WE PLANT THE "SEEDS OF IDEAS" IN DOG OWNERS MINDS - THESE IDEAS EVENTUALLY BLOSSOM INTO A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF DOG BEHAVIOUR - Sally Hopkins
WE PLANT THE "SEEDS OF IDEAS" IN DOG OWNERS MINDS - THESE IDEAS EVENTUALLY BLOSSOM INTO A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF DOG BEHAVIOUR - Sally Hopkins

GRAVY TRAIL

WHAT IS A GRAVY TRAIL?


Once again, we would like to stress that this is not an introduction to working trials type tracking. It is a scent Mind Game that pet dogs can have fun doing together with their handlers by following strange but exciting scent trails that they have never come across in the usual environment that they are walked in.

 

Gravy Trail is similar to Tuna Tracking but instead of dragging a scent trail across the ground, the special scent is on the track layer's footwear. We appologise in advance for any repetition of what has been already written in Tuna Tracking but we felt that this web page should be written and read as a single topic by itself.

In summary, the dog is attached to a long line on its harness and then the handler and dog silently search and follow the trail until the dog finds the "jackpot" (eg. minced or tiny pieces of cooked meat such as chicken, beef, pork, lamb etc) that were left at the end of the trail.

 

Gravy Trail helps handlers develop their dog's sense of smell, a sense that is often ignored. A dog of any age or breed will really enjoy doing this nose work exercise as it fulfills their hunting and scavenging instincts. It leaves the dog mentally tired but satisfied from working for a reward while not being over excited or stressed. Many handlers have commented that although they walk their dogs for long periods of time the dogs never seems to tire, yet this type of exercise (ie mental stimulation) leaves their dog mentally and physically replete after "following" a Gravy Trail.

 

Obviously take into account the age of your dog when doing this Mind Game and do not expect too much from a young dog as they are only able to concentrate for a very short time (even 2 or 3 seconds can seem like minutes to a young puppy!). Also, some breeds of dog are purposely bred to have low levels of concentration - such as flushing dogs like Springer Spaniels - as they must run and "quarter" the undergrowth to flush out any game that may be hiding, rather than follow a particular track or scent of one bird or animal.

 

WARNING - Do not play this or any other type of "find the food" game in countries where poisoned food is routinely left to kill stray dogs. This is a very big problem in countries such as Greece, where too many pet dogs die in terrible agony from eating baited food left either by the authorities or people who regard dogs as a nuisance and vermin.

 

What do I need?

A little forward planning is needed (which I admit is rather "eccentric" but then dog owners are often perceived as being so anyway!) but the side product of this preparation - the roast dinner - will be enjoyed by you and your friends or family.

   
Cook your roast meal......
Then put an old shoe in the cooking juices!
  • Roast some meat in a large metal roasting tin. Take out and serve the food (keeping some of the meat to be used at the end of the Gravy Trail to reward the dog) but do not wash up the roasting tin. Allow the tin to cool and place a pair of old or unwanted shoes in it so that the cooking juices soak into the soles of the footwear. The juices do not have to come up the sides of the shoe, just be evenly distributed over the bottom of the shoe. Take the old shoes out of the tin and place them in a SEALED AND AIRTIGHT PLASTIC BAG so that none of the scent from the meat's juices are allowed to escape.
  • Either mince or cut very finely the cooked meat that you reserved. Keep it in an airtight container (eg. a Treat Box) for the track layer to take with them.
  • A friend or family member who will help you lay the Gravy Trail. However, it is possible for a handler to make a Trail by themselves (see Dog Management below).

This track layer will need to carry -

  • Between 2-6 easily visible poles/stakes (one with a strip of plastic cut out of a plastic carrier bag, to flutter in the wind so that you can see the wind's direction). These poles will be used to mark the start and finish of each track that you lay in the session, enabling you not to lay one track too close to another.
  • The sealed and airtight plastic bag with the old shoes inside and a spare plastic bag to hold the tracker's usual shoes while laying the track.
  • The small airtight box with the minced or finely cut cooked meat inside it.
  • A small lightweight deck chair for those of you who need to sit down in order to change your shoes.

 

The handler will need -

  • A cotton tracking line of approximately 20-30 feet (6-9 metres) to enable the handler to control the Game and prevent the dog just running around in a haphazard fashion. You can make your own tracking line by using a cotton washing line, or a piece of cotton rope, for medium to large dogs; and thinner cord for smaller dogs. Tie a quick release clip from an old lead at one end, and make a loop at the other end to use as a handle. Do not use synthetic type rope or line (eg. nylon) as it is likely to burn your hands as the dog pulls the line over your fingers.
    Although the length of this line seems excessive and cumbersome there is a purpose for it -
    - The length of line that is dragging along behind you and the dog indicates where you have just been walking.
    - While the 10ft or so between you and your dog prevents you from going too close to the dog and accidentally polluting the air and ground as it assesses the scent in front of it.

 

  • A comfortable and well fitting harness to attach the clip on the tracking line. Please don't try to track with a line on a dog's collar (see Why Dogs Pull on a Lead).

 

WHERE & WHEN CAN IT BE DONE?
Chose your Gravy Trail venue carefully. Try to find a place where you and your dog will not be distracted by people or the sudden appearance of a loose dog joining in the tracking. For instance, try and find an out-of-the-way spot where you usually walk your dog (local parks usually stipulate that all dogs must be kept on leads, which of course your dog will be as it will either be on its lead or the tracking line), areas of the countryside open to the public, or a field that the farmer has given you permission to use, etc.

 

In the early stages of teaching your dog to follow a Gravy Track, DO NOT LAY TRACKS -

  • In very long grass, through undergrowth, or through fallen leaves as the scent can be dispersed and lost in such rough and rugged terrain. Ankle high grass is ideal tracking terrain.
  • Over, beside, or along a footpath, as the scents of other dogs or humans may be too strong or distracting for your dog's nose.
  • In grassy areas that have just been mown. The scent from the recently cut grass is very strong and may overpower the scent of the "gravy".
  • On recently turned earth - once again the overpowering scent will make Gravy Trailing very difficult.
  • Across fields of stubble after crops have been harvested. Straw stalks that have been cut can be very sharp and hurt a dog's nose as it follows a track across a field of straw stubble.
  • When the wind is very strong or gusting. Be aware of the wind's direction (however light) by either looking at the strip of plastic on the pole, or tossing some blades of grass in the air to see which direction they travel in the wind. Don't ask your dog to track in very windy weather at these early stages. If there is any wind at all, lay the first couple of tracks with the wind blowing directly towards the track layer (and eventually the dog). Once the dog has learnt the concept of tracking you can make it more of a challenge by laying the track with the wind behind you so that the dog cannot "air scent" the Trail but must follow it along the ground. Tracking with the wind blowing across a trail is very difficult but can be mastered by a dog if it is very determined.
  • See also What Effects Scent for more details about laying tracks.

 

Don't give your dog its meal for the day until AFTER it has done the tracking. Dogs need to feel hungry in order to really appreciate the prize of the "treasure" when they eventually find it at the end of a track.

Also do not take your dog for a walk before you do the tracking, your dog needs to be fresh and keen, not overexcited by too much exercise beforehand. The tracking will soon tire the dog out mentally and physically from concentrating on the tracks and it will sleep for hours afterwards!

 

DOG MANAGEMENT
When you arrive at the venue where you want to lay a Gravy Trail, do not be tempted to tie your dog up while you lay a track - the dog will become frustrated, overexcited and stressed with having to watch you prepare and lay the track and will be unable to concentrate or do the Game properly when it is eventually allowed to do the track.

We strongly recommend that you leave your dog in a safe place where it cannot see what you are doing and can relax until you are ready to begin the track - ideally we recommend that you leave your dog in its well ventilated car.

Alternatively, if there are two of you doing Gravy Trailing, get the helper to lay the track while the handler takes the dog in the opposite direction, out of sight and smell of where the track is being laid. Bring the dog to the start of the track when the helper has finished laying the track and has walked in a wide curve away from the track (and downwind from it). The helper can even have a rest sitting on the deck chair while they watch the dog and handler work the Trail!

 

LAYING THE TRACK
Click here to print off diagrams of how to lay the first and second sessions of tuna tracking (which can also be used for laying a Gravy Trail).

  1. After choosing the most suitable area on which to lay the tracks, and having worked out which way the wind (if any) is blowing, the track layer stands facing into the wind and place the first marker pole in the ground.
  2. Take off your usual shoes and change into the "gravy shoes" that are in the sealed plastic bag. Carry the other shoes in the clean plastic bag.
  3. Stand facing into the wind (or with the wind behind you when the dog is more experienced at Gravy Trails) and pick out a specific tree, bush, fence post, or any other landmark which you can use as a "focus point". You will use this focus point to walk towards while you lay the track so that you walk in a straight line into the wind, rather than veer off to one side and make the track more difficult for the dog to follow.
  4. Pick up the second marker pole (which will be used to mark the end of the Gravy Track) and take small steps as you walk towards the focus point. Try not to take too large a stride as the dog may loose the trail and become disheartened if the scented footsteps are too far apart.
  5. Keep focusing your attention on the "focus point" as you walk along laying the track.
  6. Try to count and remember how many steps you are taking so that you have some idea of how long the track is going to be. Do not lay too long a track to begin with - 5 or 6 paces is quite sufficient for a first track. The reason why we recommend that short tracks be used in the early stages of Gravy Trailing is that many dogs do not have the mental stamina to concentrate for long periods of time when they start playing this Game, particularly young dogs or those with high levels of long-term stress. However, as the dog's enthusiasm and ability increases in subsequent training sessions, the length of the tracks and even 90 degree turns can be added to develop the dog's powers of concentration.
  7. When you have taken 5 or 6 paces sprinkle the minced or finely cut cooked meat on to the ground. Try to sprinkle the tiny pieces of meat in a 1-2ft (30-60cm) square area rather than leave a pile of it in one spot - the dog will then enjoy searching the area for every last crumb of the tasty morsels when it comes to the end of the Gravy Trail.
  8. Take off the "gravy shoes" and replace them in their sealed bag, then put on your usual shoes.
  9. Take one or two more paces after the end of the track and place the "finish" marker pole in the ground. We recommend that this marker pole should not be left close to or beside the "treasure" because some dogs catch on to the fact that this pole is where the cooked meat will be left and run directly to the pole rather than use their noses to follow the scent trail - cheats!
  10. Do not walk back down the Gravy Trail that you have just laid. You will disturb the track and also pick up scent molecules on your footwear that will leave another, more confusing, track for your dog. Instead, walk away from the finish marker pole at a 90 degree angle so that your scent does not accidentally blow across the Gravy Trail. Make a real effort to do a wide curve until you are standing (or sitting) well out of the way from where the dog is going to be tracking etc. On the second and subsequent track laying, make sure you walk over ground that had already been used rather than "pollute" ground that you will soon be laying a track on (see diagram).
  11. It is possible to lay all the tracks for the training session (ie. two or three tracks) before getting the dog and actually tracking. However, be wary of the wind blowing the scent of track 2 & 3 onto track 1 & 2 and distracting the dog while it is working these tracks.

 

 

 

FOLLOWING THE TRACK

     
At the start
Waiting for the dog to pick up the track
Total concentration as
the dog is working

12. Once the track layer is well away from the tracking area the dog can be brought to the start pole and have its tracking line attached to the harness. Give your tracking signal/command (I say "track" and point to the ground) and encourage it to sniff the ground where the gravy juices were left.

13. Be patient and do not hurry your dog! Just because you can see where the track has been laid (by looking at the marker poles) your dog does not understand what is expected of it. Let it enjoy itself having a really good sniff at this unusual and exciting scent it has just found - after all it is concentrating and using its nose already so the tracking session is working even if it doesn't find the "end" straight away.

14. Eventually your dog will discover that there is more of this exciting scent going in one direction (ie. the track that has been laid).

15. Allow the tracking line to run through your fingers as the dog begins to follow the track (ie. it is walking in line with the start and finish marker poles) and silently follow your dog, feeding your way up the line to keep it taught yet without pulling against it. Let the line drag behind you so that you can either work your way up or down it without distracting the dog while it is working. The dog should not feel any of your weight pulling on the tracking line, but you must not let the line become too slack either.  

16. Do not talk or distract your dog (apart from praising it when it reaches the end of the track) - be patient and enjoy watching its body language as it concentrates on assessing the scents on the ground or in the air. It is fascinating to watch and learn how a dog's body language changes as it focuses and concentrates on using its amazing sense of smell. Often the dog's muscles will tighten, and their tail carriage and ear positions will change. Later on you may recognise these "concentration" signals when working your dog in other training situations and realise how hard your dog is trying to work for you.

17. Because you have the two marker poles to indicate the direction of the track, you can tell when the dog is veering off to the right or left of the track too much. If this occurs, tighten your grip on the line so that the dog cannot venture any further away from the track, stand perfectly still and silent and wait for the dog to wander back towards the track and pick up the track again. Then allow the line to run freely again and continue to walk behind the dog, gradually taking in any slack in the line as you walk up it.

     
Veering to the left
Veering to the right
Veering back on track

18. Eventually your dog will come to the end of the track and begin to find the tiny pieces of cooked meat on the ground and start to eat them. Only then can you calmly and quietly praise your dog for being so clever and finding such an exciting and tasty a reward. Remember this is the highlight of the exercise for the dog - don't be in a hurry to call the dog away from the exciting "treasure". Let it take as long as it wants to double and triple check that every tiny molecule of meat has been completely found and eaten - after all the whole tracking session will only take a few minutes so allow the dog the opportunity to have as long as it needs at the end of the track.

   
"Cor! What's this!!"
The handler has just as much fun
as the dog when Tracking

19. Once the dog has lost interest in the end of the track you can walk away from the finish marker pole at 90 degrees, just as the track layer did. Do a large curve back to the beginning of the first track and then walk towards the second track's marker pole and repeat steps 12 - 18.

20. If the dog is beginning to look tired and is losing concentration, do not ask it to do another track - take it back to the car to rest. If, however, after a third track the dog still looks keen to do more, make a mental note of the fact and lay longer tracks the next time you do Gravy Trailing.

21. Once the dog has finished the tracking session take it back to the car and allow it to rest there, and also rest at home when you return. You will find that your dog will be mentally exhausted from choosing to concentrate so hard and for so long, and it will fall into a healthy and very deep sleep. When it eventually wakes it will be calm and fulfilled from doing a "proper day's work".  

22. As the dog's levels of concentration and ability to track improves, lengthen the tracks. Experiment to see what happens when the wind is blowing from behind the dog rather than into its face when following a Gravy Trail. Also, you can experiment to try different locations, ground and weather conditions, and also introduce the dog to tracks that veer off at right angles etc. However, do not over face the dog by asking too much or too soon. Allow the dog to enjoy this Game at whatever level it feels happiest with.

23. Play Gravy Trailing at most once a fortnight. Too much of a good thing can make dog and handler complacent.

   

SUMMARY
Only lay short tracks when starting to teach your dog to track. Dogs need practice to build up the amount of time that they can concentrate following a trail. Your first training session will give you some idea of how long your dog can follow a trail. Begin at this level and gradually increase the length of the trail as your dog's concentration levels develop. Also be aware that most dogs cannot cope with more than two or three tracks in a session.

Some breeds and ages of dogs have more ability to concentrate than others. Do not over stretch your dog so that it becomes disheartened or stressed and no longer wants to go tracking with you in future. Watch your dog's body language and keenness and you will begin to develop more understanding of your dog's capabilities not only for doing this tracking but when teaching or training it in the future.

 

Above all - HAVE FUN WITH YOUR DOG!

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