How to Start Training a Puppy to Trail


The first step in field training your future trailing dog starts in the house or within the confines of your yard. As soon as the dog is accustomed to his new surroundings it is time to play hide and seek. Playing games with the dog is an excellent way to begin training as it immediately associates training with fun. Put the collar and harness on the puppy, walk away from him and try to hide. Praise the puppy for following and finding you. Distract the puppy with a toy to get the puppy to focus on the toy and not you. Leave and hide just out of sight of the puppy, around a corner or behind something, then call the puppy and wait.

If the puppy becomes frustrated and cries, call him. If he can’t seem to figure out where you are, call him again or catch his attention by waving and then ducking down. Praise him for finding you. As he figures the game out make it more difficult. Have someone hold him back as you walk away, calling him, and disappear out of sight. Hide and then tell the holder to let him go. Call the puppy once and wait. Again, lots of praise and pats for the successful puppy.

Hide behind furniture, yard objects, doors, boxes or other objects. Make the game quick and fun in the beginning and gradually make it more difficult as the pup gets the hang of it. Move the game outside or to a bigger area. Once the puppy understands the game it is time to begin developing his skills by looking for strangers. You now move from being the quarry to being the handler.

Start the hide and seek game again but this time attach a lead to the puppy’s collar. Have the runner walk away, calling the puppy and stepping out of sight. Move the lead from the collar to the harness and give the puppy the “Find!” command. Release the tension on the lead and let the puppy go after the runner. If the puppy doesn’t start searching have the runner call him. When the pup moves forward give him the working command again and encourage him. Don’t pull or steer him with the lead, just keep it slack.

If the pup stops or gets distracted have the runner call him and make sure the runner gives the puppy a treat or lots of attention when the pup makes the find. Make sure it is a big deal so the puppy is willing to try again! Puppy trails should include some trails where the person is within sight of the puppy but further away so that all the puppy has do is run to them. Mix in some hidden runner trails but keep things fun and consistent. Be sure to start each trail with the command to work and encourage the dog along the way.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for a working dog is to have a handler that steers or guides the dog by using pressure on the lead. Remember that you are learning to follow the dog who is following the scent, something that you can’t see. You have to learn to trust the dog. In these early stages watch the path the runner takes, the jogs and the turns, and then watch the pup as he follows. Notice how closely he follows the trail and watch his body language. You will be learning the dog’s signals and how he may operate in the field.

Kady would signal turns and changes in the trail by changing the way she held her tail. This is very common. When the dog is on trail and working, the tail is held up; in areas of contamination or areas where there is a scent pool the tail drops to half-mast. Once the dog picks up the trail the tail goes back up and if the trail ends suddenly the tail drops.  If the dog comes across a body or detects fear the tail drops and curls under the dog. some handlers refer to these tail movements as alerts or flags. Get to know how your dog signals trail changes.

Excerpt from On the Trail by Jan Tweedie

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