A few weeks ago, a caravan of station wagons pulled to a stop in the middle of what may currently be the most popular dump in Florida and ejected a wildly improbable assortment of sniffing dogs. Amidst squat mounds of rusting cans and discarded beer bottles a pony-sized great Dane towered over a miniature poodle, a dachshund shied away from the overtures of a Doberman pinscher, and a cocker spaniel grumbled softly to one and all. The people who came with the dogs were busy, too. They studied programs, consulted judges, checked watches, now and then patted a furry head. Clearly, this was a canine event of some importance but, just as clearly, it was neither a dog show nor even a field trial. It was, in fact, the latest example of a little-known but fast-growing form of canine competition known as the tracking test.
Like most dog shows and field trials, tracking tests are run under American Kennel Club rules and supervision, and are judged by AKC-licensed officials. But they are not as exclusive as the other two events—where dogs of widely differing breeds and backgrounds seldom mingle professionally—nor are they competitive in the same sense. Moreover the show dog, bred for beauty, need possess neither talent nor a loving heart, while a field trial champion could, conceivably, look like someone's discarded mop. Fortunately—for people as well as dogs—there is a spreading movement that boldly suggests all dogs, regardless of breed, can be useful and beautiful alike and make fond pets in the bargain. This movement is finding its chief expression in the tracking test.
There are no breed restrictions in a tracking test, no classifications according to age, sex or group and no blue-ribbon winners. The only prize—and that the same for all—is the coveted degree of T.D. (for tracking dog) which, like the M.A.s and Ph.D.s cherished by Homo sapiens, means that the dog has successfully developed a special talent that sets him apart. There are now some 600 dogs of all shapes and sizes qualified to bear this degree, and schools like the Obedience Training Club of Palm Beach County have waiting lists months long.
But the mushrooming popularity of tracking cannot be attributed solely to dreams of making man's best friend his most useful servant. The numbers of lost children and misplaced wallets that need sniffing out in any given season are limited. So, too, are escaped convicts (2,700 annually), and the sheriff's bloodhound usually puts his nose to these tracks. The real appeal of tracking is the fun that a dog and his master find in learning it together. Classes like those held Thursday evenings at the West Palm Beach armory are informal, informative and inexpensive. Since there is no such thing as a professional handler in tracking, everyone trains his own dog. He is taught how by an instructor, but he does all the work himself.
"A lot of people sign up for our courses thinking we are going to take their dogs and train them the way professional trainers do," says Franklyn Lundgren, the club's treasurer. "They soon find out that training is their job, not ours. Our job is to show them how they can make their dogs more useful, and to convince them that they and the dogs will be happier as a result."
"It's surprising to see what a little old-fashioned discipline will do for a dog," says Mrs. Fred Buchholz of Lake Worth, who originally introduced tracking to the club. "Nowadays nobody seems to obey anyone, and it's even money whether dogs or children do more damage to other people's property. We believe that a dog should be taught good manners, should learn to respect people and property and should obey orders. That's all part of the training involved in tracking, and you can't leave that kind of training to a stranger. It has to come from the dog's owner.
"The funny part," Mrs. Buchholz continues, "is that dogs love this kind of discipline. Fundamentally, they all want to please. They like being shown how, especially by their masters. And they are just as proud as their owners when they do a good job. In fact, it's a question of who gets the most out of our courses—the dogs or the owners."
Generally eight to 10 owners with their dogs make up a tracking class. The trackers work side by side, giving each other company and encouragement. Enthusiastic instructors, like Mrs. Buchholz, donate their time not only to teaching but to organizing informal club competitions, setting up actual AKC tests and, on rare and wonderful occasions of crisis, dispatching graduate T.D.s to find a lost something-or-other.
"Just last week," says Mrs. Buchholz, "a woman I had never met called me in the middle of the afternoon. She was frantic. Her 2-year-old had wandered off in one of those giant shopping complexes and she had been searching for more than half an hour. I left my job and rushed over with my Chesapeake, Eastern Waters Nugget. She's a bench show champion, but she also has utility and tracking degrees. She took the scent of the child from a sweater the mother had and then tracked him from the hardware store where he had disappeared, across the parking plaza, into a supermarket crowded with people and to the back of an aisle where the baby was crying his eyes out. The whole thing took less than five minutes."
The most difficult stage of tracking training is the introduction to the outdoors. In the classroom the dog works principally on the scent trails left by his owner and on distinguishing one scent from another. Now he must learn to follow the trails of strangers in an atmosphere bursting with all kinds of exciting odors. Outdoor trails must be run over varied terrain in every kind of weather to familiarize a dog with all possible scenting conditions. The first day out, most dogs seem to forget everything they learned in the classroom. After weeks of familiar smells the first whiff of a rabbit or a quail is enough to turn any dog's head. At this stage it is necessary to have someone other than the dog's owner lay the trail so the dog learns to follow a strange scent. No two people give off exactly the same odor, although deodorant manufacturers would like to think otherwise. With his highly refined sense of smell, a dog can follow one particular trail, if he has been taught to do so, even though it has been crossed dozens of times by other scents. He begins first on trails that are only a few minutes old, but eventually he must be able to follow a trail 30 minutes old or one even older. With practice, a good tracker can master a trail laid down as long as 24 hours earlier.
Obviously, practice is important. The more experience a dog gets on many scents under different conditions, the less likely he is to be distracted when put to a major test. Most club members get their dogs out at least once a week, many as often as every day, if only for 10 minutes.
Several days before a tracking test the quarter-mile track (there is a separate one for each dog) is plotted and marked with flags, mapped and then walked over by one or both of the judges so that it becomes thoroughly familiar. Not less than half an hour or more than two hours before the actual test, the track is walked along by a stranger to the dog who must, according to AKC rules, wear leather-soled shoes (rubber gives off an odor that might be distracting). The tracklayer circles the starting flag several times to concentrate his scent, then picks up the flags along the course so the dog has no visible clues to the trail. At the end an object is deposited that the dog will find if he successfully runs the track. At the West Palm Beach tests last month the object was a wallet. Four of the 10 dogs entered found theirs, but for a few tense moments, it looked as though one of them would fail to make the grade. The dog, a 2-year-old Chesapeake, Chesachobee's Ty-Dee, pounced upon her scent at the starting flag and then took off at a gallop. Trying to keep up with her at the other end of a regulation 50-foot leash was Ty-Dee's owner, Mrs. O. J. Smith of Miami, who looked like a gray-haired sprinter out to set a record. The judges, unprepared for such speed, were far behind.
Most of the gallery had already placed itself a reasonable distance beyond the finish where they had a good view of the end of the track. Clearly Ty-Dee was running a brilliant test with enthusiasm and skill. She made her last turn, sharply and without hesitation. And then the whistle blew. This is the signal that a dog has been disqualified, usually because it is markedly off course. Mrs. Smith stopped in dismay. Ty-Dee gave her a look of sheer bewilderment. The gallery was open-mouthed. Mrs. Buchholz, who had originally staked this particular track, was first speechless, then apoplectic and then almost in tears. Blonde hair flying, she descended upon the judges.
In minutes the misunderstanding was clear. The judges, puffing along far behind, had mistaken one landmark on their maps for another, and had erroneously scored the dog off track. Ty-Dee was sent out again, made all the proper turns in the proper places, retrieved her wallet yards beyond where she had been halted earlier and won her T.D. with flying colors. Those present cheered, whistled, clapped and patted their dogs and each other on the back.
"That's what makes tracking fun," says Lena Kickbusch, whose basset hound was the third of its breed in the U.S. to pass a tracking test. "Everybody's rooting for everybody else instead of just for themselves."