Tracking as a form of exercise (or enrichment, if your animals environment/time budget is impoverished, probable in lock down) is a very smart choice for several reasons. We will talk about dogs for now, but, tracking works for lots of animal species, rats are fantastic at tracking, horses track well, so do my sheep.
Firstly, no learning is required on the dogs part. No one taught you how to use your nose right? And no one taught your dog either. Dog noses and brains are constantly working on the worlds odours. They are expert at this. Beyond suggesting what to sniff at (we’ll come back to that), no learning or teaching is required.
That means that the only learner involved is YOU (or your kids). If there is only one learner, the risk of frustration is significantly reduced. If you can learn how to enable tracking by controlling yourself, limiting your involvement with your dog while s/he works (we’ll come back to that) the level of dog frustration is likely to be very low in comparison with other activities. Partly because the dog isn’t required to work out what it is that we are asking of them!
The risk of everyone (dogs and kids) getting hopped up and adrenalised is also minimal. Why is this? Well, activities which require elongated effort to focus attention on one consistent task, are both heavy consumers of mental and physical resources, it takes an extraordinary level of concentration on the part of the dog to keep his/her nose close to the smells that form a track. Fortunately the motivation to sustain that level of concentration comes from within the dogs body, naturally occurring ‘endogenous’ reward and reinforcement will keep him going. You don’t need to worry too much about managing reward (we’ll come back to that) because sniffing itself will do a lot of the work for you.
And with regard to physical effort, tracking requires heavy, but, measured physical effort to use muscles to move carefully along the line of odour. An added bonus is that it takes the same level of concentration and physical control for the handler to follow where the dog leads. Most activity where rhythmic, self-controlled movement occurs is known to have a calming impact on the body. Where tracking is set up correctly with knowledgeable handling tips from your very first track, the movement is rhythmic and steady, not crazy and bouncing. Muscles not used to all day activities, particularly those involving rapid or unusual bending and twisting are exercised with reduced risk of injury (very important at any time but particularly at the moment). The rewarding and reinforcing nature of sniffing and calm are sustained.
Sleep. Tracking will induce sleep in dogs. And that is a very good thing for their health at anytime, but particularly during a lockdown.
Of utmost importance for everyones safety, is the dog-controlled nature of tracking. Where the track is laid is your choice. That is the place where your dog will follow accurately. There are forms of nose work which involve following a dog whilst s/he follows a trail which are more randomised and less systematic, there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but, for a detailed work out with inherent social distancing possibilities built in, tracking has the edge. You can not only social distance effectively, but you can track at home and in your home and from your home. Any environment, any safe surface, and safe terrain will support tracking.
And in the future. Arguably the safest factor of all. Dogs track everyday of their lives. You aren’t teaching them something that you won’t sustain when lock down ends. Inevitably, however well intended, when life returns to whatever passes as normal, many dogs are going to suffer a reduction in attention and a withdrawal of your attention, we hope it won’t happen, but if the tricks subside, as long as your walks continue, so will tracking.
If you like the sound of tracking, stay tuned, I’ll try and bring some easy stuff for you to start tracking INDOORS IN your home. You’re going to need a comfy harness and a long line (rob the washing line if you don’t have one) and a budding architect with pencils and paper (a job for the kids). Will come back to you soon to pick up on the “we will come back to that later” bits from above