Teaching Your American Pit Bull Terrier How to Track

Whether for fun or for real world work the American Pit Bull Terrier makes an excellent tracking dog.

Tracking through drive works well for the Pit Bull because most of them have a good deal of drive for you to work with. For a dog to excel at tracking they require the following traits:

  • Solid Temperament
  • High energy & drive (must be able to work for long hours)
  • Athletism
  • Good health
  • Solid obedience skills

These traits are abundent in the Pit Bull Terrier and this is one reason they make excellent tracking dogs.

What kind of tracking do you want to do?

  • Search and Rescue?
  • Police work?
  • Protection sport tracking?
  • Tracking for fun?
  • Tracking for hunting?

All of these forms of tracking will have different approaches. They will also share some similar training ideas and methods but for the most part the end result is what makes them different. For example, for Police tracking you would want a dog that is well versed in protection as well. As police dog handlers often say, “You never know what’s on the end of the track.”

It could be an armed felon waiting for you to come around the corner to kill you. Or it could be a teenager who’s scared out of their mind. Either way, both present a level of danger that you and your dog must be prepared for.

On the other end of the specturm you have training for fun. You might want to teach your dog how to find your kids or how to find your wife or husband. In this case you can be a little more relaxed and your dog would only be tracking and not have to worry about the stress of long hours or the possibility of a dangerous felon on the other end of the track.

Basic Training for the Tracking Dog

For this training you will need the following items:

  • 20-50 foot leash.
  • Durable Tracking Harness
  • A person to find (This is critical. You’ll learn why in a second.)
  • A distraction free area. A field in the country or a isolated baseball field work well.
  • Your dog.

First a word about having a person on the end of the track.

Only those tracking dogs with super high drives for toys and balls should be trained without a person on the end of the track and even then it’s better if you use a person. The object of the tracking game it to find people. Without a person on the end of the track you only make training more difficult for the dog. By having a person on the end of every single track the dog will work better if there isn’t a person on the track later down the road.

Tracking Basics…

Have your helper run and hide. Some where about 20-30 yards away. When they do, have them slide their feet along the ground in the grass to make impressions and to leave their scent on the ground.

At this point your dog should be allowed to see them person run away. A dog with good drive will start to whine and struggle to get away. They want to chase them. This is GOOD encourage it.

Once the helper is in their spot, wait a few moments, and then let your dog find them. Your helper should have a toy, food, or other item that your dog loves. When they find them, praise them and let the helper throw the ball, play tug, etc… with your dog. Repeat this a few times to give your dog the idea. Person runs away, hides, you find them and you all play a fun game!

After 5 or 10 of these easy session it’s time to step it up a notch…

Taking it to the next level…

We’re going to be doing the same thing as before but this time you are not going to let your dog see the person running away and where they are hiding. With your back to them or by walking away allow your helper to run to the same area they were before but this time make sure your dog doesn’t see them.

Now, go back to the start of the track and allow your dog to start using their nose. If you need to, put the leash under them and pull down slightly to get them to put their nose to the ground. Pit Bulls usually will scent the air first and then go to the ground. Let them scent the air as they are better suited for this than ground sniffing.

Finding the prize

Now, slowly walk them along the track. When they get off the track feed them back into it with your leash. Watch as they start to pick the scent. Their head will raise, they will start sniffing and when they get the oder cone they will start to react by getting excited.

Praise them during this process. Good boy! find’em boy! Find’em!

You are going to allow your dog to find them, but in this part of the training you are going to be helping them a lot. Remember you are a team.

When you find your helper, praise, play, reward!

Work these easy tracks for 5-10 days. Every day. It also helps to work in the early morning when there is dew on the ground as this makes tracking easier.

TRACKING FACTIOD: In the movies the escapee is running through the woods. He runs through water to throw off the scent of the dog.

TRUTH: This makes the scent stronger and allows the dog to track easier.

Moisture holds skin cells and oder much longer. This is why training in the morning or after a fresh rain makes it easier for your dog to find your helper.


 

Okay, let’s move on to building drive.

First by having a person on the end of the track you will help build your dogs drive. Remember in part one we talked about letting your dog see the helper run away?

How did your dog react? Did they start pulling on the leash wanting to chase? If they did, this is a good sign. As the helper gets farther away the prey drive in your dog will become more intense. And this is what we want because we’re going to use it.

Start with What Happens at the End of the Track for Best Results

With any good plan we want to start at the end result that we want to achieve and work our way backwards. In this case, we want our dogs to help us find the helper. In order for this to happen your dog has to want to find the helper and you must work with them in order to make that happen. When your dog does find the helper they should be rewarded with a high drive game of tug or fetch, or food reward.

Here’s an important note: These sessions should be short, exciting sessions and then ended abruptly. Basically, leave your dog wanting more. By leaving them wanting more you are building their drive. They will want that toy, or that food even more the next time. Always end on a good note, but never let them have the toy or food.
So the final session of the day, your dog finds the helper, you play a 3-5 minute high drive game with them and then you stop and leave them wanting more.

Now on the tracking part…

By now your dog should be finding the helper on the straight track pretty easily. What we want to do at this point is step up the difficulty a notch by adding corners. In part one your helper runs straight out. Scuffing their feet into the ground to make a scent trail that isn’t that hard to find. Now, instead of having them run straight out, they should make 2 turns on their way to their hiding spot.

A basic turning trail I use is run out for 10 yards. Make a 90 degree turn to the right and run for 5 yards. Turn back to the left and run another 5 yards straight. Then make a 90 degree turn to the left and run another 5 yards. Finally, turn and run straight for 2-3 yards and stop there.

I like to start, as we did in the beginning, with semi-tall grass (a field) that is damp. This way I can see the helpers track and it will allow me to feed the dog into the corner and allow them to get into the scent cone.

IMPORTANT TIP: If at all possible always train down wind from the helper. This will help the beginning dog find the scent cone faster. The helper should be in front of your dog with the wind blowing towards you from behind them.

Tracking Made Easy

You can make tracking a lot easier on you and your dog by starting in damp conditions and staying downwind from the helper. These two factors alone will help you and your dog get the feel for the game. Once they are comfortable with the 2 turn track, add 2 more turns.

Then add 10-20 yards to the track. After they are comfortable with that do a straight line track up to 100 yards. The idea is to increase the difficulty little by little until the track is hard.


 

Let’s review common mistakes people make at this time in training and move forward in training. By now you should have a good durable all weather long line and a tracking harness.

You can use rope climbing cord with a handle tied in one end for the tracking line if you would like or buy a 50 foot cotton lead. Some trackers use a leather lead. This is fine as well. What you use is up to you.

The tracking harness should be light, durable, weather resistant, and comfortable. Okay, now that you have the right equipment let’s look at some common problems and how to solve them.

Remember to start your dog in damp conditions and down wind from the person being tracked

Problem One: Not catching the scent.

Pit Bulls are most often best at area tracking. What that means is instead of sticking their nose to the ground (like a Bloodhound would) they raise their nose up into the air and catch the scent in the air. To help your dog find the scent feed the leash under their front legs and to one side or the other.

That is how you want the leash. This will pull their head down to the track.

Check the image on the right side
Notice the leash is under the dog helping pull his nose to the track. Also notice how tense the leash is. He is intense for the track. This dog is Bolddog Dirk and the handler is Diane Jessup.

By feeding the leash under them you will help get their nose closer or on to the track. That is unless you want to train an area tracking dog. In this case, it won’t be much of a problem.

Since pitbulls tend to raise their nose up in the air being downwind from your helper will also allow your dog to pick up the scent a little easier.

Problem Two: They lose interest in the game. First we have to recognize not all pitbulls will be good at tracking. It’s a fact of life. Second, we need to help our dog by building drive and getting them pumped up for the game.

You do this by taking a favorite toy and having the helper tease them and play with them. Get them excited for the toy. Then have the helper run away and hide (not to far, stay close) and allow your dog to find them. When they do your helper should immediately reward them with a game of fetch/tug/etc…

Gloves are your friend. Rope burns are common especially with high drive dogs

Problem Three: You get tired.

This is a common problem on longer tracks. You need to start getting in a little better shape. Tracking with a dog in high drive can be like running a marathon. They move fast and keeping up can be a challenge. Your dog will kind of pull you along with them as they track this helps take some of the load off. You still need to be in decent shape for longer tracks though.

Increase your normal walks with your pooch to build stamina for the track

You will face more problems than what I’ve mentioned above I’m sure. But these three are the most common and from personal experience, the last one was the toughest. Moving forward in training.

In part two we added a couple of turns to the track. Now we can add distance to the track.

From my own personal experience with tracking for fun I like to mix up the variables to make the track harder. Starting with the distance I then move to an area with shorter grass. Then we track on a dry day. Then we track on a day with very little wind. All of these variables will make tracking harder for both you and your dog.

Start by adding 30-50 yards to the track to increase difficulty

Using the same or similar conditions, damp ground, semi-tall grass, and being down wind from the helper add another 30-50 yards to the track. I like to do long straight tracks several times a week before adding any turns. If your dog is progressing well you might want to go ahead and add one or two short turns to the longer track.

Be careful, your dog should always find the helper. By allowing them find the helper they get their reward faster and this increases their success rate. Your dog will start to recognize when it’s time for them to work and will get excited. Well, hopefully they will get excited. Work on this for a week or two.


 

Now we are going to focus on building their drive and taking the long track to a new level of difficulty. Drive is your best friend when it comes to training your dog.

Drive can help you train your dog for anything. From basic obedience to competition jumping to tracking to sport protection work, drive is your pal. Your goal in this training should be to build your dogs drive and harness it to make training fun and exciting.

So how do we go about building drive? What if my dog doesn’t have very much drive for anything? What do I do then? First, we build drive through small steps that build on each other. Each step is meant to increase the drive and make it more intense as time passes. As for a dog without much drive, I can’t help you there. Some dogs simply can’t or won’t have drive for much of anything.

Building Drive 101

I learned this from a German guy who trains Police dogs. He’s a national champion and this technique is just what the doctor ordered for drive building.

You will need two things:

One: A ball on a string. You can get this in most pet stores.
Two: A long line. Again, pet stores have these.

What you are going to do is play keep away with the ball on a string.

NOTE: Always, move the ball away from your dog and never push it at your dog or hit them with it, even by accident. Pushing something toward your dog makes them turn away from it.

By showing them the ball and moving it away from them in a rapid manner your dog should start trying to get it from you.

Whatever happens, don’t let them have it.

As they continue to try and get the toy from you, you will want to suddenly stop and ask them to sit. When they sit, drop the ball in their mouth. Don’t stick in their mouth or push it toward them. Drop it from where it is. Here’s why you have a long line attached to your dog. They will try to carry the toy off and play with it. Let them carry for 30-60 seconds and then reel them closer to you.

When they are closer to you, snatch it from their mouth quickly by grabbing the string. Now you know why you have a ball on a string instead of just a ball. :o)

They should turn and try to get the toy again. This time their drive is a bit higher so they should be a little more intense. Repeat, have them sit, drop the ball, and let them carry it.

This is the important part so pay attention: Snatch the ball as you did before but this time stop and put the ball away. Do not let them have the ball outside of this training. Consider this toy your most valuable toy and allow them to play with it only when you are building drive with it.

Later that day or the next day go and get the toy and repeat the process. This shouldn’t last more than 30-40 minutes. Watch as your dogs intensity for this specific toy builds over a few weeks.

The goal here is to have your dog hungry for this one toy. They should do just about anything to get it (short of biting you or acting the fool).

Now that you have built their drive and they are hungry for the toy, use it to your advantage

Show your helper how to play the keep away game. This time, the helper will snatch the ball from the dog and run the track. Remember in part three when I suggested you get some gloves? Now you will see why I said that.

Start by allowing your dog to see the helper. Hold on, hold on tight because they will be straining to get their toy. Then gradually move the dog around a corner and then completely away from the tracking field.

For the more difficult tracks where your dog doesn’t see the helper they will get to play the keep away game when they find the helper and get to carry your toy around for 5-10 minutes. Your dog will act high and mighty and strut with that toy. Well my dogs do. lol. They puff up and you know they are proud they your toy. When the session is over, tell your dog to drop or out the toy and put it up.

That’s it. You’ve Started Your Dog On the Road to Tracking Through Drive

If you want to continue training I highly suggest you get as much information about tracking from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They have the best tracking dogs in the world and they train every dog using drive.

Tracking is fun that’s for sure. Tracking also gives you a great way to get some exercise with your dog. You can integrate training commands like down, sit, recall and other things like heel, out, the quick down and more to the process as well.

Creativity is an asset when tracking.

Want to learn more about how to train your dog to track for real? Contact your local SAR group and ask them how to enroll for training.