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You spend many a weekend slowly creeping through fields hunting. It’s quiet, you’re out in nature and it makes for a nice break from a busy week at work. You wouldn’t swap it for the world! However, you wouldn’t mind some company in the form of a tenacious German Shepherd. So, you went out and bought Charlie, who is full of life and would make a great hunting companion. Alternatively, perhaps you want to train him to be a tracking police dog.
Whatever the reason, German Shepherds naturally possess many of the qualities needed to successfully track. The training itself is actually good for them too. It enforces your position as pack leader. It teaches them discipline, which can make teaching them to do any number of other behaviors easier too. But most importantly, this basic training could help improve your hunting results and give you an effective tracker.
Training Charlie to track will come with challenges. You will need to find the right incentive to keep him focused on a particular task. You will also need to train consistently, starting with small and easy scents trails, then working your way up to more challenging tracking. You will also need to get your dog used to training with distractions around and get them excited about the particular item you want them to find.
If your Shepherd is a puppy their brain should be like a sponge, making them easy to train. This means you could see results in just a few weeks. However, if you’re taking on an older German Shepherd who is stubborn and not a keen student anymore, then you may need several months. If you get this basic training right you could set your dog up to be able to track down everything from animals and drugs to cash and firearms.
Before you start training you will need to check you have several things. Treats and toys will play an important role. A friend will also be required for one of the methods.
You will need a generous amount of space to train in, where you both won’t be distracted by other people and pets. A house and yard will do to start with, but then you may want to head out into local fields or parks.
Once you have all that, just bring patience and an optimistic attitude, then work can begin!
The Sit & Search Method
The first thing you need to do is get your dog to associate the smell with toys and rewards. So have the object around you want them to search out and then spend a few minutes each day playing with a toy. The smell will soon become familiar and trigger memories of fun.
Now take the dog out into a yard or a room and instruct them to ‘sit’. Then take the object you want them to sniff out and place it on the ground several feet away from them. Make sure that they are watching you as you go.
Now issue a ‘find it’ command in a playful voice. Point at the object and draw their attention to it at the same time. They will probably naturally charge towards it. If not, be patient, they will catch on eventually.
As soon as they go to it, rush over, praise them and give them the toy to play with as a reward. Use the same toy and playtime you did it at the beginning, as that’s what they associate the smell with.
Once you have practiced this a couple of times, you can then hide the item while they watch. Again, reward them and practice this several times.
Practice several times a week, but start hiding the item farther away and introduce other people and distractions. Your German Shepherd may need to track things in a range of challenging environments, so it’s important you train with those distractions.
The Pull Back Method
Head out into your yard with your dog, the item you want them to track down, and a friend. You’re going to make the tracking irresistible. So have your friend sit down and hold your German Shepherd’s collar.
Place the object down
Now put the item you want the dog to find around 10 feet away. Make sure they can see you and then start pointing at it and talking in an animated voice. They will probably naturally want to start charging towards it.
Make sure your friend doesn’t let your dog go for a couple of seconds. The very fact they can’t move will only make them want to chase it down even more. Once they do get to it, be sure to give them a decent reward, be it food or toys.
Use the wind
Now start practicing a few times each week. However, start using the wind to make it easier or harder. Start with your dog downwind and the smell should reach them and make it simpler. Start them upwind and they will have their work cut out.
Gradually make training harder, creating longer and more challenging scent trails. However, make sure your German Shepherd always gets a reward at the end, no matter what. Soon they will start following the scent as soon as they get a whiff of it.
The Excitement Method
Get them familiar
The first thing to do is get them familiar with the thing you want them to track. For example, if it’s a bird then get a decoy and spray some scent spray on it. Then spend a few minutes each day playing around with the decoy and getting Charlie as excited as possible by the mere sight of it.
Now wipe the decoy around your house or in your yard to make a trail. Hide the toy somewhere at the end. You want to make it relatively straightforward to start with, so don’t have too many other smells and distractions around.
Secure your dog to a leash and then point and talk in a high-pitched voice to get them focused on the trail. Help guide them and pull them back onto the track if they get distracted. It’s important they get to the end of the trail too, so they always knows there is something there waiting for them.
Once you get to the end of the trail, make sure you give them some treats and verbal praise. If you use a clicker when you train, give that a click at this point. You can even play around with a toy.
Make it harder
Now all you need to do is make the trails harder. Make a new one every few days. Make sure the dog always gets to the end and then you can start introducing some distractions and making them in new places. Soon enough they will actively seek the thing out whenever they smell it.
By James Barra
Published: 03/15/2018, edited: 01/08/2021