested him in the tracking article, a glove, by playing with it like a toy. Then, someone held his lead while I took the glove and walked away, talking to him all the way to keep his interest. I dropped the glove, loaded with food, and walked straight back to him. I don’t remember how far I went, but my guess is it wasn’t more than about 15 feet. Of course, when I took the lead and told him to track. He couldn’t wait to go out to the glove. After all, it was a toy just a minute before. He made a bee-line for it, and when he got there, he got the food and a little more play.

We repeated this a couple of times, each time lessening the emphasis on him watching me go out and increasing the distance between the dog and the article. But each time, he couldn’t wait for me to get back so he could run the track. That was the end of his first tracking experience. He loved it: he got food, he got to play with a toy, and he got to be with me. What more could a puppy ask?

How’d He Do That?

I won’t pretend to know how he made the association, but this brief, low key introduction translated almost immediately into him being able to follow a short track that he had not watched being laid. Apparently, the dog’s capability to follow the scent is so strong, the connection comes very easily. (For both of the older dogs I started on tracking, they got the idea of what they were doing on either the second or the third short track.)

Build Gradually on a Good Start

As noted by Ganz and Boyd, one important consideration in starting to track with a Papillon puppy is the conditioning needed. A TD track must be at least 440 yards (about a quarter mile) … AKC doesn’t reduce the length of the track to fit the size of the dog. However, the early tracks are very short, as evidenced by the way we started Willie. And the length increases gradually, which lets your puppy gain conditioning along the way, particularly if you keep up your tracking practices on a regular basis.

Another important consideration is that all-too-short puppy attention span. Again, the training process starts with very short, straight tracks. If you proceed from there at a relatively slow rate to longer tracks, turns, and distractions, your puppy’s concentration should improve with his age and experience.

So think about tracking for that next puppy. You might both like it!

Originally Prepared for Pap Pourri Column: On the Right Track