Martin Lerchbaumer is a judge for the SV, the FCI, and the OKV (the Austrian Kennel Association). He has been involved in the sport of schutzhund for over 25 years competing in both Austria and Germany. He is one of the most sought after schutzhund trainers in Austria and Germany and is currently president of his local club, OG Kirchdorf in Kirchdorf, Austria. Martin is also a respected breeder of German Shepherd Dogs, his kennel name is vom Debental. He has competed with his dogs at the Sieger Show where he has had dogs receive the coveted Vorzugich (V) rating.
The Fundamentals of Tracking
Question: You know the reason we were particularly anxious to have you talk to us about tracking is that it has been our experience that tracking presents the greatest difficulty for the average Schutzhunder. More people seem to fail the tracking part of the trial than the others. Has this also been your experience?
Martin: No, not at my club among those who use the method I recommend to them. But when I was a beginner, I had trouble. At first, I had no one to help me and I stumbled around making no progress at all and even concluded that my dog simply did not have the ability to track.
Question: But, isnít it very rare that a dog would be unable to track?
Martin: Yes, of course, any German Shepherd Dog who is not ill or who does not have some rare nasal problem should be able to track, but what did I know then. That seemed the most likely to me at the time. Eventually, I found a mentor, a man who had been involved with dogs for a long time and he was able to set me on the right course. I found his basic method very easy and very effective. Within a short time, I was able to compete at Schutzhund trials receiving very high scores, often the highest at the trial.
Question: So you feel tracking need not be difficult?
Martin: No. To me tracking is easy because of the method I use. Of course there are many, many methods which can be used to train a dog to track, but not all of these are easy for the handler and easy for the dog. The method I use and teach is both easy for the handler and the dog to understand. It does not leave much chance for making mistakes and this is very important. I cannot over emphasize that a dogís first tracking experiences are his most important. They will stay with him throughout his working life. A system which allows the handler or the dog to make mistakes will take a long time to work and will create a dog with problems. I can almost guarantee you success if you follow this method exactly. I have seen it work on hundreds of dogs.
Question: What about someone who has already begun tracking with their dog, could they use your method?
Martin: Certainly, but they must treat their dog as if it has never tracked before. They must be willing to go back to the very beginning if they want it to work. This is because the beginning experiences, not only in tracking but also obedience and protection work, are by far the most important. They form an imprint (Judge Lerchbaumer used the German word Knupf that literally means, "knot") which can be built into a kind of instinctive response. To give you an example of how strong a response can be built from a dogís earliest experiences in tracking, I had a young dog that had never tracked before. I was only able to train him for a few weeks before I had to stop working with him. For a whole year he was kenneled due to his health. A year later I took him out to track and he still remembered and did a fine job. This is not some folk anecdote, people must understand how strong an imprint the first experiences leave on a dog.
Question: Do you start with puppies or do you wait?
Martin: Of course, this depends to an extent on the dog and how he has developed, but most dogs are ready to begin by 8 to 10 months of age.
Question: How do you begin?
Martin: Without the dog. Before there can be any tracking with a dog, the handler must be able to lay a track. That means, the handler must train himself to observe markers along the way, such as bushes or stones, but also lay a proper track, a track which is straight. To do this, the handler must line up his starting position with two objects, for example a tall tree with a fence post or a bush. This will insure that the handler does not wander off the track. So to begin, I have handlers practice laying tracks and then tracking them.
Question: The handler tracks the track alone?
Martin: Yes. You see, perhaps the most important rule of beginning tracking is that the handler must absolutely know where the track is at all times. An error of a meter, even half a meter, is extremely serious, it is not acceptable. Most beginners, and perhaps others, simply do not appreciate how hard it is to know the track with this kind of accuracy at all times. But without this knowledge you cannot succeed. Most people say, oh yes, I know where the track is, I laid it, but they have only a very general idea, after several minutes, of where it is.
Question: Iíve experienced this over confidence to my regret many times. I really just did not understand how hard it is.
Martin: Yes, thatís normal. Most people want to get out there with their dog and get going. But have someone lay the track, with two or three legs, it does not even have to be as long as a Schutzhund I track. Have them drop a pen or matchbox on each leg and then wait ten minutes and let them go out there and track it. Very few people will find the matchboxes. We always joke that a 500 Schilling note ($50) might get better results.
Question: Once handlers are able to do this, then what?
Martin: Then the work of forming an imprint on the new or green dog may begin. This is the most important part of the method, even though it is only preliminary work. For five days in a row at exactly the same time the dog is taken to the same place. This should be a field with no other people, no other dogs, no other distractions and preferably no other animals. The field should be of ankle length grass so that the handler can see his own footprints. The day before you begin this 5 day routine, the dog should not be fed. For most dogs, and especially those with a strong food drive, i.e.-chow hounds who want to eat whether they are hungry or not, one day is not enough. However, with some dogs it might take two days of not being fed. The most important thing is that the dog be really hungry. On each succeeding day he receives nothing other than what he got on the track.
Question: What if you miss a day, is everything lost?
Martin: No, but remember you are building a life imprint (knupf). The bigger and better the foundation the better. So you should try and find a time when you can give up five days to do it right. I have found you can return to this foundation again and again as you encounter problems in more advanced tracking. It is amazing but this simple exercise can be used, if the imprint is strong enough, to correct a seemingly unrelated problem that one might be having with a Schutzhund III or FH dog.
Question: When you finally are ready to track with the dog, do you allow him to see you lay the track?
Martin: Yes, this is important. The dog is brought out to the field and tied to a fence post or tree. Each day he must be tied to the same place and then allowed to see the handler lay the track. After tying up the dog, the handler then takes the dogís food dish and moves to the scent pad in full sight of the dog, although the dog should not see the dish. At the bottom of the dogís dish should be what you normally feed him, although in a much smaller amount than what he would normally get, perhaps half as much. On top of this food should be something that the dog really will go crazy for. Typically something like thinly sliced pieces of wurst (hot dog) which have been quartered. The pieces should neither be so small that the dog might miss them nor too large that he will stop on the track to chew. The goal, of course, is to get the dog moving forward.
Question: Do you put food on the scent pad? This seems to be a controversial point with several experts disagreeing.
Martin: Yes, I put food there, but first let me describe the scent pad. The handler goes with a flag or other marker to the place where he will make the scent pad. He then makes a two foot square scent pad by making normal steps. No scuffing, this is also true on the track as well, no scuffing.
Question: Why not, isn't it desirable to condition the dog to the ground scent of decaying vegetation?
Martin: Yes, it is desirable, but by scuffing the ground you will create a mixture which is say 80% ground scent and 20% air scent. This is not the normal mixture which would result from a person walking normally over the ground. Perhaps that might be only 60% ground scent. A dog which becomes accustomed to too strong a ground scent may refuse to track or become confused when it is less. And, of course, in a trial the judge is not going to allow you to scuff the track. So you make the scent pad by taking small steps in a small square. You should also stand on the scent pad for about two minutes before going forward. Place one piece of worst behind you and one in front and then begin laying the track which will be a straight line around 50 to 70 feet in length. As the scent pad is about 2 feet wide, begin by leaving the scent pad twice making, as it were, a wider track which after two or three feet narrows to a normal track. Along the way, place a piece of worst every two or three steps.
Question: Should you try and put the pieces of worst in the footprints?
Martin: This is not necessary, and for a beginner it should probably be avoided since most beginners cannot do it without stopping. You should not stop on the track. The dog's bowl with food should be placed at the end of the track in such a manner that the dog will not be able to see it until he is no more than 5 feet away. So try and find a dip in the ground or a bush. However, it is important that the handler can see the bowl from a distance. After laying the track, the handler should jump away from it and return at least 30 and preferably 60 feet away from it. After returning, take the dog from the tree or post and bring him to the scent pad. Give him the opportunity to smell the scent.
Question: Do you advise the use of a tracking harness?
Martin: Not usually and not in the beginning. Although they can be useful especially for giving the dog the idea, 'now we track,' that is the dog understands when the harness is put on him, it is his job now to track and not do anything else. However, many dogs do not like having a harness put on them at first, and most beginners cannot do it without some fuss. All of this may create a negative experience for the dog and one wants to avoid such experiences. For a beginning dog, there is no advantage to be gained, just a normal leash and dead ring of the collar. With the left hand hand on the collar show him the track, tell him to "Such" (search) and follow the track with him in this fashion.
Question: Once he begins down the track do you let go of the collar and hold him on the leash?
Martin: No, no, you must not do this. He must be held the whole length of the track except the last few feet when he sees the bowl and you can let go of him. If you hold him by the leash, there is a tendency to walk behind the dog. He will have the chance to leave the track, even if it is only a foot or two, this is unacceptable and the correction will come too late. At this stage you do not want him to leave the track.
Question: The next day, do you use the same exact track?
Martin: No, everything else is the same, the time of day, the field and so on, but the track should be about 20 feet away from the first track. It should be laid in the same direction. The remaining days the same, each time 20 feet distant from the previous day's track. Once you have done it five days in a row, then it need only be done once or twice a week. When the dog is tracking well, you may then remove the collar grip and hold him on leash but standing alongside and not behind so that you can give an immediate correction.
Question: At what point and how do you introduce turns?
Martin: Not until the dog is having 100% success time after time. At the end of the 50 or 70 foot track make the turn. The turn is not made by scuffing the ground or double tracking. Instead, the tracklayer turns sideways so that the length of the foot becomes the new width of the track. Each footstep should be right next to the preceding one throughout the turn after which, you begin the second leg normally again. About 2 feet after the turn place a piece of worst and then maybe 10 feet after the dog's food bowl. Do not introduce a second turn until the dog is doing the first turn and the straight legs perfectly.
Question: What about the articles, when do you introduce them?
Martin: Articles are not really part of tracking, but obedience. They should be taught separately. If the dog is going to indicate by platz (downing) then he must know this before you can teach the articles.
Question: Any last thoughts?
Martin: Yes, remember when the dog has completed the track, even from the very first, it is important to play with him. This is important, it is one more thing to which the dog has to look forward. And also be patient. It is better to take your time and go slow at the beginning. There is always a tendency to rush, to move on to the next step before the dog is perfectly executing the previous one. But everything will follow easily and quickly if you have built a strong foundation so it is worthwhile taking the pains to make sure it is a strong one.